The King of Cong

SIXTY years ago, during the sun-splashed summer of 1951, the first of the trucks that would change Cong forever rumbled into town.

“It was hectic,” recalls local man Jack Murphy, 81. “There was great activity, great craic and great money. For a couple of weeks before they came, we had been looking out for them. It was a very big thing to have all of these stars arriving in a little place overnight.”

And what stars! John Ford, Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne set up camp in Ashford Castle over the next seven weeks leaving an indelible mark on this sleepy corner of Co Mayo.

Suddenly, a town with just a single telephone line was the talk of Hollywood. Its first ever electricity was switched on by Ford in a ceremony at the town dance hall. State-of-the-art cameras were pointed at the wild curves of Connemara. And locals, lining up to serve as extras, cashed in.

Back then, Jack Murphy recalls, the going rate for council work was 10 shillings a day. The Quiet Man paid 30 bob, a substantial raise. “I remember one day they wanted a crowd and they couldn’t get it, because [the villagers] were all out making hay after getting paid!”

Murphy served as an extra in the famous eight-and-a-half-minute brawl scene, and can be seen in the background when O’Hara and Wayne are courting. In 1951, he had just bought himself a new Bedford van, so he also got work as a chauffeur for Ward Bond.

Every evening, local lore has it, Murphy drove Bond, who played Fr Peter Lonergan, 50km to Tuam — the only place he could find a steak that would suit him.

Sitting in Pat Cohan’s replica Quiet Man bar today, Murphy remembers the stars mixing freely with the locals. He says he met and spoke with John Wayne, who plays returned emigrant Sean Thornton in the movie, and ironically recalls the Quiet Man as “loud”.

“He was a typical American. He stood about six foot four and a half. He was a good man for a drink too — a whiskey, or malt as he called it. He loved a chat.”

After its release in 1952 The Quiet Man was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, and won Oscars for John Ford’s direction and its cinematography. Murphy remembers driving his buddies up to the Adelphi Cinema in Dublin in the Bedford van to see themselves on screen.

Contrasting Cong in the 1940s with the tourist hotspot of today leaves Murphy in no doubt as to the value of the movie. “You can’t put a figure on what it has meant. It made Cong.”

The cult of The Quiet Man didn’t kick off immediately, however. When local couple Gerry and Margaret Collins first opened their hostel, caravan and camping park in 1983, the only mention of the movie in Cong was a single Quiet Man Café. The ‘crazies’, as they call them, had yet to arrive.

Sensing an opportunity, Gerry and daughter Lisa took to the road to create a map.

“We’re still selling those maps like hot buns down in Cong,” he says today. The maps highlight some 42 locations around Connemara, from Lettergesh beach to the famous Quiet Man Bridge, a double-arched stone crossing overlooking Lough Boffin near the Maam Valley.

Collins also runs Quiet Man tours and The Quiet Man Museum, a thatched cottage stuffed with movie memorabilia, newspaper coverage, and offering visitors the chance to don a replica of Sean Thornton’s jacket and cap, and Mary Kate Danaher’s blue blouse, for photographs.

“Duke would have loved this!” John Wayne’s wife remarked on a visit in 2002.

The embracing of themed tourism seems to have dovetailed with The Quiet Man’s emergence as a bona fide Hollywood classic. By the 1980s, fans could buy the movie on VHS, O’Hara and Wayne were icons, and Steven Spielberg had paid homage to the famous cottage kiss in his blockbuster, E.T.

The wild Connemara landscape too, filmed for the first time in Technicolor, together with no small amount of paddywhackery, helped it find a particular place in the heart of Irish Americans. Today, locals dub the busloads of fans on pilgrimage ‘Quiet Man Crazies’.

“We have people come in here and no matter where the movie is at, they know the next line,” says John Connolly, gesturing towards the movie playing on loop in the corner of Pat Cohan’s bar.

When John and his wife Fiona opened Pat Cohan’s in 2008, it was a case of fact following fiction. The famous bar’s exterior features in the movie, but its interiors were shot on set in Hollywood, and it actually operated as a grocery and souvenir shop until three years ago.

