The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

'The Film That Shakes A Lot More Than the Barley'


Eamon Sweeney • 22 July 2006

It is generally the case that anything of artistic value that has the additional bonus of upsetting the status quo is pilloried and harried before it is even read or viewed. Yet, more often than not these days, those things that promise controversy turn out to have used that pledge as a marketing tool. In watching 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley' I found a refreshing exception to the now weary norm.

Little wonder then that Ken Loach's examination of a column of the IRA's Cork Brigade during the War of Independence and ensuing Civil War was soundly ridiculed by both the British establishment press and Unionists weeks before its release. In saying that controversy is hardly the correct term to describe this movie, simply because it charts real events of 85 years ago. It is controversial only because someone dared to make it and the content and the poor image given to the British Army and its political directors by proxy through their actions in Ireland almost 100 years ago still rattles some guilty chains.

The fact that the Americans refused to distribute it was undoubtedly as a direct result of White House interference and the awarding of the Palme d'or at Cannes was enough to guarantee that this would be a production of substance.

According to English critics it was yet another example of visual hyperbole from the 'crackpot'Ken Loach. Furthermore, it was a wholly one sided depiction that was unfair to the British Army Auxilaries, or 'Black and Tans' to accord them there more infamous name. Unionists generally contended that it was another example of gratuitous Republican propaganda, blood soaked in the glorification of the idle, ungrateful Irish who dared to question their position well below the bottom rung of the Empire's ladder.

Ken Loach has been a long-term sharpened thorn in the side of the establishment. Resisting the temptation to succumb to the lure of Hollywood his career started after his graduation with a law degree from St Peters College, Oxford. He then branched out into the theatre, performing with a touring repertory company.

This led to television, where in alliance with producer Tony Garnett he produced a series of docudramas, most notably the devastating "Cathy Come Home" episode of "The Wednesday Play" (1964), whose impact was so massive that it led directly to a change in the homeless laws. He made his feature debut Poor Cow (1967) the following year, and with "Kes", he produced what is now acclaimed as one of the finest films ever made in Britain. However, the following two decades saw his career in the doldrums with his films poorly distributed, despite the obvious quality of work such as The Gamekeeper (1968) (TV) and Looks and Smiles (1981)) and his TV work in some cases never broadcast, most notoriously, his documentaries on the 1984 miners' strike.

My first encounter of Loach's work was as a young politics student in Belfast, in 1990. His film 'Hidden Agenda' focused on the assassination of a young American Human Rights lawyer in Belfast who was attempting to highlight the injustice of the 'darker' departments of the Crown at work in Northern Ireland.

It befalls his girlfriend, as well as a tough, no nonsense, police detective to find the truth, which they discover to be contained in an audiotape the man had with him, exposing political manipulations at the highest levels of government. The film had sufficient ability to get so near the bone that it was accorded the biggest accolade that the then Tory Government could bestow on it. It was banned.

The Queen's University Film Theatre took the bold step of being the only cinema in the UK to defy the ban and showed it. I with another few students from my house decided it would be a good thing to watch it. I was startled when we arrived to find the youth section of the Ulster Unionist Party placard waving outside the cinema and shouting some sort of anti-nationalist tripe as well as jostling people out of the way. I was shocked simply because I knew that not one of them had seen the movie. With hindsight it now reminds me of that episode of Father Ted, when himself and Dougal are dispatched to the islands cinema to protest against the salacious 'Passion of St Tibulus' with placards proclaiming 'Careful Now' and 'Down with This Sort of Thing!' As it turned out the jostling and name calling ceased when some of us 'jostled' back and it was a brilliant film that is still scarily pertinent to this day.

The plot of 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley' centres on the O'Donovan brothers Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Padraic Delaney). Damien is a newly qualified doctor who is off to London to take up a prestigious appointment. After the killing of another of his friends by the 'Tans' his brother and everyone else harries him to join the IRA. Ignoring their guilt-laden pleas he goes to catch a train where he witnesses the ferocity of the British Army again. The next scene is one where Damien has his hand on the tricolour taking the IRA oath.

What follows is indeed a graphic and historically accurate depiction of the guerilla war against the British in that era in Cork. Savage and ruthless IRA ambushes are met with more savage reprisals against not only captured IRA volunteers but against the whole civilian populace of the 'Rebel County'.

The wild and stunning west Cork countryside is brilliantly used by Loach to display not only the nature of guerilla warfare but the vastness of the task that faced Republicans in that time. Serving as a microcosm of the War in its entirety the film superbly encapsulates the whole debate surrounding the fighting, the treaty that ensued and the splintering of the Republican movement that still intrigues historians today.

