Ishmael, Youghal, decline, resurrection

Gregory Peck (1916 – 2003), as Captain Ahab during the shooting of ‘Moby Dick’, on location at Youghal, County Cork, Ireland. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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Given his status as one of the great Hollywood directors, John Huston wasn’t great at giving direction. When he got a perfectly cast actor like Bogart, Huston was a master. With other actors he was less so, as Gregory Peck discovered during the filming of Moby Dick.

A method actor, Peck made his own notes on the script about Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of the white whale, but even an actor of his standing would sometimes require a little inspiration. The most Huston could muster was lines like ‘Make it bigger, kid’ or the mercurial ‘More brimstone’.

The film was not a great success – financially or otherwise. For a start, Peck looked too much like a peg-legged Abraham Lincoln, his performance was too rigid, and Ray Bradbury’s script just couldn’t contain the vast sprawl of Herman Melville’s masterpiece. The signs were there from early on – principal shooting in the east Cork port of Youghal ran into difficulties when the ship was only able to sit at dock for high tide, roughly one hour each day.

Youghal was chosen for its old world feel, as the town featured in the novel, New Bedford, has simply changed too much. However, Youghal’s shopfronts were made from stone, while those of New Bedford were clapboard, so the shops had to covered in wood, adding to the already high costs. After four weeks of shooting, the filming moved on to Fishguard, where their problems deepened; a prop whale that became untethered from the ship and floated into the fog with Gregory Peck hanging on for dear life, thinking he was about die strapped to a rubber whale in the middle of the Irish Sea. The struggles in making the film, and its relative economic failure upon release, echo the problems faced by the little port town they left behind.

In the 1950s and Sixties, Youghal was where Cork people went for their holidays. You got the train down, and went for a dip in one of the three beaches, ate fish and chips and went to a dance in Redbarn. Youghal was our Brighton, with beachfront amusements, donkey rides and ice cream. But times change. The rail line shut, the tourists started holidaying abroad, the town’s factories closed, and the malaise set in. Youghal became the little town that could, but somehow never did. While towns in west Cork such as Clonakilty have thrived, building a booming tourism trade, Youghal has long since lost its title as the premiere destination in Costa Del Cork. Walking along its meandering main street, it is hard to understand why. It may be seen as the seaside town they forgot to close down, but its faded seaside glamour is still there, waiting for someone to come and blow the dust off it. The place is full of tourism potential.

Youghal’s problem is that people need to believe in it. In recent years the town has become a byword for economic decline. While industry may have struggled there, it is the town’s tourism offering that is its strongest hand. Apart from his historic clock tower on the main street, it is also home to Myrtle Grove, the 16th century abode of former mayor Walter Raleigh, along with Cromwell’s Arch, Tynte’s Castle, and St Mary’s Collegiate Church, home to a 17th century memorial to Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork, which is in itself worth a trip to the town, as it includes a statue of the earl, lounging on his side, smiling aimlessly at nothing, as though he is just staring up at the clouds, quite content to be long dead.

Youghal is also a walled town, and last week it was awarded 150,000 in Government grants to help maintain them; while those walls were built to once keep people out, now Youghal is praying they will bring them in.

Of course, my plea for Youghal to be saved comes from a deeply selfish place. Every small town in Ireland needs its local rival; just as Ahab had his whale, every hamlet needs another, almost identical hamlet just over the road to be their mortal enemy. Youghal is the nearest town to my home of Midleton, but the sport in bickering with them has just lost its lustre. It’s depressing trying to engage Youghal folk in gentle ribbing, as I just end up shouting ‘dormitory town’ at them until they start crying. You can’t kick a town when its down, not even one that has a beauty contest that features a crab catching competition. Potshots at co-workers from Youghal are less like the playful batting of a pinata and more like using a stick to poke at something you found washed up on a beach; there’s just no sport in the rivalry anymore.

But there is hope – the old railway line is being transformed into a greenway, one which will hopefully bring the tourists back to the town that the Celtic Tiger forgot. Finally, this could be their rebirth: As Huston said to Peck during one of his rare moments of direction, “Kid, if you ever deliver the goods, this has got to be the time”.

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