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Orson Welles' Irish Ghost Story

The little known Welles starring short Return To Glennascaul.



Words by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)




Orson Welles was the ultimate renaissance man; an actor, director, writer and producer who worked in theatre, radio, cinema and television. His early association with Ireland is well known: in 1931, as a 16 year old, Welles performed at Dublin's Gate Theatre under the tutelage of actor Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards, manager of the theater.
Less known is that, 20 years later, Welles returned to the city, this time appearing on screen rather than stage. By 1951, Welles had become one of the most famous names in Hollywood. Movies like Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and Macbeth, which he not only starred in, but wrote, directed and produced, had been praised by critics (Kane to this day tops many critics’ lists of the best films ever made). Unfortunately for Welles, this critical respect failed to translate into financial success. In Hollywood, then as now, the bottom line was bums on seats, not five-star reviews. Welles found it a struggle to finance his dream project, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’, in the U.S, and in 1948 left for Europe, where his work was more appreciated.
It took the next three years for Welles to complete Othello, filming it in segments whenever budget and availability of resources allowed. Much of the film’s cast came from the Gate Theatre and, during one of the many breaks in filming, Welles’ old mentor, Edwards, asked him to come to Dublin to star in a short he was filming. Welles often said he owed his career to the Gate and so was happy to appear in Edwards’ film, a short ghost story titled Return to Glennascaul.
The film is an atmospheric black and white tale of a motorist who has a spooky late-night encounter with two female hitch-hikers on the road to Dublin. Welles narrates the short and appears as himself, pictured directing a scene from Othello in the movie’s opening. With its supernatural theme and twist ending, the short is a precursor to TV shows like The Twilight Zone, which would become popular a decade later.
It’s a little know piece of both Hollywood and Irish film history, and well worth checking out for fans of Welles, or those who love a good ghost story.