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August 09, 2006

Terrorists or freedom fighters? Ken Loach and "the good old IRA" - John Bew takes to task Ken Loach's slanted history: The Wind that Shakes the Barley - Ken Loach

Posted by John Bew

The Wind that Shakes the Barley
Directed by Ken Loach, Written by Paul Laverty
certificate 15, 2006

John Bew - Research Fellow in History at Peterhouse, Cambridge - takes Ken Loach to task for his slanted history, and dubious analogies, in the film The Wind that Shakes the Barley.

Given that recent winners of the Cannes Film Festival's Palm D'Or include Michael Moore for Fahrenheit 9/11, one can be forgiven for greeting the award with a heavy dose of scepticism. The latest recipient of the prize, veteran socialist director Ken Loach, would like to think that he has driven a stake into the heart of the British establishment. Responsible for such films as Land and Freedom (1995) - a sympathetic treatment of the Spanish civil war - he has earned a reputation for boldness and originality. However, the reality is that his latest politico-historical offering does little more than prop up the self-satisfied consensus of the European intelligentsia. Just like Fahrenheit 9/11, The Wind that Shakes the Barley fits comfortably with an orthodox view of the world in which we, Britain and the West, are the chief source of evil in the modern world.

The film opens in Bandon, County Cork in 1920. It follows the fate of two brothers who take up arms in the fight for Irish independence and engage British troops in a guerrilla war. It is an engaging human story, in which Loach aims to demonstrate how the brutality of the British "Black and Tans" - so-called after their uniform - prompted a cycle of violence which spiralled into bloody murder and rebellion in rural Cork.

At the core of the film is the idea that Britain - by failing to withdraw its troops from the country - has denied the democratic wish of the Irish people. The freedom fighters depicted in the film often refer back to the success of Sinn Fein at the election of 1918, in which it became the largest party in Ireland, following a campaign fought on the issue of Irish independence. On this basis, entwined with a pretty basic understanding of Ireland's lengthy nationalist tradition, Loach has his lead characters regularly referring to their "democratic mandate" for this struggle, fought on behalf of the people.

There is little suggestion in the film that the IRA was anything but a defensive force, a response to an alien presence in the country. In an interview given to Socialist Worker, Loach explains that the British:

sent in the troops, brutalised the population and then the resistance was born.
The lead character, Damien, only joins the struggle after abandoning his career as a doctor. Having recently graduated, he is about to leave Bandon by train when the British troops attack the stationmaster; the old man's union has stipulated that no soldiers are allowed to get on board. Damien has already seen his family humiliated and a friend murdered but this outrage is enough to send him over the edge. One of the rebels declares later in the film:
If they bring their savagery over here, we will meet it with a savagery of our own.
Every act of IRA violence is precipitated by a British atrocity. Horrific scenes of unreconstructed British bloodlust sit side by side with prolonged episodes of soul searching and the moral turmoil of the insurgents.

For critics of Loach's film, the first and most obvious port of call is the work of the "revisionist" generation of Irish historians: the scholars who argue that Ireland's history represents something much more complex than a triumphant march to national liberation and the victory of democracy against an overbearing colonial neighbour. Prominent among these is Peter Hart, Professor of Irish Studies at the Memorial University of Newfoundland.

In the IRA at War, 1916-1923 (Oxford, 2003), Hart makes the case that the Irish Revolution was also driven by strong religious and ethnic agendas, in which the minority Protestant population fared particularly badly. Where Loach is desperate to see a noble struggle for liberation, Hart points out that many saw the Revolution as a chance to settle old scores. He argues:

All the nightmare images of ethnic conflict in the twentieth century are here, the massacres and anonymous death squads, the burning homes and churches, the mass expulsions and trains filled with refugees, the transformation of lifelong neighbours into enemies, the conspiracy theories and the terminology of hatred.
Between 1911 and 1926, the twenty-six counties that became the Irish Free State lost 34 per cent of their Protestant population.

