The Quiet Man: A Classic with a Lot to Say
In a particularly famous scene in the classic John Ford film The Quiet Man (Republic Pictures, 1952), John Wayne drags his wife, Maureen O’Hara, across a field in Ireland. Wayne does this as he and O’Hara are pursued by an eager swarm of gawking villagers, such as one old woman who hands Wayne a tree branch and says “Here’s a good stick to beat the lady!”
The scene is devastating; it is lovely. Winton C. Hoch, who won the last of his three Oscars for cinematography for his work on The Quiet Man, had been frustrated by the lack of consistent sunlight during the first six weeks of location filming on the Emerald Isle. But on the day of filming the climactic sequence of Wayne dragging O’Hara back to their home to win his wife’s dowry, the weather held out for Hoch’s cameras. In the same scene, Ireland could scarcely be cast in a better or worse light, depending on how you view the film.
On the one hand, there are beautiful green meadows, glistening brooks, old stone bridges. On the other, toxic masculinity, dated gender stereotypes and the trivialization of domestic violence.
The stereotypes come fast and furious in The Quiet Man, beginning with the opening scene, in which Wayne’s character, an Irish-born American, arrives in the fictional village of Innisfree — “three hours late, as usual.” The implication that the town’s railroad service would be so incompetent as to routinely be hours behind schedule is typical of the dim view the film takes of the Irish. Men in the film are generally portrayed as lazy, mischievous sots (think: Barry Fitzgerald) and the women as ill-tempered gossips (Mildred Natwick).
While riding out to his ancestral home, Wayne catches a glimpse of O’Hara herding sheep and falls immediately in love with her, though Barry Fitzgerald warns him of O’Hara’s infamous temper by saying “that red hair of hers is no lie.”
When O’Hara subsequently learns that Wayne is moving into the cottage her brother had intended to buy, she rushes off to clean the place for him. Wayne comes home in the middle of storm to find the floor swept and wood burning in the fireplace. He catches O’Hara trying to leave quietly, yanks her back violently and kisses her. She allows this momentarily, but then slaps him across the face. The following exchange of dialogue between their two characters is instructive:
MARY KATE (MAUREEN O’HARA): It’s a bold one you are. And who gave you leave to be kissing me?
SEAN (JOHN WAYNE): So you can talk?
MARY KATE: Yes. I can and I will. And it’s more than talk you’ll be getting if you take a step closer to me.
SEAN: Don’t worry. You’ve got a wallop.
MARY KATE: You’ll get over it, I’m thinking.
SEAN: Well, some things a man doesn’t get over so easy.
MARY KATE: Like what, supposing?
SEAN: Like the sight of a girl coming through the fields with the sun on her hair, kneeling in church with a face like a saint.
MARY KATE: Saint, indeed.
SEAN: And now coming to a man’s house to clean it for him.
MARY KATE: That was just my way of being a good Christian act.
SEAN: I know it was, Mary Kate Danaher. But it was nice of you.
MARY KATE: Oh. [Beaming] Not at all.
It’s a brief scene, but it offers a lot to unpack. We have O’Hara’s assertion of her independence, followed by her admission of Wayne’s physical advantage over her. And this is quickly followed by his implication that her femininity offers her its own advantages. In just a few lines of dialogue, the film’s casual acceptance of domestic violence is neatly encapsulated.
There is a longstanding tendency in Hollywood films to depict the Irish in a way that reinforces patriarchal views of the role of men and women in society. With the lockdowns associated with COVID-19 having caused a surge in cases of domestic violence in Ireland, a closer examination of the history, both ancient and recent, of gender dynamics in Irish culture may lead to a greater understanding as to how and why films like The Quiet Man capture the public’s imagination by perpetuating very particular gender stereotypes.
No one could mistake Maureen O’Hara’s character in The Quiet Man as weak in any way. Her assertion that she “can” and “will” talk calls to mind Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women or Jane Eyre’s assertion that she is “a free human being with an independent will.” But violence has long had an implacable effect on the lives of Irish women living in both the Republic and Northern Ireland.
Though this violence was sustained for many years by The Troubles (Irish Republican women in the 1970s were known to have been tarred and feathered for associating with men from the other side in the independence movement), violence against women in Ireland has not been caused nor maintained by war alone. The Catholic Church perpetuates the hostile climate toward women through misogynistic doctrines that have tainted many aspects of Ireland’s politics, laws and culture for centuries.
In The Quiet Man, for example, when O’Hara seeks her parish priest’s advice during a rough patch in her marriage to John Wayne, the priest (Ward Bond) admonishes her for her “sinful” insolence to her husband. And when Wayne makes an offer for O’Hara’s hand in marriage, being in a foreign land he must abide by longstanding Catholic customs involving O’Hara’s dowry, and her loutish and overly powerful brother.
