The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Produced by UK Film Council
Directed by Ken Loach
Screenplay by Paul Laverty
Distributed by IFC First Take
Last month, scientists at Oxford University reported that there are no significant genetic differences between the British and the Irish. Their announcement might almost have been timed as a sardonic backdrop to the power-sharing agreement that Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams is entering into with his archenemy, Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Now that Catholics and Protestants know they share the same DNA, will they quit shooting one another? We probably shouldn’t get our hopes up. The human urge to indulge suspicion and hatred seems as deeply encoded in us as the color of our skin and hair. Our genes, it turns out, are as likely to be ignoble as decorative.
While you’re waiting for the outcome of this latest peace process, you may want to get an inkling of how ignoble genes have fueled the violence in Ireland for the past 85 years. If so, seek out Ken Loach’s new film, When the Wind Shakes the Barley. Keep in mind, however, that the ink-ling Loach serves up is heavily larded with Marxist sentimentality.
Loach has taken his title from a ballad written by the 19th-century poet Robert Dwyer Joyce. Its refrain invokes the image of wind-blown barley, whose significance contemporary audiences instantly recognized. When going off to fight the British enemy, poorly supplied Irish rebels stuffed barley into their pockets in order to have something to eat on the way. Since those who died in combat were often buried en masse, their pocketed barley eventually took root and flourished above their otherwise unmarked graves, a circumstance that gave rise to the term croppy holes. Joyce’s song implies that from the rebels’ sacrifice sprung a continuing and flourishing resistance to British rule. At the beginning of the 20th century, the song was made popular once more by Irish nationalists, especially those of a socialist persuasion. Its imagery suited their collectivist political philosophy. It is a socialist article of faith that, when the needs of the community are at stake, the individual is expendable.
What Joyce and the socialists who embraced his ballad did not foresee, however, was the ultimate outcome of the Irish War of Independence. In 1921, Irish Republican representatives led by Michael Collins entered into a treaty with Britain’s prime minister, Lloyd George. England would grant Ireland’s 26 southern counties Free State status under British dominion, while the northern six would remain as before under England’s direct rule. The treaty was controversial from the start, dividing practical-minded nationalists from their more idealistic—and generally socialist—republican brethren. The nationalists saw the agreement as the best political compromise they could realistically expect, especially given Lloyd George’s ultimatum: The Irish could either agree to his terms, he announced during negotiations, or face “immediate and terrible war.” The idealists weren’t having it. They called the treaty a sellout. After suffering the hardships of a vicious guerilla war against a world power, they were in no mood to submit tamely to some crumbs brushed from the English table. Thus began the Irish troubles that only now seem to be coming to an end.
Loach, who has made his career as a leftist director, has recreated Ireland’s troubles on a Marxist template. In doing so, he has enraged many in the conservative British press, some of whom have called him a traitor. While I agree that he has distorted his case in order to assert his own political agenda, I find it grimly amusing that some British commentators are crying J’accuse! against one of their own for suggesting their ancestors might have had blood on their hands. There’s no escaping the facts. These are the descendants of a people who systematically reduced the Irish to hopeless penury by barring them from owning their own land and making it illegal for them to acquire an education; who insisted that the Irish not engage in manufacturing or share in the profits from the sale of their own produce; who sat by comfortably while over a million of their genetically identical brethren died during the potato famine of the mid-19th century; who continued to reject entreaties for Irish independence into the 20th century, well after their colonial dominance had ceased to yield significant profits. Any criticism of Loach that doesn’t first confess to the seven centuries of British crimes against the Irish forfeits its claim to legitimacy in advance. This said, it must be kept in mind that, whatever its merits, Loach’s film engages in a number of distortions and deletions.
Loach begins by taking us back to 1920, one year before the Government of Ireland Act was signed, giving the southern counties home rule, and follows the mixed fortunes of a group of rural young men who join the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the progenitor of the Irish Republican Army. These ragtag rebels first took up arms against the Royal Irish Constabulary after the failed attempt at revolution in the Easter Rising of 1916, in which they were killing their own countrymen. The Black and Tans, British World War I veterans, were recruited for pay to quell what was, in effect, an insurgency. They came by their name because of their hastily arranged uniforms, which included dark green caps and khaki pants. Loach shrewdly foreshortens these events so that the unsuspecting viewer sees the Black and Tans as the initiators of the violence. The reality is a bit more complicated. While the Black and Tans were vicious, it cannot be overlooked that they were reacting to the Brotherhood’s attacks—which were, frankly, terrorist in nature. Two other things must be noted. The Black and Tans were poorly trained for combating insurgent tactics and, not surprisingly, bungled their mission badly. Their often gratuitous violence against citizens suspected of collaborating with terrorism created sympathy and support for the Brotherhood just when other Irish leaders had been hoping to establish a rapprochement with Britain. Many in Dublin’s political circles, including the Church’s hierarchy, had encouraged young Irishmen to fight alongside British soldiers in the Great War. Over 200,000 enlisted; 60,000 did not return. These Irish soldiers fought not only to defeat the Germans but to demonstrate their good will toward the members of the English parliament who had shown a growing willingness to grant Ireland independence. This is why the majority of Irish citizens initially judged the Easter Rising of 1916 and the Brotherhood’s terrorist tactics to be insanely self-defeating. The British, however, turned the tide of public sentiment by quickly hanging the Rising’s leaders—thus making martyrs of them—and, later, by sending in the Black and Tans. The Irish Republican Army would never have become such romanticized rebels, had the British deployed smarter—not to mention, more humane—tactics in their response to the threat they posed.
