The Ireland of Orson Welles was inhabited by mean men and wanton women

America Letter: The film director’s views on the Irish form part of a new book

Orson Welles with Sir Laurence Olivier in the green room of the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin, where Welles was playing Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight, on March 8th, 1960. Photograph: Jack McManus

Orson Welles with Sir Laurence Olivier in the green room of the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin, where Welles was playing Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight, on March 8th, 1960. Photograph: Jack McManus

 

Actor Spencer Tracy was “one of those bitchy Irishmen” and mean because 700 years of bitter oppression changed the character of the Irish and gave them a “passive meanness and cunning”.

So said Orson Welles in one of a series of lunchtime conversations with the celebrated American filmmaker and actor recorded between 1983 and 1985, the final two years of his life, at a Hollywood restaurant. The conversations form a new book, My Lunches with Orson, and were taped by his friend, the indie director Henry Jaglom. The book is edited and introduced by Peter Biskind, author of the superb history of 1970s American cinema Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.

Welles explores the concept of the self-hating Irishman and other insights into Irish life and Irish-America in outrageously candid detail in a chapter called “Everyone should be bigoted”.

On the Irish, Welles spoke from experience. Ten years before he wrote, directed and starred in the cinematic masterpiece Citizen Kane, the American made his stage debut on the Gate Theatre in Dublin. In 1931, aged just 16, he travelled to Ireland, believing he could pay his way selling paintings.

By the autumn of 1931, he spent the last of a small inheritance on a meal in Dublin and a ticket to see a show at the Gate. Backstage, he met a friend from the west of Ireland who had starred in the show. Welles later bragged that he convinced the theatre’s manager Hilton Edwards that he was a Broadway star.

The teenager landed a major part in a production of Jew Suss for his maiden performance. Welles subsequently told how, on his opening night, when he recited the line, “A bride fit for Solomon, yet he had a thousand wives did he not”, a voice from the stalls responded: “That is a dirty black Protestant lie!”

Welles told Jaglom that at one performance, two Dublin women were overheard saying: “Orson Welles. Oh, he’s a Jewman too.” Dubliners also thought Edwards was Jewish because he had “a splendid hook nose”, said Welles; the Irish liked that he was a “Jewman” because a Jewman is “a clever fella”.

The filmmaker admitted to being racist during one of his dates with Jaglom. Their discussions range from politics and sex to name-dropping some of the biggest Hollywood stars of the 20th century.

Welles also recalled seeing Irish literary celebrities at parties during his time in Dublin, including William Butler Yeats – “makes me shiver” – and Lady Gregory. Despite their meanness, he had a soft spot for the Irish but intensely disliked Irish-Americans. He asked Micheál Mac Liammóir, Edwards’ partner at the Gate, on the set of Welles’s film version of Othello in 1952, to describe the Irish in one word. “Malice,” Mac Liammóir replied.

“Look, I love Ireland, I love Irish literature, I love everything they do, you know. But the Irish-Americans have invented an imitation Ireland which is unspeakable. The wearin’ o’ the green. Oh my God! To Vomit!” he told Jaglom. America changes the Irish, he said; when they cross the Atlantic, they become “a new and terrible race, which is called ‘Irish-Americans’”.

Welles also offers Jaglom a perspective on the young fighting and drinking Irishman as he experienced them: “It was a culture where nobody got married until they were 35 because they were always dreaming of emigrating, and they didn’t want to be stuck with the kids, financially. So all these poor virgin ladies sat around waiting to get married, and the guys are all swinging at each other, reverting to the bestiality of the male.”

On his visit to Ireland as a teenager, Welles travelled to Connemara and is said to have been interested in Pádraic Ó Conaire’s writings about rural Ireland, so much so that he bought a donkey and cart to see the country. He recalled one particular stop on his Irish adventure to correct Jaglom’s view during their conversation that in Catholic Ireland there was “not much f**king around”.

“I could hardly draw a breath when I visited the Aran Islands,” Welles told him. “And these great, marvellous girls in their white petticoats, they’d grab me. Off the petticoats would go. It was as close to male rape as you could imagine. And all with husbands out in their skin-covered canoes.”

Welles said the girls would then confess all to the local priest who “finally said to me, ‘I had another confession this morning. When are you leaving?’ He was protecting the virtue of his flock.”

Earlier accounts of his time in Ireland show Welles may have been prone to embellishment, which is not out of character for the man behind one of the great radio hoaxes, the 1938 performance of The War of the Worlds that left people thinking they were listening to news reports of a Martian invasion.

This is what makes Welles a great American raconteur and his indiscreet and irreverent lunchtime chats eminently readable (despite his mean take on the Irish).