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© 1987-2017
Scott R. Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

All aboard for Ireland’s and film’s history

There is something magical about wandering into a place you’ve absolutely never been before and feeling you have somehow been there before anyway. Sometimes that feeling happens because of having seen the place in a movie. Whether it is something as grand as Monument Valley and feeling like you are in any number of westerns directed by the likes of John Ford and Sergio Leone—and subsequent riffs in everything from Back to the Future Part III to an episode of Doctor Who—or whether it is simply a building like the oft photographed Griffith Observatory seen in Rebel Without a Cause and La La Land, it is a special feeling.

I don’t have to go too far to experience the feeling. I can get it whenever we make the drive to the village of Cong and see numerous locations that were used in Ford’s 1952 classic The Quiet Man. The pub, the stone cross in the village center, the church, the river where the priest fished, Squire Danaher’s house—they are all there in the village or else on the grounds of adjoining Ashford Castle.

Some key spots, however, are more far flung. The bridge leading to the home place of Sean Thorton (John Wayne) is several miles away on the Galway-to-Clifden road. Sean’s re-acquired cottage, White O’Morn, is located just off the road from Maam to Maam Cross and is regularly sought out by sentimental Americans on holiday. Sadly, the cottage—which had been a home at least as far back as 1820—is a disappointment. It has fallen into ruin and these days is little more than a pile of stones that barely suggests the shape of a cottage. There are people advocating to get past ownership issues and regulations to have the place restored. You can read all about it on Facebook.

For literally years, it was on my list of things to do to find White O’Morn and have my own gawk. Because it was so close to where I live, there was little urgency, which somehow meant that whenever we passed through the area we would just drive around looking for it without having a clue. It did not help that, whenever I asked a local where it was, I always got the typically Irish vague answers. Eventually, I did track it down, and it was kind of embarrassing because it was really easy to find.

Another filming location I meant to go find for years was the fictional Castletown train station where Sean Thorton arrives from America at the beginning of the movie. It is located a good distance away from Cong, off in east County Galway between the towns of Tuam and Athenry, in a village called Ballyglunin. One time we happened to be driving past the place on our way home from a quixotic quest to locate the house where legendary director John Huston once lived (that’s a whole other story) when we spotted a signpost indicating the “Quiet Man train station.” We made the turn—and promptly got lost. Not really lost but, by the time we realized we had missed a turn that had not been highlighted with a signpost, it was too much trouble to turn around and go back.

Yesterday the Missus and I determined that we would go to see the train station (and a couple of other things) and this time I was ready. I had pinpointed the exact spot with Google Earth and fed the data into the car’s GPS, or SatNav as they call it here. We found it with no problem and were delighted to find that it still looks pretty much exactly like it does in the movie—despite not being in service as a train station since the 1970s. There must have been a reason it took me so many years to get to the place. By happy coincidence we happened to meet a nice man named Paschal Cassidy of the Ballyglunin Restoration Project. He was there after having earlier given a tour to Joseph McBride, author of the book Searching for John Ford. McBride was in Galway to give a lecture last night at the Huston School of Film at the National University of Ireland Galway.

Castletown train station This meant we got our own tour of sorts, getting to chat with Paschal about the station’s history and being allowed inside the building. (Paschal is the one to the left of the Castletown sign in the photo.) The name Castletown does not have anything to do with Ballyglunin, by the way. As Paschal explained, years ago the sign was put up temporarily for one weekend and it has been there ever since. The station was originally opened in 1860 and served passenger traffic for the Great Southern and Western Railway Company on the Athenry-to-Claremorris line. It was a departure point for thousands of Irish who traveled to the port of Cobh, County Cork, where they sailed to America.

The train station is clearly important to Paschal, who is a cameraman by trade. He was even married in the place. He and his group are working hard to preserve the train station for good. Though the rail line is long gone, the station is still owned by Córas Iompair Éireann (CIÉ), the government-controlled corporation in charge of most public transport in the republic, and that means there is no small amount of red tape and cost in getting anything done. They have a goal of raising 30,000 euro (about US$33,500) by the end of June, and so far they are sixty percent of the way there. You can find out more by going to Facebook or to :fund:it.

As the Ballyglunin Community Development Charity explains it, its goal is to develop the station as a heritage site that celebrates the legacy of The Quiet Man, tells the story of the emigrants who departed the West of Ireland, and provides a community space to work with “groups such as the active elderly, Ability West, drama clubs, music groups.” They have gotten a long-term lease and the necessary planning and other permissions. The urgency now is to restore the structure’s roof, which is increasingly in danger of collapse.

Sixty-six years after John Wayne and company stood on that platform, it is good to know that so many people are working to keep Irish and movie history alive.

-S.L., 16 June 2017

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