The Wind That Shakes The Barley is set in Cork in 1920-1, and opens with a community radicalised by an armed British presence that reacts violently when they dare to play a hurling match (a game whose national significance now makes sense to this reviewer!).
These were uniquely ‘politicised times’ as Ken Loach said in his talk following a screening at the Barbican. The Bolshevik revolution was still fresh in the memories of the key protagonists, as was the Great War during which the British and the other powers sought to divide bits of the world between them, and Sinn Fein had won a massive victory at the polls and a clear mandate for power. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. The infamous mercenaries, the Black and Tans, were sent in to quell republican resistance.
One reading of this important episode in the story of anti-imperialism is a tragic one, and yet the struggle shook the British establishment at a time when it was stretched and exposed, fighting on too many fronts. More effective solidarity with the restless working class in Britain, and with nationalists all over the empire, could have tipped things in a very different direction. It seems like a world away now from our more cynical and world weary times. It was. Politics was never more vital. A super-potent version of that sense of injustice that is a staple of Loach’s films going back to Cathy Come Home was the fuel that fed their anger and drove them to fight back.
Loach doesn’t spare us in his portrayal of the torture of republican soldiers, or the brutality visited on the communities from which they came – but neither does he titillate us with blood and guts. We are left in no doubt that this was a guerrilla war but, as he explained afterwards, we wouldn’t have learned anymore if they had pulled out teeth rather than just fingernails. The most exhilarating parts of the film are filled with talk. The violence is only ever a means to an end.
In a highly charged scene at a meeting of volunteers following the announcement of the signing of the partition treaty with Britain, we witness the beginnings of division in the ranks. Would they fight on for their freedom and disassociate themselves with the ‘free-staters’, or concede the north of the island, accept partition, and the dominion status that came with it? Loach rightly refused to come down on either the socialist/republican or bourgeois/nationalist (as he put it) sides, but instead allowed us to empathise with their personal torments and understand their political motivations.
‘How does if feel to kill an Irishman?’ asks one of another when hostilities break out once more. Loach explained how the cast was recruited from the local area, and how events lived on in the memories of those around at the time, and in contemporary folklore. He describes an instance he came across where one man had signed the execution warrant for the best man at his wedding. The telling of the story through the prism of the relationship between two brothers was clearly more than a neat dramatic device. The civil war ran deep.
Curiously though, like Basil Fawlty, Loach couldn’t help but mention the war (in Iraq) – at least they marched for one day, he said unconvincingly. Like Ireland, it has a long and bitter history of resistance, its boundaries drawn by British colonialists, and it now involves surrogates fighting a dirty war. But today’s reluctant imperialists exhibit a more accidental and aimless brutality, the consequence of its armies being holed up in their high security barracks with no clear mission, and promoted by a culture of paralysis and fear indulged by political elites at home. And the left is much the same, practising a politics that can only live vicariously through the self-destructive acts of deluded individuals with no roots in the local community – quite the opposite of supporting the right to self-determination of a sovereign people.
But there is one other parallel. According to Loach, all his films follow a clear narrative structure, tracing contradictions in the character’s lives and taking them to their resolution. Which is a strange thing to say if you think about it after a film about Ireland. Like Iraq, it is a conflict that was never really resolved. In the latter, the allies claimed to have won without declaring their victory for fear of triumphalism, but remain caught up in skirmishes as they try to avoid responsibility for the devastation they leave in their wake. This confused state of affairs is echoed in the republican movement’s declared end to hostilities. Though its commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, like partition all those years earlier, signalled a withdrawal from its wider ambitions, Sinn Fein was more or less triumphant in public, in a calculated effort not to admit defeat.
The mystifying language of identity politics that subsequently came to dominate in Ireland (and Iraq, and elsewhere), subsumed its political history under the demeaning logic of historical and unchanging antagonisms, and institutionalised the divisions more than the barbed wire and check points ever could. That is the real tragedy of Ireland, and perhaps another film.