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Saturday, 4 May 2019

Coleman "Tiger " King and Robert Joseph Flaherty. Giants of their worlds.

                     

    Coleman "Tiger " King and Robert Joseph Flaherty. 
                       Giants of their worlds.
 



A German publicity poster for the film Man of Aran (1934)

Most people who view Robert Flaherty's film, Man of Aran, come away greatly impressed but with a few unanswered questions.
The first question is whether the incredibly dangerous scenes were staged or exaggerated.
The answer to that query is that while they were for the most part staged, they were not exaggerated.






This brings us to the inevitable question as to how Robert Flaherty (1884-1951) could have been so reckless in risking the lives of his cast, no matter what the artistic demands were. We have often heard it said that Flaherty didn't really care if some of his cast were lost as this would have made his selling of the film much easier.

This is probably unfair to Flaherty but is a persistent view, often heard when those who were alive at the time of filming, were still around.
There can be no doubt that Flaherty himself had shown great courage and a touch of recklessness with his own life, when he spent many years mining in Canada and later as a film maker.
Harpoon shot from Nanook of the North. Flaherty's 1922 film

In Nanook, Flaherty also featured natives in flimsy boats, fighting for survival.


 Robert Flaherty is usually described as an American film maker, as he was born and spent his early years around the beautifully named, Iron Mountain in Michigan. However, from his early teenage years he was shaped by the great vastness of northern Canada. His explorations as a miner would lead to his crossing into the field of film making. 


There can be no doubt of Flaherty's willingness, in earlier years, to put his own life on the line in pursuit of his goals but it's a completely different matter to do the same with the lives of others. He appears to have had a reckless disregard for the risks he had his actors take.
                  The fearless Michaelín  Dillane, having hauled up a ballach to the top of a 300ft cliff. Near to Dún Aengus.

We had always though that while making the film, Flaherty, unlike his cast, had been spared having ever to wonder if his last moment on earth, was at hand. However, when rereading Pat Mullen's book on the making of the film, we realised that Robert Flaherty did indeed have at least one very scary moment. This would happen on a boat trip from Inishbofin to Cill Rónáin, with a stop off at Clifden. More about that later.

Robert Flaherty arrived in Cill Rónáin in late Autumn of 1931 and was lucky enough to meet up with Pat Mullen, who would go on to play an important role in the making of the film. From his writings, it's obvious that Pat had a great amount of respect and affection for Robert's wife Frances Hubbard and also their three daughters, Barbara, Frances and Monica. It's hard not to think that Pat was less enamored with Robert but deemed it best not to expand on this in his book.

Robert Flaherty always had an eye for publicity and a good yarn and his reasons for coming to Aran may be exaggerated a bit. He later claimed that he had first heard about it while on board a liner from America, from an engineer of the Ford motor company in Cork. Others claim that he first heard about the islands from Michael Balcom of British Gaumont.



 The most likely reason he came is that he was persuaded to do so by the the great Irish film maker, J.N.G (Norris) Davidson. It's said, the original idea was to film Liam O'Flaherty's (no relation) short story "Spring sowing. This never happened and perhaps was a factor in Liam having little respect for Robert and his film.

Flaherty claimed that he first heard of the Aran islands, while crossing the Atlantic on the S.S. Berengaria.
Robert had a reputation for being difficult and John Taylor recalled that a carpenter was a regular visitor to Flaherty's house in order to repair doors that had been banged in temper.
On more than one occasion, it was revealed to us that Coleman "Tiger" King had neither respect nor affection for Robert and it's hard not to be reminded of his famous aside to the late Brendán Ó hEithir, during the making of a short interview.

 
The late Brendán Ó hEithir (1930-1990) who interviewed Coleman Tiger King in 1976, not long before he died.


Speaking about the attention and publicity, the film got at its premier in London, Tiger remarked
“Bhí a fhios agam go maith gur bullshit a bhí ann,” (I knew well it was all Bullshit). Tiger may well have been thinking on an even wider scale.
Brendán's interview with Coleman Tiger King 
He defended his people in 1934 when he felt that British newspapers had defamed them by describing them as savages
To his eternal credit, Coley "Tiger " King savaged some journalists who had overstepped the mark
 
Tiger would have been well aware of the publicity features from the film producers, which portrayed the cast as being noble savages with very little or no experience of the outside world. This of course was more Bullshit as Tiger had served in the Irish army and Pat Mullen had spent many years in America. Maggie had worked as a childminder in Dublin during the Great War  and Michalín Dillane would have been very used to tourists visiting Cill Éinne . The locals were used to having their photos taken and had developed a small industry in supplying visitors with plants and flowers as well as acting as guides to among other places, St Enda's famous "stone boat".

