Eighty-one years ago James Gralton became the only Irish citizen to be deported from his own country. It happened without trial, in August 1933, on the grounds that he was a dangerous subversive and a communist, although no evidence was ever produced to back up the suspicions of Éamon de Valera’s government.
It is one of the more shameful episodes in the infancy of the Irish Free State. The Catholic Church and compliant politicians ensured that Jimmy Gralton would be hunted, as his mother put it, “like a wild deer”. After six months on the run he was caught by the Garda, taken to Cobh and put on a steamer to the United States without a chance to say goodbye to his mother.
Outside his native Leitrim, and left-wing circles, Gralton was largely unknown, but that is about to change. Ken Loach's 28th feature film, Jimmy's Hall, is released next week following its premiere at the Cannes Festival, last Thursday.
The story of Jimmy Gralton is in many ways the story of the State. Born into poverty, in Effernagh, outside Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim, in 1886, he was bright but had no formal education, and he left school at 14. By 21 he had seen the world with the Royal Navy. He went to the US, where he became radicalised in union politics. He came back to Ireland in 1921, just before the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, and built the hall on his father’s land – used for dances and education – that is now the subject of Loach’s film.
Radicalism Gralton became involved in land agitation, but his radicalism was too much for the local IRA. He went back to the US in 1923. He returned to Ireland in 1932 when de Valera took office and joined Fianna Fáil, believing it would be a radical alternative, but he quickly resigned.
Nineteen thirty-two was the year of the Eucharistic Congress in Ireland. Religious fervour and a strong anti-communism emanated from both church and State. A Lenten pastoral urged violence against anyone who preached communism. Gralton’s building, named Pearse-Connolly Hall, burned to the ground on Christmas Eve 1932. Suspicion fell on the local IRA, incited by clergy.
The rhetoric against Gralton increased in intensity in 1933. He was denounced repeatedly by local priests and politicians. One of his most vocal critics was Andrew Mooney, then an Independent member of Leitrim County Council, who during a debate about Gralton was reported to have said, “I suggest we should get Hitler over here for a few days.”
Mooney’s grandson Paschal, the Fianna Fáil senator, says Gralton’s deportation cast a long shadow over his family. “I never knew my grandfather, but I remember my Uncle Pádraig, who said that he had been quite upset down through the years about how his father [Andrew Mooney] had been vocal in his criticism of Jimmy Gralton at the time. It affected my uncle so much that in his later years he wrote to the Gralton family, apologising for any hurt that his father had caused.”
Mooney says the Fianna Fáil government of the time did Gralton a grave injustice by deporting him. “It was totally and completely wrong, but I wouldn’t judge my grandfather’s decisions by the mores of today. You are talking about a deeply religious, conservative country.”
Given his left-wing sensibilities, it is understandable that Loach picked Gralton as the subject of his film. He describes it as “the story of a socialist who believed he had to liberate the human spirit as well as achieving economic demands . . . It’s a heroic story, and I hope we do Jimmy Gralton justice.”
It will also be Loach's biggest production, with a budget of €6 million, surpassing that of his Palme D'Or-winning The Wind That Shakes the Barley, to which it is in some ways a companion piece.
The hall for the film was built in Scotland, flat-packed to Ireland and erected outside Dromahair, in north Co Leitrim. It was used for filming for six weeks, then razed. “It was a thing of beauty,” says Rebecca O’Brien, Loach’s long-time producer.
On set in Sligo town, Loach’s eye for detail was as sharp as ever. The Garda barracks where Gralton finds out about his deportation is built to exact specifications. The file that contains Gralton’s records might as well contain utility bills, for all viewers will see of its contents, but it contains facsimiles of contemporary reports. “It’s got to feel real for the actors,” says O’Brien.
Paul Laverty, who wrote the screenplay, came across the story three years ago. It is no coincidence, he says, that Gralton's story is not more widely known. "What's amazing is that when I went to the historical records office, nothing exists; there's no paper trail," says Laverty. "It did remind me of that subversive opening to Milan Kundera's novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: 'The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.' "'
Laverty says that, while he was writing Jimmy's Hall, he had in mind the quote from the Anglo-Irish landowner Sir John Hamilton, in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, in which he predicts that Ireland will become a "priest-ridden backwater" after independence. "It is interesting to reflect on those words."
Bitterness The bitterness surrounding Gralton's deportation lingered for decades. Most of his contemporaries are now dead, but two documentaries, both online, give gripping accounts of the time. One is an RTÉ programme from 1977, the other a film made by Michael Carolan, Deported: The Gralton Story, that was never broadcast on television but is available on YouTube.
Supporters of Gralton have raised enough money to erect a monument at the site of Pearse-Connolly Hall. John Feely, a local Labour Party activist, says he knew nothing about Gralton growing up. “I inquired to an uncle about Gralton, and he said, ‘He was the fellow who told the people not to say the angelus.’ There was a genuinely held belief even decades afterwards that Gralton was the Antichrist.”
A gala premiere fundraising screening of Jimmy's Hall takes place at Carrick Cineplex, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim, on Wednesday at 7.30pm