'Quiet Man' endures in the Irish hamlet where it was
by Dennis B. Roddy
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 13 March 1994 page 12
A few minutes after he pulled two glasses of good
whiskey from behind the bar at his pub-restaurant-gas station-general
store-wool brokerage, Joe Mellotte
fished up a stack of letters. They spilled onto the bar, spread like a
quilt. They come ceaselessly -- typed with scientific precision or
scratched onto paper with
sweaty palms. They come from Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, America,
Canada. Sometimes a cluster of letters with the same postmark will tip
off about what city's TV station has just broadcast the 42-year-old movie
that changed Mellotte's life: "The Quiet Man." The weeks after St.
Patrick's Day are
especially busy for Mellotte's postmaster.
Writers have questions like this one from Joe Davey in Dublin:
"Hall door has brass knocker. Next time, when the horse stops suddenly
outside pub, there is no knocker ... "
Where, Joe Davey wants to know, did that knocker get to? Mellotte rolled
his eyes. "Now, I'm supposed to know where that knocker got to!"
Here's another, from America: Remember the scene when Michaeleen Oge Flynn
takes Sean Thornton and Mary Kate Danaher in his jaunting car past the
of a castle and announces it's the homestead of the ancient Flynn
ancestors? "It was taken from us by the Druids," the wee, puckish old
fella tells them.
"What," Mellotte's correspondent asks, in all seriousness, "is the name
of this ruin and where is it located?"
"Do you see what I'm up against?" Mellotte sighs. He puts away the
letters and produces the whiskey bottle again. Joe Mellotte's biggest
moment came four
decades ago, when
John Ford, born Sean Aloysius O'Feeney, pushed his way
through the bog and back road of Connemara and into Cong, a remote village
on a desolate spit of land at the very bottom of County Mayo. In 1932,
Ford had read a story in
The Saturday Evening Post by Maurice Walsh. "The
told the story of Sean Kelvin, a retired boxer pushed into a fistfight
with a bullying brother-in-law. A few years later, when his collection of
stories, "The Green
Rushes" came out, Sean Kelvin had become Paddy Bawn Enright ("bawn," in
Irish, means white, or fair).
Ford bought the rights to the story for $
10. Most of
Hollywood thought he'd paid too much.
The movie took years simply to get on the screen. Nobody in post-war
Hollywood foresaw much of an audience for a movie about an Irish-born
boxer reared in Pittsburgh, haunted by memories of a man he killed in the
ring, and who tries to start life over again in Ireland.
Republic Pictures to bankroll the effort and, in return, agreed to shoot a
guaranteed moneymaker, a western, first. In the summer of 1951, with "Rio
in America's theaters,
Ford arrived in Ireland's west. He brought with him
Maureen O'Hara (born in Dublin as Maureen FitzSimons),
Hollywood ways -- that's really William H. Shields), Victor McLaglen (for
some reason he used his real name),
Mildred Natwick, Ward Bond and Marion
the American-born descendent of Scots-Irish settlers. By then, keeping
with Hollywood custom, he'd changed his name to
There were so many stars it seemed unimaginable to the people of Connemara.
God help us, but hadn't they just gotten the first electrical lines into
year, and the town telephone -- anyone could use it down at the post
office. Now a movie company, with giant stars, all to make a movie out of
the story from
a Maurice Walsh book.
By the time
Ford's Republic Pictures crew and cast had finished filming
around Cong and the nearby Maam Valley, the fetching isolation of a small
village filled with native speakers of Irish Gaelic had been broken and
life, for one, had been altered irrevocably. At 27, Mellotte was plucked
from a row of
quizzical young men hungry for the astonishingly high wages Hollywood
would pay for doubles, whatever a double was.
"You'll do," the 6-foot, 5-inch
Wayne told the 6-foot-something Mellotte.
For the next 10 weeks, Mellotte would dress exactly like
during breaks to hold the scene in place, keep 200 Camel straights handy
at the start of day for the chain-smoking star and, by film's end, ride
Wayne in a beach race scene (they didn't really do that around there). He
also crashed through the door of Cohan's pub at the climax of moviedom's
fistfight scene. Joe Mellotte -- stand-in at 3 per day, snappy dresser or
slouch, depending on
Wayne's wardrobe, and stunt double -- took his
earnings to set
up his pub and other businesses in a nearby settlement called The Neale.
The movie that afflicts him with letters also rewards with tourists.
stayed at Ashford and visited Mellotte.
"Even John Travolta, when he came in, he was delighted to come in and
have a meal," Mellotte says.
On this day, John Gleeson of Long Island, N.Y., is beaming next to
Mellotte and having a photo taken in front of a display of more photos and
"Of all the
John Wayne tapes that are out, it's the only one I own,"
Gleeson beams. "It's just a very nice film."
