The long reach of `The Quiet Man'

SUN JOURNAL

Pilgrims: Thousands visit the village of Cong each year in search of the Ireland and values reflected in the John Wayne movie shot there 48 years ago. Residents welcome them with open pockets.

September 21, 1999|By William L. Thompson | William L. Thompson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CONG, Ireland -- They come from as far away as Japan, Estonia and, of course, the United States. On foot or by bike, in cars or in giant tour buses that fill the shoulderless roads outside the village and the narrow streets within.

Last month alone, 20,000 people stopped in this village of 250 residents -- and the grind of heavy machinery greets each workday as crews struggle to widen the main thoroughfare from the north.

Cong, whose Irish name Conga means "narrow place," sits on a horizontal strip of land separating the trout-filled Mask and Corrib lakes. It is rich in natural scenery and ruins, some dating to pagan times.

"There are many things to draw people to Cong," says 19-year-old Lisa Collins, who wrote her first tourist guide to Cong attractions when she was 14. "But `The Quiet Man' is at the top."

By Irish time lines, the filming of director John Ford's "The Quiet Man" in and around Cong is a recent event.

Shot in the summer of 1951 and released the next year, the movie stars John Wayne as Irish-born American boxer Sean Thornton, who quits his profession after accidentally killing an opponent in the ring and returns to his native turf, only to fall desperately in love with hot-tempered Mary Kate Danaher, played by Maureen O'Hara.

Based on a short story by Irish writer Maurice Walsh, the happy-ending romantic comedy is set in the late 1920s.

It quickly established the standard for cinematic depictions of life in pre-electric rural Ireland -- strong-willed and soft-hearted folks who live in thatch-roofed cottages and, when they are not in the green, green fields watching over their sheep, spend the long Irish summer days downing pints in pubs or racing horses over the matchless Mayo hinterland.

Despite some harping that the movie is more "Oirish" than the real Ireland ever was, "The Quiet Man" remains a favorite among critics.

At least one Internet poll placed the 129-minute movie, which won Oscars for best direction and best cinematography, among the top 100 films made.

Cong village, which is barely more than three streets and an alley, experienced a trickle of tourists as soon as the movie was released.

But for some time sightseers had trouble finding the town, because in the movie it had been renamed Innisfree. Even the Irish tourism board first sent people to County Sligo, the location of the Innisfree made popular in William Butler Yeats' poem.

Unlike the Maryland town of Burkittsville, which has shuddered under public curiosity about its fictional setting for the box-office hit "The Blair Witch Project," Cong residents welcome visitors with open pockets.

"It's what made the town known worldwide," says David Moggan, 23, a real-estate agent.

"Some buyers from the United States came here just because of `The Quiet Man,' that and the local scenery, of course. The movie touched the hearts of a lot of Irish-Americans, and it told their stories."

Today fans of the movie can consume tea and scones, stay in holiday cottages or a hostel and visit a replica of Sean Thornton's whitewashed cottage, all bearing the "Quiet Man" name.

The summer tourists are mostly the dash-in, dash-out type. Snap a photo here. Pop in for a pint there. Use the clean public restrooms next to the ruins of the picturesque 12th-century Cong Abbey.

Still, there are enough stay-overs to liven Cong's three hotels, four pubs and numerous bed and breakfasts. The Victorian Ashford Castle, once owned by the Guinness family, charges nearly $500 a night to sleep in one of its 83 rooms.

"Quiet Man" zealots who lodge there can boast that they stayed in the same digs that housed the movie cast.

One of the most popular drop-ins is Pat Cohan's Bar, which is neither a bar nor owned by anyone named Cohan.

Director Ford used the exterior for many scenes, including parts of the movie's climactic 8 1/2-minute fight between Thornton and Mary Kate's brother, played by Victor McLaglen.

Footage of the pub's interior was filmed on a Hollywood set, but that doesn't seem to bother the mostly middle-aged and gray-haired visitors who are drawn to the local landmark like hares to clover.

Inside, the "bar" is a one-room shop filled with inexpensive and dusty children's toys, bottled water and racks of post cards.

The key attraction is shopkeeper John Murphy and his collection of "Quiet Man" movie stills of Wayne, O'Hara, Ward Bond and others.

A former sheep and turnip farmer, Murphy was born in 1930, right around the movie's time setting. Like most of Ireland, Cong was poor.

There was no electricity, and residents relied upon oil lamps and candles. Most of the men were farmers or worked in the local sawmill.

When the film crew arrived in 1951, Cong still had no electricity. Workers were bringing the power lines close by, according to local legend, but Ford did not want utility lines visible in his movie and was aghast that the bang of the explosives digging holes for the poles would interfere with his sound recording.

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