How the film Ryan's Daughter helped rescue the town of Dingle

Bad weather and Robert Mitchum’s hash-spiked food contributed to the torrid time David Lean had in making the 1970 film but it did help to revive the Kerry town, writes Marjorie Brennan
How the film Ryan's Daughter helped rescue the town of Dingle

Sarah Miles and Robert Mitchum on Inch Beach in Ryan's Daughter. 

Dingle in Kerry is one of Ireland’s most famous towns, a bustling tourist trap nestled picturesquely between the mountains and the sea and which is still, in the summer of the staycation, attracting hordes of visitors. 

Its numerous festivals, hostelries and restaurants make it a busy hub all year round, but it could all have been so different if it wasn’t for man’s — or in this case, woman’s — best friend.

According to a new book chronicling the making of Ryan’s Daughter, the Hollywood blockbuster which kickstarted Dingle’s rejuvenation in the late 1960s, one of the reasons the film was made there was because the lead actress Sarah Miles couldn't bear to be away from her dogs. 

According to author Paul Rowan, Miles was reluctant to travel too far from her British home for work because it would have meant leaving her dogs in quarantine for months — hence the decision to film in Ireland.

“Sarah Miles wouldn’t do a movie outside of the ‘British Isles’ because she wouldn’t be separated from her dogs. 

"So she brought over her four dogs with her. That was one of the main reasons why it was done in Ireland,” says Rowan, an Irish journalist based in London.

This is just one of the many fascinating facts that feature in the book, which is published to coincide with the film’s 50th anniversary. 

David Lean on the Ryan's Daughter set with some of the cast. 
David Lean on the Ryan's Daughter set with some of the cast. 

Directed by David Lean, Ryan’s Daughter centred on a love triangle between the titular Rosy Ryan (Miles), her schoolmaster husband (Robert Mitchum) and a British Army major (Christopher Jones), against a background of political unrest in the aftermath of the Rising, and featured a cast of British acting legends, including John Mills, Trevor Howard and Leo McKern.

Rowan, who spent 15 years researching the book, says he was always fascinated by the stories of the film he heard when on holidays in Kerry as a child.

“I was a little starstruck, I was an impressionable boy and all the stories about the Hollywood stars lodged in my brain. Dingle at the time [the film was made] was completely different to what it is now, it was an impoverished small town which suffered massive emigration and its traditional sources of income, such as fishing, were drying up. 

The locals spoke about the town dying in front of their eyes at the time — before bang, along came Ryan’s Daughter and transformed the whole place, an effect that was enduring on the Dingle Peninsula. 

Originally scheduled to shoot in a matter of weeks, Lean’s eagerly anticipated follow-up to his box-office hit Doctor Zhivago took almost two years to complete, and was beset by a litany of technical difficulties, uncooperative actors and extra-marital affairs.

Rowan’s book is a cinematic potboiler, teeming with wonderful anecdotes illustrating the excess and mania induced by the cloistered atmosphere in the town as shooting went vastly over time and budget. 

Mitchum would invite crew members and locals to his rented house (which Miles described as the ‘Dingle Brothel’) and serve them hash brownies and burgers. 

Another unwitting recipient of drugs was Christopher Jones, who was given sedatives without his knowledge to make him more compliant.

Lean came into Ryan’s Daughter at the height of his powers, and left it at his lowest ebb professionally.

He was on this incredible run of success going into Ryan’s Daughter. He had made three of the biggest grossing movies in the history of cinema, Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. 

"Those three films won 19 Oscars between the three of them. He was the top director in the world, although he had been criticised for being very old-fashioned, heading into the 1970s and all that entailed,” says Rowan.

However, while Lean was used to getting his own way on set, the Irish weather would not bend to his will, causing huge delays. 

David Lean sets up a difficult shot. 
David Lean sets up a difficult shot. 

Rowan quotes Cork actor Niall Tóibín who starred in the film: ‘The Irish weather, notoriously uncooperative, scuttered around in its usual way. It conjured up mist, fog, rain, sunshine, sleet, hailstones and permutations in eternity of these.’ 

Further problems arose when the filmmakers chose Coumeenoole Bay as the place to shoot the film’s central storm scene, where republicans attempt to bring a German shipment of guns ashore.

“As Leo McKern [who played Rosy’s publican father] pointed out, if there was a storm in Coumeenoole Bay, they would have been filming under 30 feet of water. 

"It was a completely ludicrous notion that you could film a storm in what was a dangerous bay at the best of times,” says Rowan.

Meanwhile, the cast of Irish actors playing the rebel gunrunners took refuge in the pub.

“They had all these guys, young Irish actors, guys like Tóibín, Emmet Bergin, Niall O’Brien and a few others, who would have had an initial contract of 10 or 12 weeks. They kept them in Dingle for the whole year, waiting in case there was a storm so that they could suddenly, like firemen, jump into action. 

"They just spent their whole time in the pub drinking. They finally got their storm up in Clare the following winter.

Niall Tóibín told a story about the actors, how you saw them at the beginning of the film, and they were looking taut, muscular and macho, while at the end of filming, they’ve all put on two or three stone, they have big fat faces.

A decision was later made to finish filming in South Africa. 

“It was getting too much. Everyone was going stir-crazy in Dingle at that stage,” says Rowan.

David Lean and John Mills on the set of Ryan's Daughter
David Lean and John Mills on the set of Ryan's Daughter

Meanwhile, rumours circulated of an affair between the two co-stars, Mitchum and Miles, whose husband Robert Bolt had written the script and was also on set.

“Everybody was convinced they were having an affair, and many people still are, it has become part of film folklore. 

"I asked Sarah Miles and she told me they didn’t but that they did start an affair many years later when she moved to California. They were always attracted to each other, that was obvious. 

It became an issue on the film — because they were all stuck in this little village effectively, they became like villagers themselves in terms of gossip, rumour and innuendo.

Ryan’s Daughter, while not a box-office disaster, received a critical mauling. 

It’s safe to say this didn’t put off the many Irish viewers who enjoyed it during its regular outings on RTÉ during the 1970s and 1980s. It has also enjoyed a more generous reassessment in recent years.

“I can see why it was a flop, looking at it subjectively. It was a small intimate love story and Lean decided to give it this massive canvas, which was the whole of the Atlantic coastline, so the actual storyline became minuscule,” says Rowan. 

The whole thing was completely overblown in terms of the wildness of the landscape and all of that. And it was far too long. It is three hours and 15 minutes, it was a two-hour film at best. 

Making Ryans Daughter: The Myths, Madness & Mastery by Paul Rowan
Making Ryans Daughter: The Myths, Madness & Mastery by Paul Rowan

"They also compromised in terms of the ending, and the film tapers out — even the screenwriter Robert Bolt admitted he was disappointed with the last quarter of the film. 

"But the cinematography is spectacular. 

"I remember it was shown at the British Film Institute a few years back. 

"They showed a clip with a currach out in the ocean with all the cliffs around…. the vividness of the colours, the beauty of it, the audience just gasped when the images came up on the screen, they were so incredibly beautiful.”

- The Making of Ryan’s Daughter: The Myth, The Madness, The Mastery, published by New Island, is out now.

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