In spite of an almost constant barrage of shouting and shooting and arguing, echoing through forests and jails and houses, there also are many, more subtle, echoes linking this story to the larger revolutionary history of Ireland. The title itself is borrowed from a 19th-century song written (by Robert Dwyer Joyce) to honor the United Irishmen and the Rebellion of 1798 (remember Wolfe Tone), which was followed closely by a far-less-widespread attempt in 1803 (remember Robert Emmett and Anne Devlin). The British response to 1798 was the Act of Union (1801), which absorbed Ireland, the colony, into the United Kingdom. A little more than a century later, we arrive at the subject matter of The Wind That Shakes the Barley: the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) and the Irish Civil War (1921-22), and the beginning of the end of the British Empire.
Both Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996) and Ken Loach’s Barley, in their treatment of those historical events, make a point of stressing England’s 700-year-long occupation of the island. And neither movie leaves any doubt but that the English should be driven out. But where Jordan makes us fall in love with The Big Fella (Collins) at the very start of the Easter Rising of 1916 (remember Pearse, Connolly, Clarke, MacDonagh, MacDermott, Plunkett, and Ceannt) and makes republicans of us all, Loach situates us not among the leadership of the revolution but among the members of an IRA “flying column,” fighting a guerrilla war out in the hills. Where Jordan’s movie clearly privileges Collins, and therefore the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921) which partitioned Ireland and established the Free State, over Eamon de Valera, who rejected the Treaty, Loach provides a voice for republicans on either side of that divide. He does so by setting his story in Cork, instead of Dublin, among local people, where civil wars are not expressed on paper or in meetings, but where people kill and die among people they know.
The anguish Damien (Cillian Murphy), a physician, experiences when he executes a young man he has known all his life – the fellow gave information that led to the arrest and torture of Damien’s brother, Teddy (Pádraic Delaney) – foreshadows the impending divide that develops among the Irish, after the treaty is signed and the truce with Britain is declared. In a way, Loach’s story is one of a revolution losing its way. The first three-quarters of the film cover the same period and convey the same sentiment as Michael Collins, as far as independence is concerned. Loach shows the Black and Tans, former British soldiers (well-paid mercenaries) brought into Ireland to crush the independence movement, terrorizing and brutalizing unarmed Irish, and killing one of them, Micheál [pronounced Mee-hawl], for refusing to say his name in English. His act of resistance is a potent history lesson about repression, an act which echoes Collins, who declared that “Our only weapon is our refusal.” Thus, at Micheál’s wake, when an old woman sings Joyce’s lyric, of how the people “bear the shame of foreign chains around [them],” the movie makes the point that in Ireland, all rebellion and resistance are one continuous spiral, ongoing for centuries.
But the unity of conviction and purpose among the revolutionaries breaks down once the Anglo-Irish Treaty is signed. The fighters in the countryside say it was “approved in the Dáil [the Irish parliament], but not in the fields.” Some believe the treaty is the best deal they can get, and as a Free State, they can continue to strive for reunification. Others believe that partition is a betrayal, an abandonment of the six counties (which now make up Northern Ireland) ceded to Great Britain. In this movie, The War of Independence is just, but the Civil War is counter to justice. The cause disintegrates because the Irish are killing their own, literally brother killing brother.
Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd provides a warm, period look for this movie, which is saturated with subdued color, and makes good rhetorical use of the rugged landscape. Paul Laverty’s screenplay gives Irish women their rightful place in the story, building on the myths and histories of Irish warrior women. Micheál’s grandmother, for example, refuses to leave her house even after she’s been burned out, and his sister, Sinéad (Orla Fitzgerald), carries weapons and messages to the IRA. She is Damien’s love interest, and this sub-plot is the one real weakness in the film. It isn’t that love stories do not happen in wartime; it’s that the half dozen snippets of time given to the development of the relationship are not enough to engage an audience. Damien’s commitment is to the IRA, to which he vows himself in a scene not unlike a marriage, and there is something unconvincing in the private moments he shares with Sinéad. The story has no need of a romantic involvement of the sort left underdeveloped here.
The film opens with a game of hurley, a model perhaps for non-violent conflict resolution, and later shows the players training as soldiers using hurley sticks instead of rifles, and still later they acquire the weapons they need to further their armed revolution. Damien is there in the opening scene, extending his hand in reconciliation to an opponent, and he is there at the end, his hands tied and facing a firing squad. The narrative in between, through uniformly compelling performances, explains how it is a person gets from point A to point B, how something that is straightforward and clear at the start can become muddy and confused at the end. Historical movies, of course, are made in response to events in their own time. There’s an object lesson to be learned in The Wind that Shakes the Barley. As much as this powerful film, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, is a history class, the Irish know their own history, and Loach is not an Irishman anyway. Rather, Iraq became a British Protectorate during the very period covered in this movie. Ken Loach is an Englishman, speaking here to his own country about itself.