How long can an Irish village’s tourism trade live off a movie? In the case of Cong and The Quiet Man, around seven decades and counting.
Long, long before Scotland’s Glenfinnan Viaduct became the ‘Harry Potter Bridge’; and many years before a phone box in Pennan on the Moray Firth became famous in the film Local Hero, a big man rolled into an Irish village.
The man was John Wayne, the village was Cong. The year was 1951 and filming was about to start on The Quiet Man.
The movie went on to win John Ford an Academy Award for Best Director and also for Best Cinematography. Overall, the romantic comedy drama also did very well indeed at the box office.
It must have – because the village of Cong in Ireland seems to have thrived on the associations with the movie ever since.
Is The Quiet Man Misogynistic?
Now, you might find the film’s plot line of prevailing misogyny and the creation of a spurious world of Irish cliches and blarney all a bit much. (And you’d be dead right IMHO!)
I mean with quotes like “Have the good manners not to hit the man until he’s your husband and entitled to hit you back”. Or the comedic fondness for drink and fighting…
Full disclosure here. After a visit to Cong I watched The Quiet Man for the first time and it’s two hours and 9 minutes of my life I’ll never get back. But too bad. The DVDs and rentals are still making a ton of money.
In the film’s defence, the lush Irish countryside was beautifully filmed in Technicolor.
Back then, it must have pulled at the heartstrings of many an exile – or the descendants of them. And it probably still does.
And this partly explains why Cong remains an irresistible stop for many on an Irish itinerary.
Ross Errilly Friary
- A quick look on the way
We travelled to Cong by car from Galway. On the way we had a quick look at the roofless religious ruin of Ross Errilly Friary, standing forlornly out in the green fields. It’s one of Ireland’s best preserved monastic sites.
Though the complex doesn’t have a roof any more, it has a cloister and what was once a sunken tank for keeping live fish in.
(Not because the monks were hobby aquarists in their spare time, but because the fish were kept fresh for the kitchen.)
This religious seat may date back to the 14th century and comes complete, of course, with the usual religious tales of intolerance, persecution and so on until a final decline into neglect. It’s now in the care of the nation.
The atmospheric and gaunt ruins have been the setting for scenes in a variety of movies, none of which I’ve heard of. I mean, apart from their brief appearance in The Quiet Man. But then, we’re off to Cong in pursuit of that very movie…
The Quiet Man Everything
On arrival at the village, as it’s a rainy autumn day, the big car park is pretty quiet. Maybe it’s The Quiet Man Car Park? Wait though, whoa, there goes a massive timber lorry on the main road through the village.
Let’s stroll around. Look, there’s Pat Cohan’s pub – the very one that featured in the film.
Wait, no…in the film it was actually a grocer’s shop that was made up to look like a pub.
Afterwards it was a souvenir shop. The building’s only been a pub since 2008 – but no matter.
Hang on, can’t take a closer look till the next huge timber truck goes through.
And opposite there’s a house that says it’s The Quiet Man’s House.
Ooh, and there’s the cross that you see in various scenes and just down that street there’s The Dying Man’s House. What?
Oh, of course, that’s a reference to the shot near the end where the man who’s dying is miraculously restored by the prospect of a fight in the village. Remember? He goes down the street tucking his nightshirt into his breeks.
Aficionados will tell you he was played by John Ford’s older brother. (Already reaching the ‘too much information’ red line here…)
Gosh, there goes another truck roaring through…good job I stayed on the pavement there instead of stepping out for a pic.
Nearby there is the Quiet Man Museum. And a lot of posters about times they are showing The Quiet Man film.
There are, inevitably, tours as well, which doubtless point out all the houses you see in the movie.
Back up on the main street there’s a Quiet Man Cafe. There’s a Quiet Man self catering cottage. I’m expecting to see the Really Quiet Man Funeral Parlour, but no…
In the shop window, look, do you fancy buying a Quiet Man Calendar?
It’s cheaper than a Quiet Man wool cap, though you can also find Quiet Man waistcoats, gloves and…oh, wait, almost forgot to pay respects to the statue of John Wayne carrying his heroine.
So this is it. The epicentre, the shrine to the All American hero: the misogynistic, white supremacist, commie-hunting star that still has the village in thrall after all these years.
The statue is opposite the tourist information centre. Wait till that truck trundles through in a flurry of bark and woodchips before you step across for a closer look though.
Och, I’ve had enough of this noisy Quiet Man village. Let’s stroll down to the river.
Down By The River Cong
On past the mandatory ruined religious edifice, in this case a medieval abbey where the last High King of Ireland is said to have died, and down to the quiet waters of the Cong River…
It’s peaceful there, reedy and wooded, and the heavy goods vehicles are only a distant vibration.
A quaint little roofless structure built out on to the river is the 16th-century monks’ fishing house, its name self-explanatory.
