Searching for John Ford

Searching for John Ford

by Joseph McBride

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John Ford’s classic films—such as Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, The Quiet Man, and The Searchers—have earned him worldwide admiration as America’s foremost filmmaker, a director whose rich visual imagination conjures up indelible, deeply moving images of our collective


John Ford’s classic films—such as Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, The Quiet Man, and The Searchers—have earned him worldwide admiration as America’s foremost filmmaker, a director whose rich visual imagination conjures up indelible, deeply moving images of our collective past.

Joseph McBride’s Searching for John Ford, described as definitive by both the New York Times and the Irish Times, surpasses all other biographies of the filmmaker in its depth, originality, and insight. Encompassing and illuminating Ford’s myriad complexities and contradictions, McBride traces the trajectory of Ford’s life from his beginnings as “Bull” Feeney, the nearsighted, football-playing son of Irish immigrants in Portland, Maine, to his recognition, after a long, controversial, and much-honored career, as America’s national mythmaker. Blending lively and penetrating analyses of Ford’s films with an impeccably documented narrative of the historical and psychological contexts in which those films were created, McBride has at long last given John Ford the biography his stature demands.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Joseph McBride’s book has the sweep, passion, complexity, and tragic grandeur of a great John Ford film.”—Martin Scorsese

“McBride has produced a fine, long-needed biography of a pivotal American artist.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Searching for John Ford is a treasure, both for the Ford expert and for someone set to enjoy The Searchers for the first time.” —Premiere

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
After being called the "greatest poet of the Western saga," film director Ford responded, "I am not a poet, and I don't know what a Western saga is. I would say that is bullshit." Yet Ford--who made such classic westerns as Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance--helped define the idea of the western as a quintessential American story for audiences around the world. This first full-length critical biography presents a complex, fascinating portrait of a troubled and conflicted artist and man. Born John Feeney, he was an Irish outsider in Yankee New England. He began working in the film industry in 1914 as a studio ditch digger, but was soon acting in films and, a few years later, directing them. By the early 1930s, he had achieved considerable artistic and commercial fame with The Informer. McBride (Frank Capra) elegantly and cogently weaves Ford's personal life into the fabric of his career. He is at his best describing how Ford's political sentiments emerged in his work (especially the antiracism of Steamboat Round the Bend and The Searchers) as well as the director's move from liberal to conservative politics during Hollywood's red-baiting years and the HUAC hearings. He gives an equally astute delineation of Ford's emotional life--a tempestuous marriage, a possible affair with Katharine Hepburn, his reputation as a tough guy and his alcoholism. Drawing upon a wealth of critical material plus more than 125 interviews with Ford's colleagues, family and friends, McBride has produced a fine, long-needed biography of a pivotal American artist. (Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
"My name's John Ford. I make Westerns." Ford preferred to let his work speak for itself, and his abrasive encounters with film scholars have become legendary. In fact, "Pappy" Ford, who fancied himself a journeyman director, would probably have been perplexed by these two recent additions to the rapidly growing library of Ford film criticism. Arriving hard on the heels of Scott Eyman's comprehensive Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford (LJ 10/1/99), McBride's weighty tome, several decades in preparation, paints a similar portrait: Ford was an insecure alcoholic whose gruff, even sadistic treatment of family, friends, cast, and crew masked his sensitive, sentimental nature. Complex and contradictory like many of his films Ford was a man who stood up to McCarthyite blacklisters but later churned out crude propaganda in support of the Vietnam war. He celebrated tradition, family, and community but was a miserable failure as husband and father. As Eyman did, McBride (Frank Capra; Steven Spielberg) draws on exhaustive research and interviews, but he has the advantage of a few memorably brief meetings with the Great Man himself. Ford left an impressive if uneven body of work, and McBride does it justice, examining each film in illuminating detail. Still, although McBride's book is very deserving, public and academic libraries that cannot collect both biographies should stick to Eyman's more streamlined telling. Studlar (film and English, Univ. of Michigan) and Bernstein (film, Emory Univ.) take readers into academic territory, offering nine essays on the work plus a "dossier" of articles on the man and filmmaker. Robin Wood leads off with a classic critique, questioning whether Ford's late films measure up to his early work. Other essays discuss the role of women and religion in Ford's film universe, and the hotly disputed controversy about whether his last epic Cheyenne Autumn was a "mea culpa" for previous insensitive portrayals of the American Indian. Westerns is recommended for academic collections. Stephen F. Rees, Levittown Regional Lib., PA. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A fine but overlong biography of the brilliant, cantankerous director who fashioned such movie classics as The Grapes of Wrath, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Quiet Man, and The Searchers. Born John Martin Feeney in 1896 to Irish immigrants, Ford often felt the sting of bigotry in insular Portland, Maine, where his father ran a saloon. As an usher at the local nickelodeon, the boy absorbed staging and camera techniques by watching the features over and over. Older brother Frank decamped for Hollywood and found success as an actor and director (changing his name to Ford in the process). Feeling he had no future in Portland, John followed his sibling West and became a Ford as well. He soon eclipsed Frank, although he credited his brother as one of the major influences in his career. Directing his first feature in 1917, he turned out a number of impressive pictures and achieved huge success in Hollywood's banner year, 1939, which saw the release of three Ford films: Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Drums Along the Mohawk. Veteran film biographer McBride (Frank Capra, 1997, etc.) has done a fine job sorting out fact from fiction in the life of this difficult, hard-drinking, abusive man. Ford was loathe to talk about himself and, when he did, fabricated extravagantly. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," he was fond of saying. Finding published interviews with his subject (who died in 1973) largely useless, McBride turned to Ford's numerous colleagues and through interviews and research has written what is probably the last word on the director. Rich in incidents and anecdotes, fascinating when describing Ford's singular technique, this has one serious flaw:Like many modern biographies, it gets so bogged down in details that it is sometimes more itinerary than chronicle. Skip over the minutiae for a wonderful account of one of Hollywood's greatest artists. (32 pages b&w photos, not seen)

