The winds of change still blow

Issue 

The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Written by Paul Laverty
Directed by Ken Loach
With Cillian Murphy, Padraic Delaney, Liam Cunningham, Gerard Kearney and William Ruane
In selected cinemas now.

Ken Loach's new film The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a brilliant work that brings to life a crucial moment in Irish history — the signing of the treaty with England in 1921 that partitioned the country into the Irish Free State in the south, with "Northern Ireland" remaining under British rule, and the consequent civil war between supporters and opponents of the treaty. Through the experiences of a small group of working people and rank-and-file Irish Republican Army fighters, the film deals with both the brutality of the British occupation, and the key internal political struggles of the day.

Opening in County Cork in 1920, we see Damien O'Donovan (Murphy), a young doctor who is cynical about the prospect of independence for Ireland, preparing to leave to work in England. Following the Easter Rising against British rule in 1916 and the general elections in 1918, after which Sinn Fein, which won more than 80% of Irish seats in the British parliament, declared an Irish Republic, the IRA launched the War of Independence. This was a guerrilla war against the British paramilitaries — the "Black and Tans" — British war veterans who were sent to Ireland to wipe out the Irish republican movement. Damien can't avoid the relentless brutality of the Black and Tans, and instead of leaving, decides to join the local IRA unit, headed by his brother Teddy Delany.

The film deals unflinchingly with the violence of occupation — with the daily terror, humiliation and sense of powerlessness that a subjugated people experience — and it is depicted in a stark and unsentimental way that at times has a physical impact on the viewer. At Cannes, where The Wind That Shakes the Barley won the Palm d'Or, Ken Loach spoke of the link between this film and the current occupation of Iraq. He told the British newspaper Socialist Worker: "We have a responsibility to attack the mistakes and brutalities of our own leaders, past and present."

The film effectively shows the faces of the working people who made up the resistance to the occupation in Ireland — a collection of "rustics, shophands and corner boys" with "delusions of grandeur" in the sneering words of Sir John, an English landlord in the film.

The film shows the role of workers in resisting the occupation, particularly the transport workers, who refuse to convey British troops and weapons around Ireland. The popularity of the national liberation movement is clear from the level of participation and support for the struggle. The participation of women is highlighted and children act as messengers for the guerrillas throughout the movie.

At the heart of this film are the constant debates and discussions, the battle of ideas within the Irish republican forces about what freedom for Ireland really means. For Teddy it means an end to the British occupation; but for Damien and the train driver Dan (Cunningham), a follower ofsocialist Republican James Connolly, the question of fundamental social change is crucial.

While Teddy is willing to do deals with Irish landlords against the interests of the poor, Damien is observing with dismay the extreme poverty — the "half-starved" children — in the Cork countryside.

The highlight of the film is the scene that captures the intense debate of this vital moment in Irish history, not by looking at the major historical figures but at a meeting of the local IRA in Cork that is convened to discuss the signing the treaty. Similar in style to the impassioned discussions about collectivisation during the Spanish Civil War in Loach's Land and Freedom, the characters we've met offer their views. They speak with the sense of knowing they are making history.

One man says that "if we don't pursue this now, we will never again regain the power that I can feel in this room today ... Never in our lifetime will we see this energy again." Dan says that if they accept the treaty, the only thing that will change in Ireland is "the accents of the powerful, and the colour of the flag". The Free Staters, such as Teddy, believe the treaty is the only sensible option, and fear the "immediate and terrible war" that England has threatened if the Irish fail to sign.

The bloody civil war that follows, in which brother is literally fighting against brother, has left a bitter legacy in Ireland. "Send out the Black and Tans, bring in the Green and Tans", says a disgusted character in the film. The division of the Republican forces, the sense of betrayal, and above all, the missed opportunity of gaining a more meaningful independence, is conveyed in all its tragedy by Loach.

More Irish people were killed during the civil war than during the War of Independence, with about 800 national army soldiers and 3000 Republicans dead between June 1922 and May 1923, and 12,000 Republicans jailed in the prisons of the "Free State". The key point of the film remains the brutality of the British occupation, however, and the inevitability of resistance. Speaking to Socialist Worker, Loach said, "In spite of the suffering depicted, the fact still remains that the British marched out of Ireland. There is an element of hope in that."


Become a Green Left supporter today

Green Left aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. We rely on regular support and donations from readers like you.