In the 1950s, on both sides of the Atlantic, domestic violence was also more tolerated than it is now. This was obviously bad for all involved, especially the women. As late as 1964, one study cited in a Time magazine article concluded that spouses stay in abusive relationships because their fighting can “balance out each other’s mental quirks.”
To be sure, the forced kiss John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara share in a rainstorm in The Quiet Man cements the notion that, as far as John Ford was concerned, women were there to be kissed. It’s a worldview that is no longer permissible on-screen, but it is interesting how frequently this casually sexualized violence has been shot in such a romantic way that it signals a consensual relationship to the audience. The Quiet Man is a far cry from the sadomasochism of Fifty Shades of Grey, but the films share a view that sex is about a struggle for power in relationships. That view of sex as a power struggle has permeated Irish society since the Romans began conquering Celtic tribes throughout Europe.
A Historical Perspective: Women in Celtic Ireland
I am the womb: of every holt,— from Song of Amergin
I am the blaze: on every hill,
I am the queen: of every hive,
I am the shield: on every head,
I am the tomb: of every hope
A common perception of violence against women is that, historically, women have always lived in the shadows of violence. This concept of gender violence as an inherent part of the human condition provides both justification for violence against women as well as an excuse to allow the
issue to remain ignored. But the true origins of gender-based violence in Ireland can be more clearly defined by comparing the social and spiritual roles of women in Celtic tribes with those of modern Irish women.
The Goidelic branch of Celts that settled in Ireland as early as the sixth century CE were matrilineal, and like all Celtic peoples, these tribes worshipped a mother-goddess. Their laws were based on decisions that were passed down by a woman who carried the namesake of the mother-goddess, Bridget. Consequently, the social and spiritual identity for both the Celtic man and woman at that time was feminine.
Though Celtic Ireland consisted of several small kingdoms that were ruled by kings, these kings were legitimized only by marriage to the mother-goddess. She was, by an extension of her function as Mother Earth,
the tribe and its territory. This influenced how women were treated within the tribes because each woman was symbolic of the goddess, especially the tribes’ priestesses who were revered by men as their spiritual link to the mother-goddess.
Though the structure of the tribes was similar to the patriarchal social and political structures in Ireland today, the matrilineal influence in each tribe made women equal on all social and private levels. The tribes’ social structure was divided into three classes: first, warriors, then the Druids, artists, and historians, and third, small farmers and minor craftsmen. Placement within these divisions was neither hereditary nor imposed on the basis of gender. Rulers were chosen according to their strength as leaders and divisions were based on talents and abilities. Women existed in all three divisions and fought with men in battle.
Gender Violence in Celtic Ireland
Although Rome never successfully conquered Ireland, Rome’s conquests with other Celtic branches throughout Europe probably influenced the traditions of Ireland’s Celtic tribes. The Romans, like the Greeks, restricted women, “to the production of offspring and the performance of household
Yet, conquerors cannot oppress women or replace a matrilineal culture through war alone. Julius Caesar, who led the Roman wars against the Celts, meddled with Celtic history by omitting any references in his writings of the involvement of Celtic women in battles. Arguments against land ownership by women were justified by employing the tribes’ spiritual symbolism of “woman as land”; if she is the land then she cannot own the land.
The Romans also introduced rape as a means of controlling women, as it was an act often committed by Roman gods in ancient myths. Nowhere in Celtic mythology had a Celtic god raped or justified rape, so the feminine social and spiritual roots of the Goidelic tribes were, in that sense, distorted by exaggerating the patriarchal structures that existed within the tribes. The use of forced sex to control women continues to affect Irish society, and our perceptions of it in films like The Quiet Man.
Origins of The Quiet Man
The plot of The Quiet Man originated with a 1933 Saturday Evening Post story and 1936 novella by Maurice Walsh, both about an Irish prizefighter who returns to his hometown in Ireland and gets into a brouhaha over a dowry with his bride’s older brother. The story won over Ford, who, though he was born and bred in Maine, was endlessly nostalgic for Ireland, thanks to the tales he’d heard from his émigré parents. His pitches for The Quiet Man didn’t interest studios in the ’30s, when he wasn’t quite the Hollywood heavyweight he became and the subject seemed out of synch with a world reeling from the Great Depression and then World War II, and studios remained unconvinced about the project after the war, perhaps wary of portraying a hero abandoning America at a time when the Cold War was ascendant.
