John Huston and the Yuletide spirit — John Mulqueen on the director’s rural Irish idyll

On one occasion, Huston persuaded John Steinbeck to stand in for the usual Santa Claus

Appalled at the intimidation practised by Senator Joseph McCarthy – Cold War America’s most prominent anti-communist witch-hunter – the film director John Huston decided to live in Ireland in the early 1950s. The publicity-hungry House Un-American Activities Committee had previously targeted Hollywood, calling for “friendly witnesses” to name those in the movie business they thought might be communists. Huston confronted the bullies, and argued that Americans had a constitutional right to freedom of speech and political affiliation. His brave stand against the “blacklisting” of those accused of being “Reds” led to him being labelled a “communist”.

On his first visit to Ireland Huston met Claud Cockburn, a retired but unrepentant British communist. Both found rural Ireland a congenial place, even though McCarthy’s committee listed Cockburn as one of the most dangerous “Reds” in the world (84th or so). The cash-strapped Cockburn, who had to write under a pseudonym, was obviously pleased when Huston decided to turn his novel, Beat the Devil, into a film script. A comedy, Beat the Devil starred Humphrey Bogart – who had won an Oscar for his role in Huston’s African Queen – and Jennifer Jones and Gina Lollobrigida.

It was ironic that Huston, and Cockburn, found Ireland so welcoming during the most paranoid phase of the Cold War. Even the American embassy was happy with the Irish political climate: it pointed out that Catholicism dominated this “bitterly” anti-communist state. The embassy reported to Washington that the zealously Catholic weekly, the Standard, had influence, being read by “practically every parish priest” in the country.

The Huston family moved to Ireland in 1953, and made their home in a restored Georgian house, St Clerans, in Co Galway.


Huston enjoyed the “Big House” lifestyle centred on horses and hunting. His guests included Robert Capa, who made his name as a photographer on the anti-fascist side in the Spanish Civil War, and Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted Hollywood writer. John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath, became a regular visitor.

The Hustons threw many a party at St Clerans over the years, and every Christmas Eve they invited the neighbours in. On one occasion Steinbeck stood in for the usual Santa Claus, very reluctantly, and needed help to glue on his eyebrows and beard. “He was a great Santa,” Huston remembered, “with a low, deep voice that came out of his chest,” but the American visitor claimed that he spat cotton each time the prompter gave him a kid’s name to say. Steinbeck was intrigued by the “resident ghost” in the house, an innocent man who had been hanged two centuries earlier for shooting a bailiff. He made inquiries with a local expert, who told him not to write about this as it was too early to raise the tragic episode.

Steinbeck had a serious interest in Ireland and made what he called “a pilgrimage” to the old country, in 1952, to retrace the lives of his Presbyterian ancestors. Disappointed not to find a “green paradise” in Co Derry, he instead saw a grim place, with quiet, grey people, ground down by rules and conventions. He was shocked that he couldn’t buy a drink on a Sunday.

The Grapes of Wrath tells the tale of the Joad family who – like the forebears of John Steinbeck – abandoned their no-hope situation at home in search of the “promised land”. For the Joads, fleeing Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl years in the 1930s, a new life awaited them in California, where, they believed, there would be work for all. The Joads took to the road with hope and expectation, along with thousands of other economic refugees, only to be ripped off, intimidated by vigilantes, or exploited, at every turn – any effort at collective organisation on the part of the courageous few, conveniently called “troublemakers” or “Reds”, led to savage repression. Steinbeck’s bestselling novel appeared in 1939, and was made into a movie the following year by John Ford. It follows the book in exposing the hardships experienced by the dispossessed in America, and starred Henry Fonda as the hero, Tom Joad, and Jane Darwell as the matriarch. Ford and Darwell won Oscars.

Woody Guthrie, Oklahoma-born himself, the singer and songwriter who wrote Dustbowl Blues, found inspiration in The Grapes of Wrath and distilled it into a song, Tom Joad. Guthrie had lived the life of the displaced on the roads, and railroads, and understood the hardships of the migrants’ “jungle camps” full of starving kids. Guthrie’s ballad lives on. For example, Andy Irvine, of Planxty fame, who wrote letters to him as a star-struck teenager, sings the story of Tom Joad, the hater of injustice, to be found:

“Wherever little children are hungry and cry,

Wherever people aren’t free,

Wherever folks are fighting for their rights,

That’s where I’m going to be.”

Bruce Springsteen released The Ghost of Tom Joad in 1995, updating Guthrie, in effect. Springsteen posted a memorable tribute to Shane MacGowan – whose heart always beat in time with those down on their luck – saying that his songs were “timeless”.

So too are The Grapes of Wrath, and Tom Joad.