Loach claims to have anticipated the wrath of the "revisionists". But his film does little to pre-empt their critique. If anything, it might be argued that Loach goes out of his way to invest the narrative with a slant that is in line with his own political agenda. In keeping with his lifetime preoccupation, he attempts to squeeze in a tenuous link to the socialist ideas of the Easter Rising of 1916, through the medium of a rather contrived conversation in a prison cell. This is justifiable insofar as the Irish struggle for independence did encompass a variety of agendas and impulses. But in giving only one side a voice, he has produced a film as one sided and Manichean as anything which has come out of Hollywood in the last generation.

It is perhaps most telling that the modern IRA has a much more realistic engagement with this period of Irish history than Loach has aspired to. In the mid-1980s, when the modern "Troubles" were going through some of their darkest years, it was common for mainstream Irish politicians to attack the Provisionals for betraying the ideals of the original struggle for independence. But for committed republicans, the idea that "the nasty war" was simply a recent phenomenon was wishful thinking. In The Good Old IRA (issued by the Sinn Fein publicity department in November 1985) one-time Sinn Fein publicity director Danny Morrison responding by pointing out that the dirty side of the war - ambushes, bombs, the murder of Protestants and Catholic policemen as "traitors" or "spies" - had always been a part of "the struggle".

Moreover, Morrison also suggested that the IRA had driven the momentum of much of the violence even before the "Black and Tans" had arrived in Ireland. Yes, Irish nationalists had voted strongly for Sinn Fein in 1918. "Nobody", however, "was asked to vote for war". What, then, about the election of May 1921, in which Sinn Fein achieved more success and which "surely endorsed such methods retrospectively?"

"Not so again", Morrison writes: rival parties were "advised" to stand aside in a widespread campaign of intimidation and violence. In 124 constituencies, Sinn Fein candidates were returned entirely unopposed, "not so much elected as selected".

There is another contradiction in the structure of Loach's film that is difficult to reconcile to his central thesis. Whereas the first half of the film is about the struggle against the British, the second half is about the split between those who supported the Treaty with the British (which resulted in the Irish Free State) and those who fought against them. In the ensuing civil war, in which the two brothers are pitted against each other, the anti-Treaty rebels receive the more sympathetic treatment.

Not only was Ireland still to pay allegiance to the British monarchy, explains Loach and Paul Lavery (who wrote the screenplay for the film), the deal also:

allowed Carson's private army of terrorists to run free in an [independent Northern Ireland].
Having harped on about their "democratic mandate", however, neither Loach nor the anti-Treaty brother, Damien, fully justify why they are now fighting against the democratic decision of the Irish parliament and people to accept the Treaty in 1922. The nearest attempt is when Damien claims that that pro-Treaty majority were coerced by threat of war: something that Michael Collins and the pro-Treaty leadership always denied. Above all, the film has no room for the pro-Treaty faction to express their own democratic credentials: they only ever appear in a coercive, militaristic garb. In the closing scene, Damien, defiant to the last, is executed by his brother.

One is left with a series of unanswered questions. Does democracy only matter when it is used as a rhetorical tool to beat the British? What about the majority in the North, including much more than a "private army of terrorists", who wanted to maintain the Union with Britain? When, in Loach's understanding, does a "private army" suddenly become a terrorist organisation?

The enduring irony here is that Loach has failed to escape the colonial hubris which he sets out to dismantle. What he presents as an attempt to come to terms with the past amounts to as Anglo-centric an interpretation of Irish history as anything that comes out of the mouth of the corpulent, caricatured, Toad of Toad Hall Anglo-Irish landlord who appears in his film. In concentrating all his energies on demonising arrogant army officers and their Paddy-bashing working class troops, his patronising conclusion is that the whole thing is about the Brits; he lives in a world where those with power - or at least those who he believes to have power - are always in the wrong.