The idea that the cast had to be brought to Galway to see what a cinema was like is laughable and Tiger and the others would have known that it was all a publicity stunt.


A great photo of the three stars, that Flaherty would certainly have approved of.  (Árainn 1933)
 
A great photo of the stars, that Flaherty might not have approved of.
Heading for New York from Southamption, on board the  Cunard Liner, S.S. Berengaria. Sep 1934


The basis of Tiger's dislike for Robert is a matter of debate but it's likely that Robert misunderstood the exalted position a blacksmith held in every Irish village of those times. The Kings took great pride in their work and Robert may have failed to acknowledge the important role they played in island life.
Tiger's brother Michael, seeing to a local horse's footwear, sometime in the 40s or 50s. Shoes he would have made himself.


Robert Flaherty gave great importance to how he cultivated the influence of the priest, Patrick Egan, and got him to convince Michaelín Dillane's mother to let him act in the film. Flaherty made much of the islanders being worried about  the dangers of consorting with Protestants but in truth, Pat Mullen and his socialist, secular views might have been deemed a more serious threat to many.

Just for the record, it was only a couple of years ago we were speaking to an old man from the West and we asked him what he had heard about Fr Egan. To our surprise he said he remembered him well and that Fr Egan heard his first confession and that he was a very kindly man.

Robert Flaherty may well have exaggerated the power of the priest, while greatly underestimating the power of the blacksmith. The islanders would have been familiar with the powers of both but when it came to transformation, the priest's powers were a matter of faith, while the blacksmith's were a matter of fact.
A more recent photo of an Island Blacksmith, continuing on the same tradition.





Pat Mullen must take some of the blame for the reckless risks but in fairness, unlike Robert Flaherty, Pat was prepared to put his own life on the line when he crewed in both the shark hunting timber boat and in some of the currach scenes.
Robert and Frances later made reputation saving protestations about how awful the risks were but this sort of retrospective regret, would have been poor consolation, if some family had been left without a father or mother.



Maggie Dirrane and Pat Mullen. Photo taken as part of the promotion of Pat's 1936 novel "Hero Breed"

Pat Mullen appears to have become obsessed with showing the world the courage and skill of the islanders. He was proud of all who participated but he reserved a special admiration for the courage, determination and stamina of Maggie Dirrane. Maggie was injured during a number of scenes and also came very close to being drowned.

Some of the most dangerous scenes never made it to the finished film as Flaherty was unhappy with the light etc. One involved an upturned currach where Tiger was trapped underneath and was sure his two companions had been drowned. Maggie had waded into the surf and bravely gone to Tiger's aid, that day.

Flaherty returned to Aran in 1949. Some old film was found in the attic. Looks like Robert was getting rid of the evidence.
It was estimated that Flaherty shot over ten miles of film. This was deemed extremely extravagant, by the film company. 

Pat describes how Michaelín Dillane warned him not to jump too hard on to a ledge he was fishing from as he had felt it move. Pat was shocked and abandoned the ledge, only to see it had disappeared into the ocean, a few days later. One slip and Michaelín would have had no chance. However, he was used to the cliffs and, like most Island children, had developed great climbing skills from when he was a small boy.

Fearless Michaelín Dillane as he fished from a 300ft high cliff.










It goes without saying that the shark hunting scenes were very dangerous as one slap of the giant Basking shark's tail would have sent them to the bottom, as had happened a number of times in the 19th century.

The shark hunting crew with Tiger in the bow and Pat Mullen at the stern. Also included Stephen O'Rourke, Patcheen Faherty and Patch Rua Mullen. A timber boat but still very vulnerable.

There were a number of different storm scenes, at different shores, involving canvas currachs and much of this very dangerous work was deemed unsuitable by Flaherty. Light not right etc. Pat mentions Flaherty calling for very dangerous scenes to be repeated again and again and then never used in the final film.

One  of the very dangerous storm scenes, shot in Bun Gabhla in January 1933

The most iconic storm scene was shot near the very end at the shore near Bun Gabhla. The seas between the shore and Brannock island are truly terrifying on a rough day and how Pat got three men to go out in seas they would never normally go near, is a mystery.

