County Cork, Ireland is the location of the film The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Directed by Ken Loach and written by Paul Laverty, a pair that has worked together many times – the film is both a story of the Irish struggle for independence from Britain, and a tale of the two O’Donovan brothers who valued their principles above all else.
As the film begins, it is 1920, and we are watching a number of lads play a spirited game of hurling. After, a small group of them head home but they’re curtailed (make that interrogated and roughed up) by the Black & Tans – an auxiliary force that was a part of the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary). Actually they were mostly former British World War I officers, and they were recruited by the RIC and charged with suppressing revolution in Ireland. Their chief target was the IRA (Irish Republican Army) but they also were notorious ruffians because they attacked the Irish civilians.
On this particular day, they killed one of the hurling players because he refused to give his name and address in English. He spoke Gaelic, and for this – he was beaten to death. This savagery was occuring throughout the country, and often, the IRA retaliated in kind.
Teddy O’Donovan (played by Padraic Delaney) is the local commander of an IRA wing. His brother Damien O’Donovan (played by Cillian Murphy) is a med school graduate who is about to leave for London to work in a hospital. After Micheal is beaten to death, Damien is still certain he’s going to London to be a doctor.
But at the rail station he watches horrified, as the Black & Tans beat up the train’s conductor and engineer for refusing to allow the armed B&T’s on the train.
This is the moment that creates enough impact; so much so that it changes Damien’s mind. He then joins up with his brother in the IRA. They raid and steal weapons, they ambush, they assassinate. In their mind, they are fighting the good fight, struggling to throw the occupying forces out of their country. They want nothing less than full independence from Britain.
But other forces are in play in both Dublin and London. Soon the word comes down that a truce agreement has been signed. Britain agrees to give Ireland a kind of self-rule called dominion status, but in effect, they are still part of the British Empire. The new country is called The Irish Free State. But in the eyes of many, including the IRA, this was a sell out. The citizens would be required to sign an oath of allegiance to the British King.
So that’s your background.The brothers O’Donovan divide. Teddy on the side of the Irish Free State, and Damien to the side who believe that this agreement exchanges one set of oppressors for another.
As Dan, the train engineer who is played by Liam Cunningham says in a passionate speech about the Irish Free State – “The only thing that has changed is the accent of the powerful [the landlords and the oppressors].”
Another IRA lad said, “The Black & Tan has been replaced by the Green & Tan.”
As Damien said to Teddy, “You have wrapped yourself in the fucking Union Jack! [You’re wearing…] the butchers apron.”
Loach’s film is a small microcosm of what was going on in Ireland at the time. The film is localized and takes place only in County Cork. The national Irish political figures like Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera are neither named or even seen in the film. But the small stature of the local struggle are what gives the film its passion and energy. Yet, Loach seems to be teaching us about national history as there are many scenes of debate and argument.
What we see often in this film is brutality, oppression, savagery, and violence. The Black & Tans call the IRA – gangsters and terrorists. The IRA commits as many atrocities as do the Black & Tans. Revolutions are never easy or soft on the viewers. Teddy is captured and we watch as his fingernails are torn out one by one. This sends him to the sidelines while his hands heal. So Damien is now in command.
At the moment before Damien must execute a friend who had been forced to give up the IRA names and location, he says:
“I studied anatomy for five years, Dan. And now I’m going to shoot this man in the head. I’ve known Chris Reilly since he was a child. I hope this Ireland we’re fighting for is worth it.”
While the film is engrossing and powerful it is not with out some issues. There’s no doubt that our sympathies are directed toward the IRA. That is the case despite the fact that Loach himself is British. In fact, Loach has been accused of hating his own country.
But within the film itself, there were often issues with the sound. In larger gatherings it was impossible to hear all of what everyone was saying. From another perspective – the Black & Tans came off as another faceless and nameless force of evil. They might just as well been Hollywood’s version of the Nazis.
While County Cork itself is a beautiful place, having seen it with my own eyes in person, there’s not much beauty in what we do see of it in the film. There’s greenery of course, but its color is always changed by the bloodshed that follows.
My final comment is that while the film is about two brothers who fall on opposite sides of the politics that will tear Ireland apart, they often speechify as if they were newspaper columnists, or in today’s vernacular – they were on stage in a televised debate. Murphy and Delaney are superb in bringing the characters into focus. Yet they are let down, or rather turned away from naturalism, in favor of polemics and Loach’s thinly veiled ‘British socialism’.
The film title, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is taken from a famous Irish 19th century ballad. From the lyrics:
Twas hard the woeful words to frame
To break the ties that bound us
But harder still to bear the shame
Of foreign chains around us
Three point five zero – with a recommendation to watch. The film is available in DVD or from Netflix either as a DVD rental or as a streaming video on your pc or TV.