The Hollywood hit that hid secrets of the Easter Rising
‘How Green was My Valley’ was the famous 1951 film that won five Oscars for John Ford: but it also contained a more fascinating story of how two of its actors had fought on opposite sides of the Rising
John Loder (second right) and Arthur Shields (right) in the John Ford film ‘How Green Was My Valley’. Photograph: Fox
John Loder (centre) and his brother Barry Fitzgerald (second right) in ‘How Green Was My Valley’. Photograph: Mondadori via Getty Images
John Loder (real name John Lowe) accepting the surrender of Patrick Pearse with his father, Gen William Henry Muir Lowe, on Moore Lane, Dublin. Photograph courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.
John Loder with his wife, Hedy Lamarr, in 1947. Photograph: Keystone Pictures/FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images
In his 1977 autobiography the Hollywood star John Loder let slip secrets he’d kept hidden for more than 60 years, about his part in the arrest of Patrick Pearse and about the thank-you gift the Easter Rising leader gave him.
After the first World War, as Loder rose from extra in German films to marquee name in the US – and changed his name – he stayed quiet about his part in one of Ireland’s most historic events. It was not until after his film career ended that it became known that Loder, as Lt John Lowe, had fought for the British in the Easter Rising.
Lowe was on leave from the army and visiting his parents when the Rising broke out. His father, Gen WHM Lowe, was commander of the British forces in Dublin, and the suddenness of the Rising saw his father co-opt him as a temporary aide-de-camp.
After the Rising had been defeated, Lowe jnr wrote the unconditional-surrender note delivered to Pearse and waited beside his father to meet Pearse and escort him to prison. After Pearse walked up Moore Street, accompanied by a woman carrying a white flag, the four of them were immortalised in a grainy photograph that became one of the iconic images of the Rising; the general, Lowe jnr and Pearse are clearly visible; Elizabeth O’Farrell, a nurse in Cumann na mBan, is obscured by Pearse.
Lowe, who was 18 at the time, was more than a little awed by Pearse on the extended journey to jail. The rebellion leader began writing letters to his nearest and dearest, and to facilitate him the lieutenant ordered the chaplain driving the military car to keep circling until Pearse had finished. In response to this kindness Pearse presented him with what Loder described as a Sinn Féin badge from his hat; it was likely to have been an Irish Volunteers cap badge.
Loder hinted that the rebels won his father’s respect if not outright sympathy. In his memoir, Hollywood Hussar, he recalled his sadness when he heard that Pearse’s badge had been lost in the Luftwaffe bombing of London; his parents’ house was destroyed in the Blitz, and the badge with it. He had intended to leave it to the National Museum of Ireland.
For him the badge was a reminder of the sacrifices he witnessed during the Rising, memories that stayed with him throughout his life: from the gentle demeanour of Pearse, “a poet and schoolteacher”, to the priests who risked their lives in crossfire to administer the last rites to dying men, women and children.
Immediately after the surrender Lowe snr was replaced by Gen John Maxwell; his son returned to his regiment on the Western Front. He survived the Battle of the Somme, did time in a German prisoner-of-war camp and spied for Britain.
After the first World War Lowe’s film career flourished. He made dozens of successful movies, had his name in lights on Broadway and romanced a string of starlets.
At this point he had changed his name to Loder, to avoid embarrassing his disapproving father by more clearly having an actor in the family. He also drew a veil over his role in 1916, which he felt to be diplomatic during Hollywood’s cosmopolitan golden age.
In 1914, also at the age of 18, Shields rushed to join the Irish Citizen Army after British troops opened fire on a jeering crowd on Bachelors Walk in Dublin, killing four people and wounding 30. Shields, whose father was a journalist and union activist, was a promising actor at the Abbey Theatre at the time; he was welcomed into the volunteers at Liberty Hall by James Connolly, commandant-general of the Dublin brigade, with the words: “I hope you will prove to be as good a man as your father.” Shields snr had been a union mentor to Connolly.
Two years later Arthur Shields fought under Connolly at the GPO and retreated to Moore Street alongside Patrick Pearse. He never spoke of his heroics, and what is known comes from his best friend, Charles Saurin, who enlisted with him after the Bachelors Walk incident.
Years later Saurin recalled that Shields could not bring his gun home, because his Protestant parents drew the line at armed resistance to British rule, so he stashed it under the stage at the Abbey. It wasn’t alone: he also hid there the press on which the Proclamation of the Irish Republic had been printed.
In the years after the Rising Shields felt less and less comfortable with the emergence of a conservative Ireland. After a 1935 tour of the US by the Abbey players, Shields settled there, found work with John Ford, and earned a codirector credit on Ford’s film version of Seán O’Casey’s play about the Rising, The Plough and the Stars.
Later Shields and his brother Barry Fitzgerald – real name William Shields – won more acclaim, alongside John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, for their roles in Ford’s classic The Quiet Man.
In a little museum tucked away in an alcove off the foyer of the Shelbourne Hotel, on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, is a gem of a letter that reveals that Ford was far from a quiet man on the eve of shooting in 1951. He wrote to his friend Meta Stern, the dialogue director: “Have a helluva good cast – the only malcontents – Barrys – whom we told to go and f*** himself.” The Barrys referred to were Arthur, Fitzgerald and “his girlfriend Madame Eileen Crowe”: all three angered Ford by demanding fees way above British rates.
Loder married five times, most notably to Hedy Lamarr. The Austrian-American actor, whom Louis B Mayer marketed as “the most beautiful woman in the world”, was also an inventor: at the beginning of the second World War she developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes. Its principles are still in use, in mobile-phone, WiFi and Bluetooth technology.
Her marriage to Loder was less successful, and in his biography he complains of her stinginess. She once hinted that she was getting him a Cadillac for Christmas. He responded with diamond jewellery only to find his gift under the tree: it was merely a scale model of the car.
But he had been warned: on the eve of their honeymoon she presented him with a bill for the meals that she had cooked for him during their courtship.