The couple went to great lengths to secure not only licences and planning permission, but artefacts and fittings that would match the Hollywood set. The result is that today, you can sit in a Quiet Man bar in Cong with exactly the same detail as the movie version — from the dark wood, whiskey jugs and stout bottles right down to the colour of the flags on the framed model ships.

The movie’s influence is everywhere. In Ashford Castle, whose elegant silhouette can be seen in the background of the opening credits, €500 Quiet Man packages are available commemorating the 60th anniversary, and guests can stay in the rooms occupied by Wayne and O’Hara in 1951.

In the castle’s gallery of memorabilia, alongside photos of famous guests like Ronald Regan, Brad Pitt and Alex Ferguson, sits a merry little sketch of Sesame Street’s Big Bird as ‘The Quiet Bird’, complete with cap and waistcoat, by visiting puppeteer Carroll Spinney.

In Michaeleen’s B&B, another of Gerry and Margaret Collins’s enterprises, the walls are decorated with black and white stills, quotes (“he’ll regret it to his dying day, if he ever lives that long”) and even a Spanish poster (‘El Hombre Tranquilo’) from the movie.

“It’s been a huge thing over the years,” says Patrick Luskin of Corrib Cruises, which operates cruises around Inchagoill Island from Ashford Castle and Oughterard. “Every year since 1952 people would say it will only last another five years. But it hasn’t petered away. It has kept going.”

For all the enthusiasm, however, The Quiet Man hasn’t spared Cong the recession. Ashford Castle is slowly hauling its occupancy back towards boom-time rates, but the town itself, like so many others, has been hit hard by a 25% drop in overseas visitors to Ireland in just three years.

“I’d say business could be down around 50% on the peak,” says Gerry Collins. “Some people are hurting even more. Many of us would have holes in our pants if it wasn’t for Maureen O’Hara. The Quiet Man has done more for Cong than a thousand Fáilte Irelands.”

John and Fiona Connolly are also feeling the pain of having opened a new business just as the economy was tanking, in 2008. “If we can get through this winter we’ll be OK,” John says, a mix of hope and resignation in his voice. “Cong needs a boost. We need Maureen.”

By dint of serendipity, they’re getting her. One day earlier this summer, Fiona was standing outside Pat Cohan’s bar when a passer-by asked where he could buy a John Wayne T-shirt. “You’ve come to the right place,” she said, bringing him into the pub.

The man was Gerry Brown, the promoter and brother of Dana. The night before, he had been in Glengarriff, Co Cork, having dinner with Maureen O’Hara herself. When John and Fiona told him about the need for a festival, he offered to help.

“I went home and called Maureen,” Brown recalls. On the phone, O’Hara was her usual quick-witted self. “I’ll come if you get me Duke’s room,” she chuckled.

In truth, O’Hara has always been fond of Cong. She kept in touch with Tom Ryan, who worked as her chauffeur on the movie, until his death, and still speaks enthusiastically about the movie in interview. “I wish we were still making it,” she said just this year, on the Late Late Show.

All of a sudden, celebrity stardust is back in the air. Gerry and John Brown have undertaken to promote the inaugural Quiet Man Festival. Next Friday evening, Arts and Heritage Minister Jimmy Deenihan will welcome Mary Kate Danaher back to Cong. O’Hara herself will cut the festival ribbon, Dana will interview her for US TV, and Tommy Fleming will sing the Isle of Inisfree.

Marissa Wayne, John Wayne’s daughter, who spent the summer of 1951 with him on the set of The Quiet Man in Ireland will also attend.

Music and song is scheduled throughout the weekend, and Saturday will see O’Hara take a tour of locations, with scenes like the tandem-bike ride re-enacted by local teens. “It will be her taking me on tour, and not the other way around,” Collins laughs. He’s chuffed.

Its critics say The Quiet Man is a dated and macho exercise in stage Oirishness. Fans say it must be viewed in the context of the 1950s, and has deservedly gone on to become a classic. One way or another, locals are hoping they can go back to the well again.


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