Why did you want to tell Jimmy Gralton’s story?
It is a story that brings so many things together: it challenges the idea that the left is dour and
dispiriting and against fun and enjoyment and celebration. It also shows how organised religion
will make common cause with economic power. They did it in the case of Jimmy Gralton and
continue to do so. Church and state become agents of oppression. In this case – though it’s barely
mentioned in the film because of time – those who would appear to be progressive regressed, like
de Valera, whom people thought would encourage open minds and tolerance. In fact, the first
thing he did was to seek the approval of the church and get them on his side. Principles were
expendable in the interest of realpolitik.
Is it intended to be a companion piece to The Wind that Shakes the Barley and if so, how?
Well it’s set just ten years later and there’s a line in The Wind that Shakes the Barley where the
Anglo-Irish landowner says, “This country will become a priest infested backwater,” and lo and
behold, it came to pass. It’s been a struggle ever since. The church has now lost a lot of
credibility because of the scandals. But when we were making the film people absolutely
understood the power of the Church and the power of the priest to determine who would be
successful or not in the community.
To what extent is this film history and to what extent fiction?
The film is ‘inspired' by the life and times of Jimmy Gralton. There isn't a huge amount known
about the details of his life and personality. That's sad in some ways because clearly he was a
brilliant man, but it gave us the freedom to imagine a private life and explore those choices he
had to make. We wanted to give the audience a character that has richness and is a rounded
person, not just a two-dimensional activist. That balance is very difficult and it always comes
down to the details – can he have a relationship with someone? And then what might that
We can share and imagine the secrets. We did not want the priests to appear as caricatures, which
would have been a danger if we had just dramatised the historical record. It was more interesting
to imagine a priest who while he was ferocious in
his hostility, nevertheless had another dimension to him – he respected his enemy's integrity.
Jimmy had real qualities that the priest couldn't ignore. What we tried to do was round the
characters whilst being true to the historical facts.
What is the significance of the hall?
I think it’s an embodiment of a free spirit, a place where ideas can be tested and expressed, where
poetry, music, sport can all be celebrated, where people can express their talents and, of course,
So what is the role of dance and music in the story?
It is an expression of freedom. Always dangerous to those who seek to exercise control.
How did you go about capturing dance and music on film?
You can do it in various ways. You can choreograph the camera and the dancers and make it very
stylised, but that was the antithesis of what we wanted. People learned the dances to a point
where they could enjoy them and express themselves. Then we had to find camera positions and
images that would capture that. I think it’s to do with the angle you shoot at and it’s to do with
the lens you use: it comes down to technical issues. The images that I always have in my head
are the Degas images of dance where you feel you’re sitting in a box, alongside. It’s not right in
the middle of the stalls, where everything is straight on to you, he’s at an angle, and he’s slightly
above the dancers, and you see not only the dancers but you see what’s in the wings. You observe
the dancers rather than being in the middle of them and you observe the joy and the comedy and
the communication between them.
Rather than using a taped track you filmed your musicians live. Why?
Well because you’ve got to see the effort of playing. We’ve done that in our films
for half a century – it’s quite amusing that one or two people have started doing it now and it’s
presented as a breakthrough! It’s the only way you can see people really playing, and the
interaction between the musicians and the dancers, otherwise there’s just something slightly
wrong, slightly missing. It just needs to be live. It does mean that the editor has got to be good at
cutting music and maybe joining two or three bits of music together. But Jonathan [Morris] is
very good at that.
Why did you build the hall in situ, as opposed to using a studio?
Building a real hall was much easier. The landscape is very important – the landscape of that part
of Ireland, the lives people lead because of that landscape and the bogs and the mist and the rest.
The temptation in the studio is that you don’t make it the actual size, yet the actual size imposes
a discipline that I think you can sense as an audience. In a studio, walls can be moved and you
get a shot you could never get in real life. In addition, the natural light in the hall is beautiful.
