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
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'
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.