The Quiet Man who put Ireland on the tourist map

We all have a favourite film, the one we can – and do – watch time and again without ever tiring of it. Mine is The Quiet Man, which I first saw as a child. A couple of years ago, I fulfilled a long-held ambition and travelled to the west of Ireland to visit the locations where the movie was shot. Here’s what I found on my starstruck pilgrimage.

“He’ll regret it till his dying day, if ever he lives that long.” Fans of The Quiet Man will immediately recognise that line as having been uttered by fierce-tempered farmer ‘Red’ Will Danaher, played to blustering perfection by Victor McLaglen. Danaher is the bullying big brother of beautiful redhead Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara), who steals the heart of retired boxer Sean ‘Trooper Thorn’ Thornton (John Wayne), who had killed an opponent in the ring in the States.

Despite Danaher’s best spoiling efforts, and aided and abetted by the conniving villagers of fictional Inisfree, Sean, who was born there but grew up in Pittsburgh, woos and weds Mary Kate and then has an epic fist fight with his brother-in-law.

Based on the 1933 short story Green Rushes, by County Kerry novelist Maurice Walsh, The Quiet Man was director John Ford’s pet project and his cinematic love letter to his parents’ homeland. “It will never make a penny,” was one snooty studio reader’s opinion of Frank S Nugent’s 179-page screenplay. I hope he enjoyed eating his hat. The film cost $1.75 million to make, took in $3.8 million in its first year and has earned many times that in video and DVD sales and rentals.

Shot in the summer of 1951, mainly in and around Cong, County Mayo, and released the following year, it sparked a phenomenal influx of tourists eager to see the sights so gorgeously portrayed by cinematographers Winton C Hoch and Archie Stout. Their work earned them Academy Awards (Ford, whose real name was Sean Aloysius Feeney, got the Best Director Oscar) and put the town and county on the map.

The Reverend and Mrs. Playfairs house

Today, the coachloads of Quiet Man pilgrims who descend on Cong year-round are thrilled to find not much has changed since the cast and crew packed up and headed home.

Most of the buildings featured in the film, such as the Reverend and Mrs. Playfair’s ivy-covered house, are still there, and you’ll see fans, many of them moist-eyed Irish-Americans, wandering around doing more pointing than a bricklayer.

The house first appears when courting couple Sean and Mary Kate are out walking under the watchful eye of pipe-puffing mischief-maker, matchmaker and bookmaker Michaleen Og Flynn, who’s following in his horse-drawn trap. Fed up with the rigid formality, Sean spots a tandem bicycle propped against a window, tells Mary Kate to jump on and they go racing off down the street.

It is also seen near the end of the film when the Reverend Playfair (Arthur Shields) collects his £15 winnings from his boss, the Anglican Bishop (Philip Stainton), who had foolishly backed Danaher to win the fight. Playfair, a former amateur pugilist with a big collection of scrapbooks full of boxing articles and pictures, is the only person in the village who knows about Trooper Thorn killing his opponent, but the tragic secret is safe with him.

Pat Cohans, the most famous movie pub in Ireland

One of the funniest scenes is that in which Michaleen’s horse, Napoleon, comes to an abrupt, habitual halt outside Pat Cohan’s pub, nearly catapulting him out of his seat and prompting the line: “I think ye have more sense than meself!”

Michaleen was played by rubber-faced pixie Barry Fitzgerald, real name William Joseph Shields (Arthur’s brother), who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Father Fitzgibbon in the 1944 tear-jerker Going My Way. Unfortunately, his ‘gold’ statuette came to a sticky end. While practising his golf swing in his living room, he knocked the head off it (during World War Two, they were made of plaster because of metal shortages) and had to glue it back on.

Cohan’s is where Sean and Danaher take a break from their fight, which resumes when the latter comes crashing backwards through the closed front door after throwing a pint of porter in the Yank’s face, for which he gets a piledriver of a punch in his own. The pub didn’t exist: it was actually a dressed-up grocer’s shop and the interiors were shot in Hollywood, so the punch that was thrown in California put Danaher on his backside 5,000 miles away in the street in Cong. The Pat Cohan’s that now welcomes customers opened as a fully-licensed bar in 2008.

