Returning to Glennascaul

Sandy Hobbs | Letters to Ambrose Merton # 27, 2002

That contemporary legends appear in film in now well known. Some time ago, Paul Smith and I attempted a preliminary listing (Smith and Hobbs, 1990) but it is possible to multiple the examples we gave several times. Some films make explicit reference to the concept of the urban legend (for example, Candyman and Urban Legend). Short films employing legend themes have a particular interest, since they often focus on a single story and, because of their brevity they are closer to oral telling than is likely in a feature length film. Examples include The Date (see LTAM No. 13, p. 28) and the films discussed by Veronique Campion-Vincent in her paper “Preaching tolerance? (1995).

In discussing the film-legend relationship with students, there is one short film I find particularly useful, because it seems to aim to mimic some of the features of oral story telling. I have shown (and therefore seen) Return to Glennascaul many times. However, I only recently realized that I had overlooked one significant aspect of it.

Return to Glennascaul was shot in Ireland in 1951 or 1952 (sources differ)(Note 1). It was written and directed by Hilton Edwards and features Orson Welles, who both narrates the film and acts in it. Welles as a young man had acted in the Gate Theatre, Dublin, where Edwards was one of the directors. Hilton Edwards had a role in Welles’s film Othello which was being shot intermittently around that time. (Welles was having difficulty financing the project.) This is relevant to interpreting the blurring between the real and the fictional and between belief and nonbelief in the film.

Return to Glennascaul is subtitled “A story that is told in Ireland“, thus signaling from the beginning that it is a re-telling rather than simply the telling of a tale. The film opens in a film studio where Welles is apparently shooting Othello. He breaks off to tell the story of the film which he refers to as “a short story straight from the haunted land of Ireland”. Ireland, he says, is “crowded with the raw material of tall tales”. This one “purportedly happened to me”. Note this unusual context for the use of the term “purportedly”. Normally one would employ it to refer to the experiences or actions of someone else, the word indicating uncertainty as to how good the evidence is for believing what is being described. One would not use it about one’s own experiences, since we tend to claim good knowledge of what has happened to ourselves.

Welles is then seen driving at night. He stops when he sees a fellow driver tinkering with his engine. The driver, later named as Sean Merriman, says he is having trouble with his distributor. Welles says that he has similar problems, a pun on “distributor”, since Welles presumably is referring to film distribution. Merriman accepts a lift from Welles. When offered a cigarette, Welles comments on the cigarette case, which leads Merriman to refer to a rather strange experience involving the case. However, he hesitates before telling Welles about it since he expects Welles not to believe him. “Sometimes I hardly believe it myself”, he adds. To this Welles responds that if a man begins to doubt his own experience it must be a good one. Merriman proceeds to tell him a story, which the film portrays in flashback. It is a version of the legend generally called The Vanishing Hitchhiker. In the voice over, Welles states that he is telling the story as told to him. He does not ask the audience to believe it. “Judge for yourself.” At this stage, Welles’s commentary also includes an apology to two women. The reason for this apology becomes clear only as the film closes.

About a year before, Merriman had been driving late one night when two women stopped his car. He offers them a lift, which they accept. He drives them to their home, a house called “Glennascaul”, which Welles explains in the commentary is Irish for “glen of the shadows”. They invited him for tea or “something stronger”. Going upstairs, Merriman admired a painting, which the older woman explained had been a gift from a friend who had gone out East. The younger woman in turn admired Merriman’s cigarette case when he took it out. Merriman explained that it had belonged to an uncle who had died in China. However, the inscription dated from when his uncle was a young man in Ireland: “For P. J. M. from Lucy, Dublin, 1895. Until the day breaks and the shadows flee away.” Merriman said that he thought the words were from the Song of Solomon. (They are indeed. In fact, exactly the same words occur twice, at 2:17 and at 4:6.)