Product Details

University Press of Mississippi
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6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 2.30(d)

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Chapter One


John Ford was a king: he knighted all those who had the immense luck to work with him.

          Jean Renoir, 1973

One parish over" from America, as the saying goes, is the barren, windblown west coast of Ireland, the region of Connemara. I journeyed there a few years ago with my Irish wife, Ruth O'Hara, in search of the Feeney family's beginnings. All I knew was that his ancestors came from a village on Galway Bay called Spiddal, a dot on the map eight and a half miles outside the ancient port city of Galway, in the province of Connaught (contemporary spelling Connacht). Ford made The Quiet Man an hour or so north and inland from Spiddal, in the County Mayo town of Cong, whose terrain is gentler and more verdant than the rock-scarred, hilly landscape where his parents were raised. With Ruth's mother, Hetty, as our Gaelic-fluent guide, we motored along the coast road from Galway on a brisk, sunny day in January, arriving on the kind of spectacular late afternoon that rewards the pilgrim with endlessly changing panoramas of light and shade, subtly shifting hues, and a magnificent sunset. Near the end of his life, Ford recalled that it was here in Spiddal, while visiting his family's ancestral home as a boy, that he acquired his love of landscape and his eye for composition.

    Although I did not know the names of any Feeney relatives when I arrived, it didn't take long to find one. The first place wevisited, naturally, was a local pub, An Crúiscín Lán (The Full Jug), a smoky, stiflingly hot place by the sea where I tried unsuccessfully to make small talk with the regulars, who viewed me with instinctive suspicion.

    "You're not an informer, are you?" one fellow in a tweed cap demanded, fixing me with a forbidding squint.

    Naively expecting the kind of lavishly emotional welcome John Wayne's Sean Thornton receives when he ventures into Cohan's Pub in The Quiet Man, I found the experience acutely depressing. Most of the townsfolk still spoke Gaelic as their everyday language, and I hadn't reckoned with the deep-seated Irish caution about revealing too much to an English-speaking stranger, even one who came hoping to learn about the town's most celebrated descendant. But eventually my questions elicited the telephone number of Paraic Feeney, a middle-aged civil servant who turned out to be Ford's second cousin, son of his cousin Martin Feeney and the keeper of the local family history. "We're related to very few around here," Paraic told me. "All our relatives went to the States."

    I was disappointed to learn that Paraic's father had died in 1984, at the age of eighty-two; I had hoped to hear firsthand from old Martin of Ford's visit to Spiddal in 1921, during the Black and Tan war, when he came to give money and moral support to the cause of Irish independence. Making my heart sink further, Paraic Feeney told me, "My father had a fantastic memory—he could fill three or four volumes." But eventually I would piece together more bits of information about Ford's experiences with Martin Feeney from the director's own papers.

    Paraic Feeney's hospitality to strangers arriving in town unannounced was remarkably generous. He invited us into his modern seaside home for a leisurely chat and whiskeys by the fireplace, rewarding my curiosity about his lineage not only by sketching out the family tree but also by announcing that on his nearby land he had preserved the ruins of Ford's father's birthplace. Not that there was much interest in the site, he admitted, but he had a sense of history and hoped that he could share with the occasional interested stranger his pride in his illustrious relative.

    "We were living in the old thatched house, the old homestead, when he was making The Quiet Man," Paraic told me. "My sisters, Maura and Brid, were extras in the film. I very distinctly remember John Ford there. And he always made a point to keep up with us. He always wrote us at Christmas. But my father didn't write letters of any consequence, and as the years went by, we kind of lost contact with him. In the end, it just became Christmas."

    Spiddal and other towns in Connaught were settled after Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan armies rampaged through Ireland in the middle of the seventeenth century, slaughtering much of the population as they conquered the land. In the aftermath, Cromwell's soldiers and supporters were awarded the best of the Catholic landholdings east of the river Shannon, while, as Robert Kee recounted in his history of Ireland, the dispossessed "were transplanted beyond the Shannon to the more barren province of Connaught. And with this worst humiliation of the Irish Catholic landowners until then—their banishment to a remote corner of their own country in the beautiful sad lands of the west—what came to be known as `the curse of Cromwell' was complete."

    "To hell or to Connaught" was the cry heard in those days, and the words have echoed down the generations. Although a travel book rhapsodized of County Galway in 1841 that its landscape offered a "happy blending of rugged grandeur with gentle beauty," the best farming land was given to the newly created Protestant Irish nobility, while the peasant farmers, including Ford's ancestors, had to make do with what was left. A more realistic account of the civil parish of Moycullen, of which Spiddal is a part, was given in 1844 by The Parliamentary Gazeteer of Ireland: "The surface contains some good, or at least tolerable land on the shore of Galway bay, and along the route of the road from Galway to Oughterard; yet even in parts of these districts it is rocky and wild, and all elsewhere it is prevailingly moorish, sterile, and chaotic.... Hamlets are very numerous, but in general are both very poor and very small."

    Where Ford's ancestors came from before Spiddal is not known for certain. While scouting locations for The Quiet Man in 1950 in neighboring County Mayo, Ford wrote his relative and producing partner, Lord Michael Killanin: "My aunt Julia, 93 years of age, who drinks cocktails, smokes and drives her own car ... tells me that our location in Mayo is near the parish of Dunfeeney from which the Feeneys were driven in days gone by." Perhaps that is why, referring to my own ancestors from Mayo, Ford told me, "[T]he people from Mayo are noted for their shrewdness and smartness. We're a smart, shrewd, poor race. Proud as hell. You don't say `County Mayo,' say, `County Mayo, God help us.'" But Paraic Feeney thinks their branch of the family originated to the south, in County Cork or County Waterford, in the sixteenth or seventeenth century.