Nearby is the house where dying man Dan Tobin makes a miraculous recovery, springing from his bed while being read the last rites when he hears the crowd outside running to see the big fight. Hopping down the street and pulling his trousers on over his long nightshirt, it’s the biggest comeback since Lazarus. White-bearded Tobin was played by Francis Ford, the director’s brother, and the young priest praying by his bedside, Fr Paul, was O’Hara’s brother, James.

‘Dying man Dan Tobins cottage

Ashford Castle, on the outskirts of Cong, is one of Ireland’s poshest hotels, and for the several weeks of filming it was home to Ford, Wayne and O’Hara. It was also home to me and my pal John Morrison – another life-long Quiet Man fan – when we made a pilgrimage we had been promising ourselves for years. This was our base while we toured Cong and the surrounding countryside, visiting the places seen in the movie.

The castle dates from 1228, when the Anglo-Norman de Burgo clan, who had recently kicked the backsides of the native O’Connors, decided they liked the locality and put down roots. Three-and-a-half centuries later, in 1589, the de Burgos got a taste of their own medicine when English nobleman Lord Bingham and his boys decided they liked it too, and sent them packing.

In 1715, the Oranmore-Browne family took over, and in 1852 Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness of the brewing dynasty moved in, extending the estate to 26,000 acres and adding two Victorian-style extensions either side of the French-style chateau. In 1939, the castle became a luxury hotel, and in 1970 a large part of the grounds were given over to a golf course.

Several scenes in the film were shot on the castle estate, including that in which fly-fishing parish priest Father Peter Lonergan (Ward Bond) almost hooks the monster salmon he’s been after for years (out of shot, local man Jim Morrin was in the river tugging on the line). If only Mary Kate hadn’t come along moaning about her new husband bunking down in a sleeping bag – “with buttons!” – Fr Lonergan might have landed it.

Stately Ashford Castle, where the stars stayed, is as magnificent outside as it is inside (below)
Will and Mary Kate Danahers house

Danaher’s house, looking much as it did except for the addition of a front door porch and garage door, is on the estate, too. This is where Sean comes calling with flowers in hand and Michaleen in tow to seek the irascible squire’s permission to court his sister, only to be sent off with a flea in his ear as a tearful Mary Kate looks forlornly from the left hand upstairs window.

The third fairway of the castle golf course, which didn’t exist in 1951, is where Sean first spots the barefooted Mary Kate herding sheep with a black and white collie (Jacko, owned by local shepherd John Murphy).

This area is also seen in the run-up to the big fight when Sean, who has had enough of Mary Kate’s bickering over her unpaid dowry, drags her along the ground by the collar, followed by the crowd.

In a continuation of this scene, but in a different location close to the Danaher house known as the Meadow Field, Sean dumps his wife at the feet of her brother, who’s harvesting the hay with his workers, and says: “You can take your sister back. It’s your custom, not mine. No fortune, no marriage. We call it quits.”

St. Marys Protestant Church

St. Mary’s Protestant church, whose exterior was used in the “patty fingers” scene in which Sean is told off by Michaleen for scooping holy water from the font for Mary Kate to bless herself, is on the road out of the estate into Cong.

Wealthy widow Sarah Tillane’s (Mildred Natwick) house, where Sean seals the deal to buy White O’ Mornin’, the cottage in which he and seven generations of his family were born, no longer exists, having been demolished years ago to make way for a car park for visitors to the estate. The long-neglected White O’ Mornin’, by the Failmore River, 21km west of Cong, has been reduced to a barely recognisable pile of rubble. It’s a crying shame.

Sixteen kilometres southwest of Cong, between Maam Cross and Oughterard, is Leam Bridge, also known as The Quiet Man Bridge and unchanged in 60 years. This is where Sean sits and views White O’ Mornin’ while his late mother’s voice reminisces: “Don’t you remember, Seanie, and how it was? The road led up past the chapel and it wound and wound. And there was the field where Dan Tobin’s bull chased you. It was a lovely little house, Seaneen. And the roses! Well, your father used to tease me about them, but he was that proud of them too.”