Which explains why Ford’s production of the film ended up at Republic Pictures, a poverty row outfit better known for bargain-basement Westerns than romantic comedy-dramas from Oscar-winners. Easy as it is to laugh at Republic’s typical output through the 1930s and 1940s, films with hokey titles like The Phantom Cowboy (1941) and Santa Fe Saddlemates (1948), some genuinely fascinating films had been released by the studio over the years, such as Orson Welles’ masterful adaptation of Macbeth or the noir-ish 1953 melodrama City That Never Sleeps, where character actor Chill Wills “plays” the City of Chicago.
Republic had experienced an uptick in quality when studio boss Herbert J. Yates decided that an occasional prestige production might raise the studio’s status and even turn a profit, provided filmmakers stuck to tight budgetary and scheduling parameters. Yates was very suspicious of The Quiet Man, though, which sounded to him like a European-type art movie, so he got Ford to make a Western with John Wayne — the star of some two dozen Republic Westerns already — before embarking on the Irish picture, also a Wayne vehicle.
Personally, I have more trouble with Ford’s treatment of Native Americans in The Searchers and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon than I do watching John Wayne toss Maureen O’Hara onto a bed in The Quiet Man. When Wayne drags O’Hara to the climactic confrontation and wedding that follows, it is worth keeping in mind that O’Hara has engineered all of this, motivated more by custom and tradition than by Wayne’s male dominance.
Adrian Frazer, in his book Hollywood Irish called O’Hara’s performance, which transcends the obvious cliché of the fiery redhead, a “revolutionary characterization of the Irish woman as a fully adult, pleasure-loving person.” But if O’Hara is a strong-willed, self-determined character, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the portrayal of gender in The Quiet Man, one of the top-grossing films of 1952, ultimately forces women into roles that are essentially subservient to men. O’Hara’s character in the film is named Mary Kate, a change from the original story, in a nod to The Taming of the Shrew.
Women in Modern Ireland
I am Ireland/and I’m silenced— Máighréad Medbh, Easter 1991
I cannot tell my abortions/my divorces
my years of slavery/my fights for freedom
it’s got to the stage I can hardly remember
what I had to tell/and when I do
I speak in whispers
There have been many changes in Ireland in the last three decades, such as the Divorce Referendum that was passed in the spring of 1996 that gives abused women a legal window out of marriages that are literally killing them. In March of the same year, a Domestic Violence Law became effective that allows boards of health to apply for protection, barring, or safety orders on behalf of victims.
According to Irish Women’s Aid, there was a 41% year-over-year increase in the number of calls their national domestic violence hotline received between March and November 2020 versus the same period in 2019. So, though Irish women have gained ground legally, the number of domestic violence cases continues to escalate.
In her article, “Paying Our Disrespects to the ‘Bloody’ States Women Are In,” Ailbhe Smyth writes that the number of reported rapes “shot up from 76 in 1979, when the first rape crisis centre opened, to 1,479 in 1990, . . . in [a] twelve month period . . . Dublin police had to respond to a total of 3,500 cases of domestic violence.”
The church, state, and the laws of Ireland have all historically viewed women as the appendages of men, who share the same religious and political views by virtue of their gender alone. This assumption, and the refusal by government and religious leaders to question this assumption, maintains violence against women in Ireland. Due to the lack of knowledge regarding women’s issues on the part of government and church, much of the injustice suffered by Irish women remains unchallenged.
If that traditional Celtic view of women is little more than a fantasy that has no relation to the lived experiences of Irish women, then The Quiet Man is a fantasy all its own, one which has influenced the perception many people have of the Irish, and, according to John Ford biographer Ron Davis, boosted interest in Irish tourism. In The Quiet Man, Ford created a film in which the rigid conventions of the Church can be dismissed as playful quirks, the casual degradation of women a quaint and romantic act of chivalry. With its depiction of the lush Irish countryside, the appeal, perhaps, of a film like The Quiet Man is its utter lack of complexity. It is certainly not a film that requires its audience to think, and for all its faults and reliance of stereotypes it is fun to look at and certainly not without its simple pleasures. It is easy enough to understand why the film is the favourite St. Patrick’s Day rom-com for so many, and it has created a blueprint for virtually every Irish-set movie in the last seventy years.
Ireland’s matrilineal Celtic culture was not replaced, as much as it was overshadowed by a patriarchy that distorted the image of woman and used her strengths against, rather than for, her. Men are abusing and killing women today because they can. Irish women have insufficient spiritual significance within the current religious dogma that still influences Ireland’s political and legal systems, and Irish men often lack the social and spiritual connections to women that existed in Celtic society. And Ireland does not yet seem to have a spiritual impetus to address the current trends of gender violence in a more significant, systemic manner. Ireland has lost its identity with a mother-goddess, forcing Irish women to struggle for centuries to establish their own identities within a hostile culture. The problem is, it’s killing them.
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