Sunday, 1 September 2013
‘The Quiet Man’ ... patronising romanticism
or an early vision of genuine ecumenism?
While I was in the west of Ireland during the summer for a funeral, I spent an afternoon in the village of Cong on the edge of Connemara and on the borders of Co Galway and Co Mayo.
Cong is best known as the location for The Quiet Man. But Cong is also known for its fishing, for Ashford Castle, for Cong Abbey, the burial place of the last High King of Ireland, and for the Cross of Cong. Sir William Wilde, the father of Oscar Wilde, also had a country home near Cong.
We followed the Heritage Trail around the village, visiting Cong Abbey and the parish churches, following the walks through the trees and woods and across the lakes, viewing the ‘Dry Canal,’ and having a delightful lunch in the Happy Monk Café opposite the abbey before going on to visit Ashford Castle.
Reminders of a film
Throughout the village there are reminders that Cong was the location for John Ford’s Oscar-winning film, The Quiet Man, set in the fictional village of Inisfree: the ‘Quiet Man’ pub, the Quiet Man Museum and Gift Shop, Pat Cohan’s Bar, Danagher’s Hotel, Squire Danagher’s Bar, Michaeleen Oge Flynn’s House and the Isle of Inisfree, offering cruises on Lough Corrib.
The Quiet Man was based on a short story by Maurice Walsh, first published in 1933 in the Saturday Evening Post. Today, The Quiet Man may appear to portray patronising, sentimental images of pre-modern Ireland, with dowries, donnybrooks, cattle fairs – a place where women are treated like chattels. But some critics compare the comic structure of The Quiet Man with the comic patterns in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale or Cymbeline.
The movie, starring John Wayne (Sean Thornton), Maureen O’Hara (Mary-Kate Danagher), Victor McLagen (Squire ‘Red’ Will Danagher) and Barry Fitzgerald (the matchmaker Michaeleen Oge Flynn), was filmed in Cong and in the grounds of Ashford Castle in 1951 and released in 1952. Since then, the town and castle have changed little, and thanks to The Quiet Man Cong has remained a major tourist attraction.
Cong’s importance long predates The Quiet Man, with a story going back to 623 AD, when Saint Feichin founded his monastery. The name Cong comes from the Irish Conga or Cúnga Fheichín, Saint Feichin’s Narrows. The village grew up around the abbey founded by the saint on an island formed by many streams that surround it on all sides and that connect Lough Corrib and Lough Mask.
Turlough Mor O’Connor, King of Connacht and High King of Ireland, rebuilt the monastery in 1120, and it later became a house of the Canons Regular of the Order of Saint Augustine.
Cong Abbey is one of the finest examples of early Irish architecture and masonry. The fine craftsmanship can be seen in the Romanesque and Gothic doors, windows, pillars, arches, columns, capitals, carvings and cloisters.
It is said that 3,000 monks once lived within its walls and cloisters. They were scholars in history, poetry and music, they excelled in sculpture and the illumination of manuscripts, and they were skilled craftsmen in metalwork, engraving, inlaying and designing in bronze, gold, enamel and wood.
The early 12th century Cross of Cong is an ornamental procession cross with a reliquary designed to hold a piece of the True Cross. It was made originally for Turlough Mór O’Connor to present to Tuam Cathedral and was later moved to Cong Abbey. It remains one of finest examples of metalwork and decorative art of its period. For many years it was kept in the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy and it is now on display in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.
The last High King of Ireland, Rory O’Connor, died in Cong and was buried there in 1198, although his body was later moved to Clonmacnoise.
A restored abbey
The surviving church at Cong Abbey and possibly the cloister include fragments dating from the rebuilding of the abbey in the early 13th century. The north doorway of the church, and the elaborate doorways that open onto the cloister from the east range of the monastery, may predate an attack by William de Burgo in 1203. The doorway, with two fine windows on either side, belongs to the chapter house, while the sculpture in the abbey, which is among the finest in Ireland, suggests links to French styles of the period.
The grounds of the abbey also contain a monks’ fishing house, probably dating from the 15th or 16th century, on an island in the River Cong leading to Lough Corrib. The house is built on a platform of stones over a small arch that allows the river to flow underneath. A trapdoor in the floor opens to a place where fresh fish were once kept.
The abbey was suppressed at the Reformation and later fell into ruins. It was restored 300 years later in the 1850s at the expense of Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness, who had recently bought Ashford Castle from the Encumbered Estates’ Court.
A rector’s daughter
Across a narrow street from Cong Abbey stand the ruins of an early 18th century Church of Ireland parish church. An early vestry minute book shows that the roof was tiled in 1759 and the floor was flagged in 1775. A new church was built in the 1810s, incorporating the 18th century building, and surviving church silver from this period is inscribed “Cong Church 1815.”