Leam Bridge, better-known as The Quiet Man Bridge

Drive 35km southeast of Cong and you’ll come to the now disused but still accessible Ballyglunin railway station, which in the film was called Castletown. It’s here that Sean gets off the green steam train at the start and is immediately surrounded by curious rail staff and villagers as narrator Fr. Lonergan clears his throat and sets the scene in voiceover.

“Now then, I’ll begin at the beginnin’,” he says. “A fine soft day in the spring it was when the train pulled into Castletown, three hours late as usual, and himself got off. He didn’t have the look of an American tourist at all about him. Not a camera on him. And what was worse, not even a fishing rod.”

After asking directions to Inisfree and being sent off in all directions, first by the conductor (“Do you see that road over there? Don’t take that one, it’ll do you no good”) and then by a fishwife (“My sister’s third young one is living at Inisfree, and she’d be only too happy to show you the road – if she was here”), Michaleen appears, lifts Sean’s case and says: “Inisfree? This way.”

And so they set off from the station in Michaleen’s trap and the adventure begins, to the comedic melody of The Rakes Of Mallow.

Ballyglunin railway station. Below, Lettergesh Beach, Renvyle

If you want to see Lettergesh Beach, where the Inisfree horse race meeting was filmed, drive 40km west of Cong to Renvyle, where the best view is from in front of Lettergesh post office. It’s during the races that Michaleen and Fr. Lonergan launch their plot, on which the movie hangs, to persuade Danaher to let Sean court Mary Kate.

The Quiet Man isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – or in Michaleen’s case, glass of whiskey. There are those who dismiss it as a mawkish dip into an over-romanticised world of shenanigans and blarney that never existed except in John Ford’s mind. However, stroll through Cong on any day of the week and you’ll see there are many more devotees than detractors, all walking around with movie location maps in their hands and smiles on their faces.

Six decades after the cameras stopped rolling, the film clearly occupies a special place in the hearts of the people of Cong because, like Trooper Thorn, and the scenery so spectacularly portrayed in Ford’s fond salute to Ireland, The Quiet Man still packs a punch.

I’ll leave you with an anecdote I was told in Pat Cohan’s pub. On a day off from filming, John Wayne travelled to Croke Park stadium in Dublin with a member of the crew to see the fiercely-fought All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Wexford and Galway. At half-time, the crewman said to him: “You’re a big athletic man, I bet you’d love to be down there with a hurley in your hand.” Wayne took a drag from his cigarette and drawled: “Well, I sure as hell wouldn’t like to be down there without one.”

John Wayne and Maureen OHara in a scene from the film


Fr. Lonergan (to Sean): “Ah, yes. I knew your people, Sean. Your grandfather, he died in Australia, in a penal colony. And your father, he was a good man too.”

Fr. Lonergan (to villagers): “Now, when the Reverend Mr Playfair, good man that he is, comes down, I want us all to cheer like Protestants.”

Fishwife (to Sean): “Sir! Sir! Here’s a good stick, to beat the lovely lady.”

Mary Kate (to Michaleen): “Would you be stepping into the parlour? The house may belong to my brother, but what’s in the parlour belongs to me.” Michaleen: “I will then, and I hope there’s a bottle there, whoever it belongs to.”

Mary Kate (to Michaleen): “Could you use a little water in your whiskey?” Michaleen:“When I drink whiskey, I drink whiskey, and when I drink water, I drink water.”

Feeney (played by Jack MacGowran, to Mary Kate): “I saw him today, as I passed by the chapel – a tall handsome man.” Mary Kate: “If you passed the pub as quickly as you passed the chapel, you’d be better off, you little squint!”

Feeney (to Mary Kate): “Is that a bed or a parade ground? A man would have to be a sprinter to catch his wife in a bed that big.”

John Wayne and Maureen OHara statue in Cong