My favourite line from my all-time favourite movie is: ‘He’ll regret it till his dying day, if ever he lives that long.’ Fans of The Quiet Man will immediately recognise it as having been uttered by fierce-tempered farmer ‘Red’ Will Danaher, played to blustering perfection by Victor McLaglen.
Danaher is the bullying big brother of beautiful redhead Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara) who steals the heart of retired boxer Sean ‘Trooper Thorn’ Thornton (John Wayne) who’d killed an opponent in the ring in the States. Despite Danaher’s best spoiling efforts and aided and abetted by the colourful and conniving villagers of fictional Inisfree in the west of Ireland, Sean, who was born there but grew up in Pittsburgh, woos and weds Mary Kate after an epic fistfight with his future brother-in-law.
Based on the 1933 short story Green Rushes by County Kerry novelist Maurice Walsh, The Quiet Man was director John Ford’s pet project and his cinematic love letter to his parents’ homeland. ‘It will never make a penny,’ was one snooty studio reader’s opinion of Frank S Nugent’s 179-page screenplay. I hope he enjoyed eating his hat. The film cost $1.75 million to make, took in $3.8 million in its first year and has earned umpteen times that in video and DVD sales and rentals.
Shot in the summer of 1951 mainly in and around Cong, County Mayo, and released the following year, it sparked a phenomenal influx of tourists eager to see the sights so gorgeously portrayed by cinematographers Winton C Hoch and Archie Stout. Their work rightly earned them Academy Awards® (Ford, whose real name was Sean Aloysius Feeney, got the Best Director Oscar®) and put the town and county on the map.
The Quiet Man - Rev Playfair’s house
Today, the coachloads of Quiet Man pilgrims who descend on Cong year-round are thrilled to find not much has changed since the cast and crew packed up and headed home. Most of the buildings featured in the film, such as the Rev Playfair’s ivy-covered house, above, are still there, and you’ll see fans, many of them moist-eyed Irish-Americans, wandering around doing more pointing than a bricklayer.
The house first appears when courting couple Sean and Mary Kate are out walking under the watchful eye of pipe-puffing mischief-maker, matchmaker and bookmaker Michaleen Og Flynn, who’s following in his horse-drawn trap. Fed up with the rigid formality, Sean spots a tandem bicycle propped against a window, tells Mary Kate to jump on, and they go racing off down the street. The house is also seen near the end of the film when the Rev Playfair (Arthur Shields) collects his £15 winnings from his boss, the Anglican Bishop (Philip Stainton), who’d foolishly backed Danaher to win the fight.
Playfair, a former amateur pugilist with a big collection of scrapbooks full of boxing articles and pictures, is the only person in the village who knows about Trooper Thorn killing his opponent, but the tragic secret is safe with him.
Look! There’s Pat Cohan’s pub, below, where Michaleen’s horse, Napoleon, comes to an automatic abrupt halt, nearly catapulting him out of his seat and prompting the line: ‘I think ye have more sense than meself!’
The Quiet Man – pub
Michaleen was played by rubber-faced pixie Barry Fitzgerald, real name William Joseph Shields (brother of Arthur), who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® for his role as Father Fitzgibbon in the 1944 tear-jerker Going My Way. However, his ‘gold’ statuette came to a sticky end. While practising his golf swing he knocked the head off it (during World War Two they were made of plaster because of metal shortages) and had to glue it back on.
Cohan’s is where Sean and Danaher take a break from their fistfight, which resumes when the latter comes crashing backwards through the closed front door after throwing a pint of porter in the Yank’s face, for which he gets a piledriver of a punch in his own. The pub was actually a dressed-up grocer’s shop and the interiors were shot in Hollywood, so the punch that was thrown in California puts Danaher on his backside 5,000 miles away in the street in Cong. Cohan’s opened as a fully-licensed bar in 2008.
Nearby is the house, below, where dying man Dan Tobin makes a miraculous recovery, springing from his bed while being read the last rites when he hears the crowd outside running to see the big fight. Hopping down the street pulling his trousers on over his long nightshirt, it’s the biggest comeback since Lazarus. White-bearded Tobin was played by Francis Ford, the director’s brother, and the young priest praying by his bedside, Fr Paul, was Maureen O’Hara’s brother, James.
The Quiet Man – dying man’s house
Ashford Castle, on the near outskirts of Cong, is one of Ireland’s poshest, most palatial and magnificent hotels, and for the several weeks of filming it was home to Ford, Wayne and O’Hara. It was also home last weekend to me and my pal John Morrison, another lifelong Quiet Man fan, when we made a pilgrimage we’ve been promising ourselves for years. This was our base while we toured Cong and the surrounding countryside, visiting the places seen in the movie.
The castle, below, dates from 1228 when the Anglo-Norman de Burgo clan who’d recently kicked the asses of the native O’Connors decided they liked it there and put down roots. Three-and-a-half centuries later, in 1589, the de Burgos got a taste of their own medicine when English nobleman Lord Bingham and his boys decided they liked it, too, and sent them packing. In 1715 the Oranmore-Browne family took over, and in 1852 Sir Benjamin lee Guinness of the brewing dynasty moved in, extending the estate to 26,000 acres and adding two Victorian-style extensions either side of the French-style chateau. In 1939 the castle became a luxury hotel, and in 1970 a large part of the grounds were given over to a golf course.
The Quiet Man – Ashford Castle
The present owner, Galway entrepreneur and hotelier Gerry Barrett, is to be applauded for finding and recruiting the most professional, courteous and attentive staff I’ve ever encountered anywhere. As is the case with any successful business, the people customers deal with are the most valuable asset, and Mr. Barrett has hired the best of the best.