 Only for that currach crew's knowledge of the waters they were on and their years of experience of pulling together as one, they would surely have been lost.

Seáinín Tom Ó Direáin wearing a cap on the left of kettle. Berated Pat Mullen for sending men to their deaths. This is a still from Flaherty's recently found Irish language film,  Oidhche Sheanchais (1934) 

Oíche Sheanchais (1934)



The locals had raced to the shore as they were convinced that no boat could live in those conditions and were amazed that any boat had even gone to sea. Pat tells of how they all cheered when the three men managed to crest wave after dangerous wave but, watching from the shore,  Seánín Tom Dirrane, who worked as an extra in the film, was convinced there was no way they could make it to shore and no way to escape to the open sea. Both Seánín Tom and Patcheen Conneely had lost a brother to the sea when their currach overturned in 1908.
Three men lost off Oghaill on August 8th, 1908. Both Seánín Tom and Patcheen Conneely, lost a brother that day.


Seanchaí, Seánín Tom Ó Direáin, who felt that Pat Mullen and Bob Flaherty, had sent the three currach men to their deaths, during the famous final storm scenes. Seánín would himself be drowned when, with a companion, also over 70 years old and a schoolteacher in his 40s, they attempted to cross from Connemara to Árainn, after climbing Croach Patrick in July 1939.


 Seáín Tom Ó Direáin had lost his brother Pat to the sea in August 1908, and would himself be lost a few years later, on the last day of July 1939, when returning by currach from Connemara. Also drowned that day were the local schoolteacher Seosamh Ó Flanagain (Flanagan) from Ballyvaughan and his neighbour Jaimsie Ó Flaithearta (Flaherty) from Eoghanacht. They were never found.
Three more men lost in July 1939. Among them, Seánín Tom Ó Direáin.(Dirrane)



One of the earlier currach scenes where Maggie was almost drowned and where Tiger had to rescue her by holding her hair..

Pat Mullen and Flaherty had exploited the currachmen's  pride and there can be no doubt but that they came withing inches of being lost, when missing a jagged rock. The crew that day was Patcheen Conneely in the bow, Stephen Dirrane in the middle and Patch McDonagh at the stern. The final words from the currach crew to Pat Mullen, as they headed out that day were "Ná bioch faitíos orainn, Mullen". (Don't worry about us, Mullen)

Patcheen Conneely had a firm belief that the sea would never take him as he was the last of his family. His brother Labhrás and two others had been drowned from a currach years before in 1908, and he believed that as his brother was a better man in a boat than himself, the sea had already taken the best and would spare him.


Map showing the path the currach took, during the iconic storm scenes which the film ended on.


 It's still hard to look at that final scene, as the men scrambled for their lives, as the currach was wrecked on the shore and not wonder at the miracle of their survival. Pat stopped Seánín Tom from running to the boat to help them as they came ashore. The film came first and saving lives came later.


The currach being sucked back out to sea and wrecked, just seconds after the crew had managed to scramble ashore.


Flaherty had used a double for Tiger in most of the  currach scenes, as losing the leading actor would mean disaster. In one scene where Maggie was nearly drowned, this involved a quick switch with Patch McDonagh, once the currach had come ashore

But back to the story of how Robert Flaherty had at least one frightening experience. 

In his determination to film the great sharks, Flaherty had hired a Brixham trawler, the inappropriately named "The Successful" and taken the film crew to Inishbofin, where it was reported many sharks had been spotted. While treating the locals in the local public house, Flaherty had enquired about shark sightings. Not surprisingly, a man buying rounds of drink was not to be disappointed and great and dramatic accounts came from all sides, of massive sharks that had been seen.
Inishbofin, where Robert Flaherty hoped to film some basking sharks.

Eventually they had to head home without any sharks being filmed and on their way they stopped off at Clifden. Pat had come across a lovely piece of rock on Inishboffin and had lugged it down to the boat, as he knew a lady artist on Árainn who might use it for a sculpture.

John Grierson, seen here filming his famous documentary "Drifters" (1929) which was about the great herring fleets of North East England and Scotland. Grierson joined the Man of Aran crew on the  Brixton trawler "The Successful", that Flaherty had hired to hunt sharks around Inishbofin. No sharks were found.

It would appear that the great documentary film maker and supporter of Flaherty, the Scotsman, John Grierson (1898-1972) was also on this trip. Also aboard was Grierson's teenage brother in law, John Taylor (1914-1992) who would go on to marry Pat Mullen's daughter, Barbara.
 