Truth be told, this conflict still demarcates southern politics more than it should and more than the main southern political class would care to admit as they claim the wider and cloaking mantle of modern Europeans, uncomfortable as they still are with past schisms. Few like to acknowledge that the expensive suits that rest on plush arm chairs inside Leinster house are only available because of the determination of their peat-bog soldier ancestors. If they do that then they have to keep one eye turned to the North, they don't much like doing that either.

The only party currently represented in the Dail that does not have a tangible lineage to involvement in physical force Republicanism is the Green Party. Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the Progressive Democrats have been forced, in varying degrees, by the electoral success of Sinn Fein in recent years to hark back to bolder Republican pronouncements and the one act plays like this years 90th anniversary celebrations of the 1916 Rising.

Acting in this movie is at a premium especially from Cillian Murphy whom through the main gamut of emotions is expressed. From professional to an 'outlaw' on the run, from Catholic boy to socialist at odds with the Church to Ex-Communicant and from medic dedicated to saving lives to killer not only of the British but to the 'internal enemies' of informers, landlords and then his former comrades in the Freestate Army. Murphy displays these harrowing changes magnificently throughout in a gentle but constantly trembling and high pitched Cork brogue. To the films credit the nation before labour or labour before the nation argument of James Connolly is examined on a number of occassions woven as it is throughout the picture and not cobbled on in a cack-handed manner as some insignificant piece of theoretical debate.

Imagination boundaries are stretched when we are asked to believe that a young Scottish soldier allowed the pre-treaty flying column to escape from a British barracks en masse the night before they are executed. Claiming that his father was from Donegal and he would not have their deaths on his conscience, not only does he hand over his rifle but skips off with the escapees to join the IRA.

The authenticity of costumes and military hardware on both sides is well observed and the director was careful to illustrate that women played an almost equal military role as the men. However it may have been taking it beyond the scope of accuracy to suggest, as one scene did, that two Cumann mBann officers were in charge of a Sinn Fein Court that delivered even handed justice on behalf of the people. It is doubtful that women would have been accorded this role despite their more natural proclivity towards even handedness and history does not record that the Courts were model judicial gatherings, if anything they were the opposite.

Yet these are minor problems in what is in all a fantastic film. Free from the Hollywood glitz and romanticism in Neil Jordan's 'Michael Collins' the unwavering brutality from all combative protagonists gives this film a reality that is unsurpassed in any previous attempt to capture this or any other period in Irish history on celluloid.

The finale comes when Damien O'Donavan leads an abortive raid on a Freestate Army barracks and is captured. Having accepted the treaty the new local army commander is Damien's brother Teddy. Refusing to give the location of the IRA's weapons dumps Damien is lead out for execution under the supervision of his brother next morning. There is no last minute Hollywood or 'De Valeraesque' reprieve. As he slumps down the post that he had been tethered to one-hand remains tied to it. Loach did not miss the Cuchulain imagery often used by Republicans, most notably and unfortunately in graveyards. It is as poignant in its strength as the mournful ballad that the film takes its title from.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

25 July 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

Religious Rednecks of Doom
Dr John Coulter

Cut-Throat Politics
John Kennedy

A Poem About Our Children
Mary La Rosa

Israeli Blitzkrieg
Anthony McIntyre

When Leaders Serve Foreign Interests, Everyone Loses
Mazin Qumsiyeh

By Their Friends You Shall Know Them
Mick Hall

Mission Impossible
Anthony McIntyre

Lit Crit Well Writ
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Revisiting A Literary Genius
David Adams

'The Film That Shakes A Lot More Than the Barley'
Eamon Sweeney

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Conclusion
Marcella Sands

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Additional Information
Marcella Sands

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Letter of Thanks
Michael McKevitt

Pull the Other One
John Kennedy

Ex-Noraid Boss Still Gloomy on Peace Process
Jim Dee

An Honour to Have Been Part of the Blanket Protest
Anthony McIntyre

The Letters page has been updated.

19 July 2006

Dupe Process
Anthony McIntyre

Heatwave Won't Affect Cold Storage
Dr John Coulter

Hanson's Handouts
John Kennedy

Israeli State Terror
Anthony McIntyre

Judgement Day
John Kennedy

Israel, US and the New Orientalism
M. Shahid Alam

The Right, the Need to Resist
Mick Hall

An Invitation to My Neighborhood
Fred A Wilcox

Prison Fast

Death Brings Fr Faul
Anthony McIntyre

Risking the Death of Volunteers is Not the IRA Way
Brendan Hughes

Principles and Tactics
Liam O Ruairc

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Preliminary Hearings Cont'd.
Marcella Sands

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Rupert's Reward
Marcella Sands

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Rupert's Inconsistencies
Marcella Sands

Blast from the Past
John Kennedy

An Elegant End
Seaghán Ó Murchú

West Belfast - The Past, the Present and the Future
Davy Carlin



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