IRISH ASSIMILATION AND THE QUIET INFLUENCE OF MICHALEEN OGE FLYNN
On the surface, it would appear that Barry Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Michaleen Oge Flynn in The Quiet Man (1952) adheres to a lazy, xenophobic, stage-Irish stereotype. Fitzgerald’s singing, gambling, hard-living drunk addresses that romantic image of Ireland that only appeals to an audience that is outside of Ireland itself. In a narrative context, Michaleen’s primary function is for comedic effect. Yet it is Michaleen who successfully guides John Wayne’s traumatised Sean Thornton through the minefield of cultural difference, Irish land laws, dowries and courtship rituals, and ultimately allows him to achieve the “little bit of heaven” that he has come to Ireland in search of.
In contrast to the manifest destiny ideology of John Ford’s early westerns such as The Iron Horse or Stagecoach, The Quiet Man is a distinctly post-colonial narrative. Here, it is the native Michaleen who possesses the agency that allows Thornton to assimilate and succeed. In a reversal of the Irish-American diaspora narrative, it is the all-conquering white American male who must assimilate the ways of the indigenous population – rather than bending them to his will – in order to succeed.
In The Quiet Man, Irish identity occupies a moveable position in the hierarchy of whiteness that Richard Dyer refers to as “the sector of the immigrant working class who might be hailed as white as against the Native Americans. The common man could fasten on the Irish as evidence of an openness and including-in which did not extend beyond this white boundary”. In Ford’s film, this common man is the all-American John Wayne. His character has returned to his birthplace in search of a nostalgic reconnection to his heritage in an attempt to heal his emotional damage and restore a peace of mind that America had stolen from him. Thornton’s career as a professional boxer has left him wealthy, yet traumatised by the fatal knockout of a fellow fighter.
Sean’s description of America as an industrialised inferno with “pig-iron furnaces so hot a man forgets his fear of Hell,” is in stark contrast to Innisfree as “another word for Heaven”, and explains the inherent difference between the life he has left behind and the new life he hopes to build. This romantic association with his childhood and innocence symbolises “the need for a therapeutic model of the past to alleviate the memory of suffering or oppression” (Gibbons 47).
The mise-en-scène used for Sean’s first entrance to Castletown is exemplary of the reductive cod-Irish travelogue that the 1950s non-Irish audience would have come to expect. The train, station, signage and stationmaster’s signal flag that welcome Thornton are all rendered in varying shades of green. The yokels who greet Sean on his arrival are endemic of the paralysis of rural Ireland. Their circular reasoning invokes a stasis that is only broken when Michaleen enters the scene. He disrupts their paralytic torpor by taking Sean’s luggage and guiding him to Innisfree, thus demonstrating Michaleen’s agency from the outset. Michaleen becomes a signifier for Sean’s idyllic nostalgia from the point when the conspicuously framed image of his horse and cart is seen through the train station window (fig. 1). This picture-postcard vision of a romantic rural Ireland is an overt manifestation of the idyllic utopia that Sean has come searching for, and his pleasure on finding it is immediately apparent (fig. 2).
On the way to Innisfree, Michaleen alludes to Sean’s potential for successful assimilation to the Innisfree community to Father Lonergan (Ward Bond) – and by extension the viewer – by emphasising the legitimacy of his Irish heritage. This exchange between Michaleen, Sean and Lonergan reiterates Sean’s suitability by reminding him of his pedigree, while also enlisting Lonergan, Church leader and doyen of the village, into his crusade. From a visual perspective, the intermediate physical appearance of Lonergan provides a median between Sean’s gigantic stature and the miniscule Michaleen and presents the audience with a visual counterpoint to Sean’s Otherness (fig. 3).
The clarification of the correct pronunciation of the Irish surname “Cohan” rather than the Jewish “Coen” that Sean would be familiar with, is a small but significant example of Michaleen guiding Sean through Irish customs and towards a successful integration into the Innisfree community. This exchange, along with the later conflict between Sean and Red Will Danaher (Victor McLaglan) over the right of ownership of White O’Morn, alludes to contemporaneous American anxieties of the “white flight” migration to suburbia. The Post-World War II melting pot of ethnic assimilation into American Society had led to the exodus of the white middle classes away from ethnically-mixed urban regions to the WASP-ish homogeneity of the suburbs. Danaher’s horror at the prospect of Sean – a stranger and ersatz Irishman – living next door to him appeals to the mistrust of such migrants.
As this point, Sean is still practicing an individualist modus operandi. His primary focus is acquiring White O’ Morn from the Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick), and his interest in the larger Innisfree community is cursory at best. However, a romantic encounter with Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara) on his first night at the cottage leads to an important change to his perspective.
