EVERY summer, tourists pose for photographs in front of Guirke’s old shop in the picturesque village of Hollywood, Co Wicklow.
The sign on the façade — Hollywood Post Office — intrigues them, and, amused by the fact that a rural Irish village boasts the legendary name, they rarely fail to capture the moment on camera.
Some may be aware of the film stars — Liam Neeson, Meryl Streep, Brendan Gleeson — who have visited this quiet but scenic place which nestles at the foot of the Wicklow mountains off the N81 on the Baltinglass to Blessington road.
They may even know that many successful movies were partially filmed both here and in the beautiful countryside around it — Braveheart, Michael Collins, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, King Arthur and Dancing at Lughnasa.
What they may not know is that locals believe this little village gave its name to the glamorous home of the movie industry — and in fact have even erected a replica of the iconic Hollywood sign in the hills above.
Talk to local historian John Glennon; in fact talk to any of the 80 or so residents and they’ll tell you about Matthew Guirk.
Guirk, who came from a farming family living in Dragoon Hill not far from Hollywood — is believed to have emigrated to America sometime between 1845 and 1850, either during the Great Famine or just afterwards.
“He probably would have been in his mid-twenties, possibly early thirties when he emigrated,” says Glennon, a retired civil servant who is writing a book on the history of the area.
“He ended up in California near where Hollywood is today. He did well in business and had a race-track which he called Hollywood. The belief is that he was the first one to bring the name to America.”
The movie studios moved in and a legend — or, indeed, a series of them — was born as Hollywood USA became known around the world.
“Much of what we know is from Jim Guirk, his great grand-nephew, who lived in Hollywood and ran the village shop and sub-Post office for more than 60 years until his death in 2003,” explains Glennon.
“Matthew Guirk was Jim’s great grand-uncle. There was a strong family belief in the Guirk family that Matthew was the one who went to California and who in fact brought the name Hollywood to California with him.”
Another local resident, Harry Farrington, describes how people feel about Matthew’s achievement: “There’s a great feeling of pride in the village that it gave rise to Hollywood USA — it’s one of the first thing villagers tell anyone new to the area.”
It’s been called Hollywood, Co Wicklow for 1,000 years — some believe its name originates from the words Holy Wood, which described a local forest in which Saint Kevin is said to have prayed.
However, although a lot of people in County Wicklow will have heard about the Californian link, admits Glennon, it’s not common knowledge in this country or abroad: “If you google the origins of Hollywood, California, you’ll find lots of conflicting theories about it and Hollywood, Co Wicklow is not even mentioned.”
The link with California will play a role in the publicity around the village’s first summer festival, the Hollywood Fair, later this month.
A 130-page booklet about the village’s history, including the Californian connection, is being launched in the run-up to the fair, which runs from August 19th to 21st.
A big white Hollywood sign was erected 80 metres above the village a few weeks ago in honour of the festival. Measuring 1.8m high and 14m long, it can, claims its creator Tommy Tutty, be seen from as far away as Kilcullen near the Curragh in Co Kildare.
This is the second such sign erected by Tutty, a father-of-three and lecturer in carpentry, joinery, technical drawing and mathematics at the Dublin Institute of Technology.
The first, made of leftover wood from the set of Dancing at Lughnasa, which was partly shot in Hollywood and featured Meryl Streep, was installed above the village in 1997 in honour of the Tour de France, but was vandalised a year later. “Because of Hollywood’s connection with California and the famous sign in the Hollywood Hills I decided to make a Hollywood sign for the village in honour of our first summer festival. People in the village are very proud of the connection with California,” says Tutty.
And if festival chairman Harry Farrington has his way, we’ll be hearing a lot more about Hollywood Fair in the years to come.
“This is our first festival. Hopefully next year we’ll have somebody from Hollywood USA at it! We’d like to have a movie star so perhaps some of the stars who acted in movies that were filmed around here might come back.”