Donal Hickey.


The two years that ‘made’ the Dingle peninsula

Ryan’s Daughter is being celebrated in Kerry this weekend, but what impact did the classic epic have on the poor, little-visited region where it was made, asks Donal Hickey.

THE elderly, Irish-speaking lady in Dunquin probably summed up the impact of Ryan’s Daughter on the Dingle Peninsula best when she described it as “an rialtas ab fhearr” — the best government ever.

Faraway Productions, the film company, went way over budget and spent money as if there was no limit to its bank accounts. It was reckoned that around IR£1 million was splurged on the peninsula during late 1968 and 1969.

Indeed, so flaithúil were the film-makers that local people employed by them as workers, extras or drivers were earning so much that they didn’t have time to count it, according to the same venerable lady, Bab Feiritéar.

This weekend, the making of the three-and-a-half-hour epic is being celebrated at a film festival in the area, being attended by acclaimed director Alan Parker and the star who played the eponymous daughter, Sarah Miles.

Directed by David Lean, Ryan’s Daughter transformed the Dingle peninsula into a leading tourist destination. Money poured into a poor area, which had previously depended on small farming and fishing and also suffered from large-scale emigration to Britain and America.

Current assistant film censor and former senator Tom Fitzgerald was running a struggling hardware/sawmill business in An Daingean in the late ’60s.Then one day a man came into the shop who told him he was “making a bit of a film and wanted a bit of timber”. Three hundred two-foot stakes were required immediately, but a wide-eyed Tom had only a handful of stakes in his yard. He had to send a lorry to suppliers elsewhere to ensure he could meet the order.

Other orders followed quickly and soon Tom Fitzgerald was drawing in materials by the truckload and became the sole supplier to the film company. His was one of a number of businesses in the area that were virtually launched by the film.

“Prior to Ryan’s Daughter, nearly everything in Dingle was purchased on credit and you had to wait until a customer sold a cow, or something else, before getting paid. You could be waiting for months. But the film people paid up front and by cheque all the time,” Mr Fitzgerald recalled.

“I often think to myself where our business, or many other local businesses, would be now only for Ryan’s Daughter.”

He also acted as a stand-in for one of the stars, Robert Mitchum, and, along with another local man, Tommy Graham, appeared in the very first scene showing two tinkers at Boolteens, Castlemaine.

“I got to know Robert Mitchum very well and he was a grand man and a genuine man despite what people might say. We became mighty friends altogether,” Mr Fitzgerald said.

Stories of Mitchum’s hard drinking, smoking marijuana and of flying in high-class prostitutes from London abounded at the time and featured in a recent new book by Michael Tanner on the making of the film.

But Mr Fitzgerald portrays a somewhat modified picture of the American actor. “I used be sent to the airport to collect these girls, three or four at a time, who were hired from an agency. But I think they were just brought in to have around the place so that Mitchum could keep up his image. As for his drinking, I’d describe him as an American-style drinker going around with a glass in his hand, but I never saw him drunk.”

In the late ’60s, there was scarcely any accommodation for visitors to the peninsula, which was a problem for Faraway Productions. So they had to rent houses from local people. Ballydavid publican and weather forecaster TP Ó Conchuir said that was also a big factor in transforming life for people on the peninsula.

“At the time, the average week’s wages was around £10, but people were getting £30 to £40 a week in rent for their houses. Not alone was this massive money to be getting, the tenants also upgraded the houses,” he said.

“Houses which might have tarpaulin on the floor and a tap in the kitchen ended up with carpets, suites of furniture and new bathrooms.”

TP, who was employed as a driver by the film company, also said the film brought new skills into the area through people who were among the best in working with fibre glass and rigging.

“The wise woman who talked about the film being an rialtas ab fhear was dead right. It did more for the place in two years than any government since the foundation of the state.”

An Daingean publican Danno O’Keeffe clearly remembers playing a cherub-faced altar boy in the scene where Robert Mitchum and Sarah Miles were married.

“Our house was just two doors down from where Faraway Productions were based. I was 10 or 11 years old at the time and got collared one day coming home from school,” he said.

“I spent three days on the set and got £25 for my labours which seemed like a fortune to me. My job was very simple — just to hold the silver plate for the wedding ring. The scene on the film took about 30 seconds, but David Lean was absolutely meticulous and did numerous ‘takes’.

“He kept changing it all the time. I had to say a few words in Latin, but he dropped that part of it. The ring was missing at one stage and Lean asked me where it was. My answer was that Mrs Mitchum had it, which caused some amusement.”

Broadcaster and journalist Michael de Mordha, who wrote a book about the film, An Rialtas Ab Fhearr, said Ryan’s Daughter had now entered the realms of folklore.

“Stories about it have taken on a life of their own and are getting better all the time. But there’s no disputing that fact that it ‘made’ the Dingle Peninsula. There’s still huge interest in the film almost 40 years on,” he remarked.

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