Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The first Boycott, the Belfast charioteer, a scarcely-known composer and little-known writer

I have a distant memory of the 1947 film Captain Boycott, one of many black and white features that used to be staples of television viewing in the days before color television. Principally, I recall the great Scottish actor Alastair Sim playing an Irish priest Father McKeough - based on the real life Father John O'Malley - who led the popular ostracism in 1880s Co. Mayo of Charles Cunningham Boycott, an English land agent who while no "brutal tyrant" according to the DIB, believed that "the Irish peasantry were prone to idleness and required firm handling." In gratitude, said Irish peasantry meted out some firm handling of their own, partly inspired by the Irish political leader Charles Stewart Parnell, who had advocated the ostracism policy. (In the film, Parnell is played by Robert Donat, which at least is an improvement on the Hollywood biopic in which the great man was incarnated by Clark Gable, with Myrna Loy as Kitty O'Shea.) I do recall Sim getting the stirring closing speech, in which he describes what will be done to all others in the future who attempt to do what Boycott had done: "We shall boycott him!" It turns out that Father O'Malley actually did come up with the idea of turning the surname into a verb, helped by a journalist pal who popularized the term. The real Boycott's case became a cause célebre: the government brought in blacklegs to harvest crops at a cost of 30 times their actual value. Boycott, completely intransigent, believed the cure to Ireland's agrarian problems was emigration and industrialization. Happily for him, he got a job back in England, although he used to return to Ireland to holiday and, who knows, to gloat.

Stephen Boyd. Hollywood turns up so many one-hit wonders, and this Belfast man (Glengormley, near Belfast, as it happens) was one of them. But his one hit was a considerable one, Ben Hur, where he played the charioteer Messala to Charlton Heston's eponymous hero and became a huge, if somewhat short-lived star. He started out in amateur dramatics, and the DIB suggests that his pre-Hollywood career was somewhat perfunctory: in fact, he appeared in nine films in three years, including opposite Brigitte Bardot in Roger Vadim's 1958 melodrama Les Bijoutiers du clair de lune (The Night Heaven Fell).  Post-Hur, the DIB records mainly his disappointment with his roles, without mentioning that he nonetheless appeared in films by John Huston, Edward Dmytryk, Richard Fleischer, Anthony Mann, Jean Dellanoy and Romain Gary. (I'm beginning to think the DIB isn't completely sure footed when it comes to film and television.) He dropped dead on the golf course at the age of 49.

I found the tiniest fugitive clip of the music of Ina Boyle, taken from a 1948 live recording with authentic coughing in the background. She was from Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow, not far from where my mother grew up and my father now lives. She studied under Ralph Vaughan Williams, who counted her as a favorite student, and composed widely, including an opera, three ballets, orchestral, chamber and choral works. She spent five years setting an Edith Sitwell poem to music, only for the poetess to refuse to let her have the rights. Much work went unperformed and unrecognized. Once, she grew peas to pay the bills. I couldn't find any of her music currently recorded, which makes the short, haunting clip even more precious. I'd like to hear more.

I wasn't familiar with the writer Patrick Boyle, but the DIB entry sent me to a short story of his in the Field Guide Anthology of Irish Writing. The story, Myko, is a nice little dark account of a publican's attempt to defraud a tinker over the sale of a coffin, and has a good sting in its tale, Roald Dahl-style. Boyle was a bank employee (he declined to follow his family into the law because of his stammer) "who struggled to write in between working and drinking." In 1965, he sent in 14 short stories to an Irish Times literary competition and took the first 5 places. The DIB says his "reputation receded somewhat in later years", but based on Myko, he's certainly worth a read, and I shall seek him out.

1 comment:

  1. About Ina Boyle, the Ulster Orchestra performed a piece of her's during it's 2011 Summer Season (broadcast on BBC Radio 3, and possibly still available).