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The story of the only Irishman deported from Ireland is hitting the stage

The story of Jimmy Gralton is being told in the play, which had its debut in Letrim.

Jimmy Gralton
Jimmy Gralton
Image: Facebook

IN 1933, LEITRIM man Jimmy Gralton was arrested, then deported to the USA.

The reason? The farmer ran a dance hall, which caused consternation among the local priests, and led to protests. The dance hall was built on Gralton’s own farm, and Gralton – a socialist and member of the Revolutionary Workers’ Group in Leitrim – wanted it to be a place for people to meet, dance, and talk politics and education.

The dances in particular brought ire, and the hall was burnt to the ground at Christmas time in 1932, months before the order for Gralton to be deported was given.

That Gralton was deported has long been seen by many as a stain on Ireland’s past – last year, President Michael D Higgins, while unveiling a memorial to Gralton, called it “wrong and indefensible”.

Jimmy Gralton was one of those rare emancipatory figures from Cosmuintir na Tíre, from below, a blaze of energy, honesty and generosity that burst upon this locality in very turbulent times at the beginning of the 1920s and again in the early 1930s. We can recall him with sadness, but also with righteous anger, because he was, for authoritarian political purposes, mixed with clerical pressure, illegally deported from his own country for his political beliefs. What happened was an affront to basic civil rights and freedoms, including freedom of speech; freedom to organise and the freedom to hold meetings.

The story of Gralton and his deportation was explored in Ken Loach’s 2014 film Jimmy’s Hall, and now it’s being brought to the stage thanks to the Abbey Theatre.

Source: Movieclips Trailers/YouTube

Paul Gralton, Jimmy’s cousin, told TheJournal.ie that the story has long been talked about in the family.

“Both my grandparents Maggie and Packie were intimately involved in that story, both as young people and as young adults and when Jimmy was deported he gave the farm over to my grandfather so he and my grandmother could marry. And Alice, Jimmy’s mother, was still on the farm at the time – part of the deal was they would look after her and take Jimmy’s place.”

Jimmy never returned to Ireland. “In some ways it’s been part of our lives all of the time, particularly for people who got the Gralton name,” said Paul. “When Jimmy’s story was told it’s a series of mixed emotions.”

There’s nervousness, he said, about how people will feel about it – will it awaken old wounds? But there’s also an “immense sense of pride in what Jimmy tried to stand up for” in creating the hall.

Emotional

The play is being put on in Leitrim first, part of the new Abbey directors’ focus on bringing the national theatre, well, national.

“I was actually quite shocked at how emotional I felt, it hit an emotional chord with me as well as being humorous in parts,” said Paul after seeing the play. “It brought part of the poignancy of the messages home.”

Paul was raised in Luton, but has since returned to settle in Roscommon. He looks after what was Jimmy’s farm alongside having a day job as a youth worker.

He spent his summers on the farm, so Jimmy’s story “got imprinted into my bloodstream if you like”.

His grandfather, who he describes as a lifelong campaigner, tried to keep Jimmy’s story alive. “He would talk about it but a lot of other people didn’t talk about it until probably the 80s,” said Paul. “My father would talk about it and he had the sense of the wrong and injustice that was done to Jimmy.”

For Paul, his relative’s story “exposes the power and influence the church had over people’s lives”, but he says that the State doesn’t come out of it looking good either.

His grandfather, he said, never wanted to seek revenge for what happened.

“If you look at Jimmy’s mission, Jimmy wanted to create an Ireland where the children growing up in Ireland would live and prosper in Ireland,” he said.

He said that Jimmy’s hall created ”a space for people to talk and think”.

Legacy

It must be a tough thing, to live up to Jimmy’s legacy. “I couldn’t live up to what he did. He was an amazing figure surrounded by amazing people as well. It’s a story of a lot of people.”

Paul says that the process of turning Jimmy’s story into a film “has forced me to think about Jimmy’s story as well and what it means to me and what it means to the family”.

He said that the film, play, and particularly the monument and President Higgins’ speech “does bring sense of closure”.

“It’s a bit like Finn McCool – stories have a life of their own,” said Paul.

The story has gone beyond me. I have no control over the story and where it goes now will be quite interesting to see.

It was an “amazing experience” to see the Abbey bring the story to the stage in Jimmy Gralton’s home town.

“There’s a sense of debt to people who have kept the story alive,” said Paul.

From screen to stage

Director of the play is Graham McLaren, the Glaswegian who along with Neil Murray is one of the directors of the Abbey Theatre.

“The process has been fascinating. It’s a real privilege to have the national theatre in Leitrim,” said McLaren. “It’s the first time in our history that we’ve taken a show to the community that it’s been about.”

For him, Jimmy’s story is an important story to tell “especially now – it’s really relevant, the world seems a little less tolerant than it was a few years ago”.

“These are timely stories to tell about how a farmer can be deported from his country because of the ideas in his head,” he said.

He saw the film on a plane and after he landed rang the scriptwriter, his friend Paul Laverty, and asked was it alright to adapt it for the stage.

“I thought the movie was beautiful really and I thought it would make a great stage play if we expanded some of what it must have been like to be in there – all the singing and the dancing and fun and the laughter,” he explained.

The movie has a broader canvas than the play – for the stage, they focused on about a dozen characters.

“We make those terrible things that happen to the community happen to a much smaller group of people,” said McLaren.

It allowed you to fall in love with the characters and see them go through problems. Watching them sing and dance and fall in love, read the old poems and tell the old stories. Go on a journey with them and then when we see them abused, their civil rights abused, their human rights abused, then we feel it all the more sharply.

Murray and McLaren want to focus on the ‘national’ side to the national theatre, so taking Jimmy’s Hall to Leitrim shows that they’re not just talking the talk.

For them, “regardless of where in the country you live you should have access to your national theatre and that doesn’t mean only getting on a train and getting to a matinee on Saturday”.

McLaren said they want to engage with people “regardless of the money in their pocket, how they identify in their gender or sexuality and remembering those things are not the same, how they identify in terms of the language they use. Everyone should have access and that’s key to us”.

And, said McLaren, what was amazing about the audience in Leitrim on the opening night was that “it was incredibly diverse – people of all ages, shapes and sizes many of whom hadn’t been to the theatre before”.

“There was one man, this grown man cried,” recalled McLaren.

He was crying, he came last night and he threw his arms around me, I had never met him before… and he said ‘it’s so important the story that you’re telling’. He was overwhelmed.

Jimmy’s Hall plays tonight in Carrick-on-Shannon before going on to Dublin from 28 July – 19 August. For more details, visit the Abbey Theatre website

Read: ‘We want gender parity’: aspiring female filmmakers to benefit from up to €400k in new funding>

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