Join The IRA!
Sorry about that, but reading some of the advance reviews for Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s some kind of recruitment film for the IRA, a Top Gun for the Republican army. When I say advance reviews, most of the high-handed guff written around the time of the film’s premiere at Cannes (where it won the Palme D’Or) was by journalists who hadn’t actually seen it. The Times compared Loach with Leni Riefenstahl – a fine filmmaker, but that wasn’t what they meant. The Mail asked: “Why does Ken Loach loathe his country so much?” and the Sun tried this sophisticated line of argument: “Top Cannes film is most pro-IRA ever (and, yes, it did get a Lotto grant).” Topping them all was Simon Heffer in the Telegraph: “He hates this country, yet leeches off it, using public funds to make his repulsive films. And no, I haven’t seen it, any more than I need to read Mein Kampf to know what a louse Hitler was.”
All of which hardens my appreciation of Loach, who is surely one of the truly essential British filmmakers. His recent Bafta Fellowship speech provided a rare display of substance and sincerity at another evening of vacuous irrelevence. The Wind That Shakes The Barley is a beautiful, powerful film. Anti-British only in the sense that its viewpoint is that of the oppressed rather than the oppressor. In 1920s Ireland, we see the frustrated violence of the Black and Tans established in scene one, causing Cillian Murphy’s doctor, Damien, to curtail his trip to London and join the armed resistance with his brother Teddy, played by newcomer Padraic Delaney. But it’s not just about fighting the British. When Sinn Fein negotiate the treaty with Lloyd George in 1921, the Republicans are divided into those who are for the compromise and those who are against, which drives an ideological wedge between the two brothers. There is still violence even after the British army are seen marching out of Ireland. Certainly, the only halfway sympathetic British soldier we see is a young prison guard who lets a gang of Republicans out of jail (his father, he reveals, was from Donegal), and the most rounded British character is a typically aristocratic landowner who looked a bit like Christopher Hitchens in tweed, but when conflict is by turns both sloganeeringly simplistic (British out, independence for Ireland) and troublesomely complex (we see a punitive Republican court disrupted when an Irish landlord is fined for repressing poor tenants and Teddy pays him off outside as his money helps to buy weapons, causing a part-improvised ideological argument worthy of Land And Freedom), Loach should be applauded for taking it on at all, not pilloried for being a self-loathing Brit. I felt like one watching events ufold. It’s a healthy state of mind when so much blood has been spilled and long-term misery sown by British colonial adventure.
The film acts as a grittier, more personal answer to the Hollywoodised Michael Collins – important in its own way, for bringing this chapter of history to the fore, but ultimately too neat in its portayal of events. The heroes in Loach’s film are ordinary men driven to fight, not inspirational orators or politicians. Warning: this is brutal film. It’s the second time in six months I’ve been to the cinema to see fingernails being graphically pulled out with pliers. (Michael Gove MP, of course, railed against the portayal of the Black and Tans as merceneries who “ripped out toenails”. If you’re going to froth, froth accurately.)
What’s most upsetting about the film is how recently it all took place. As we remember the Somme, and rightly so, let us not forget our shameful armed intervention in Ireland. We saw the nauseating trailer for Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (“THE WORLD SAW EVIL THAT DAY – TWO MEN SAW SOMETHING ELSE”). Now you shouldn’t judge a film by its trailer, but on the face of it, this is also propaganda (“EVIL”?), but propaganda for the status quo. I find it much more stimulating when it’s the other way around. If anything, Stone is Reifenstahl.
If I like Ireland so much why don’t I go and live there?
I’d like to, one day, actually. John McGahern died of cancer, aged 71, in March, and his death was greeted with such adoring tribute (“arguably the most important Irish novelist since Samuel Beckett”), I was moved to seek out his work. I was surprised at the poor stock of his books in Borders (just the one, in fact) and ordered some online from a bookstore in Dublin. I’ve just finished Amongst Women, written in 1990, and perhaps his most famous work after The Dark, written in 1965 and banned in Ireland, sending him into partial exile for ten years, scarred by the experience permanently, it seems. McGahern made his home in Country Leitrim, running a small farm, and this is the setting, I understand, for many of his books. Amongst Women tells the tale of a grumpy patriarch, Moran, who fought for the Republican army in the 1920s, a past that haunts and defines him, even though it is rarely mentioned in the book (clever writing), as he watches his three daughters and youngest son grow up and fly the nest, to Dublin, and to London. Set around the 1950s it paints an economincal but vivid portrait of rural Ireland, and touches on every aspect of family: the unspoken love, the pain of separation, the disappointment when sons and daughters turn out differently to expectation, all spiced with the ritual of religious faith and the daily recitation of the Rosary. Although Ireland is the very model of a modern European country these days, it retains the character captured in McGahern’s writing, especially in the countryside. Reading this book, whose quiet, unshowy genius seems to be sheer simplicity and authenticity, made me want to go back to Ireland. We’ve only been once this year, for a couple of days, and I miss Galway.