Ryan's Daughter: the inside story

Sir John Mills, who has died at 97, will be remembered for his Oscar-winning portrayal of a mute village idiot. But, reports Helen McCormack, the film changed more than his fortunes

Monday 25 April 2005 00:00 BST

It helped to bring his talent to a worldwide audience and earned him his only Oscar. Perhaps more than any other performance, Sir John Mills will be remembered for his role as a village mute in Ryan's Daughter.

It brought his talent to a worldwide audience and earned him his only Oscar. Perhaps more than any other of his performances, Sir John Mills will be remembered for his role as a village mute in Ryan's Daughter.

But the film, an epic love story set in Ireland in 1915, against the backdrop of the burgeoning Republican movement and the First World War, did more than bring acclaim to Sir John, who was knighted in 1976. It transformed utterly the lives of all in Dingle, the south-west of Ireland community in which it was set.

In the near two years it took to make, the sleepy community enjoyed previously unimagined wealth. And they were to become accustomed to the antics of Hollywood actors, and to have their eyes opened to sex and drugs.

The director, David Lean, kicked it all off more than 35 years ago, arriving in his helicopter, landing on the nearby mountaintop at Dunquin. This was a reconnaissance mission for his new project; a film about the wife of a local teacher who falls hopelessly in love with a British Army major stationed in the village.

The project, Lean envisaged, would take three months, and compete in stature with his critically acclaimed Brief Encounter, which also starred Trevor Howard. But the project kept on growing until he, the producers, and a vast cast and crew, many imported from Hollywood, found themselves still there 14 months later, and hugely over-budget.

In the film, Rosy Ryan, played by Sarah Miles, has an affair with an English officer, Randolph Doryan, played by Christopher Jones, to escape the drudgery of her marriage to the dull schoolteacher Charles Shaughnessy, played by the legendary Robert Mitchum. Their affair is innocently revealed to the village by Sir John's mute, Michael. Shaughnessy ignores the scandal, assuming that the affair will pass. But tragedy ensues.

Although Sir John won acclaim for his role, the film, released in 1970, was lambasted by critics and signalled a decline for Sarah Miles' career. Lean did not make another feature film for 14 years. Only in recent years has the film won plaudits. But the lives of the people of Dingle were changed forever when Lean's production team arrived in Land-Rovers to lay claim to the land they needed to film. A dozen families accepted the offer of £15 per family per week to rent the land for a few months, and the remaking of Dingle into the fictional Kirrary began.

Niall O'Brien, who played an IRA paramilitary, explained: "In Dingle then, it was all donkeys and carts. There was barely any street lighting. And there you had David Lean arriving in town in his Rolls-Royce Corniche. Robert Bolt and Sarah had their Lamborghini. I was standing in the street staring at it. I'd never seen one before.

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"They threw money all over the place and everyone wanted a bit of it. On the first day, they went into the local garage and ordered six Land-Rovers and six Zephyrs."

While the rest of the crew took up residence in a local hotel, Mitchum took over Milltown House, a guest house overlooking Dingle Bay. From there, he set up a mini-marijuana factory in the greenhouse and entertained a string of women when his wife, Dorothy, was not there, Sarah Miles recalled in an interview with Ireland's Sunday Independent.

She said: "Mitch's girls would fly in from all over the place, real rough-looking birds. It was convenient that all the rooms had a number because it was a useful way for him to remember who was who. He'd often say to me something like, 'Number 11's hot, she flew in last night'".

Another actor with a bit part said: "If someone couldn't sleep, instead of giving them barbiturates, he gave them Mogadon." What Londoners knew, but none of the locals did, was that after a few Mogadons and a glass of whiskey, as the actor put it: "You could fly without a plane."

Sir John, in contrast, was always immaculately behaved, and was adored by the locals. But he is known to have become frustrated with Mitcham's antics, sparking tensions between them.

Meanwhile, as the production ambled on, it was weather, rather than the excesses and trappings of fame, which preoccupied Lean and contributed to a budget £4m over its £9m limit, and dictated an ever-extending timetable.

Lean insisted that many of the pivotal scenes as Rosy and the officer played out their love affair on the beach be shot in sunshine, a rarity on the west coast of Ireland in any season. Heavy rain meant that for much of the time the cast and crew would be huddled up in caravans, and production was eventually moved to South Africa after a long search for a beach that looked similar enough to Dingle Bay.

Then, back in Ireland, they were let down by insufficiently bad weather. A storm is the background of the scene in which a shipment of republican weapons are washed up after a shipwreck.Huge seas were required.

O'Brien, now 72, said: "They had a cast and crew on standby for a year while they waited for the big seas". His weekly wages had risen from £15 to £100 when he landed his part: he had no complaints when his original contract of 12 weeks extended to 52.

During the long waits, cast and crew would take refugee in local pubs. O'Brien said: "They had our names engraved on the stools. There was nothing else to do. I think it was the start of major alcohol problems for a lot of our young talent. Some didn't live for many years after."

The scene, incidentally, was eventually pieced together from five separate storms, the last occurring in March 1970.

Unpredictable weather also posed a problem for the filming of the love-making scenes between Rosy and the officer. Shooting was planned in a field of bluebells after the lovers dismount from horses and begin a passionate embrace. Filming was hampered by two unanticipated events: a surprise downpour, and a flat refusal by the little-known American actor playing the officer to engage in a clinch with a stranger. The first difficulty was addressed by hiring the village hall, where the crew literally grew a field, with grass seeds planted under specially created humid conditions and butterflies and birds bought into the hall.

The actor's reluctance, which enraged Lean and staggered Miles, required slightly more cunning; cue Mitchum, who saved the day, according to the actress, by buying an aphrodisiac from the local chemist and slipping it into his cornflakes.

Mark Kerry, 59, owner of Milltown House, where Mitchum stayed, said last night: "The film transformed everything. It made Dingle world famous, and brought us real wealth. I knew Sir John well. He would often come in to the restaurant where I worked and stop for a pint and a chat. He was a great actor, and, what's more, and a fine man. We have lost a very great gentleman, and many of us have raised a glass to his memory this weekend."

The cast

By Sri Carmichael


Played Fr Collins, the tough local priest whose words are heeded by the villagers. Prolific British actor who increasingly played character parts. Starred in 'Superman', 'Gandhi' and 'White Mischief'. Died in 1988.


Played the handsome but shellshocked major, Randolph Doryan, who falls for Rosy. Jones was a brief cult star of the late Sixties counter-culture era. Turned down a role in Pulp Fiction in 1994.


Played Rosy's father. An Australian who moved to London aged 26, he starred in the 'French Lieutenant's Woman'. Best known as bellowing barrister in 'Rumpole of the Bailey'. Died in 2002.


Oscar-nominated for her role as Rosy Ryan. Starred as the lascivious Alice in White Mischief. Twice married to the playwright Robert Bolt. Published her autobiography, A Right Royal Bastard, in 1993.


Sir John won an Oscar for his stunning performance as Michael, the village halfwit who innocently reveals Rosy's affair. Mills was celebrated for his patriotic roles in films such as 'The Colditz Story'.


Played schoolmaster Charles Shaughnessy. Featured in more than 130 roles in a career spanning more than 50 years. Made his name playing tough guys in cowboy films. Died in 1997.

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