Irish Times piece examines the conflicts opened up by the War of Independence
Families divided by ideals
Ken Loach's award-winning The Wind That Shakes the Barley captures the tragic texture of the War of Independence and the Civil War, writes Luke Gibbons
At one point in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, an Irish audience is depicted watching a film about the War of Independence that gives rise to uproar in the cinema. The film is a newsreel outlining the details of the Treaty that had just been negotiated between the Sinn Féin delegation led by Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, and the British cabinet fronted by Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. Responding initially with cheers, the mood of the audience divides and darkens as the realities of the historic compromise are spelled out on the screen. In this we have, perhaps, a dress rehearsal for Ken Loach's work since the 1960s, which has managed not just to entertain but to agitate audiences and bring viewers, in more ways than one, to their feet.
A common response to representations of history on the screen is to claim that they end up simplifying events, reducing the complex texture of historical explanations to matters of heroes and villains. Yet the irony is that when history comes down to the small print - the nuances of motivation and context that tilt the course of events in one direction or another - a recourse to narrative is unavoidable. Even more to the point, cinematic images, precisely because of their capacity to capture throwaway details and offhand gestures, provide scope for the kind of incidental effects and seeming asides that fill in the picture of everyday life. To be sure, long-term social and economic trends are vital in any comprehensive account and, as we shall see, are essential to Loach's film.
Questions of character and circumstance are no less crucial, however, as are the often tragic dilemmas that confront individuals and whose outcomes are unpredictable, even among friends. The Civil War posed just such a calamitous parting of ways for the protagonists of the film - Damien O'Donovan (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy O'Donovan (Padraic Delaney) - brothers who take up arms against each other in the ensuing conflict.
One of the great strengths in Ken Loach's work has been his ability to raise questions over the "human interest" angle, the apolitical sphere of "the personal" or "the love story" that has provided an alibi for so many Hollywood happy endings. In Loach's last film, Ae Fond Kiss (2005), it is precisely an affair of the heart - the furtive intimacy of the bedroom shared by the Irish Catholic Róisín (Eva Birthistle) and the Scottish Muslim, Casim (Atta Yaqub) - that is the site of conflict, as different religious and cultural codes clash on their understandings of marriage and romance.
Love, in a sense, gets the last word, but it is a love that divides and forces choices. There is no reassurance that love conquers all or that the emotionally scarred couple will live happily ever after.
In The Wind That Shakes the Barley, family takes centre stage as the source of the most enduring loyalties and bonds between characters. Pleading with a roomful of volunteers to avoid an impending split after the Treaty, the Flying Column leader Finbar (Damien Kearney) reminds his comrades that the ties linking them are not merely ideological but personal, the connective tissue of intimate, local affiliations: "We may have our differences, but by Jaysus - after all we've been through together - we are all still one family - and that's how it's going to stay!"
What Finbar does not appear to realise is that the family was already a political unit in Irish society, carrying within it the strains and fissures of the wider public sphere. Political allegiances ran deep, passed on from generation to generation, and as the famous Christmas dinner scene in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) showed, even the most time-honoured family occasions of harmony and peace could be sundered with bitter political animosities.
In The Wind That Shakes the Barley, the relationship across three generations between the grandmother Peggy (Mary O'Riordan), the mother Bernadette (Mary Murphy), and both daughter and son, Sinéad (Orla Fitzgerald) and Micheál (Lawrence Barry), testifies to these ancestral loyalties. Peggy belongs to a generation that barely survived the Famine and lived through the upheavals of the Land War in the late 19th century, but the film also breaks new ground in highlighting the active role of women in the struggle - as Republican court judges, as protesters in church, as members of Cumann na mBan. Popular mobilisation and networks of support in the countryside depended on "safe-houses" such as Peggy's that could be relied on to protect insurgents on the run from Crown forces or agents of the State. Moreover, it was not only a matter of what passed down through families - it was also what was done to such families, as the savage murder of the son Micheál by the Black and Tans at the start of the film graphically demonstrates.
WHEN THE UNITY and solidarity of the War of Independence gave way to the Civil War in 1922, violence plumbed to unconscionable depths: the son of a government minister, Eoin MacNeill, was shot by Free State forces on Benbulben mountain in Co Sligo; Rory O'Connor, best man at the wedding of minister for justice Kevin O'Higgins was ordered to be shot by O'Higgins himself as a reprisal for the shooting of Free State politicians. Brother did indeed take up arms against brother, but the film is also determined to show that material issues bore on the choices made by the combatants. That family inheritance is not an uncritical, passive affair is made clear when Damien and Teddy meet for their last, fatal confrontation. Damien's troubled memory of their father's ruthless dismissal of one of the labourers on the family farm reactivates his commitment to a social revolution from the bottom up, reminding him in the process that not everything passed from father to son is worth retaining.