    "Nobody in his right mind would come here," I was told in Spiddal by Barbara Curran, a relative of both the Feeneys and of John Ford's mother, who also was named Barbara Curran. "But today it's the most valuable land in Ireland. They call it now `the Golden Strip' and `the Golden Mile.' Before that, it was worth nothing really." The local priest, Father Tom Kyne, admitted that when he was assigned to his parish in Spiddal, "I thought this was the last place on earth."

    When you visit this alluring yet forbidding terrain, studded as it is with rocks rising up every few yards out of its rolling hills, you immediately understand why so many people eventually had to depart for more fertile and hospitable lands. As inspiring as the picturesque qualities of the landscape were to the young John Feeney on his boyhood visits, they didn't put food on his father's table.

    Spiddal's Gaelic name, An Spidéal, means "The Hospital." Converted to Christianity around 520 and established by Saint Ende, the village's patron saint, Spiddal (sometimes spelled "Spiddle") was so named in medieval times because it, like other villages near large cities, was designated as an isolation site for patients suffering from infectious diseases such as cholera and leprosy. Spiddal is an amalgamation of four smaller villages, the Feeneys coming from a cluster of about seven houses called Tuar Beeg, a name anglicized as Tourbeg. Their stone house, Ard Aoibbinn, is located on Cnocán Glas, or Green Hill.

    "Every field has a name," Barbara Curran explained. "If they're not written down soon, they will be gone forever."

    The morning after arriving in Spiddal, we drove the winding road from the bay up the rolling hillside to the Feeney homestead. We were welcomed by Barbara's husband, Tim, or as he is known in the Irish, Tadhg O'Curraidhin. He showed us around what is left of the Feeney home, said to be more than four hundred years old, and its two adjacent ruined stone buildings.

    The most striking aspect of the Feeney homesite is its proximity to the sea. From its hilly perch, there is a spectacular, unobstructed view of Galway Bay, only half a mile away, looking out toward the hills of Clare and the three Aran Islands (known to cinemagoers through Robert Flaherty's 1934 documentary classic Man of Aran). Growing up in such intimacy with the Atlantic Ocean, the elder John Feeney naturally would have developed a sense of a distant horizon always awaiting the adventurer, the omnipresent possibility of exile or escape. Speaking to a crowd gathered in Galway's Eyre Square in June 1963, John F. Kennedy observed, "If the day was clear enough, and if you went down to the bay, and you looked west, and your sight was good enough, you would see Boston, Massachusetts."

    What is left of the Feeney home in Spiddal is broken walls, composed of two large rocks and a myriad of smaller stones pulled from the nearby earth, melded together with hardened daib (clay) around timber joints sturdily plastered with cow dung. The original clay floor has been replaced with concrete, but the outlines of the stone-slab fireplace that sat in the middle of the large family room are still visible. There were two side bedrooms, a separate cooking area, and an attached shed for the tools and animals. The thatched roof made a ceiling eight feet high. The house's unusually small windows were rimmed with lime and blue coloring.

    Dwellings like these were built in a day by clan members and neighbors gathering in the dozens for a communal house-raising, followed by festivities to commemorate the occasion, like the barn-raising ceremonies common in the American West. (Ford re-created such an event in Drums Along the Mohawk, set in New York's Mohawk Valley at the time of the American Revolution.) There were several houses scattered nearby for other clan members, including the Feeneys' Thornton cousins, whose name Ford lent to John Wayne's character in The Quiet Man.

    A modest subsistence was possible in Spiddal for large families except in famine times, although even then, fishing provided a means of survival for many. In addition to the ubiquitous potato, the fields were sown with oats, barley, and rye. For fertilizer, families carried seaweed from the shore on their backs or on donkeys in wicker baskets. They cut turf from the nearby bog for fuel. Besides raising cows and pigs, they kept sheep and made their own clothing from the wool. All they had to purchase in the marketplace was tea and sugar.

    But the Feeneys' land was never entirely their own.

