By David Hennessy
“Nothing has changed,” begins Barry Ward, the star of the new Ken Loach movie, Jimmy’s Hall. In what is expected to be his last film, the renowned director returns to similar territory to what he tackled in his Palme d’Or-winning war of independence/ civil war epic, The Wind that Shakes the Barley and depicts an Ireland that seems little better off for the ending of its long conflict.
A character in his previous film says: “If we ratify this treaty, all we’ re changing is the accents of the powerfuland the colour of the flag.”
This line foreshadows what we find in Jimmy’s Hall: “It’s just instead of British people keeping us down and keeping our money, it’s now Irish people doing the same, and doing it to ourselves.”
While his 2006 film that won the director an Irish World Award followed brothers played by Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney through their fight for independence and into a civil war that turned them against each other, Jimmy’s Hall sees its protagonist come home to a 1930s Leitrim with a growing poverty and cultural oppression. Communist Jimmy feels moved to reopen the community hall that he built when the country was on the brink of civil war. Aiming only to bring his community enjoyment and education, Jimmy becomes an enemy of Jim Norton’s Father Sheridan who is supported by the local Free State Army commander. His ideas and defiance are deemed so dangerous that Jimmy is deported without trial, the only Irish person to ever be deported from his own country.
There’s little information about Jimmy Gralton as the authorities wanted it this way. Was exposing one of history’s wrongs, the deportation of someone whose only crime was building a dance hall, a big motivation for its stars wanting to do the film? Barry answers: “That was bonus, that was great. The first thing for us was the fact that it was a Ken Loach movie.”
Simone Kirby from Ennis who plays Jimmy’s love interest Oonagh tells The Irish World: “As the audition process was going on, we found out it was about a guy called Jimmy Gralton so we were all googling Jimmy Gralton: ‘Who’s this guy?’ So it became more and more appealing as it went along.”
Barry continues: “It’s quite well hidden but there’s lots of history from that time that has been brushed under the carpet. He wasn’t a lone voice in Ireland at that time and there were little Soviet pockets popping up and quite a successful one in Limerick quite around the same time, it’s quite an interesting period in history.”
Do the actors feel that the civil war and its aftermath is a period of history that is often shied away from? Simone says: “Certainly, the aftermath, because there’s so much confusion about when parties split and the pro treaty/ anti treaty, it is a confusing time and probably a hard time to unpick, and to find your good guys and your bad guys is quite tricky as well because everybody had really strong passionate beliefs about which way it should go.”
Barry continues: “Exactly, but what happens is in those circumstances, civil war, is there’s a power vacuum, whoever wins is going to get that power so there’s a few different factions with different ideas of how they will implement those ideas once they get power. Whoever wins out, they’re going to brush aside all the alternative versions or possibilities or potential and they maintain this power and they say : ‘Well this was always the way it was going to be or supposed to be, isn’t it great? There were never any other options, forget about all them’.”
“You sound very angry,” says a laughing Simone turning to her co-star as Barry’s passion is evident.
The back story between Jimmy and Oonagh is a familiar one. Jimmy had to leave home and went to America while dutiful Oonagh stayed at home where her family needed her. Unlike now, emigrants had limited means to stay in touch with home and seldom returned so on his return, Barry’s character finds his former sweetheart married with kids.
Simone says: “She was the only girl in the family with one parent dying and that’s your duty as the only daughter to stay behind and take care of everything. A lot of the time, people who go to America don’t come back, you never see them again. A lot of siblings never saw each other again. So when he comes back in the 30s, it’s a big surprise.”
“There used to be a thing called an ‘American wake’ so if someone was going to America, they had effectively a wake and they said goodbye for the last time and partied like the guy was dying,” says Barry.
While Philomena and Calvary have documented Ireland’s difficult relationship with the Catholic church, Jimmy’s Hall shows how a community as early as the 1930s wanted to break free and think for themselves. Asked how the actor himself would feel about living in such an oppressive regime, Barry says: “If you’re born into those circumstances and conditions and that social environment and you know no better and you know no other, you just go along with it. You go what you’re told, I think we’re naturally quite subservient in many respects, and then when someone like Jimmy comes into the scene with all these ideas and possibilities, that’s very attractive and charismatic and then you might get a sense of ‘it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom and shining priests polishing their boots..
“I guess it(dealing with the place of religion)’s difficult to avoid in an Irish movie, such was the extent and length of their power there, they’re always going to be present if you’re going to be making a movie anywhere in the past.”
Simone adds: “They were treated like celebrities, they could do whatever they wanted really.”
Well known as Bishop Brennan from Father Ted, Jim Norton plays Father Sheridan: “He’s probably more well rounded in it,” says Simone. “He’s lovely in this. It’s funny because filming in Ireland as well, everyone knew him as Bishop Brennan and I was hoping that they would just be able to put that to one side and I think they can because it’s just a really well written character and he plays a blinder.”
Barry adds: “He’s terrific, he brings a lot of warmth and humanity to it, I think. He’s fighting his cause and I guess in many ways he and Jimmy are very similar characters.”
The Free State Army’s leader O’Keefe is played by Brian F O’Byrne. Violent and abusive, a moment when he takes his belt to his own daughter in a barn when her name is read from the pulpit for attending a dance shows how little things have changed as The Wind the Shakes the Barley starts with an Irish man being beaten to death in a barn by British soldiers.
Illustrating this, Simone says: “You have your relationship with Sheridan but then you have the O’Keefe character who can be the really bad guy.”
Having just returned from Cannes Film Festival, did the actors get the sense of how eagerly awaited the director’s follow-up to The Wind that Shakes the Barley is? “They’re crazy about Ken over there and we were saying we were kind of lucky that when we did get to go over, it was with a Ken film but yeah, everybody was looking forward to seeing probably his last big epic film,” says Simone.
Simone seems sure that this will be Loach’s last big cinematic story but Barry shakes his head mischievously: “Me and him have been in talks.”
Simone doesn’t seem convinced: “Have you? You’re writing something together? Wow.”
“We’re talking together now,” Barry confirms.
For the full interview, see the June 7 Irish World.
Jimmy’s Hall is released in cinemas today, May 30.