Directed by Ken Loach. 2006.

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The Wind that Shakes the Barley, directed by Ken Loach and written by Paul Laverty, deals with the Irish War of Independence of 1919-1921 and the subsequent civil war (1922-23) as experienced by two brothers, fighting on opposite sides of the conflict. The film, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2006, dramatizes the role played by the Black and Tan, a special auxiliary force formed by British ex-soldiers who acquired a reputation for violent reprisals against the civilian population in Ireland after attacks by the old Irish Republican Army (IRA). Many incidents in the film, according to Laverty, are based on true events though the characters may be composites.  

Loach was attacked by critics in Britain for his “poisonous” film that was called a “travesty” by another reviewer. Both reviewers later admitted that they had not seen the film. To Loach it is understandable that “they try to cover things up, and for 80 years trying to patch these things over simply hasn’t worked”. As the film begins, after a hurling match in a rural village, a group of players are set upon by British soldiers who kill a young man because he is unable or unwilling to say his name in English. Damien O’Donovan, played by the charismatic Cillian Murphy, a young medical student preparing to go to London, is shocked by this brutality.  

After another incident that occurs at a train station when a union engineer is beaten by British thugs, he decides to remain in County Cork and join his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney), an active IRA member in forming a local “flying column”. The group trains for guerilla warfare with hockey sticks until they are able to steal some guns from a British stronghold. Damien soon learns the true cost of war when he is forced to execute a local lad who had given evidence to the British, resulting in the death of two IRA members and later admits to his girlfriend, “I can’t feel anything anymore.”  

Many atrocities occur and Loach shows that they were not limited to the British. After one attack on a British patrol, an IRA commander tells his troops, “If they bring their savagery over here, we will meet it with a savagery of our own.” Weary of conflict, the IRA rejoices when a treaty is announced creating The Irish Free State in the South and leaving Northern Ireland under British rule but after details of the treaty are announced, the brothers find themselves on different sides. Teddy overrules the first true Irish court because he wants to remain on good terms with local business people who may be exploiting the poor people but who supply arms for the IRA.  

This splits the group with one side believing that the solution offered by the British is the best that they can hope for, and the other side, led by Damien, vowing to continue the fight for a completely independent socialist nation, invoking the memory of socialist leader James Connolly who said "If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic, your efforts would be in vain.”  One volunteer says, “Lads, we have freedom within our grasp. We’re that close. It’s just one inch but it’s still out of reach. And if we stop now, we will never again… regain the power that I can feel in this room today. And if we stop short now, never in our lifetime… will we see that energy again. Ever!” 

While it is clear that Loach sides with those who wanted to continue the fight, the film deals with the substance of what happened. When Damien and his followers refuse to swear allegiance to the British monarchy, Teddy takes up arms for the Irish Free State and his army emulates the heavy-handed tactics of the former occupiers but their motivations are not fully explored and the sudden shift is confusing. While The Wind That Shakes the Barley is clear about the resistance that inevitably occurs when a powerful country occupies a weaker nation, to those unfamiliar with the historical details, it might have benefited from more information about the background of the conflict and its legacy in Ireland today.  

In spite of a flat ending that should have been powerful and moving, The Wind That Shakes the Barley pulls no punches and makes a strong point that is very relevant to today’s conflict in the Middle East. According to Loach, “The British army in Ireland during 1920-21 did what armies of occupation do the world over – adopt a racist attitude towards the people they are attacking and occupying. They destroy people’s houses, engage in acts of brutality and generally oppress the people – and in Iraq that’s exactly what the British army is doing.” One can trust that these actions will not be hidden for 80 years. 


Howard Schumann
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