The Wind That Shakes The Barley…Directed by Ken Loach.

Image © Terence wiki

Nora Connolly

I first saw this movie in 2006 and recall people leaving the cinema in tears. A powerful film directed by a master of the craft, Ken Loach. The last fifteen minutes deeply moving, as Teddy O’Donovan (Padraic Delaney) fails to persuade his brother and former brother-in-arms Damien (Cillian Murphy) to join the ranks of the pro-Treaty forces and give up his anti-Treaty comrades. Teddy O`Donovan orders Damien`s execution, granting the condemned man time to write a letter to Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald). In the early hours Damien meets his death, Teddy O`Donovan dressed in his Free State uniform, commands the firing squad to kill his brother. A scene of betrayal realistically portrayed. We then see Teddy go to Sinead with the letter; Sinead breaks down (a beautiful performance by Fitzgerald) and orders O`Donovan off her land. Sinead becomes a metaphor for Ireland, the Cathleen ni Houlihan of the film (TWTSTB has more in common with O`Casey than Yeats). It deserved its critical acclaim but as a piece of history it`s flawed.

TWTSTB deals with the Anglo-Irish War (1919-21) and the subsequent Civil War (1922-23) which saw friends, families and comrades violently split over the issue of the Treaty. The starting point for the film is 1920, when the `Black and Tans` are sent to Ireland to quell rebellion, the `Tan’s (mercenaries, resembling the German Freikorps) associated with violence and barbarism, dispensing `justice` in an arbitrary manner. The film begins with a demonstration of this, as the `Black and Tans` descend after a game of hurling. They line the players up, including Damien and Teddy O`Donovan. This takes place on the property of Sinead and her family. One of those interrogated responds only in Irish, resulting in his torture and murder. The subsequent distress brilliantly portrayed by the cast, magnificently directed by Loach.

We then discover that Damien is about to leave Ireland to practice as a Doctor in England, he never leaves. He changes his mind after witnessing an attack on Dan (Liam Cunningham). Dan is a railway worker, a trade unionist and supporter of James Connolly. Dan stops a group of soldiers boarding his train, for which he receives a beating. Damien outraged by these events is seen taking an oath; he becomes a member of the Irish Republican Army (formerly Volunteers/IRB). He joins a flying column and takes to the hills.

The film does not explain how the Anglo-Irish War begins. A contextual understanding vital, if one is to gain a complete picture of events depicted. The campaign of violence against the RIC ignored. The war starts with the killing of Constables McDonnell and O`Connell, neither members of an invading army. They were gunned down in Soloheadbeg, January 1919. McDonnell and O`Connell had no association with `political prosecutions`. One could cite Sergeant Brady killed while on patrol leaving a large family and a broken hearted wife, collapsing during his funeral, “sobbing violently and calling out again and again murder by the roadside.” As RF Foster outlines, assassinations of this type continued throughout the war, with 400 Constables killed by 1921. The Anglo-Irish War, a precursor to Civil War, as Irish men gunned down compatriots.  TWTSTB does feature an attack on a Police Barracks – the Constables described as “traitors”, however their deaths are not recorded or even mentioned; such an inclusion would not fit the heroic nationalist narrative outlined.

During the film the flying column is captured by the Army and the leader, Teddy O`Donovan tortured for information. They escape but not before Damien brazenly informs his captors that he is a “democrat”, referring to the SF election victory in 1918. However, as Kee states, “the question of taking offensive action against Police and Soldiers in Ireland to establish an Irish Republic had never been before the Irish people and if it had been at the General Election of 1918 it would have been decisively rejected.” The tradition that Damien followed required no political mandate but this is left unsaid. To announce the obvious, would perhaps subvert the bogus notion that O`Donovan is a Socialist revolutionary rather than a Nationalist one.

It is during this brief period of captivity that Damien makes contact with Dan the railway worker and James Connolly supporter. The film then completely overplays the significance of Connolly within the context of the Anglo-Irish War/Civil War. Loach transforms a Nationalist uprising into a Socialist revolution – but this does not stand up to genuine scrutiny. The anti-Treaty people were a disparate group with some socialist representation – Liam Mellows the most notable. But those who rejected the Treaty did not do so because it betrayed a Marxist agenda.  The film makes reference to the 1918 Democratic Programme as a justification for this. But this was hardly Marxist and only “vaguely socialist” providing a sop to the memory of James Connolly who was executed in 1916.  Constance Markievicz a supporter of Connolly was made Minister of Labour, in 1918 “a post significantly relegated outside Cabinet in the second Dail”. This hardly constitutes a Socialist rationale for this Nationalist war. De Valera, Michael Collins and Arthur Griffiths were not Socialists. The main reasons for rejecting the Treaty are outlined in the movie during a didactic scene. The protagonists view a news-reel in a cinema which outlines the negatives associated with the Treaty– Socialism doesn’t feature.

In one scene Dan (Liam Cunningham) critiques the IRA, announcing they are backing the landlords – which was true. But Dan is himself in the IRA (otherwise he would not be on active service with a flying column). Dan is not speaking as a representative of Labour or the Citizen`s Army but as a nationalist in a debate about the administration of Republican courts. But somehow the viewer is made to believe they are witnessing the betrayal of a Socialist revolution in Ireland, the rejection of the treaty equated with socialism.

As Foster explains there was a significant increase in Labour organisations during this time. For example the huge growth in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union modelled on the IWW (thanks to Connolly and Larkin). The forward march of Irish Labour was also evident most notably during the 1922 election. With the Labour Party gaining 21% of the vote “more votes than the anti-Treatyites”. Foster makes clear that both the pro and anti-Treaty Republicans were hostile to Labour and the left. Foster cites Peadar O’Donnell who recalled how the IRA patrolled estates to “enforce decrees for rent, arrest and even order out of the country leaders of local land agitations.” One hardly imagines that James Connolly would have reconciled himself to this, had he lived post 1916. The IRA not only protected the landlord`s economic position but according to Foster utilised its membership for the purpose of strike breaking. This reality does not sit easily within the narrative outlined in TWTSTB. In 1922 communists were running for seats in rural Ireland promoting an economic agenda ignoring the nationalist question. The left were considered a threat to the nascent nation; socialism was stamped out.

This film at least attempt`s an analysis from the left and clearly it is not a documentary but a dramatisation of events. However, while it set out to critique nationalism it actually makes heroes out of those who oppressed Irish Labour, an ironic and unforgivable twist to a dramatic tale.


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