Niceness, of course, just cascades from "The Quiet Man," in part because
Hollywood has license. The train station at Ballyglunin, 30 miles away,
station at the more orderly sounding "Castletown." Filmmakers used the
interior of Cong's Catholic chapel but, inexplicably, thought the exterior
of the nearby
Protestant Church of Ireland looked more Irish. So they moved the holy
water font from inside the chapel and put it outside the Protestant church
Ford's crew forgot about it until the next Sunday, when horrified
Protestants arrived for services to discover what looked, for all the
world, like a Popish
plot or teen-age prank.
In one scene,
John Wayne and
Barry Fitzgerald pause atop a stunning stone
bridge and gaze longingly at a wee humble cottage. Bridge and cottage are
less than 12 miles apart. And for movie audiences, the improbably named
Cong was transformed to the splendiferously named "Innisfree." The real
a lake island, is north, in Sligo, and most easily located in a W. B.
All of this still somewhat flummoxes locals. Nobody had a clear idea just
what making a "fillum" as they call it, entailed. The thing wasn't done
so the filming looked like so much carry-on and nonsense.
But at 30 shillings a day -- three times the average for Ireland's
recessionary '50s -- nonsense paid very well.
"And," winked John Murphy, proprietor of the little store that for
cinematic purposes was Cohan's Pub, "you got a lunch as well." To say
nothing of the free
"The Quiet Man" was nominated for the Academy Award for best picture of
1952 and won Oscars for photography and
Ford's direction. After years of
it has blossomed into a cult film, with a blend of quaint, if occassionally
[sic] hackneyed, stage Irish, set against wild scenery still there
today. Cohan's Pub, a
recurring stop for the movie's characters -- the horse owned by Michaeleen
Oge Flynn (Fitzgerald) stops there out of habit in the midst of a chase --
is really Murphy's grocery store at the foot of the main street. The side
street from which an old man leaps from his deathbed to watch the marathon
between Sean Thornton (Wayne) and his misanthropic greed-head of a
brother-in-law, looks unchanged. The landscape for the fight is just
around the corner,
as is the Rev. Playfair's cottage -- and that, by the way, was
Fitzgerald's brother, Arthur Shields, playing the role, not
Barry, as some
come to believe. The wonderful stone bridge is really in Galway, about 20
miles south, along the road between Oughterrard and Maam Cross. And the
townspeople still slightly amused by the fuss around the film's revival,
are all over the place.
It's a warm, autumn day, but all the same, Robert Foy isn't eager to be
coaxed out of his small house on Cong's main street. All right, all right,
he concedes, a
few minutes he'll spend, but he has a life to get on with. He steps
outside into a Saturday afternoon's sunlight and starts pointing. "That
was the thatched
Oh, yes, the little pub Will Danaher (McLaglen) and his cronies stood in
front of, sucking down pints of stout.
"Do you remember the cart that brought the furniture into Mary Kate
Danaher's (O'Hara) cottage?" Foy asks. "I was driving it."
At the other end of the street are the ruins of the old monastery and
graveyard, where much of the fight takes place. Near to that is the little
connects Lough Mask and Lough Corrib, where
Wayne once horrified the
locals by taking a suit that would cost a week's wages and wallowing in
the muck to
make it look as if he'd been in a fight.
Connemara had seen a movie made before 1951, when the trucks and crews and
cast for "The Quiet Man" started rolling in and all but took over nearby
Ashford Castle. In the 1930s, an English crew filmed "Captain Boycott."
Nobody comes to ask about "Captain Boycott."
"There was something unique about ("The Quiet Man"), Foy says. "The
others, they've all faded away, but that one seems to have stayed."
Well, not quite. For a time, few people turned up asking about "The Quiet
Man." In spite of the seven Academy Award nominations and two Oscars,
Man" couldn't change a changing cinemascope. Raw, realistic, gritty films
were coming into vogue. Lighter entertainment was the big movie musical.
Man," with its sentimentality and touch-me-not romantic style, was
declared quaint and consigned to the netherworld of late-night television
Patrick's Day. Then, slowly, the movie enjoyed a renaissance. With the
arrival of the VCR, the movie posted surprising sales -- the biggest
single title in Britain
and huge sales in America. A cult movie had been born. Republic last year
printed new Technicolor negatives -- an expensive and difficult process --
and let fly
not one but two different "Quiet Man" videos, one a numbered collector's
Maybe the best testimony to the movie's growing worldwide appeal came in
1987, when a Spanish film crew turned up in Cong to do a documentary on
making of "The Quiet Man."
Fame had returned to a placid village, but most of the locals with the
best memories are, themselves, only memories.
Now the tourists and journalists come to Cong wanting to retrace every
step of the movie. The onslaught has, on occasion, forced Foy behind doors
home on the village's main street. "In summertime, I just couldn't walk
down the street or your day would be gone." Foy was a youngster when he
cart to "White 'O Morn," Sean Thornton and Mary Kate Danaher's little
cottage. The cottage sat somewhere in the Maam Valley, on land owned by
family -- there are so many of them the region is called "The Joyces
Country." It is a ruin today.