One o’clock struck and Merriman said he would have to leave. The women, especially the younger one, indicated that they hoped he would return. Having driven only about a hundred yards, Merriman realized that he had left his case behind and decided to return. However, when he reached the houses, the gates were shut and the driveway overgrown. He struggled up to the house itself but it seemed deserted. There is a sign indicating the house is for sale, so Merriman decided to go to the agent the following day.

Mr Daly, the estate agent, told Merriman that the house had been empty for years. Two ladies had lived there, a mother and a daughter. At first he could not remember their name, but when Merriman mentioned “Campbell”, the name they had given him, Daly agreed that that was indeed their name. Merriman asked if the daughter was a delicate girl with red hair. Daly explained that the daughter was over sixty years of age and her mother more than eighty. The mother had been dead for several years.

Merriman took the keys of Glennascaul and went to the house, which he found desolate. Footprints on the bare floorboards fitted his own shoes and he followed them to a fireplace. On the mantelpiece lay his cigarette case. Frightened, Merriman ran from the house. Here the flashback ends.

In the car, Merriman explains to Welles that he got in touch with the family solicitor. The mother had been dead for ten years. The daughter died two years later. Her name was Lucy. This of course was one of the names inscribed on the cigarette case. The other, “P. J. M.”, was his uncle, Patrick Joseph Merriman.

The film ends with Sean Merriman leaving the car and Orson Welles drives off. Two women, apparently seeking a lift, signal to him to stop but he drives on. The shorter of the women says “Did you see who that was?” and the taller replies “Yes, but I don’t believe it”. Thus it concludes with a further example of belief/nonbelief ambiguity.

One point to note about this outline is that it does not convey the contribution of the camerawork and the music to creating a feeling of mystery. However, at the end, there is a sharp contrast in the music, which becomes jaunty and lighthearted, as if implying that the story is, after all, just a piece of frivolity.

I hope it will be clear from this account I have given of the film why it has seemed worth using as a teaching aid when discussing the character of contemporary legends. As I mentioned previously I have shown it to students many times (and watched it with them). However, it was only recently that I realized that there was one significant aspect of the film I had overlooked.

As explained in my outline of the film, it starts with Welles filming Othello. I had failed to note the scene being filmed. Welles was delivering a speech from Act One Scene Three in which Othello, accused by her father of having bewitched Desdemona, explains to the Duke of Venice how he won her hand. He told her the story of his adventures:

Wherein I spoke of most disastrous chances:
On moving accidents by flood and field,
Of hair-breadth ‘scapes I’ th’ imminent deadly breach;
Of being taken by the insolent foe,
And sold to slavery. Of my redemption thence,
And portance in my traveller’s history.

We hear only a fragment of the speech. Welles breaks off before the mention of Cannibals and “…men whose heads/Do grow beneath their shoulders”. However, it seems clear that the speech was not picked at random. Othello is telling the Duke about his own story telling. The stories are the stuff of “travellers’ tales”.


  1. Main credits of Return to Glennascaul:
    T.R. Royle presents a Hilton Edwards and Micheal MacLiammoir Dublin Gate Theatre Production. Screen Play and Direction by Hilton Edwards.
    Cast: Michael Laurence (Sean Merriman); Shelah Richards (Mrs Campbell) Helena Hughes (Lucy Campbell); Orson Welles.
  2. It seems to me that the otherindcation that Lucy Campbell and P. J.Merriman had had a love affair that “went wrong”. Students do not always make this interpretation unassisted, however. We are given no hint that I can see as to why the lovers separated. However, it is just possible that a reason is suggested by the surnames: Campbell (Protestant?) and Merriman (Catholc?).


Campion-Vincent, V. (1995) Preaching tolerance? Folklore, 106, 21-30.

Smith, P. and Hobbs, S. (1990) Films using contemporary legend themes/motifs, pp. 138-148 in Bennett, G. and Smith, P. (eds.) Contemporary legend: The first five years. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

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