The miscegenation between Mary Kate and Sean is an essential stage of breaking down his white American Individualism. Michaleen’s role as matchmaker is as vital a component to this stage as Danaher’s is to his obstruction. It is noteworthy that Sean is completely absent for the prolonged sequence where Michaleen and Mary Kate discuss the details of the courtship, and the finer points of her dowry. The remnants of Sean’s individualist ideology is demonstrated when he mocks the traditional courting protocols, asserting that, “Back in the States I’d drive up, honk the horn, the gal would come running out”. However, it is Michaleen who again prods him forward, reminding him that, “This is Ireland, Sean, not America”.
When Michaleen’s authority is undermined and Sean attempts to enforce his own agency, a narrative discord develops. Once Sean attempts to usurp Michaleen’s matchmaking protocols and enforce his individualist principles of courtship over Mary Kate, the clash of Irish and American cultures becomes problematic. The passionate first kiss is staged in a graveyard during a violent thunderstorm, blatantly foreshadowing the impending tempest. The wedding of Sean and Mary Kate, which would have provided narrative closure in a traditional romantic comedy, here occurs at the midpoint of the film. Far from being a joyous occasion, a sense of foreboding hangs over proceedings, illustrated by the couple’s expressions of abject terror in their commemorative portrait (fig. 4). The wedding is used as a marker of Sean’s enduring Otherness. His inability to comprehend the significance of Mary Kate’s dowry or emotional attachment to tradition are obstacles yet to be surmounted before Sean can be seen as a worthy Irishman, husband to Mary Kate or supplant Danaher’s reputation of the “best man in the village”.
For his assimilation to be a success, Sean must ultimately displace Danaher’s position in the community with his own modernist, more benevolent version of what Gael Sweeney refers to as the Gombeen Man. “[This] was the figure of the despised landgrabber who profited from both the subjugation of Ireland and the famine that displaced people from their traditional lands, that bourgeois individual that Ford… places as neither of the romanticised aristocracy nor the sentimentalised peasantry.” Sean associates the act of fighting with ill-earned wealth, with “a purse, a piece of the gate, lousy money”. However, to Mary Kate her dowry symbolises a new independence and freedom from the servitude of her brother. The sole method of ousting Danaher from his position is by physically besting him in front of his peers. Sean tells him, “I’m not asking anybody to do my fighting for me” but despite constant goading, he refuses to be drawn in, and Michaleen’s disappointment is evident (fig. 5). He is aware that “the purging of Sean’s tragic past is not resolved until Sean has won the respect of everyone in Innisfree by proving himself rightly part of the Danaher clan” (Gibbons).
We surmise from Sean’s cheerful demeanour the following morning that reconciliation with Mary Kate has been achieved, and that the marriage has been consummated. We also expect Mary Kate to be waiting for Sean when he awakes. However, it is Michaleen who is waiting to greet him. During this crucial point before the denouement, Michaleen clarifies issues for Sean and carries out a final act of driving guidance. Mary Kate’s confession, “I love him too much to go on living with a man I’m ashamed of” is the ultimate affront to his masculine identity that finally compels Sean to action. Although Michaleen is sitting on a low step, now that Sean is fulfilling his expectations, his disposition brightens instantly (fig. 6).
Like Father Lonergan’s voiceover which bookends the film, Michaleen occupies a nebulous position within the film’s diegesis. A tune he hums suddenly becomes part of the musical score, and he blurs the lines between the diegetic and non-diegetic space. Like Lonergan, Michaleen fills an extraordinary role in Sean’s success narrative. Ford directing Wayne would have certainly elicited specific expectations in the contemporary American audience. But in contrast to the manifest destiny ideology of the Western genre, it is the white American in The Quiet Man who must abandon individualism and assimilate with the indigenous community in order to succeed.
The narrative arc of The Quiet Man is a reversal of the Irish-American diaspora, where the immigrant was expected to suppress their ethnicity and religion and forfeit their identity in order to achieve assimilation within the wider community. It is Sean who must suppress his individualism in order to successfully assimilate and be accepted into the Innisfree community. He achieves this goal only through Michaleen’s intervention and continual guidance. This minor supporting character quietly but artfully exerts his agency from the margins at key points in the narrative. Michaleen does this from his first entrance, and continues to do so at crucial stages until Sean has realised his potential as a leader of the community, and the “best man in the village”.
Dyer, Richard. White. London: Routledge, 1997. Print
Gibbons, Luke. The Quiet Man. Cork: Cork University Press, 2002. Print.
Sweeney, Gael. “A Good Stick to Beat the Lovely Lady: Violence and Equality in John Ford’s the Quiet Man.” 1993 Graduate Irish Studies Conference, Syracuse University, 17 March 1993. 1-10. Print.
The Quiet Man. Dir. John Ford. Republic, 1952. Film.