Several scenes in the film were shot on the castle estate, including that in which fly-fishing parish priest Father Peter Lonergan (Ward Bond) almost hooks the monster salmon he’s been after for years (out of shot, local man Jim Morrin was in the river tugging on the line). If only Mary Kate hadn’t come moaning about her new husband bunking down in a sleeping bag – ‘with buttons!’ – Fr Lonergan might have landed it. Bond, an epileptic who was rejected by the draft during WW2, was a close friend of Wayne and bequeathed to him the borrowed shotgun with which his buddy had once accidentally shot him.
Danaher’s house, below, looking much as it did except for the addition of a front door porch and garage door, is on the estate, too. This is where Sean comes calling with flowers in hand and Michaleen in tow to seek the irascible squire’s permission to court his sister, only to be sent off with a flea in his ear as a tearful Mary Kate looks forlornly from the left hand upstairs window. The third fairway of the castle golf course, which didn’t exist in 1951, is where Sean first spots the barefooted Mary Kate herding sheep with a black and white collie (Jacko, owned by local shepherd John Murphy).
The Quiet Man – Danaher’s house
This area is also seen in the run-up to the big fight when Sean, who’s had enough of Mary Kate’s bickering over her unpaid fortune (dowry), drags her along the ground by the collar, followed by the crowd. In a continuation of this scene but in a different location close to the Danaher house known as the Meadow Field, Sean dumps his wife at the feet of her brother who’s harvesting the hay with his workers and says: ‘You can take your sister back. It’s your custom, not mine. No fortune, no marriage. We call it quits.’
St. Mary’s Protestant church, whose exterior was used in the ‘patty fingers’ scene where Sean is told off by Michaleen for scooping holy water from the font for Mary Kate to bless herself, is on the road out of the estate into Cong. But sadly, wealthy widow Sarah Tillane’s (Mildred Natwick) house, where Sean seals the deal to buy White O’ Mornin’, the cottage in which he and seven generations of his family were born, no longer exists, having been demolished years ago to make way for a car park for visitors to the estate. Saddest of all, the long-neglected White O’ Mornin’, by the Failmore River 13 miles west of Cong, has been reduced to a barely recognisable pile of rubble. It’s a crying shame.
Ten miles southwest of Cong between Maam Cross and Oughterard is Leam Bridge, below, also known as the Quiet Man Bridge and unchanged in 60 years. This is where Sean sits and views White O’ Mornin’ while his late mother’s voice reminisces: ‘Don’t you remember, Seanie, and how it was? The road led up past the chapel and it wound and wound. And there was the field where Dan Tobin’s bull chased you. It was a lovely little house, Seaneen. And the roses! Well, your father used to tease me about them, but he was that proud of them, too.’ It would bring a tear to a glass eye.
Drive 22 miles southeast of Cong and you’ll come to the now disused but still accessible Ballyglunin railway station which in the film was called Castletown. It’s here that Sean gets off the green steam train at the start and is immediately surrounded by curious rail staff and villagers as narrator Fr. Lonergan clears his throat and sets the scene in voiceover, saying: ‘Now then, I’ll begin at the beginnin’. A fine soft day in the spring it was when the train pulled into Castletown, three hours late as usual, and himself got off. He didn’t have the look of an American tourist at all about him. Not a camera on him. And what was worse, not even a fishing rod.
After asking directions to Inisfree and being sent off in all directions, first by the conductor (‘Do you see that road over there? Don’t take that one, it’ll do you no good’) and then by a fishwife (My sister’s third young one is living at Inisfree, and she’d be only too happy to show you the road — if she was here’), Michaleen appears, lifts Sean’s case and says: ‘Inisfree? This way.’ And so they set off from the station, below, in Michaleen’s trap and the adventure begins, to the comedic melody of ‘The Rakes Of Mallow’.
The Quiet Man - railway station
If you want to see Lettergesh Beach, where the Inisfree horse race meeting was filmed, drive 25 miles west of Cong to Renvyle, where the best view is from in front of Lettergesh post office. It’s during the races that Michaleen and Fr. Lonergan launch their plot, on which the movie hangs, to persuade Danaher to let Sean court Mary Kate.
The Quiet Man isn’t everyone’s cup of tea — or in Michaleen’s case, glass of whiskey. There are those who dismiss it as a mawkish dip into an over-romanticised world of shenanigans and blarney that never existed except in John Ford’s mind, but stroll through Cong on any day of the week and you’ll see there are many more devotees than detractors, all walking around with a movie locations map in their hand and a smile on their face.
Yesterday, the biggest smile in Cong was worn by Maureen O’Hara herself as the 91-year-old screen legend joined thousands of fans celebrating the film’s 60th anniversary. Fittingly, by her side were John Wayne’s daughter Marisa and his granddaughter Laura Monoz Bottini, and watching from the sidelines was 78-year-old local man John Joe Mullin, who in 1951 worked in Ashford Castle and served Ms O’Hara her breakfast every morning in the same room she slept in last night. ‘It was a lovely job and she was a lovely lady,’ said an emotional John Joe. ‘Very, very gracious in her manners.’
Six decades after the cameras stopped rolling, the film clearly occupies a special place in the hearts of the people of Cong because, like Trooper Thorn, below, and the scenery so spectacularly portrayed in Ford’s fond salute to Ireland, The Quiet Man still packs a punch.
I’ll leave you with an anecdote I was told in Pat Cohan’s bar. On a day off from filming, John Wayne travelled to Croke Park in Dublin with a member of the crew to see the fiercely-fought All Ireland hurling semi-final between Wexford and Galway. At half-time, the crewman said to him: ‘You’re a big athletic man, I bet you’d love to be down there with a hurley in your hand. Wayne took a drag from his cigarette and drawled: ‘Well, I sure as hell wouldn’t like to be down there without one.’
Failte Ireland Travel Journalist of the Year