The present parish church, Saint Mary’s, was built on a new site close to the avenue from Ashford Castle, which had been bought by Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness. The church was consecrated in 1855, and Guinness paid for a bell tower and stained glass windows.
Canon Robert Young Lynn, Rector of Cong 1886-1923, was the father of Dr Kathleen Lynn (1874-1975), one of Ireland’s pioneering women doctors. She was educated at Alexandra College, Dublin, and became one of the first women in Ireland to graduate in medicine. Through her work in the slums of Dublin, she was drawn into the Irish Citizens’ Army during the 1913 Lock-Out, organising ambulance and first aid training in Liberty Hall. During the Easter Rising in 1916, she was a captain and Chief Medical Officer of the ICA, and surrendered City Hall.
Cecil Eustace Dockeray, a son of the previous rector, the Revd John William Dockeray, was killed on 29 April 1916 during the Easter Rising.
With Madeline ffrench-Mullen, Kathleen Lynn founded Saint Ultan’s children’s hospital in Charlemont Street, Dublin. She was elected to the Dail as a Sinn Fein TD in 1923, but refused to take her seat, although she continued an active member of Rathmines Town Council. She lived for most of her life at 9 Belgrave Road, Rathmines, and was a parishioner of Holy Trinity Church, Rathmines. When a state-of-the-art health facility opened in Cong in 1989, it was named the Lynn Medical Centre in her honour.
Today, Saint Mary’s Church in Cong is part of the Tuam Union of parishes, and the Dean of Tuam is also the Rector of Cong.
A castle and a fantasy
Meanwhile, many parishioners in Cong worked for the Guinness family, who continued to support the church until they left Ashford Castle in 1939.
Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness laid out many of the tree-lined and forest walks in Cong, and planned the three-mile Cong Canal in the 1850s. However, the ‘Dry Canal’ was one of his true failures. He planned to link Lough Corrib and Lough Mask, creating a safe link from Sligo to Galway and avoiding the need to ship goods along the dangerous west coast. But the canal was dug into porous limestone and could not hold water, and today the water level varies from nothing to 12 feet, depending on the rain and the seasons.
Much of The Quiet Man was filmed in the grounds of Ashford Castle, which dates back to 1228, when the de Burgo or Burke family built the first castle on the site. The castle fell to Sir Richard Bingham in 1589, and in the 1670s it passed to the Browne family of Ornamore, who built a hunting lodge in the style of a French chateau.
Ashford Castle was bought by Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness while he was to buying up estates throughout Connacht in the 1850s. After buying Ashford Castle in 1852, he added two large Victorian extensions, extended the estate to 26,000 acres, built new roads, planted thousands of trees, built a new Church of Ireland parish church and restored Cong Abbey.
In 1880, his son, Arthur Guinness (1840-1915), was given the title of Baron Ardilaun, derived from one of the islands on Lough Corrib. He expanded Ashford Castle as a Victorian fantasy in the neo-gothic style, added battlements and rebuilt the entire west wing to designs by JF Fuller and George Ashlin. He also subsidised several steamboats running between the villages on Upper Lough Corrib and Galway City.
The Guinness family sold Ashford Castle to the Government in 1939, and the castle later became a five-star luxury hotel. In 1970, Ashford Castle was bought by John Mulcahy, who oversaw its restoration and expansion. The castle was sold by investors in 2007 for €50 million. The hotel was sold again for €20 million last May.
A film before its time
The Isle of Insifree, which offers lake tours from the hotel on Lough Corrib, is a reminder that Inisfree is the name of the fictional village in The Quiet Man.
In many ways, The Quiet Man was a film before its time, for it presents an idealised Irish society in which there are no social divisions based on class or religion. The benign Church of Ireland Rector of Inisfree, the Revd Cyril ‘Snuffy’ Playfair, is played by Arthur Shields, and Philip Stainton has a cameo role as the unnamed Church of Ireland bishop.
The Rector, the Revd Cyril Playfair, and the Parish Priest, Father Peter Lonergan (Ward Bond), have a friendship so warm that one helps boost the other’s Sunday church attendance figures so the parish can hold on to its own church and rector.
Bishop John Crozier was said to have been upset by the way the movie combines the two parish churches in Cong to make one, using the stained glass window and the font of the Roman Catholic Saint Mary’s and the exterior of the Church of Ireland Saint Mary’s.
The bishop demanded a remake but was rebuffed, according to the late Lord Killanin. But the movie should be valued for presenting an idealised ecumenism immediately before the Fethard-on-Sea boycott and a decade before Vatican II. It is an ecumenism that remains an ideal to this day.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral Dublin. This essay was first published in the September editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).