BY HISTORIAN JASON MC KEVITT
It was the month of August in 1946 when Mullingar, a town still in “Emergency mode” following the ending of the Second World War the previous year, exchanged its heretofore-Military manoeuvres and searchlights for the glitter and bright lights of Hollywood’s finest. Mullingar, for a brief moment, had become the home to such Hollywood Greats as movie director Frank Launder, actors Stewart Granger (King Solomon’s Mines), Robert Donat (Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps), Irish actress, Kathleen Ryan (Christopher Columbus) and also the legendary Dublin actor Noel Purcell (Mutiny on the Bounty), to name but a few.
These artistes of stage and screen were all present in Mullingar to shoot the racing scenes at Newbrook Racecourse for the historical movie ‘Captain Boycott’. The movie was based on the writings of Irish author, Philip Rooney, in his factually based Irish Novel ‘Captain Boycott’. An Interesting point to note at this juncture, is that Philip Rooney had a number of years previously, worked as a bank official with the Hibernian Bank in Mullingar. He had lodged with the Keane family in Mount Street while he lived here. Unsurprisingly, his chosen abode was right beside that Mullingar Citadel of the Arts, the County Hall (later Mullingar Arts Centre).
The movie was set in Co Mayo during the period of the Irish Land War in the early 1880s, in which a Mayo land agent by the name of Captain Charles Boycott was socially ostracised by tenants and locals alike under the tuition of the local Land League, for demanding large payment’s for rents and ruthless evictions for those who could not pay. Consequently, the name Boycott today, has become another noun in the English language meaning, to Ostracise.
It was in July 1946 that an article appeared in the local Westmeath Examiner informing its reader’s that Producer, Mr Sidney Gilliat representing Denham Studios, had made contact with Dr A. J. Stanley, Chairman of the ‘Mullingar Little Theatre Company’ requesting the cooperation of the local theatre company regarding filming scenes for a movie in Mullingar. The article further stated that it also sought 2,000 locals to appear in the crowd scenes to be filmed at the race course. Notwithstanding that the movie was mainly shot in locations in Kildare, Wicklow and of course Mayo, Mullingar’s central location and the fine equine racecourse at Newbrook, which was noted for its Victorian architecture, ensured that it was to have its piece of Hollywood.
Ledestown House, Mullingar also featured in the movie and for the novelty of the “Big Screen”, became Lough Mask House, the Mayo residence of Captain Charles Boycott. To further ensure that the production company would receive the support of Mullingar’s fine citizens as extras, a delegation from the movie company visited the local cinemas in Mullingar, that’s right there was more than one cinema in the town, to speak with the townsfolk to encourage them into “threading the boards” as it were. This delegation included Assistant Producer, Mr Percy Hermes from London, Cecil Forde (Producer) and Irish Actor, Liam Redmond, who played the role of character, Martin Egan in the movie. It is also worth noting that members of the Defence Forces based at Columb Barracks, Mullingar were also involved as extras in the movie.
This of course, long before the modern movie invention of computer generated imagery in which a handful of extras can now be generated onto the screen and appear as to number in their thousands. Extras were paid in the region of 10/s with it increasing to 20/s a day if the local’s brought their own 19th Century costumes. Indeed, other anecdotal reports suggest that the remuneration was far greater then that already outlined.
Due to the extra payment, such was the great demand for 19th Century costumes in Mullingar by those wishing to become extras, that it was reported, that the young ladies of Mullingar were approaching its more senior female citizens for long dresses and shawls, that many of these elderly ladies still wore as part of their attire. It appears, anything at all which could be perceived to date from the 1880s was commandeered by these young “Mullingar Heifers” wishing to avail of an extra few bob! During the intervals between shooting the racing scenes, impromptu entertainment was provided by local Mullingar entertainers including, Mullingar Little Theatre actor, Pat Layde, from Patrick Street, who delighted the production company so much with his talents, that he was brought to London to film the movies final scenes.
The Harte sisters from the town also sang and danced, entertaining all present, adding a carnival atmosphere for all those budding Mullingar “Actors” gathered at Newbrook Racecourse. The Producers of the movie also sent a special invitation to a local 92-year-old Mullingar resident by the name of Mr Ernest Tyacke, to attend the shooting of the racecourse scenes. Why would such an invitation be sent to this local resident, you might ponder? Well, the reason it was explained was that this senior citizen of Mullingar had in fact been a District Inspector with the Royal Irish Constabulary in Mayo during the 1880s and had personally known Captain Charles Boycott during this period. When the movie was finally shown in Mullingar on Monday the 15th December 1947, there was great excitement around the town. Mullingar’s citizens queued outside the Hibernian Cinema in Castle Street in anticipation of the screening of the movie.
People, it appeared were eager to catch a glimpse of themselves, even fleetingly, on the silver screen. To be sure, many families around Mullingar have plenty of anecdotal stories relating to family members participation during the filing scenes of Captain Boycott in Mullingar. One such story emanates from this writer, and the stories of the “Captain Boycott days” in Mullingar offered to me by my late Grandmother, Teresa, over two decades ago. She would reminisce about accompanying her Father, Jimmy Kilmurray, on his Donkey and Cart along the road from their home in the Ex-Soldiers Houses in “Clown” to the Racecourse to make a “Few Bob” as extras on the movie.
Suddenly, she would exclaim, “a big black car pulled up alongside the ‘Ass-n-cart’ and a young man protruded his head from the car and with a loud American drawl, inquired, ‘Hi Guys, can you direct us to the “Mool-in-Goor Racetrack”, ‘Ahh sure, tis only at the end of the Boreen, Gossoon’, was the reply of her Father, oblivious to whom he was speaking with. At this stage Granny would inform everyone, that she ‘nearly fell off the ‘Ass-n-cart’ in shock, indeed, even the “poor auld ass, Nelly” nearly collapsed with palpitations, for who was this young man that suddenly caused this calamity on the Clown road? Only the great Hollywood actor Stewart Granger”. “Can you imagine”, she would recount later in life, “A girl from ‘Clown’ getting to meet and chat with the most handsome actor in the world! And him in a limousine and me sitting on straw in an ‘Ass-n-cart’!” In hindsight, this could only happen in the Ireland of yesterday.
Today, when people hear that one is from Mullingar, the question is often posed as to why the town of Mullingar has produced so many excellent and fine artists of literature, canvas, stage, film and most tellingly, music? The answer to this, may possibly be, that for many of us, it’s in our DNA, sure the older members of our families acted in a major movie during the 1940s, with the Hollywood silver screen icon, Stewart Granger. Tongue firmly in cheek of course, may I add! This article is by no means a definitive account on the making of the movie Captain Boycott in Mullingar, nor has every local anecdote been included. Its intention, by using primary source material, is to invoke a sense yearning and pride of an aspect of Mullingar’s social and somewhat artistic history, that provided a piece of Hollywood, albeit for a brief moment, for many of our towns residents, some of whom have sadly long since departed us.
editors note: This article was first published in An Cosantoir ,The Defence forces magazine Dec.2018 /jan 2019 and is published world wide in all Irish embassies around the world and foreign consulates and irish military installations in Ireland .
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