The Fallible Memory:
For it’s in the heat of summer when clouds are banished from the sky
And the mountains wave and shimmer in the haze
That your thoughts will always wander
To a time when life was slow
And they were never ending Connemara Days.
The films of director John Ford have never ‘spoken’ to me as strongly as they seem to speak to so many others. In fact I recently bought a copy of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in the Oranmore charity shop and thought it pretty-near unwatchable. (That should get me shot.) As the second part of his acclaimed ‘Cavalry Trilogy’, I found myself literally cringing at some of the gross pseudo-macho sentimentality in it.
Mind you, I have great memories of some of his films, such as The Grapes of Wrath or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; and who could forget the wonderful My Darling Clementine?
Nor have I ever had much time for his regular lead actor, that super-Patriotic draft dodger John Wayne, who Ford took such a great and sadistic delight in regularly baiting. Yet it was in Ford’s greatest Western that Wayne was given his most powerful and complex role, as the xenophobic Ethan Edwards of The Searchers. (Forget his sympathy award for True Grit. In fact, forget True Grit unless it’s the superior remake from the Coen Brothers.)
Yet after reading Steve Mayhew’s 1999 novel Connemara Days I feel like going back and taking another look at John Ford, so much does the author’s love for his subject come through. Or perhaps I should say ‘love for his subjects’.
Mayhew’s novel is set in the small West of Ireland village of Cong in County Mayo, on which descended in 1951 a crew of American filmmakers. They were there to make The Quiet Man, which may not have been the greatest movie ever made but is certainly one of the most loved, watched and re-watched. Even a cynical old hack like me can’t put it on for five minutes without sitting through the whole lot—again!
By rights it should make the hackles rise, with its images of an Ireland that never was; and yet it has charms that, if one is receptive to them, overcomes even the knee-jerk sneering of this more ‘sophisticated’ age.
Reality and Illusion
It is the same with Connemara Days. Cast aside your doubts on the occasions when it comes close to ‘stage Oirishness’ and you’ll find that at heart it is an elegiac memory as well as rather a nice romance which, surprisingly, even manages to address some of the above doubts without really missing a step (except perhaps in one mis-judged scene of passion).
The cranky and dictatorial John Ford is ensconced in the beautiful Ashford Castle Hotel, whilst Wayne and his crew enjoy their nights drinking and singing in Cong Village. One of them is the fictional third assistant director Joe Yates, who has fallen hard for a tough and beautiful local girl called Heather O’Dea. As I’ve said, some of the story may skirt on the verge of stereotypes but the arguments between Heather and her old-before-her-time mother Mary are as realistic and as painful as if we were eavesdropping on them. Heather is sick of small-town life and just itching to leave the place behind; and the return of her father after being away for two years, combined with her growing love for Joe may just give her the opportunity. She may be only eighteen but she has a good grasp on how the wider world is:
“I just think people will look at your film and see an Ireland that doesn’t exist, that’s all. An Ireland that is as much a figment of your imagination…” Joe interrupted softly.
“Ford’s imagination, Heather. Not mine. Okay?” Heather smiled.
“Alright, an Ireland that comes from the imagination of Mr. Ford. Either way, it doesn’t exist, your Mr. Ford’s Ireland. It’s going to look very pretty once it’s up there on the screen, I’m sure of that, but it’s not the real thing.”
Incidentally, you’ll see here a quirk of the writer’s style in relation to where he puts the words of his characters, but you soon get used to it.
As to Heather’s sentiments, of course many thousands of people have quite rightly been more than willing to accept Ford’s fictional Ireland. In a recent documentary (which unfortunately I don’t have to hand at the moment) Martin Scorsese speaks enthusiastically about The Quiet Man and that moment where we go from the real world into the fictional one of Innisfree. If memory serves me right, he places it at the train station.
In a similar fashion, at the beginning of Connemara Days, set in the present, the adult Tom O’Dea, Heather’s brother, is returning for his mother Mary’s funeral. In his rear-view mirror he glimpses two imaginary (?) figures on a horse-drawn cart. This is swiftly followed by an almost hallucinatory vision of a boat on Lough Corrib. This seems to me to be akin to Scorsese’s idea of passing from reality into fantasy.
The rest is set in 1951 where we get the story from the viewpoint of several of the characters, chiefly the young Wayne-worshipping Tom. In the real world this was also the year in which Cong received electricity and Mayhew uses this as an amusing backdrop.
This is a lovely little novel. At two hundred pages you’ll fly through it in a couple of sittings. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny in some sections; but be warned. It is what it is and part of that is the literary equivalent of The Quiet Man. In fact the relationship between Joe and Heather at several points mirrors what is happening with Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s fictional lovers. Although whilst Heather could do a fair imitation of O’Hara she points out that Joe is no John Wayne.
“Even John Wayne isn’t John Wayne all the time”, replies Joe wearily.
It was only after the first few pages that my old brain was stirred to remember that I had written in the Irish American News back in 2010 that filming was due to begin in Cong on a picture to be produced by Roger Moore and starring Aidan Quinn with Stacy Keach as John Ford (which I could definitely imagine). It came back to me that it was called…Connemara Days. Curious to see what had happened to it I find that there’s little enough information, although it still seems to be ‘in development’, with a completed script by Mayhew himself and a director—Kevin Connor—enthusiastic about it. Was it another casualty of the recession, I wonder?
It’s a pity, because this is an eminently filmable novel. And I think that it would find a market—perhaps something akin to the one that Waking Ned stumbled into.
I’d like to thank the ever-exuberant Paula Carroll for the loan of her copy of Connemara Days, which I would have been unlikely to come across myself. Paula has been the miniature Force of Nature and Sales & Marketing Director at Ashford Castle since John Ford stayed there in 1951. Ashford is where two breakfast scenes take place in the book, with enjoyable banter between Ford, Wayne and the crew.
I jest! She assures me that she wasn’t even born then.
Many thanks, Paula. I enjoyed it immensely.