Category: Archive

Hibernian Chronicle 48 Years Ago: ‘Quiet’ silences critics

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

Forty-eight years ago this week, on March 19, 1953, director John Ford did it again. The scene was the Academy Awards ceremonies for the films of 1952, held at the RKO Pantages Theater in Los Angeles and broadcast live on NBC. Top honors for Best Picture went to Cecil B. DeMille’s film "The Greatest Show on Earth." Best Director went to Ford for his film "The Quiet Man." For Ford, it was his fourth Oscar, cementing his reputation as one of America’s greatest directors.

Although he liked to amplify his Hibernian roots by claiming he was born Sean Alosius O’Fearna, John Ford’s birth certificate reads John Martin Feeney. Born in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, to Irish immigrant parents from Galway and the Aran Islands, he grew up in middle-class comfort. His father, a saloonkeeper and local political chieftain, wanted him to go to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, but Ford scored too low on the entrance exam. In 1913, at the age of 19, he followed his brother and headed for California and the budding film industry.

For several years he worked in all manner of jobs associated with filmmaking. By 1917, having taken his brother’s advice and changed his name to Ford, he was directing and acting in short silent films, mostly westerns. In 1924 Ford got his chance to direct his first full-length feature film, "The Iron Horse." The film’s success led to more opportunities.

Ford won his first Academy Award for Best Director for "The Informer," a 1935 film about a man who betrays his best friend and the IRA. Ireland was a subject close to Ford’s heart, for he was proud of his Irish heritage and took a keen interest in Ireland’s struggle to free itself from British rule. Indeed, some years before, while on a trip to Ireland, he ran afoul of the authorities for giving money to the IRA. Later, in 1940, he opined to Eugene O’Neill, while discussing the film adaptation of the latter’s play "The Long Voyage Home," "If there is any single thing that explains either of us, it’s that we’re Irish."

Some biographers have noted Irish themes in several of Ford’s major movies. He once said he was motivated to direct "The Grapes of Wrath" (for which he won his second Oscar) because the suffering of the landless Okies recalled the fate of his Irish ancestors.

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Still, the most enduring image of John Ford is the western. In 1939 (considered by many the greatest year in Hollywood history) he directed "Stagecoach," a film that challenged "Gone with the Wind" and the "Wizard of Oz" for Best Picture honors. More important, "Stagecoach" commenced the relationship between Ford and his most memorable leading man, John Wayne. Together they would make nine films, including "The Quiet Man."

"The Quiet Man" was the first full-length Hollywood movie filmed on location in Ireland. It featured an all-star cast of Irish-American silver screen talent. Wayne (yes, his roots reach back to Ulster) starred as Sean Thornton, a boxer who’s returned from America to retire in his hometown. He meets and quickly falls in love with Mary Kate Danaher, the fiercely independent woman played to perfection by Maureen O’Hara. Their stormy courtship is managed by the town matchmaker (and bookkeeper and IRA operative) Barry Fitzgerald in the role of Michaeleen Flynn. Complicating matters for Sean is Red Will Danaher, Mary Kate’s brute of a brother played by Victor McLaglen. Despite the film’s many compelling love scenes, it’s the day-long brawl between Sean and Will that people most remember.

Purists and humorless critics never tire of trashing the film. They note, for example, that it’s long (over three hours), shamelessly full of Irish stereotypes (fighting and drinking galore), and diminished by Wayne’s less-than-convincing brogue. Yet they forget that it’s a feature film, not a documentary. More precisely, it’s a compelling love story. And despite the fact that it’s fiction, the film does manage to tell us a good deal — not about the Irish, but Irish Americans. For Ford’s depiction of Ireland as a land of green hills, witty men, and feisty colleens conformed to the dreamy image many Irish Americans held (and still hold, despite books like "Angela’s Ashes") of the dear "auld sod."

Ford continued to direct films long after "The Quiet Man," though none would ever match the success of his earlier works. His last feature film was "Seven Women" (1965). In 1973, the year Ford died at age 79, the American Film Institute awarded him its first Life Achievement Award.


March 14, 1991: After 16 years in prison for their alleged role in two pub bombings in Birmingham, England, the "Birmingham Six" are released after serious questions are raised about the evidence used to convict them.

March 15, 1875: Archbishop John McCloskey of New York is invested as the first American Cardinal.

March 17, 1737: the Boston Charitable Irish Society holds the first recorded celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in America.


March 15, 1767: President Andrew Jackson born in Waxhaw, S.C.

March 15, 1852: Playwright Lady Gregory born in Roxborough, Co. Galway.

March 16, 1828: Confederate General, Patrick Cleburne born in Ovens Township, Co. Cork.

March 16, 1927: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan born in Tulsa, Okla.

Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@PastWise.com.

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