History Lessons in The Wind that Shakes the Barley

wind that shakes the barley

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.

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