    They were tenants on the estate of the Morris barony, a sprawling domain then encompassing twenty thousand acres (the manor house and most of the land rights have since been sold by the Morris family). Catholics of Norman origin, the Morrises had lived in Galway since the fourteenth century. The title of Lord Killanin was bestowed upon the head of the clan, a former lord chief justice, in 1900. As landlords the Morrises were beloved by their tenants because they never evicted anyone, even during the worst periods of economic hardship. When one of the Morris women died in a cholera epidemic after giving birth to a boy named George around 1840, the Feeneys took him in to raise as their foster child, an act that created an undying sense of kinship between the Morrises and the Feeneys (George later was knighted).

    Less certain were the alleged blood ties between the Morrises and the Feeneys. The Feeneys claimed that the elder John Feeney's paternal grandmother, Barbara Morris, came from the barony's lineage. Eagerly seized upon by John Ford in an effort to link himself more closely with nobility, that possible connection was viewed with some skepticism by his friend and putative cousin Michael Morris, the third Lord Killanin and a grandnephew of Sir George Morris. Ford "always claimed to be a relation of mine," said Killanin, "because I had a great-great-uncle who populated the Spiddal area at a time when the family tree was not very accurate." After meeting Ford in Hollywood in the late 1930s, Killanin became active with him in efforts to help establish a native Irish film industry. Best known for serving as president of the International Olympic Committee from 1972 to 1980, the portly and jovial Lord Killanin always had an affectionate relationship with Ford, but considered him a bit of a closet snob. Ford exhibited as much of a penchant for putting on airs as Killanin did for modestly playing down his own noble lineage.

    The consciousness of the Feeneys' ambivalent heritage, their social duality as poor relations living under the sheltering shadow of the manor house, formed a central part of Ford's vision of his peculiar place in the world. In his Irish-made film The Rising of the Moon, produced in partnership with Killanin, a poteen maker (Jack MacGowran) looks ruefully toward a ruined castle dominating the land inhabited by an old tenant farmer (Noel Purcell), saying of him, "From there to a wee thatched cottage ..." To which another observer (Cyril Cusack) replies, "Well, 'tisn't the castle that makes the king." The paradox of his physical proximity to the upper classes and the social distance he always felt from them would haunt Ford throughout his lifetime.

    "We're not all descended from kings, you know," Spencer Tracy's Irish-American Mayor Frank Skeffington wryly admits to his nephew in Ford's 1958 film The Last Hurrah. Skeffington is referring to his mother's years in domestic service. Ford's own mother had to work as a domestic after arriving in America. While the Feeneys prospered soon enough in America, the memory of the humble state to which they had been reduced was something he cherished as a source of mingled resentment and pride.

The Feeneys' "wee, humble cottage" in Spiddal (to borrow Barry Fitzgerald's description of Sean Thornton's White o' Mornin' in The Quiet Man) was the birthplace of Ford's father, John Feeney. Born on December 3, 1856, he was one of thirteen children of Patrick Feeney and Mary Curran. He would grow into a tall, rawboned man with a jaunty stride, red hair and mustache, the gnarled hands of a farmer and fisherman, and an unashamedly sentimental disposition.

    The Gaelic form of the family name, which Paraic Feeney still prefers to use, is variously given as Ó Fiannaidhe, Ó Feinneadha, Ó Feinneida, or Ó Fidhne (the Ó prefix means "grandson of"), or more simply Feinne. The Feeney family line was founded in the year 350 by Brian, son of the Eocha Moy Veagon, king of Ireland. It was a family branch of the Uí Fiachrach at Finghid (now Finned) in County Sligo, part of northern Connaught. The surname comes from the word fianna, meaning "militiaman" or "soldier," after the Fianna Eirinn, militiamen who served at the beck and call of ancient kings. It's a root shared with Ireland's revolutionary Fenians, with whom Ford always felt a political allegiance. In his 1950 Western Rio Grande, the Sons of the Pioneers, led by Ford's future son-in-law Ken Curtis, sing Peader Kearney's rousing Irish ballad "Down by the Glenside," also known as "The Bold Fenian Men." "I know no better Irish song," declared Ford.