Not too far off is the place where Father Peter was trying to catch the salmon that had eluded him for years in that film again. Oh, stop. Let’s get into the woods.
Woodlands Of The Ashford Castle Estate
The trees are very tall and mossy and silent, a world away from souvenir shops and film locations.
Everything is verdant and lush because of the limestone. Water flows, disappears and reappears – another characteristic of the porous rock.
We do a big walking circuit, waymarked and taking in Pigeon Hole Cave. Here, a flight of steps leads down to an underground river in this ‘karst’ landscape.
(It is said that Lough [Loch] Mask to the north drains into Lough Corrib and hence the sea by waterways that are wholly below ground.)
The dark recesses of the cave are also the home of a legendary fairy trout.
I think its story is echoed in WB Yeats’ Dream of Wandering Aengus if anyone wants to follow up the reference.
We might do that later. Right now we’re still wandering in the woods, swinging round to take in the Guinness Tower.
One of the most famous names in Ireland, the family bought the estate here, including what is now Ashford Castle. We’ll discover more about that in a few minutes.
Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness built the tower in 1864, ostensibly for his gamekeepers to keep a watch over the game on the estate. Older guidebooks describe the structure as a ‘rich man’s folly’.
Today, from the pathways threading through the big trees, the tower is glimpsed, lost, spotted again and finally located.
Some us climb to the top and find the view is of tree-tops mostly, but pleasing for all that. And not a pheasant or a poacher in sight. Lush nature is slowly claiming back the intrusion.
Basically, it’s a plain square tower in greyish stone. Gloomy and forbidding. Anyway, back on the track again, it’s time to play a game called ‘How Close Can We Get to Ashford Castle’. I mean, without paying any money. Let’s try this riverside path.
Wait, I see the castle. It’s 800 years old and a five-star hotel experience with a fistful of awards and accolades. It’s the haunt of celebrities of every hue.
At ‘Ireland’s top hotel destination’, you can ‘dine like royalty’ and have a ‘royal adventure’. OK, customer profile noted…
Just a minute, up ahead on the river-bank there’s a booth and an attendant in a highly-tailored uniform of greenish hue.
(I think the colour is called ‘hunting leprechaun’.)
And he wants fifteen euros from each of us just to go further to see the gardens. What? He must be joking. Eh, no, we’ll just retrace our steps.
Let’s Have A Late Lunch In Cong
Then we found ourselves outside Pat Cohan’s – that pub again.
I went through my usual range of objections to entering somewhere that must just be catering for tourists but was overruled by a peckish wife and a famished nephew.
And we were really glad we went in because – tourist village or not – Pat Cohan’s didn’t let us down.
It was friendly and welcoming, neat and warm, and serving good pub food at an odd hour of the afternoon.
Plus the barman was a folk musician, so we had a good blether about various styles and instruments. Altogether a great way to end our day in Cong.
I’d go back to Pat Cohan’s any time. Uhmm, in the quiet season, I mean. If they have such a thing in Cong. Wait, just noticed the pub closes in the quiet season. Ah. Still, it’s open in the Quiet Man season.
Long before Harry Potter pilgrims
The village of Cong is quite pretty and the countryside around lush and pleasant. The proximity of Ashford Castle would probably have meant some prosperity even if TQM had never been filmed there.
Yet the longevity of the impact the film made is certainly extraordinary. The film tourist came here decades before the Harry Potter pilgrims made their way to locations in both Scotland and Ireland.
Decades, too, before the term ‘set jetting’ was coined – incidentally a phrase I have only ever seen in Scottish tourism press releases – the village of Cong pioneered making the most of endlessly re-packaging the nostalgic magic of an imagined Ireland caught in Technicolor for all to enjoy from 1952 to the present..
Yes, we liked our day out in Cong. It wasn’t tacky at all. Maybe one day it will have a road bypass too.
More Quiet Man Locations
Sure, there were other scenes from THAT FILM we could have followed up if we had travelled further. Lettergesh Beach in Connemara – scene of a horse race – is much the same today as it appears on screen.
Only ten miles (16km) south of Cong, Leam Bridge, usually referred to as The Quiet Man Bridge, is unchanged and a place of pilgrimage for the aficionados, incidentally otherwise known as ‘The Quiet Man Crazies’. (No, really, I read that somewhere…)
And, finally some 10 miles (16km) north-west of the Bridge are the ruins of White O’ Morn Cottage – the white-washed thatched dwelling that our Irish-American hero buys and installs his bride in it.
Periodically, the media fulminates over the fact that this property is totally derelict. Its owners live in California.
Neglect and much wrangling, too tedious to relate, plus, some say, the habit of movie fans of removing parts of the stonework as souvenirs over the years have reduced the quaint period cottage to a pile of rubble.
Maybe that makes it poignant and sad until you think about the story of rural Ireland, especially in the 19th century. That was real history. This was only a movie location.