QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS / THE HOUSE / RYAN’S DAUGHTER

by John Boland

Ten European Parliament hopefuls were in the Questions and Answers studio to explain the role of  MEPs in this time of unprecedented economic crisis.

From Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell I learned that the first duty of any self-respecting MEP was to “turn up” in parliament, from which vantage point he or she could then “network” when important decisions were being made. Fianna Fail’s Eoin Ryan sagely agreed that MEPs “need to be seen working in parliament.” However, Sinn Fein’s Mary Lu McDonald had nobler aspirations, maintaining that MEPs shouldn’t just clock in each day but should actively “argue for change” while supporting “good European initiatives.”

Was it for this kind of guff that these three visionaries were elected last time around? Not that the first-time hopefuls on the panel were any more inspirational. Fianna Fail’s Lord Mayor of Dublin Eibhlin Byrne called for an end to “empty words and platitudes” while insisting that this country had “lots to offer,” which sounded suspiciously like empty words and platitudes to me. Denouncing “croney capitalism,” Socialist Party stalwart Joe Higgins maintained that what the European Parliament needed were “fighters” – just  just like Joe himself, I guess. And Caroline Simons of Libertas was banking on the notion that the “angry and desperate” electorate was “sick of the same old faces.” Which, of course, doesn’t mean that Caroline, who’s seeking a plum EU platform from which to denounce the Lisbon treaty,  will be among the new faces.

I endured almost twenty minutes of this dreary exercise in self-vindication until, glumly aware that none of these people was likely to say anything that transcended hollow cliché, I wished a plague on all their houses and switched off.

Houses, or at least one particular house, was the subject of an outstanding documentary screened on RTE1. “A story about loss, letting go and moving on” is how filmmaker Tanya Doyle described The House, which concerned the Clondalkin working-class home in which she, her three sisters and her brother grew up over twenty-five years.

Their parents were there, too, though fundamentally they were elsewhere – the mother lost inside an alcoholic haze and the father similarly troubled until, after endless rows, he left to begin another life in the midlands.

The mother died almost a decade ago, and what Tanya did was to bring the rest of the family together just as the house was being sold a couple of years back. This, though, was no cosy family reunion. Instead, resentments resurfaced (the father was confronted with the trauma he caused in leaving), and there were bruising recriminations, too, as the now adult children looked back on decades in which which bad memories outweighed the good.

Indeed, Tanya herself seemed the only member of the family intent on recalling – indeed, immortalising – the good times, her sister Patrice being especially withering about what she saw as Tanya’s do-goodery self-righteousness. Patrice, though, came up with some of the sharpest insights, saying of her unfortunate mother “I don’t think she looked at herself like she was a person” and “you shouldn’t ever be so unhappy that you don’t want your kids to turn into you.”

Patrice, however, had no intention of  looking back in sorrow or regret or even much affection, leaving Tanya to maintain that, although the house “stopped being a home when my ma died,” she was still proud of where she came from. “I’m grateful for my past,” she said.

And the viewer was grateful for such a frank and affecting film, in which much also registered about a society which down through the decades has consigned people to such bleak and ill-serviced suburban estates in which isolation, displacement and unhappiness become the norm.

There weren’t many creature comforts in the Dingle of the 1960s, either, as we learned from Niall Matthews’s A Bit of a Fillum (RTE1), which told the story of the making of Ryan’s Daughter on the peninsula. Margaret Sheehy, who provided Robert Mitchum with bed and board for the duration, recalled that there were “no restaurants, just the bars – 52 pubs.” Another local, Micheal de Mordha, added that the area also boasted “just one tractor, one or two cars, one or two telephones, no televisions and only a couple of transistor radios.”

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, and director David Lean thought it “one of the most beautiful wild places I’ve ever seen.” Mitchum, though, wasn’t so enamoured at the prospect, but when screenwriter Robert Bolt kept at him to take part he gave in. “Okay, I surrender, I’ll do it,” he said, though he reflected  “There goes a year of my well-planned, well-ordered life.”

The film wasn’t all that Mitchum did in Dingle. Margaret Sheehy recalled that Sarah Miles, though married to Bolt, who was present during the filming, was “very fond” of Mitchum and that night after night “she’d breeze in upstairs to him, and I’d just close my eyes to those things.” In fact, the actor had lots of young women ferried in to stave off the boredom of a year in the rainy south west, necessitating local auctioneer John Moore to hurriedly whisk them off to Shannon whenever Mitchum’s wife threatened to fly in. “Mom, you’re running a brothel,” Margaret’s children told her.

A year later, when the movie was about to receive its London premiere, Mitchum phoned Margaret and invited her along. She declined but was still struck at him remembering her and bothering to make the call.

The village created for the film was the real thing (only the fibreglass church was a fake) and when the shoot ended the moviemakers offered it to the locality for a nominal sum. But it had been built on a number of commonages and, in the Irish way of things, this led to ownership disputes, so the film company, fed up with the wrangling, knocked it down. What a mistake – the movie may not have been up to much (the great Mitchum was badly miscast, the young leading man was a plank, and John Mills’s portrayal of the local idiot was an embarrassment), but it was seen all over the world and tourists would have flocked to the village in which it was set. We Irish are our own worst enemies.

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