    Ford liked to give his own family's name as O'Fienne, pronounced O'Fearna or O'Feeney. Many references list his birth name as Sean Aloysius O'Fienne or O'Feeney, but that's all a load of Fordian blarney. "We never used the `O' before Feeney," Paraic Feeney told me. "I think he associated that with something more romantic." The town records of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, indicate that Ford was born John Martin Feeney at home on February 1, 1894 (not 1895, as he later claimed). The records of St. Dominic's Church in Portland list him as being baptized under the same name on March 13, 1894. He later chose the confirmation name of Aloysius and used it as his middle name. Although he, like his father, signed his name John A. Feeney, he was not born John Feeney Jr., as Dan Ford's biography of Ford claims, for his father's middle name was Augustine.

    John's older brother Francis, who ran away from home to join a circus, changed his last name from Feeney to Ford to avoid disgracing the family, according to Ford's niece Cecelia (Cecil) McLean de Prida. Other accounts, including John Ford's, had Francis taking the name of an indisposed fellow stage performer he was understudying after becoming an actor and stage manager in New York. More prosaically, Francis himself claimed to have taken the name from a passing motorcar.

    In 1925, the Portland Sunday Telegram belatedly recognized the rise to fame of John Ford, "son of Mr. and Mrs. John Feeney of this City," with an article headlined "Former Portland Boy Now in Forefront of Country's Greatest Movie Directors." The paper explained to its predominantly Yankee readership that John had adopted Francis's "choice of the name of Ford, as short for his family Irish cognomen, difficult to spell."

     In any case, as Lindsay Anderson observes in his book on John Ford, the name befits the director's artistic personality with its boldness, strength, and "happy connotations of poetry and industry." The name evokes not only the automobile but also the Elizabethan playwright John Ford, best known for 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.

    Ford's brother Edward, who worked for many years as one of his assistant directors, adopted the name O'Fearna, partly to distinguish himself from his more successful younger brother. Like so many American immigrants, John Ford felt it necessary to change his name to something that didn't make him sound as if he had just stepped off the boat, but his legal name always remained Feeney. When he died, it came as a surprise to many observers (including myself) that Feeney was the name he signed to his will and the name that his family inscribed on his coffin.

Ford liked to claim that his mother, Barbara Curran, came to Spiddal from the Aran Islands. That was another bit of romantic embellishment. "Abby," as she was known, was born in the same town as her future husband. John Feeney "lived at one end of this area and my mother at the other," Ford recalled. "They might have seen one another in church, but they met in America." Their failure to meet in Spiddal (if such indeed was the case) seems even odder given that Ford's parents were second cousins. Barbara's grandfather, Nicholas Curran, was also the grandfather of the elder John Feeney through his mother, Mary Curran.

    A strikingly attractive gift with a strong jaw, piercing eyes, unusually fine teeth, and a mischievous personality, Barbara also was born in 1856, the daughter of Bridget McLaughlin and Francis "Frank" Curran. It was Bridget's second marriage. She had been infatuated with Curran before a shaughraun (matchmaker) set her up with a man named Costello, who died after giving her several children. Bridget had several more children in her second family with Curran, a farmer who suffered from a heart condition. Abby was minded largely by her half sisters, and the forceful manner she developed no doubt had to do with her need to establish her rightful place in this complicated ménage.

    Abby's true connection with the Aran Islands was through her grandmother, Margaret O'Flaherty, the wife of Nicholas Curran. Margaret was descended from a fabled clan of rebels known throughout western Ireland as "the Ferocious O'Flahertys." The Normans may have conquered Connaught in the twelfth century, but they never managed to vanquish the O'Flahertys, of whom it was said, "From the ferocious O'Flahertys deliver us." Another of their descendants, and thus a distant cousin of John Ford, was the novelist Liam O'Flaherty. Born in 1896 on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, O'Flaherty served with the Irish Republican Army in the civil war, and his 1925 novel about that conflict, The Informer, became a Ford film ten years later.

