Reflections on Ryan’s Daughter

Ryan's Daughter cinema poster
UK quad poster. Source:

I’ve been reading Paul Benedict Rowan’s Making Ryan’s Daughter: The Myths, Madness and Mastery. It’s a meticulously researched account of the epic 1969 MGM shoot in Dingle and environs, where director David Lean wrestled for a year with cast, crew and local weather conditions before eventually departing to South Africa to finish shooting the beach scenes. 

The film was of course a famous dud, damaging several prominent careers. Lean himself  struggled to rehabilitate his reputation afterwards, and was never again afforded the kind of budget that washed around the Dingle peninsula during the shoot. His romantic lead, the up-and-coming James Dean wannabe Christopher Jones, vanished afterwards, not taking another role for some 26 years. Few emerged with credit from the expensive flop. The real winner was the Dingle economy, which hoovered up much of the enormous $13 million budget.

Seen from the viewpoint of today’s film industry in Ireland, where international productions such as Ryan’s Daughter are heavily subsidised by the Section 481 tax credit, it is striking that MGM set up shop here without any clear financial incentives at all. As one of the last big films of the Hollywood Studio era, locations were chosen purely for the cinematic possibilities on offer. Indeed, the book makes clear that Lean was deliberately following in the footsteps of Robert Flaherty, who had filmed Man of Aran (1934) in similarly harsh conditions off the Galway coast. So can Ryan’s Daughter be thought of as a ‘creative runaway’, an international production located in Ireland for purely aesthetic rather than financial reasons?

The answer would appear to be no. Lean’s extended sojourn in Ireland, like previous lengthy projects in Jordan (Lawrence of Arabia) and Spain (Doctor Zhivago) were considerably influenced by personal tax matters. Lean, his screenwriter Robert Bolt, and several of his inner circle of collaborators were keen to avoid the clutches of the UK taxman. They were effectively globe-trotting tax exiles, moving from one international project to the next, thwarting the Inland Revenue’s efforts to apply the considerable marginal tax rates (up to 80 per cent, according to Rowan) to their vast incomes. The tax saving was considerable: Lean was paid $1 million to direct Ryan’s Daughter, along with a huge living allowance of $1,000 a week. 

It is not clear from Rowan’s book whether Lean, Bolt, et al were liable for Irish tax on these earnings. The tone of the book certainly suggests otherwise: despite the on-set difficulties, Lean put aside his frustrations and returned to Kerry from Africa to edit the film in Killarney’s Great Southern Hotel. While this decision further added to the fortunes of the Kerry tourist infrastructure, it surely benefitted Lean’s personal finances as well.

There is little doubt that the prospect of windfall economic benefits from big productions like Ryan’s Daughter contributed to the eventual introduction of tax incentives for filmmaking in Ireland, announced by Taoiseach Jack Lynch during a visit to the Dingle set in 1969. These measures eventually evolved into Section 481, one of the world’s most generous tax credits. Half a century later, the scheme would influence the partial filming of Disney’s Star Wars franchise near Dingle.

In summary, Ryan’s Daughter demonstrates that, for international filmmakers, Ireland’s appeal is often based more on financial expediency than creative opportunity.