The quiet man and the big fellow

Eighty years ago, the paths of two men - one who made films, the other who made history - crossed on a turbulent boat journey…

Eighty years ago, the paths of two men - one who made films, the other who made history - crossed on a turbulent boat journey from Holyhead. Among the more unusual credits for John Ford's classic evocation of romantic Ireland, The Quiet Man (1952), is "IRA Consultant: Ernie O'Malley". Had Ford sought to incorporate Ernie O'Malley's exploits as an IRA leader during the War of Independence, it would have made for a very different film from the motion-picture postcard we know today.

Yet, there is another connection between The Quiet Man and the Troubles that has a bearing on the film. By a remarkable coincidence, John Ford crossed to Ireland on the same ill-fated boat that brought Michael Collins home from the Treaty negotiations in London. Though some critics have implied that Ford's account of this belongs to the same realm of the imagination as his Irish films, the truth in this case is stranger than fiction.

On Friday morning, December 2nd, 1921, Arthur Griffith travelled to Dublin with the contentious "Proposed Articles of Agreement" for the Treaty. Michael Collins stayed behind for two further meetings on financial matters at the Treasury and, with Erskine Childers and George Gavan Duffy, caught the mail train at Euston that evening at 8.45 p.m. Collins's aim was to be in Dublin early the next morning to allow him time to consult with senior IRB members before attending the crucial cabinet meeting with de Valera at 11 a.m.

Collins and his party boarded the Cambria on schedule, but shortly after midnight the mailboat had a fatal collision with a fishing schooner sailing from Liverpool, the James Tyrell. Three men from the fishing vessel lost their lives, but the mailboat was able to save four more, having circled around for some time. In his recent magisterial biography of John Ford, Joseph MacBride recounts an incident described by marine historians Jim Rees and Liam Charlton, in which two well-dressed strangers visited the survivors during the night, the taller of the two lighting a cigarette in the mouth of the schooner's 18-year-old engineer. When the stranger had departed, leaving the rest of the packet of cigarettes behind him, the young engineer was informed he had been visited by Michael Collins.


John Ford sailed from New York to Liverpool in late November 1921 and boarded the Cambria at Holyhead on the night of December 2nd. In a letter written to his wife Mary in December 1921, he gives a graphic account of the disastrous night's crossing.

"As soon as I landed in Liverpool I left for Ireland. The boat I travelled in across the Irish Sea carried Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith , the returning Sinn FΘin delegates with Lloyd George's proposals to Dβil ╔ireann. We were only 20 minutes from Holyhead when we cut a fishing schooner in two and sank her. Three of the crew were drowned and, although we cruised around for an hour, we found no bodies.

"The shock of the impact was terrible. When we struck, the boat shivered and rocked for quite a while before she straightened out . . ."

It was not only the boat that shuddered, for Collins's own nerves must have been jangled when the Cambria docked in D·Laoghaire at 10.15 a.m., leaving him with less than an hour to get to what Tim Pat Coogan has described as "one of the most important cabinet discussions ever conducted by any Irish political party".

But Ford's troubles were not over, either. Born Sean O'Feeney in I894, he was the son of Irish-speaking parents who emigrated from Spiddal in 1872. Arriving in Dublin, he headed west in time-honoured fashion but found that the War of Independence had taken a heavy toll on his family relatives.

"At Galway I got a jaunting car and rode to Spiddal and had a deuce of a time finding Dad's folks. There are so many Feeneys out there that to find our part of the family was a problem. At last I found them . . . Spiddal is all shot to pieces. Most of the houses have been burned down by the Black and Tans, and all the young men had been hiding in the hills . . . Cousin Martin Feeney (Dad's nephew) had been hiding in the Connemara Mountains with the Thornton boys. I naturally was followed about and watched by the Black and Tan Fraternity. Tell Dad that the Thornton house is entirely burned down, and old Mrs Thornton was living with Uncle Ned's widow while his sons were away . . ."

This letter is an uncanny anticipation of the opening scenes in The Quiet Man, in which a returned emigrant, Sean Thornton (John Wayne), casts a melancholy eye on the ruins of the old Thornton cottage, while the words of "old Mrs Thornton" echo in his memory. The real-life Thornton family in Spiddal were cousins of Ford's; and one of them, Martin Thornton, like his fictional counterpart, was a professional boxer, the famous "Connemara Crusher".

The Quiet Man is set in the immediate aftermath of the Treaty and, in one exchange, a character (an ex-IRA commander) reminds Michaeleen Oge (Barry Fitzgerald) "that we're at peace now". "True," answers Michaeleen Oge, "but I haven't given up hope."

One wonders whether Michael Collins would have shared these sentiments on the fateful night crossing with John Ford all those years previously.

Extracted from The Quiet Man by Luke Gibbons (Cork University Press) which will be published next year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the film.