In the late spring of 1951, John Ford and his repertory company decamped from Monument Valley and Hollywood and took passage — paid for by B-Western house Republic Pictures — to The Old Country, the Eire of John Ford’s imagination. A great director of Westerns, famous for iconic tales, with even the most serious told with wit and sentiment, the man born John Martin Feeney was adapting a Maurice Walsh story for a film unique in his canon, “The Quiet Man.”
He was to serve up a screen romance that crosses into romantic comedy.
It would star Ford’s muse, John Wayne, and the only actress tall enough and Irish enough to go toe to toe with the Duke — Maureen O’Hara.
And while Ford made greater films — “Stagecoach,” “Young Mr. Lincoln,” “My Darling Clementine” and “The Searchers” — every St. Patrick’s Day proves the “It’s a Wonderful Life” durability of “The Quiet Man.” It’s easily his most beloved film in America.
It was ridiculed in Ireland, labeled “maudlin” and treacly back then and never taken all that seriously, a box office bomb everywhere in 1952. And yet here we are, 70 years later, still talking about it because it endures.
The deal was, Ford had been trying to get this movie set up for over a dozen years. Republic agreed to ship Himself and His Own — Ford, Irish native O’Hara, Wayne, Barry Fitzgerald, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen and Mildred Natwick — to Western Ireland, near Galway, for a working vacation. In return, Ford owed Republic another Western.
People in the Republic of Ireland may have showed their ire, but the Irish Diaspora and generations of others have embraced “A Quiet Man.” Look on the plaques commemorating “‘The Quiet Man’ filmed here,” and you see the grudging, now affectionate recognition that the character “types,” the quaint 1920s village of Innisfree and the stunning Technicolor cinematography of Winton C. Hoch (“The Searchers,” “The Green Berets,” “The Lost World” and of course, “Darby O’Gill and the Little People”) sold generations of Americans on their own Irish dream.
Irish tourism, to this very day, owes a staggering debt to a lush, sentimental slice of green whimsy from 1952.
The Saints Themselves know that it made me want to go, and movies from “Circle of Friends” to “Hear My Song,” “Into the West” and Roddy Doyle’s “Van/Snapper/Commitments” trilogy just reminded me in between St. Patrick’s Day showings of “Quiet Man” that “I have got to see where they filmed this.”
This trip to Ireland, a friend and I rented a six-speed Peugeot and made our pilgrimage to many of the places they filmed “The Quiet Man,” from Pat Cohan’s Bar, the White O’Morn cottage (recreated), the Dying Man’s House, Ashford Castle (now a hotel), the church and trout-fishing river in Cong, County Mayo, located northwest of Galway.
A replica cottage was rebuilt there as headquarters to “Quiet Man” tourism, which may not turn out the numbers it once did, but is still Cong’s greatest lure and claim to fame. There were people posing by the statue when we drove up, “out of season” and all.
The train station in Ballyglunin, some 25 miles east, fell into disrepair after the spur that ran there (an indulgence of a couple of local swells) was closed off. But enterprising locals are well along in restoring it, a telegraph/signalman’s tower and a “rood” and “goods” building that loaded local produce and livestock onto trains there.
It will be a museum and community center of sorts, and the exteriors are mostly finished to Hollywood 1951-52 standards.
Plaques at the train station — Ballyglunin was named Castletown in the film — note how the weather was bad, even by Irish standards, for the film shoot and getting the shots of Sean Thornton (Wayne) arriving and Mary Kate Danaher (O’Hara) trying to make her getaway took forever.
One thing I was struck by — driving the paved pigpaths that are, to this day, Ireland’s idea of “Escape to the Country” — was how in the world they could have managed the travel logistics, even utilizing local talent to flesh out scenes and build sets to cut down on the people who had to be bussed in.
Just getting the stars to and from their lodgings must have been trying, even by the remote Western location standards Ford & Co. normally worked under.
But those settings — the “Quiet Man Bridge” still stands — are still worth a little white-knuckle driving to get to, still capture the charm of a region of stone-walled sheep pastures, Cong Woods, stone bridges and thatched cottages and the original pub “where everybody knows your name.”
Get your vaccine passport laminated and get online to see about bookings as Ireland and the rest of Europe start opening back up, and returning to America (we still had to do the COVID test pre-boarding for our return flight) grows less complicated as of the first week of November.
For a film lover, a Ford lover and a Maureen O’Hara/John Wayne fan, it’s a bucket list pilgrimage.