How dangerous could a parish hall with dance nights, boxing, singing lessons, poetry and art classes be? Ken Loaches new film “Jimmy’s Hall” shows how dangerous the Catholic Church considered one they didn’t control. The film is based on the true story of Jimmy Gralton, a socialist activist in Leitrim and the only person ever to be deported by the Irish Free State.
During a flashback in Jimmy’s Hall to the 1920s, Gralton builds a hall run by ordinary people with dances, art lessons and arrange of the other activities including discussion on tenant and workers’ rights. Gralton comes into conflict with the Catholic Church, big landowners and reactionary new Irish Free State and is forced to flee.
The film is set ten years later when, Gralton returns from a depression ridden America, he is already a legend among the local youth bored by unemployment and the suffocating control the church has over their lives.
After doubts he is persuaded to reopen the hall which along with its previous activities now includes jazz dancing- much to the dismay of the parish priest, Father Sheridan- who denounces it as “devil music.” The priest also rages from the pulpet against Gralton and names and shames those who attend the hall.
Despite demands from Father Sheridan that people choose between Gralton Hall or Christ, the hall is a success. Gralton comes to the aid of a tenant family facing eviction. After ensuring the family can get back to their home. Gralton makes a speech exposing the rotten failure of capitalism to offer alternative for workers and small farmers and calls for people “take back control of our lives again, to live, to celebrate, and to dance as free human beings.” The church and local landlords responds by pressuring De Valera’s government to issue a deportation order against the “alien” Jimmy Gralton, who is forced to go on the run.
The film touches on the many workers struggles in 1930s Ireland. This is done quite humorously by the rants of Father Sheridan. He fears the land agitation, he is angered that workers would call “respectable” union leaders sell outs and worst of all that Catholic and Protestants in Belfast would march and strike together referring to the famous Outdoor Relief strike in 1932.
I saw the film in Belfast and the mention of Catholics and Protestants marching together was met with applause in the cinema. Ken Loach has done a great service in bringing Gralton’s story to a larger audience. Hopefully people take inspiration from these events largely written out of our history books and get involved in the struggle for socialist society that inspired Gralton and many others.