He may of course be right in the case of Ireland. Few people would argue that the history of British dominance over Ireland is a pretty one or that the "Black and Tans" were not a particularly unsavoury bunch. Loach may claim that the "right wing has reacted hysterically", citing the criticism of the Daily Mail, yet, in bemoaning the British role in Ireland, he is banging at an open door.

It is when Loach's analogy between Ireland and Iraq becomes clear that The Wind that Shakes the Barley slips into the realm of fantasy. In his own words, armies:

in occupation [always] 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.
Even if one can accept that
what happened in Ireland is such a classic story of a fight for independence, to establish a democratic mandate and to resist an occupying army,
would anyone put the Iraqi insurgency in the same bracket?

There are serious problems in Iraq but the idea that the British presence there is the primary obstacle to democracy is a little hard to stomach. For Loach, there is "an element of hope" for Iraq in that the British eventually marched out of Ireland. For the majority of Iraqis, not to mention their democratically elected government, an immediate withdrawal of British troops would lead to an even great period of blood letting and civil disorder than they are experiencing now. Sectarianism and ethnic hatred may have played some part in the Irish struggle for independence. But it is the very raison d'Ítre of those who follow the philosophy of Bin Laden or the example of Al-Zarqawi. It may prove convenient for self-critical Westerners to elevate them to the status of freedom fighters. The reality is that democracy and freedom are far from their minds.

Modern Ireland is more than capable about having a mature and intellectual debate about its own past. As an insight into the painful and protracted birth of the Irish Free State, The Wind That Shakes The Barley has its strengths and weaknesses. As a statement of political virtuosity, with relevance for the problems that we now face in the Middle East, the rest of the world would be best advised to take Ken Loach's film with a pinch of salt.

John Bew is a Research Fellow in History at Peterhouse, Cambridge.

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I take it that John Bew is a relative of Paul Bew - historian and Trimble advisor?
Hence the

"revisionist" generation of Irish historians
are rather close to home.

Posted by: James at August 9, 2006 04:25 PM

Bew makes some rather interesting comments. But when he wrings his hands over Loach's linking of Ireland in 1920 to present day Iraq, we get close to the heart of Loach's critics' real problem. If it is accepted that Britain was less concerned with helping Ireland in its democracy than in controlling Ireland for its own purposes as a kind of satellite or colony, uncomfotable comparisons might be drawn with Iraq etc., and not unreasonably so. The Black and Tans are an embarrassment to the Brit establishment precisely because they interfere with the propounded wisdom that Britannia has been flying the flag of liberty and democracy since time immemorial.

As for using Peter Hart as a source.....where does one begin? Hart has levelled claims of sectarianism against the republican movement that have been seriously challenged, some would say to the point of being thoroughly debunked. Indeed, in a letter to the Irish Times about two months ago he attempted to backpedal and said that he never claimed that he said ethnic cleansing of protestants took place in Ireland at that time, a claim which flies completely in the face of what he wrote in his book "The IRA and its Enemies". He has yet, depsite much promising, to mount any serious defence against his critics.

Indeed, following the letters to the national dailies here, it is clear that when certain correspondents speak of the experiences of the Southern Protestant community, what they really mean is the southern 'Loyalist' Protestant community, a rather different matter since it transcends religion and enters the realm of political affinity.
Indeed, quite a few prominent IRA members were protestants.

Re.Bew's comment on Loach's treatment of the signing of the treaty: it's not accurate to say that "The nearest attempt [to defend the anti-Treatyites' position] is when Damien claims that that pro-Treaty majority were coerced by threat of war:" -

Loach also adds the information (through characters in the movie) the fact the terms of the treaty were only published the morning the people went to the polls. They could not have fully understood what they were voting for, and in a very real sense, had to be tricked into voting for it. This was done precisely because, despite Collins' apparent denials, the pro-Treatyites were afraid that ahd the people understood the terms of the treaty properly and been given time to debate them, they would have rejected it. Indeed, the majority of the IRA were actually opposed to the Treaty at first.

Posted by: Nick at August 31, 2006 01:58 AM
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