Barbara Mullen Taylor. Born in Boston and an Irish speaker, she joined her father in Ireland at age 21. Well known to older readers for the role of the Scottish housekeeper, Janet, in the 1960s TV series "Dr Finlays Casebook". When asked once how an Irish actress came to be playing a Scot, Barbara famously replied "Well, if Charlton Heston can play Moses, I can play Janet"


When they got to Clifden, Flaherty, Grierson and Taylor retired to a local hotel while Pat and Tiger had a great evening in King's public house. As is not unusual in Ireland, it wasn't long before Tiger and the landlord came to the conclusion that they were related and indeed descended from the same Mac an Rí (King) and this only added to the occasion.
King's public house in Clifden. Still going strong, more than eighty five years later. April 2019

The rest of the crew went on the town and Pat warned shark hunter, Tommy O'Rourke, not to cut his hair as Flaherty would be annoyed. Tommy, a son of Stephen, was a fine looking lad, aged about twenty five and, wanting to impress the lovely girls around Clifden, had his hair cut and to hell with Robert Flaherty and film continuity.

By the time Pat and Tiger finished in King's pub, there wasn't a room to be found in Clifden and they ended up spending the night on chairs in the kitchen of Gerald Bartley's hotel.

Scottish filmmaker John Grierson, who joined Flaherty on an expedition to Inishbofin and Clifden. He was an extraordinary film maker himself and went on to play a huge part in developing the National Film Board of Canada.

John Grearson's famous 1929 film about the herring fishermen. Drifters.
Deemed to be a more realistic documentary film maker, than Robert Flaherty.


In the morning, Pat and Tiger decided to visit King's pub to say goodbye and just to have "one for the road", or in this case, "the sea". The very same "one" that kept many an Irishman for longer than he intended. Eventually, Landlord King offered to drive them to the waiting boat but they drank on.

When Tommy O'Rourke arrived he informed them that Flaherty was raging at them and that he was also in a rage about Tommy cutting his hair. They started for the boat which was anchored off the shore. At the pier, the three sober sharkhunters were ordered to row Tiger and Pat out to the boat and return to bring Flaherty, Grierson and Taylor on the next trip.
Clifden harbour where the boat was anchored during the trip from Inishbofin to Cill Rónáin

Clifden harbour today. Photo taken from the opposite shore and showing all the recent development.

When they got to the boat, Tiger and Pat ordered the three sober men out and returned to pick up the other three. Pat says that they rowed a "somewhat  erratic course, back to the "Successful" It seems that some harsh words were exchanged between Tiger and either or both, Flaherty and Grierson. 

Pat Mullen was careful not to identify exactly who was involved but he mentions that somebody drank a bottle of whiskey and that he was awakened later from a nap he was taking, to be told "Pat, Pat get up and try and stop ???? from killing someone in the cabin"

Map showing the Aran Islands and the Islands of Shark and Boffin. North Sound lies between Aran and Connemara.


Pat doesn't say which man was involved but most have suggested it was Tiger. He found him standing on deck, with a five foot razor sharp harpoon. He had no coat, cap, shoes or socks on and was roaring at the locked cabin door.

"Come up, I dare you come up. We came on this trip to harpoon basking sharks, but as we can't find any, a man will do just as well. Come up, you that passed the remarks about me. Just one sight of ye 'till I drive this harpoon through you"
Coleman Tiger King in full harpooning mode, during the making of the film, Man of Aran.


The captain was pretending to notice nothing and continued steering the boat while his crew quickly found a rope that needed coiling. Then a wave hit the boat and the harpoonist stumbled and stubbed his toe on the huge block of granite rock, Pat had found on Inishbofin.

Picking it up in a rage, the would be harpoonist fired it into the North Sound, where it rests to this day.

It has always been speculated that the man involved was Tiger. It may well have been Flaherty himself and not Grierson, who had insulted him and caused the outburst and Flaherty, the man he wished to harpoon.

Not wishing to be run through by a harpoon, the men in the cabin declined the invitation to show themselves on deck and things eventually settled down. It's likely that Pat enjoyed the discomfort of Grierson and Flaherty and he knew that nobody would harm the very popular teenage film processor, John Taylor. As long as they kept the cabin door bolted, they'd be fine.

It seems the harpoonist later showed great remorse and Flaherty, to his credit, never made any further reference to the incident. If it was Tiger, then there wasn't much Flaherty could do as by this stage, the important role of leading man, had been cast and he couldn't very well fire Tiger.