Sometimes, Robbie [Ryan, DOP] had to supplement it, but the reality was always there in the
And why did you choose to film it in Leitrim, where the original hall was situated?
We looked all over the west of Ireland but in fact Leitrim was the best, not only because it was
the truest to where the story actually happened but because it’s quite an empty county so the
impact of modern technical things isn’t so great. It’s also quite deserted. A lot of people have left
because of the lack of jobs, so it’s quite easy to film in. In the end there seemed no reason to go
How did the locals respond to you telling a local story?
They couldn’t have been more welcoming. We had a lot of young people in the film and their
commitment was very strong. What’s great is that they weren’t cynical, they were very open-hearted and generous and absolutely committed. They worked their socks off and their
enjoyment was infectious.
What was the casting process?
We tried to keep a strong connection to the area, but there wasn’t quite the range of people in
terms of professional actors. So we had to spread the net a bit wider. It’s just a long process – we
see as many people as possible, anybody who shows interest.
Kahleen [Crawford, Casting Director] is very good at drawing them in. We tried to cast as many
parts as locally as possible because the sense of community is very important in this film – it
isn’t just one or two characters and a bunch of extras. Everyone who is in it became part of the
process – and, I hope, felt embedded in the project. I think you can always tell when there are big
scenes in films and people have been hired from a casting agency. They just turn up and they’re
placed by the assistant directors and the director directs from a monitor. You can’t do that. Well
you can but it shows in the fabric of the film.
Why did you choose Barry Ward to play Jimmy?
Jimmy, as written, is politically very committed, he’s got a genial spirit, he’s got empathy with
people, he’s got a history of working class struggle, of working in different manual jobs, of
travelling around the world. There’s a warmth and a generosity to him as well as a shrewdness.
Finding all those elements was quite tricky. We didn’t want him too young and we didn’t want
him too old – in real life I think he was about 40 when this happened. So we saw lots and lots of
people but Barry was the one who seemed to bring all those qualities altogether.
Who was Jimmy Gralton?
In real life he was a dedicated activist. I’ve met many over the years, dedicated trade unionists
and organisers, people drawn to politics – once it gets its claws into you, it doesn’t let go. When
Jimmy came back to Ireland, having been kicked out ten years earlier, reopening the hall was a
big decision. Once the hall is re-opened they’re going to be after him again. And once they’re
after him, he’s either got to abandon the politics in order to stay or face the same huge battle as
before. There was a feeling that the change of government would open possibilities but
somebody with Jimmy’s politics would know that a politician like de Valera would betray the
interests of the working class. Jimmy understood class struggle, and that conflict is inevitable. So
it’s a very difficult question for him to dive back into politics when he’s returned to be with his
mother, to help look after the farm. He’s exhausted after twenty years of travel and yet in the end
what else can he do? If you’re political you have no choice.
What parallels are there between Jimmy’s Ireland and Ireland today?
Well I guess it’s the same struggle. There was a financial crash in ’29 followed by a decade of
depression and mass unemployment. That seems to be the case now: it’s a huge struggle for the
left to get any purchase in the political argument; it barely does. Politics is presented as a narrow
discussion between different right-wing parties, and yet there is great hardship with the poorest
taking the hardest cuts, lots of young people with no future, and in Ireland mass emigration to look for any kind of job security. So it’s very similar in that respect: financial crash followed by
Can film-making make a difference or affect the debate?
No I’m not sure it can really, not much. By-and-large films reinforce the status quo because those
are the big films that get made and get the big budgets and get the most advertising. They either
reinforce the status quo or they’re just an escape valve. But I think that’s pretty well always been
the case. The medium is capable of much more but commercial cinema and the people who run it
are not concerned with that. On the other hand, films can make connections, ask questions,
challenge received opinions. At the very least, films can give value to the experience of ordinary
people. It is through the drama of everyday life, its conflicts, struggles and joys, that we may
glimpse the possibilities for the future.