Loach is not interested in these complications. He leaves out all the evidence of the British will to ameliorate earlier policies. As a Marxist, he seems committed to the notion that justice can only be achieved at the end of a gun barrel. Accordingly, the film features a self-satisfied wealthy Anglo-Irish farmer who refers to Ireland as a priest-infested backwater and treats his Irish Catholic laborers with contempt. Clearly, he deserves to be shot. Nowhere in sight are the many Anglo-Irish who backed the drive to independence and pointedly refused to think their Protestantism made them superior to their Catholic neighbors. Acknowledging this would undermine Loach’s class-conflict model of history.
That said, Loach’s film does give us a sense of the desperation felt by a people oppressed for centuries and of the chances they were willing to take when they suddenly sensed a way out. The story begins with two brothers, Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Padraic Delaney). Athletic and rough-edged, Teddy is already a committed nationalist and a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The intellectual Damien, on the other hand, is preparing to become a doctor and is about to leave Cork to enter residency in a London hospital. As they come home from a hurling match with some other young men, Damien must endure a bit of chaffing for his choice. Although his friends taunt him under the cover of good humor, there is an unpleasant edge to it. Abruptly, we find out why. A squad of Black and Tans swoops down on the boys and backs them against a neighboring barn, calling them “Mick bastards” and insisting they strip to their underwear. The squad captain then demands to know their names. When one of the Irishmen insists on replying in Gaelic, the captain goes into a rage and has him hauled into the barn and beaten to death, with his wailing mother beseeching mercy just outside. On the first leg of his journey to London the next day, Damien witnesses more brutality at the train station. An engineer and conductor are pummeled bloody for refusing to break regulations and allow armed British soldiers on their train.
Needless to say, Damien doesn’t go to London. Instead, he joins Teddy, becoming a rebel in the Brotherhood’s movement. Soon, the brothers are stealing arms from the Black and Tans and going on maneuvers in the hills, wearing their civilian caps and ragged sport jackets. At first, it all seems a gallant adventure; then, the inevitable happens. One of their number is forced to become an informer. When the others discover his “treachery,” Damien finds himself called upon to enforce discipline on one of his own and starts down the road to ruthless, puritanical zealotry.
To his credit, Loach does not soft-pedal the ferocity of the socialist republicans. At the same time, he gives Damien the more heroic role to play. When peace comes with the controversial treaty with Lloyd George’s government, he spurns his brother for supporting it. Nor will he brook Teddy’s fraternizing with that archenemy of socialism, the bourgeoisie. He’s not content to “change the accents of our landlords.” Nor will Damien stay quiet when his parish priest urges his flock at Mass to support the terms of the Irish Free State. He stands up in his pew and bitterly repudiates the clergyman. “The Catholic Church sides with the rich once more,” he sneers before walking out.
The Marxist message could hardly be clearer—nor more shortsighted. There is a partial truth to his film’s propaganda, but the Irish story is vaster and much more complicated, with plenty of praise and blame to go around both for chances seized and opportunities lost. And, certainly, the Irish Republican Army bears an enormous burden of guilt for the atrocities that followed in the wake of 1921.
Loach has drawn very good performances from his cast. As Damien, Murphy displays the fine features of an intellectual whose romantically luminous eyes turn hard and fierce when confronting injustice. As his brother, Delaney creates a portrait of a bluff, determined man with the instincts of a natural athlete. He knows when to push his adversary and when to back off. He practices the sportsman’s rough calculus, playing the game to win what you can today, satisfied to leave the rest for another match. As Damien’s fiancée, Orla Fitzgerald perfectly conveys the terrible plight of a woman of feeling and delicacy who steels her frail body and sensitive spirit to address the terrors coming at her. Particularly moving is the scene in which Damien finds her after a reprisal raid by the Black and Tans. They have burned her family’s home to the ground and shaved her head so roughly that she’s left bleeding from multiple scalp wounds. Running to Damien’s arms, she begs him, “Take me away. I want some kind of life.” Her cry speaks for not only the Irish of earlier times but all the oppressed of a world notoriously deficient in the DNA of mercy.