If some of the buildings have fallen, so has the roster of living cast
members. O'Hara survives
Fitzgerald, Shields and others.
Gone, too, are
so many of the locals who lent their simple, country grace to the movie.
"My own father was in there," Foy says. "Nearly half the extras, or
three-fourths of them are gone. You're talking about a lifetime away."
Lifetimes are something the Irish know well. They ended abruptly during
famine and rebellion, and often were lived out by the island's young in
places to which they had fled to escape starvation and grinding poverty.
Generations of Connemara's young were piped down to the Galway coast and
ships bound for Newfoundland, Australia and America. That's why, in the
song "Danny Boy," the pipes, the pipes are calling. Even today in the
unemployment that hovers around 20 percent, many a Connacht accent is
heard abroad. In Pittsburgh alone, the list of names from the 50-mile
surrounding the Galway-Mayo border can stun: There is Coyne, as in
Congressman Bill -- Maam Cross. There is Coyne as in Prothonotary Michael,
family is from Cong. Pete Flaherty's mother grew up on a hillside
settlement called Glentrasna -- Gaelic for "Across the Valley" -- and
Tom Lamb, the former
state senate majority leader, had parents from Tuam, along the Roscommon
border. All can give you at least a few lines from "The Quiet Man."
Little wonder that the sweet chords of the dead Mrs. Thornton's voice, as
Wayne peers from the bridge and sees the old cottage, grab the
families long enough away from Ireland to forget what a brutal place it
really can be.
"Do you remember Seanny?" the voice in the movie asks. Many don't
remember, quite, but "The Quiet Man" provided a prefab memory. It's one
that in a world
of cynical, brutal movies, they would prefer to have.
"They saw that film and it made Ireland a little nearer to them," Foy
No, they agree, it wasn't terribly accurate; just, as American visitor
Gleeson put it, "as close as Hollywood can get."
Not everyone was completely thrilled with the results. The church, ever
the force in Irish life, was scandalized by the sight of
Wayne kicking and
Maureen O'Hara halfway across the country when he "returns" her to her
brother, who has refused to pay the dowry. "Here's a fine stick to beat
lady," one elderly woman advises him.
"Matchmaking they'd do all right," says Murphy, back at Cohan's bogus
pub, "but not the dragging end of it."
What scandalized the church 40 years ago now unnerves the politically
sensitive. The movie, with its plot line pivoting on a woman who feels she
can be no
wife without a dowry, is no testament to feminist independence. Then,
again, neither is Ireland.
"It was a true story in the sense that one didn't marry without a
dowry," Mellotte remembers. Paddy O'Toole, an Irish Gaelic speaker from
who made many of the introductions for an American visitor, remembers
those rules well. In a country where the rural folk have little, something
brought to every enterprise. It works both ways. In Clonbur, not too far
away, he overheard two women discussing the eligibility of a passing
"He's a good catch," she told her friend. "I saw him one day with two
cans of sheep dip." Decoded, that meant: The man must have quite a few
he's got a farm. Latch on while you can.
In as much as women had to depend utterly on men, then, Mary Kate
Danaher's dowry, crude a measure of worth as it seemed, meant a level of
So, in the revisionist 1990s, "The Quiet Man" safely deals with a
subject otherwise too dangerous. And, everyone agrees, it's a wonderful
fight scene, right?
"Och," mutters Murphy, "there really wouldn't be a blow. It's really
Joe Mellotte still remembers it, that first showing when the prints of
"The Quiet Man" found their way to Connemara. Some of the locals hadn't
seen a proper
movie before. For that, you had to go all the way to Galway.
Some were stunned to see how the hodgepodge of fights here, kisses there,
chases here, deceptively simple jaunts down the street, were reassembled
In one scene, the rain pours down incessantly, soaking the characters.
Next to Melotte, a young man, puzzled by the merger of real and unreal,
"It must be an awful bad night outside," he said.
On an autumn day in 1992, I stood on the stone bridge, the one from which
Sean Thornton sees all the way into his childhood at the movie's opening.
pulled up and a couple got out.
"You know what this looks like?" the driver asked me.
He didn't give me a chance to answer.
"You ever see that movie with
John Wayne -- 'The Quiet Man'?"
Yes, I told him. This is the very bridge.
He walked across it. Walked to the edge of the stream that trickles
beneath it. In fact, he walked every measure of that bridge, luxuriating
in its presence.
"Where you from?" I asked the man who'd intruded on my own quiet
"New Zealand," he replied. Then he got into his car and sped dustily up
the lane to the Galway-Clifden road. I never caught a glimpse of him after
that. But I
think I can tell you his destination.
© 1994 P.G. Publishing Co.