By the time Ford's father and mother were born, the worst of the Great Famine had abated. But they grew up hearing stories about its devastation and witnessing its lingering effects.

    The Great Famine of 1845-51, also referred to as an Gorta Mór ("the Great Hunger"), was one of the defining events of modern Irish history, a tragedy whose impact still is inadequately understood today. As many as one and a half million people died in Ireland from starvation and famine-related disease. Two million others left the country, three-fourths of them emigrating to the United States. The effect of the blight of Ireland's staple crop, the potato, was intensified by mass evictions and by the British government's active indifference to its colony's suffering.

    "They are going, they are going, the Irish are going with a vengeance," the London Times gloated during that period. "Soon a Celt will be as rare on the banks of the Liffey as a red man on the banks of the Hudson."

    As a result of the Famine, "more people left Ireland in just eleven years than during the preceding two and one-half centuries" Kerby A. Miller wrote in Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. "An entire generation virtually disappeared from the land." The Famine was an event of such cataclysmic proportions that those years "burnt themselves deep into the imagination of the people and have haunted their descendants ever since," Irish historian F. S. L. Lyons observed in Ireland Since the Famine.

    The most acclaimed literary treatment of the subject is Liam O'Flaherty's 1937 novel Famine, which the author dedicated to Ford himself. Although Ford never managed to bring Famine to the screen, despite showing interest in doing so over a period of fifteen years, the subject had a powerful hold on him from childhood, helping fuel his passion against injustice and his tragic view of human history. But Famine clearly influenced his 1940 film of The Grapes of Wrath, from the novel by John Steinbeck, whose maternal grandfather was a Famine immigrant. Ford said the story of the Okie migration from the depression-era dust bowl to California "appealed to me—being about simple people—and the story was similar to the Famine in Ireland, when they threw the people off the land and left them wandering on the roads to starve. That may have had something to do with it—part of my Irish tradition—but I liked the idea of this family going out and trying to find their way in the world."

    In County Galway, the Famine was felt most strongly during its first few years, before relief measures began to slow its ravenous impact on the population. Ironically, because the area was so poor, it received a greater degree of aid than many other parts of Ireland. Ford attributed his special fondness for Quakers to learning that not only did they come to feed the starving residents of Spiddal, but unlike many other Protestant missionaries, they did so without demanding that Catholics change their religious faith in exchange for a bowl of soup (a much-resented practice known as "souperism"). The Quakers' "humanitarianism during the Famine," in the words of Irish historian Tim Pat Coogan, "shone like a shaft of sunlight on an icy landscape." Ford noted that the Quaker philanthropists in Spiddal also did not engage in the disastrously widespread practice of discouraging poor Irish people from fishing. Such humanitarianism is reflected in Cheyenne Autumn, Ford's 1964 film about the flight of starving Cheyenne Indians back to their native home. The heroine is a Quaker schoolteacher (Carroll Baker) who selflessly accompanies the tribe on its journey, which Ford likened to the flight of the Okies in The Grapes of Wrath.

    Ireland in the post-Famine years was a land of utter despair. The economic decline of rural areas in the face of nineteenth-century industrialization, already under way when the Famine struck, accelerated out of control. The following decades saw what Lyons described as a "headlong exodus from the country which was the instinctive reaction of a panic-stricken people to the spectacle of their traditional way of life breaking into pieces before their very eyes." By 1926, the Irish population was reduced to half what it had been eighty years earlier, declining from its pre-famine level of 8.5 million to less than 4.3 million. Ford's parents were among the 3.5 million Irish men, women, and children who left for North America during that period of social collapse. Many of them never made it but died on the disease-ridden "coffin ships" crossing the Atlantic.

    The voyage was so traumatic for Abby Curran that she refused to talk about it in years to come. But her feelings were eloquently expressed in her refusal to return to Ireland, even when she no longer would have had to travel steerage. Like Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, if she had to leave her home and "lose everything I had in life," she would not look back.

