The story of Jimmy Gralton and Pearse-Connolly Hall is little known. In 1932, Gralton and his neighbors rebuilt the community center in County Leitrim, Ireland.
“Jimmy’s Hall,” which is showing Sunday at the Manship Theatre in Baton Rouge, dramatizes Irish history in straightforwardly effective style. Gralton and his supporters tangle with the disapproving parish priest and a gang of intolerant bullies called the Army Comrade’s Association. The local dispute over Pearse-Connolly Hall reaches Ireland’s powerful Catholic Church hierarchy and, in turn, the Irish government in Dublin.
Lines of demarcation are sharp. Father Sheridan, played with baritone-register authority by Jim Norton, sees himself as the ultimate authority over his parish.
Gralton unintentionally sets the confrontation in motion when he returns to Ireland following 10 years in New York. His mother, Alice (Aileen Henry), is an old woman who’d missed her son deeply. During Jimmy’s childhood, the altruistic Alice provided him and other Leitrim children with classic literature that fired their imaginations.
By rural Leitrim’s standards, Jimmy is a man of the world. He’s been a dock worker in Liverpool, a miner in Wales, a stoker on a steamship and a sailor in the U.S. Navy. And he danced to jazz bands in the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.
Irish actor Barry Ward plays Jimmy, a man who wants to reestablish a community center where Leitrim’s poor farmers and workers and their children can take secular classes in music, dance, literature and art. Boxing lessons, too.
Once the hall is open again, dances featuring traditional Celtic music and, God forbid, jazz bands, are a big draw. It’s a grand place.
But the hall’s reopening riles Father Sheridan. He makes dramatic entrance during a dance.
“Who the hell do you think you are, running classes in my parish without my permission?” the priest asks Jimmy. “Education is the exclusive reserve of the Holy Mother Church!”
As Jimmy struggles to keep the hall open, there’s also a bittersweet subplot about Jimmy and Oonagh, the true love he left in Ireland when he went to America. The few intimate scenes Jimmy shares with Oonagh (Simone Kirby) smoothly intertwine with the highly public launching of the hall and the battles that follow.
Working from historical fact, veteran British director Ken Loach, screenwriter Paul Laverty and their cast present the intriguing story of Gralton and Pearse-Connolly Hall with fitting impact. It’s history revealed as unvarnished drama.