Was John Ford’s ‘The Quiet Man’ the ‘Riverdance’ of the 1950s?

Two pieces of Irish cultural output, both on screen, resonate deeply, not only with Irish people but across the globe in an unprecedented manner. The first occurs in 1952 with the release of John Ford’s The Quiet Man and the second in 1994 at the Eurovision song contest, when the interval act  Riverdance causes a sensation.  Ford’s film remains to this day, by popular vote, one of the ‘best movies’ or ‘top 100’ films ever made. Writing in 2002 Luke Gibbons notes, “in a 1996 centenary of Irish cinema poll, it was voted by Irish Times readers as the best Irish film, and its cult like status has increased in recent years” (4). Steven Spielberg includes a scene from it in his 1982 blockbuster E.T. evoking the nostalgia and homesickness E.T. feels for his own home in a galaxy far, far away.

The only true resemblance of Ireland in The Quiet Man is, arguably, the stunning scenery, which Ford showcases magnificently. The existence of outside toilets, rife in rural Ireland at this time, are understandably missing from the film. In the 1950s Irish people left Ireland in their masses. They do not end up in nice, let alone fabulous places; they experience the drab horror of industrial towns and cities, undertake hard or menial labour, more often than not receive unwelcoming and alienating receptions reserved for migrant incomers. How ironic, in Ireland, we discuss how migrant populations fail to integrate into our society, but not what role, we the host nation, may play in their ability to integrate.

Interestingly, Irish women break European statistics for emigration during the 1950s; J.J. Lee highlights an example: “of every 100 girls in Connaught aged 15-19 in 1946, 42 had left by 1951” (377). The prospect of an Irish woman finding a fine strapping American hero like Sean Thornton aka John Wayne, getting her own cash, a house, and on her terms in 1950s Ireland was, frankly, the stuff of a Hollywood dream factory.

However, it is not for a second difficult to imagine the impact on Irish people seeing their country portrayed in such a glamorous and glorious manner. For the Irish at home and abroad, it gave many a sense of pride, something to feel good about, and hope that others saw Ireland in such a positive, albeit, nostalgic light. The extent to which the diaspora found themselves feeling alienation, nostalgia and even anger at how their own nation had failed  them can only be imagined. Fast forward forty two years and a very different Ireland was emerging, for a while anyway.

It is interesting the Irish Times poll and Riverdance take place in the 1990s, as this is, arguably,  the only decade that Ireland experiences a sense of national pride that had nothing to do with overthrowing an imperial power or macho nationalism.  Where Ireland seemed to have reached its nadir in 1980, the 1990s were full of optimism and firsts. 1990 saw the election of the first female President of Ireland, following a particularly gendered campaign to undermine Mary Robinson, Labour’s nominee, in favour of a traditional Fianna Fail male, conservative, appointee. Robinson  in her acceptance speech credited the mna na hEireann (the women of Ireland) with her victory:

I want to be president for all the people. Because I was elected by men and women of all parties and none, by many with great courage who stepped out from the faded flags of the civil war and voted for a new Ireland, and above all by all the women of Ireland, mna na hEireann, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system, and who came out massively to make their mark on the ballot paper and on a new Ireland (145).

The women of Ireland, had never experienced the like of it before! Nor, indeed, had Ireland’s LGBT community as 1993  finally saw the decriminalizing of homosexuality.  The 1990s were awash with Irish cultural success, in cinema Neil Jordan had hits with The Butcher Boy, The Crying Game, and Michael Collins and Jim Sheridan with My Left Foot.  Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa took London by storm. The Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six were released, acknowledging appalling miscarriages of justice committed by the British state and righting a terrible wrong. Ireland even reached the quarter finals of the world cup, literally bringing the country to a near total standstill with weeks of national partying.

Can I just point out we did not win anything!!!!!! Clearly we are nation desperate to celebrate something! In another ironic twist the Irish manager is a famous English footballer, Jackie Charlton, who’s photo sits proudly alongside the Pope, and JFK on the wall in many an Irish home.

Though, tragically, while the IRA bomb London and Manchester and the town of Omagh is the site of the single worst terrorist atrocity experienced by the people of Northern Ireland; for the first time since the partition of the state and founding of the Republic serious efforts are undertaken by Dublin and London to end sectarian violence by bringing peace to Northern Ireland and normalising relations between Ireland and Britain, which enters a new era with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Also in the 1990s Ireland wins the Eurovision song contest three consecutive times, 1992-1994, and it is the interval act Riverdance in 1994, that Ireland as host nation puts on, which goes stratospheric and gives Irish people all over the world goosebumps of pride as they watch it on their screens in their millions. Anyone who saw it on the night recalls the feeling, just observe the reaction of the audience at the Point depot in Dublin on the night. Arguably, the most peculiar thing about it was we just did not expect it, we did not see it coming, no-one was more surprised than the Irish! This was Irish dancing that looked classy, that was classy, modern, sophisticated, contemporary and even international in presentation. The whole of the 1990s felt like that, we achieved international success on so many fronts, and people liked us, really liked us. At last being Irish meant something other than the IRA and bombing campaigns and finally it seemed as if peace was a possibility.

Since 1994 Riverdance has become a worldwide Irish dance success. By 2015 twenty five million people, at 465 venues, in 46 countries, over 6 continents have been to see it. The dvd has sold over 10 million copies and there have even been 39 marriages between cast members (www.riverdancefacts). Its legacy still manifests itself in intriguing ways, for example, Britain’s most famous presenters, Ant and Dec, learning it for a St Patrick’s day show and who can ever forget the first time you saw Stavros Flatley on Britain’s got Talent. What has Ireland done to the Cypriot people?

Riverdance and The Quiet man, though forty years apart, are unique in their effects and by the affection in which they are held not only by Irish people but by people across the world.

The Quiet Man and Riverdance  are both, in their unique ways, cultural demonstrations of what it means to be Irish, one from an external, diasporic perspective, the other internal; albeit from very differing times. Ford’s film is an American emigrant’s creation, Riverdance  a home grown one. During the 1990s our economy is recovering, after decades of stagnation and hardship, peace seems to be on the horizon and it really feels as though we can forge a positive new future. Unfortunately, we allow this success to develop into the celtic tiger, we buy into false promises and lies and it eventually comes crashing down. Perhaps we are too juvenile, too inexperienced as a nation? Success goes to our heads, caution and prudence go out the window. Is it really surprising that a nation that has only known poverty and oppression of one form or another will not get a rush of blood to the head and loose the run of themselves?

I look forward to the next event, be it cultural or otherwise that makes the nation feel good about ourselves.

Works Cited.

Ant and Dec Do Riverdance. 17th March 2013. YouTube. Web. 7th Nov. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WULJWAU8LXg

Gibbons, Luke. The Quiet Man. Cork: Cork UP, 2002. Print.

Ireland Squad’s Homecoming From World Cup Italia 1990. You Tube. n.d. Web. 7th Nov. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-lZPBh1AHU4

Lee, J. J. Ireland 1912-1985 Politics and Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Print.

Riverdance at the Eurovision Song Contest. 30th Apr. 1994. You Tube. Web. 7th Nov. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0v_pu6miJ8

Riverdance facts. Web. 23 October 2016. <http://www.irishcentral.com/culture/entertainment/amazing-facts-about-riverdance/&gt;

Robinson, Mary. Everybody Matters, A Memoir. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2012. Print.

Stavros Flately- Britain’s Got Talent 2009. You Tube. Web. 7th Nov. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I2NOfOeSX4k

The Quiet Man. Trailer. 1952. You Tube. Web. 7th Nov. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3srATpDcoNU

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