    As if her fate were intersecting with John Feeney's, Abby arrived in America just days before him. She came to Portland, Maine, in May 1872. He stepped off the boat in Boston on the fourth of June. Each was sixteen years old.

John Feeney left Spiddal with something of value. He had the equivalent of a high school education. Catholic schooling for the Irish was outlawed under the British Penal Laws. The Church had to educate its children clandestinely well into the nineteenth century. Students learned their lessons from priests in "hedge schools" or, as in Feeney's case, at night in the basement of a nearby monastery. He became adept in English and mathematics, and his education eventually would enable him to rise from a job as a laborer with the Portland Gas Light Company to become a successful saloonkeeper and political boss.

    His future wife, however, never had the advantage of formal schooling. The only job Abby could find in Portland was the one to which most young Irish immigrant women were relegated. She worked as a maid at the Falmouth Hotel. The hotel was owned by J. K. Kilmartin, husband of her half sister Mary, who as a newly arrived teenager had taken a job making pastries at the hotel and stayed on to marry the boss. Not long after coming to America, Abby sent for her eight-year-old sister, Julia, and she later paid for the passage of a teenage brother, Frank.

    John Feeney's emigration followed the path of others in his own clan, although details of their dispersal are sketchy. Ford's tales about this period are among his most obviously fanciful, such as his claim that his father went to America to fight in the Civil War. If that was his father's motive, the Irish lad must have been extremely out of touch with current events, because the war had ended seven years earlier. Unpopular though it was with many Irish immigrants, as the 1863 New York draft riots demonstrated, the Civil War did act as a spur to Irish emigration, because it promised a ready job, food, and clothing for any able-bodied man willing to serve as potential cannon fodder. So even people living in the remote wilds of Connemara would have known when the war ended; indeed, Irish emigration slowed considerably in the 1870s, partly for that reason.

    Ford claimed that his father "had four brothers in the war—one on the Confederate side who was killed, two on the Union side, and one who was on both sides—he got two pensions. But by the time my father arrived, the war was over. I asked him, `Which side was you going to fight for, Daddo?' He said, `Oh, it didn't make no difference—either side.'"

    Ford's imagination took on Paul Bunyanesque proportions when it came to describing the exploits of his uncle Mike Connolly. Uncle Mike was the prototype for the boastful, larger-than-life Irishmen played by Victor McLaglen in Ford's cavalry movies, a venerable theatrical type whose lineage traces back to Plautus's Miles Gloriosus and Shakespeare's Falstaff. As Ford told the story, incorporating elements of several of his movies from The Iron Horse onward, Uncle Mike emigrated in 1858 to Quebec, where he was promptly shanghaied into a chain gang digging a canal. Eventually escaping to live with a friendly tribe of Blackfoot Indians, Uncle Mike wound up in the Union army during the Civil War, accepting money from another man to fight in his place. During the carnage at Fredericksburg, Uncle Mike deserted, migrating west to help build the Union Pacific Railroad. Throughout this epic American saga, Uncle Mike singlehandedly encapsulates much of the pioneer experience, like the George Peppard character in the 1962 Cinerama spectacle How the West Was Won, which Ford partially directed. No doubt some of Uncle Mike's story must have been true, but in this case Ford clearly could not resist printing the legend.

    Mike Connolly finally settled in Portland, comfortably married to a prosperous widow who owned a boardinghouse. He also had a profitable sideline as a bootlegger. Despite the Yankee majority's pervasive discrimination against the city's growing Irish-American population, Portland had the quality of a "lace-curtain" refuge for many Irish immigrants who found Boston's docks and tenements unbearably crowded. The desolately beautiful southern coast of Maine, with its rocky beaches and fog-shrouded offshore islands, its rolling hills and picturesque lighthouses, was enough like Ireland to make the immigrant feel less homesick.


Meet the Author

Joseph McBride, Berkeley, California, is a film historian and associate professor in the cinema department at San Francisco State University. His many books also include Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success; Hawks on Hawks; and What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career.

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