It is the 1920s, and retired boxer Sean Thornton has returned to his childhood home of Inisfree, sporting a Pittsburgh accent and a calmer demeanor than the Irish usually have. He immediately causes a ruckus when he buys his family’s old farm, raising the ire of local squire Will Danaher. And, complicating matters, Thornton has just gotten a glimpse of Danaher’s feisty sister Mary Kate. When he finds out that American courting isn’t going to cut it, he has to learn the ways of the Irish to win Mary Kate and frustrate Danaher’s stubbornness.
This has been called the quintessential Irish film, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a pleasant little story about Irish country customs with some beautiful views of Mayo and Galway, the places where they filmed. It’s an idealized place, with the Catholics and local Anglican minister getting along swimmingly, and the IRA living there doing nothing more than drinking too much and trolling the squire.
The opening scene pretty much sets up the rest of the film: Thornton arrives, and about five locals get into an argument about which way he should go to Inisfree, ending in him walking off and driving away, leaving them stunned.
Our first view of Mary Kate shows the other side of Ireland-pastoral beauty. She is herding sheep through a field and it’s enough to nearly knock Thornton on his back. (She is played by the lovely Maureen O’Hara, after all.) The film also did a good job of showing cultural differences in a very funny manner. Your only dates are riding along in a wagon, driven by the fairly drunk “matchmaker” of the town who shouts at you if you get too close to one another, and you still have to literally have permission to marry.
Although plying said matchmaker with more whiskey seems to help things go smoothly.
The bigger part of the drama comes after the match has been made. Once Danaher realizes he has been tricked into allowing the marriage, he tries to hold back Mary Kate’s possessions and her dowry, leading her to feeling the marriage is unequal. Thornton, steeped in American thought, is mystified by this, and when he refuses to fight Danaher (he retired from boxing after accidentally killing an opponent), Mary Kate decides they aren’t really married. The story takes a bit of a downturn after this (although the scene with line “positively Homeric” is probably the funniest part).
The best part, and probably the reason most people call this the quintessential Irish film, is the Really Big Fight At The End. The huge fight (called a “donnybrook”-that wacky Irish slang, amirite?) takes up a good chunk of the movie, and pretty much characterizes everyone’s view of the Irish: gleefully fighting just because they like to.
Happy St. Patrick's Day!