The making of Alfred The Great

In 1968 MGM came to Galway to make a ‘swords and sandals’ epic film called Alfred the Great. A lot of preparatory work had gone into selecting three main locations in Kilchreest, Ross Lake, and Knockma, each of which encompassed 90 acres. A vast amount of money was spent on the exact replication of every aspect of the ninth century it depicted, turning some corners of County Galway into Wessex, including etching a 200-feet long white horse into the hill at Knockma.

It took over a year to make and employed some 1,500 extras including some 450 soldiers from the Western and Southern Commands, hundreds of students (who did not have to go to England to work that summer ), and a number of locals. Thirty tents served as canteens which gave out 3,000 meals and 200 gallons of tea every day. Three tons of potatoes were peeled each week. It took 50 hired cars, 22 school buses, and 27 three-ton trucks (for the Army personnel ) to bring the actors and extras on to the set .

Local craftsmen made 4,000 arrows, 1,600 swords, 1,800 spears, 1,500 shields, 800 daggers, 300 clubs and axes, 200 saddles, 12 rubber dummies (to play dead ) and three skeletons. Sixty horses were used. Al O’Dea from Corrib Crafts in Tuam and his team lead by Tom Dowd made all the furniture. Albert O’Toole from Galway did the carving on the thrones. Christy Dooley and his company made braziers, goblets, candlesticks, swords, shields, and metal implements to a high level of craftsmanship, all based on authentic drawings and designs from the British Museum.

The film makers needed wet and drizzly conditions but got the hottest summer for years. Half of Galway seemed to grow beards for the movie. The day began for extras when they got on the buses at the Spanish Arch at 5am. They arrived on set and got their itchy, scratchy clobber, including a wig. Everything was checked back against their names that evening. The craic was great but the days were long, hours of tedium broken up by sporadic bouts of action... the soldiers and students did not like each other, which probably gave some of the action shots authenticity. The food was great and the pay was even better.

There were inevitable cock-ups, like ninth century Vikings charging past the cameras wearing horn rimmed glasses or having their wristwatches on, but this added to the fun, and the expense. Much of the extras’ time was spent playing cards, sunbathing, or snoozing, and they invariably reeked of turf smoke from all the fires on set.

The film was directed by Clive Donner, one of the best around at the time; the lead was played by David Hemmings, a charismatic actor who was a very big name in the sixties, and Lord Killanin was associate producer. It pumped vast amounts of cash into the local economy and yet it was a huge flop. A new book by Mary J Murphy entitled Viking Summer, the filming of Alfred the Great in Galway in 1968 explores the various reasons for this failure. The book, which will be launched by David Burke in The Arches, Claregalway, at 7.30pm on December 5, goes into the entire production in great detail. It is a wonderful cameo of Irish film history and a look back at Galway of 40 years ago. It is eminently readable, informative, profusely illustrated, and highly recommended. It will bring back memories and is available in good bookshops.

Our photograph today shows some of the soldiers from Renmore Barracks training for one of the battle scenes. Obviously the film was eagerly awaited in Galway cinemas, but the general response was one of disappointment as people could not see their product or recognise themselves in disguise. It was punctuated by an odd shout of “Jeez, there’s Martineen,” or “That’s your man from Shant’la,” or “Will ya look at the cut of Murphs”.

Tomorrow evening, in the public library in Oranmore at 7.30pm, county librarian Pat McMahon will launch a book by Kathleen Davis entitled Oranmore in Days of Yore, a compilation of articles she has written over a long period about local characters past and present, and about events and places she remembers from her years growing up and living in the area. It sounds fascinating. All are welcome.

Finally a note to say that the annual Memorial Mass for Fr Michael Griffin and the deceased members of the Fr Griffin’s/Éire Óg Gaelic Football Club will be celebrated by Fr Des Forde in the Clubhouse in South Park tomorrow evening at 7.30pm. After Mass, light refreshments will be served. All are welcome.

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