The thought of Flaherty waiting for a locked cabin door to be smashed open and wondering what a harpoon might feel like as it went through him, gives us a small amount of sinful satisfaction, after all the dangers Flaherty put his cast through.

Robert and Frances stop to chat with Stephen Dirrane of Bun Gabhla, during their last trip to Aran in 1949. Stephen, along with Patcheen Conneely and Patch McDonagh, was part of the currach crew, during one of the most dangerous scenes in the film.They came very close to disaster and Stephen's many descendants, might never have been born.


Frances and Robert inspect some old film they discovered in the Man of Aran cottage, during their 1949 trip.

The great director, Robert J. Flaherty, pulling on an oar during his last trip to Aran in 1949. He died in July 1951. Also featured are  what looks like Peter Phatch Faherty in the middle and Patcheen Faherty in the bow.


Flaherty returned to Árainn for a visit in 1949 and met up with some of those involved in the film. Tiger and Michaelín had left the island, never to return. Pat Mullen would retire to Bull Bay, Anglesey in Wales, where he died in 1972. He had settled there in 1952, with his second wife, Florence Hall but they both returned to spend many summers on the island he was born on and where his ashes were laid to rest.
Pat Mullen meeting a young lad from Magherafelt, Co Derry in the summer of 1958.


Tiger lived out his life in London where he died in 1976. He now rests with his own people, alongside Naomh Éinne and his holy monks, in the little graveyard by the sea, in Cill Éinne. 


The King family grave in Cill Éinne graveyard. His memory will live on for as long as people watch Man of Aran.
Maggie Dirrane went back to rearing her family and lived out her life on the island. She was forever known locally as "Maggie Filmstar" and she enjoyed meeting the many visitors, who had been inspired by her film, to visit the island.  She died in 1995 at the age of 96, after a long and very productive life.
A photo from the Irish Capuchin Archives of Maggie Conneely Dirrane. (1899-1995)
Michael Dillane lived out his life far away from the island that he was born and raised on. We have had different reports of his life with some suggesting that he was part of the British expeditionary force, evacuated from Dunkirk in June 1940.

 Michael is recorded by journalists in London, as having a wild, confident spirit. He enjoyed winding some of them up and one film critic who became friendly with him, described how Michaelín asked him when he was going to give up being a critic and do some real work. Michaelín was probably speaking for a lot of actors.

He will be forever remembered as the fearless little boy with the big smile, who contributed much to the success of the film.

Michael Dillane in a scene from the 1934 film about storytelling, "Oíche Sheanchais". Long believed lost in a Dublin fire, a copy was discovered in Harvard library in 2012 and has since been restored.

 Anybody who has read an account of Robert Flaherty's life can't but be impressed with the courage and determination he displayed when as a very young man, he braved the harsh conditions of Northern Canada.

In the 1970s the American film maker George Stoney arrived on Árainn and made a wonderfully insightful documentary about the making of the film. It's called, How the Myth Was Made: A Study of Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran (1978)

Georges father had been born on the island and his grandfather had made heroic efforts to help the locals, when he served as Island medical officer. He had sided with his patients, against the powers that be, both on and off the island. George's film can be previewed Here
George Stoney (1916-2012) who came back to the island his father was born on, in order to make a film about Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran. It's called "How the Myth was Made"

 

This article, while acknowledging Flaherty's own undoubted courage, reflects on how reckless he was in Aran and how things could so easily have gone disastrously wrong. Just a few years later in 1951, four members of a film crew of six, were lost when making a feature film about shark hunting on Achill Island in Mayo. The well known actor Claire Mullen fortuitously missed the boat that day and was one of only two who made it home.Doc on one report

Robert Flaherty has left a huge mark on the Aran Islands and even today, people recall incidents from those days. We welcome all contributions as there must be many stories that have yet to be told.
Grafton Cinema in Dublin, where Flaherty's film was premiered, in May 1934.

In any case, his film Man of Aran, will continue to entertain and inspire, just as it has done since it was premiered in Dublin on May 5th, 1934, eighty five years ago.
You can watch a much shortened version of the film, showing some of the highlights, at this link. (16 minutes)
Man of Aran 

You can view a lower quality Youtube video of the entire film Here 

DVDs and Blu-ray versions can be bought over the internet and in any good record store.


Michael Muldoon (May 2019)