As the murderous intensity of the Civil War revealed, divisions within communities did not owe their existence solely to informers but were driven by class and related conflicts, masked over by the seamless unity of popular nationalism. In an early scene, a local shopkeeper - or "gombeen" man - is brought before a Republican court for charging extortionate interest rates, but Teddy defends him, arguing that a financially solvent independent Ireland is impossible without business interests on its side.
In the furious debates that take place later on the acceptance of the Treaty, the socialist Dan (Liam Cunningham), a former member of James Connolly's Citizen Army, is quick to point out that the Arthur Griffith who signed the Treaty was also the backer of William Martin Murphy's Lockout of unionised Dublin workers in 1913. Teddy sides with the Free State forces, advocating the kind of one-to-one reprisals sanctioned by Kevin O'Higgins; for his "sins", the socialist Dan is denounced from the pulpit for spouting "communistic poison" and "sewing hatred between neighbours".
The Wind That Shakes the Barley helps to dispel any lingering traces of the kind of Boys' Own - or Ireland's Own - versions of the War of Independence that basked in the glow of imperial or national nostalgia. By way of contrast with modern "dirty wars", romantic and indeed official versions of the Anglo-Irish conflict liked to portray it as war by the rule book, pitting idealists and visionaries against (at best) officers and gentlemen, or (at worst) the refuse of English jails in the form of the Black and Tans.
In recent years, historians have fought a textual war of their own, bringing to wider public notice many of the atrocities that took place during the fighting. Attacks on Anglo-Irish Protestants in particular have been subjected to revisionist interpretations, leading to charges of "ethnic cleansing" being directed at republican violence in the west Cork region. In fact, there is clear evidence that the shooting of Protestants in the district was motivatednot by religion but their activities as informers - the fate that befalls the unrepentant owner of the Big House, Sir John Hamilton (Roger Allam), in the film. Racist sentiments were indeed to be found in the period, but in the more congenial circles of the British army. As the official Record of the Rebellion in Ireland, 1920-1921 noted at the time (in terms that would explain wanton attacks on the civilian population by the Black and Tans in the film):
"Practically all commanders and intelligence officers considered that 90 per cent of the people were Sinn Féiners or sympathisers with Sinn Féin, and that all Sinn Féiners were murderers or sympathisers with murder. Judged by English standards, the Irish are a difficult and unsatisfactory people. Their civilisation is different and in many ways lower than that of the English. They are entirely lacking in the Englishman's respect for truth . . . [ and] many were of a degenerate type and their methods of waging war were in the most case barbarous, influenced by hatred and devoid of courage."
AS THE CONTROVERSY over Neil Jordan's Michael Collins (1996) showed, one of the difficulties in making films about the War of Independence is bringing the story to an end, let alone a happy ending. Narrative closure fails to bring moral or political resolution, as feelings of injustice, outrage or even sorrow are not purged by the denouement of the plot. This has also been a feature of Ken Loach's approach to narrative from the outset, whether in his path-breaking television dramas, Cathy Come Home (1966) and Up the Junction (1965), his banned documentaries on police brutality during the miners' strike in Britain in 1984, or his controversial film on counter-insurgency in Northern Ireland, Hidden Agenda (1991).
There is no attempt to rewrite the historical record or deny the realities of power in these films, but if the forces of the establishment invariably win the day, viewers are left in no doubt that it is because they have might, not right, on their side. Towards the end of Paul Laverty's screenplay, Free State forces raid Peggy's farm, the very "safe-house" that provided refuge to some of the same activists in the opening scenes. As the soldiers search and destroy, they empty barrels and sacks of grain, scattering the contents all around. As they leave, Sinéad refills a sack with the scattered seed, storing it for some future day in which the wind will shake the barley.
Reprinted from the Introduction to The Wind That Shakes the Barley: A Screenplay by Paul Laverty; Directed by Ken Loach (Cork: Galley Head Press, 2006). The film premieres in Cork on Tuesday and opens countrywide on Friday
Luke Gibbons is Keough Family Professor of Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana