In Jimmy’s Hall, “The story centers on Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward), a young man who, with some neighbors, builds what amounts to a community center at a crossroads in a rural area.

The center is a haven where people, young and old, can come to read, learn to paint or box, write, dance and play music.

The church and local politicians, naturally, view the newly named Pearse-Connolly Hall with suspicion, fearing it will stir up emotions and loosen their grip on the area’s poor and out-of-work residents.

In 1921, Gralton is forced to flee to the United States. Eleven years later, he returns home, vowing to live a quiet life with his mother.

The hall has fallen into disrepair, and Gralton is content to let it stay that way, until a group of young people and many of his friends pressure him to reopen it.

Once again the church, in the person of the Rev. Fr. Sheridan (Jim Nolan), feels threatened, seeing the hall as a place run by communists who mean to stir up discontent and upset the status quo.”

Communism (or indeed any other political philosophy) is not seen to be preached at the hall at any time, although the flashback sequence depicting the building of the hall is triggered by an image of its architect leafing through a book about the history of labor in Ireland and its role in Ireland’s occupation by England.

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Instead, viewers are shown that in the past, the hall has hosted classes in the Gaelic language and the singing of Gaelic songs, somewhat nationalist activities in the view of the occupying British government, among a mix of art and other classes. But even the ordinary activities, such as boxing, drawing, and a book club, which are unlikely to provoke the representatives of British occupational government on the ground or to go overtly against religion in any way, are still unacceptable to the priest, who plainly tells the organizers that “education is the reserve of the Church”. In the present-day re-opening of the hall, Jimmy brings a gramophone and a selection of jazz records from America, and sets about giving lessons in modern dance to the modern music.  Though overt Communism is not seen at the hall in any form, the re-opening of the hall and its upcoming dance is advertised in a Communist newspaper.

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The priest has an idea that Communism would appeal to Ireland’s landless and poor in the tough economic climate of the Great Depression, and a self-educated and articulate spokesman such as Jimmy would serve to spread its “quasi-religious” doctrine, fomenting domestic disturbances and uncertainty, threatening the uneasy peace between the British occupiers and the Irish population, who have only a tenuous hold on their civil rights. (Gralton is indeed later shown to have charisma and oratory talent when he makes a speech about economic and class inequality when some housing terrorists do violence to an earl’s land manager to return an evicted family to a cottage on the earl’s property.) The priest admits that such individuals as Jimmy, being motivated by socialist ideology and principle, remind him of the first martyrs. Thus they threaten to supplant the official, institutional Church in power and prestige, though the official position of the Church, as articulated in Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII long before, is supportive of labor organizing and collective bargaining, but is also strongly in favor of private property.

Lacking anything else tangible to target, the priest turns to condemnation of the jazz music, and the dance by extension, which was an excuse for some of its attendees to consort with, and (gasp) ride together in a motor car with “unsuitables”. This he calls, “the ‘Los Angelization’ of our culture” from the pulpit, with the Alpha and the Omega in mosaic behind him in an enviably majestic church interior.

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Having previously made an effort to take attendance at the hall’s dance, and to verify the identities of the participants (but having made no effort volunteer to chaperon them!), the priest uses the occasion of his next sermon to “read them out from the altar“, a form of public humiliation in the Church, which thank heavens, is no longer practiced in the present day, except in the case of certain politicians.  Whether Father Sheridan knows or cares, his public naming and shaming of participants in the dance leads at least one parent to apply severe physical discipline to a child he is made to believe to be engaging in potentially licentious behavior. Fr. Sheridan sees this harshness as an acceptable way to keep his flock in line, and his successors are dealing with the present-day fallout of people falling away from a Church they consider overly harsh and judgmental.  But the dance, which provided “occasions of sin multiplied beyond our imagination” was only a lead-up to the promulgation of atheistic Communism with which Fr. Sheridan credited James Gralton.

Though after deliberation among the other members of the administration of the hall, Jimmy extends an olive branch to Fr. Sheridan by inviting him to be on the board of the hall, Fr. Sheridan is obdurate in wanting any secular power in Ireland to be subordinate to that of the Church.

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Though this is one of few movies to show a realistic depiction of confession as made available in common parish churches at the time, it shows Gralton making use of the confessional for his own ends to needle Fr. Sheridan in a venue where he is compelled to listen.  “This is sacrilege”, Sheridan cried when Gralton used the confessional as a means of criticizing his policies and calling out his harshness before leaving without absolution, not that Sheridan would have likely granted it anyway, in view of the fact that for confession to actually work, the one confessing would actually have to be penitent.  However, later that evening, after Jimmy “had the nerve” to leave some jazz records with him, Fr. Sheridan told his fellow priest with some degree of admiration that Gralton had had the guts to face him in the confessional, but told him that Gralton had told him “you have more hate in your heart than love”. In theory that disclosure might violate the Seal of Confession, except that it was abundantly clear both to Fr. Sheridan and the viewer that it was not Gralton’s intent to validly receive the Sacrament of Penance.  (Fr. Sheridan may be getting forgetful with age.  At that time in history, the purple stole and the biretta are both rubrical items that the priest would by rule wear in the confessional, not that absolution and contrition would be rendered invalid without them, but it would not be something that an ordinary priest under ordinary circumstances would ordinarily forget or consider unimportant, given the biretta’s symbolism of the judicial power of the priest within the confessional to grant or withhold absolution, determine penances, etc.)

Unknown arsonists set fire to the hall in the night, and unidentified bureaucrats devise a deportation order for Gralton with charges that he is an illegal alien, on the grounds that he holds an American passport, though he was born in his mother’s house in the village.

Interestingly, it has been widely believed that Eamon DeValera, a member of the Free State government who later became post-occupation Ireland’s first Prime Minister, was only still alive after being imprisoned for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising due to the fact that he also held American citizenship.

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Though it ends badly for Communism, and for the state of civil rights in Ireland, as well as for Jimmy and his friends and family personally (Jimmy is never allowed to return to Ireland), in the end, he earned a grudging respect from Fr. Sheridan.

“What is most interesting about “Jimmy’s Hall” is the sociopolitical picture it paints of an Ireland that is supposedly united, but is actually divided by class and religion. The movie paints a picture of a church hierarchy that has basically ruled people’s lives for centuries and is unwilling to bend with modern times – not out of malevolence, but of fear and distrust of change.”

 

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