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How Ireland’s violent history haunts The Banshees of Inisherin

Martin McDonagh’s Oscar-nominated film is set during the bloody conflict of 1922, but it is not a neat metaphor for civil war.

By Roy Foster

In an annus mirabilis starting in 1994, the unknown and unemployed Martin McDonagh wrote seven plays. Six of them became resounding successes on the London stage (four of them at the same time) and transformed his life. One remained unperformed because, he told a New Yorker interviewer in 2006, it “isn’t any good”. It was called The Banshees of Inisheer.

McDonagh is now better known as a film director, with equally spectacular success. The Banshees of Inisherin probably changed more than its title in transition from abandoned play to prize-winning film, but there is no doubt about its impact: as well as a string of Golden Globe and Bafta nods, it has been nominated for no fewer than nine Oscars. Often described – oddly – as a “black comedy”, the film is set in the Connemara island world that McDonagh used for his plays, familiar to him from childhood holidays (he was born and bred in London’s Irish community). The story is bleak and challenging, dealing with the breakdown of an old friendship, against a background of loneliness, cruelty and ominous threat. The passion and savagery of the early plays is muted, but omnipresent.

Praise has rightly been lavished on the cinematography, the writing and the pitch-perfect performances by Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan. Much less attention has been paid to the political implications of the mise-en-scène. The action is set in 1923, during the civil war that tore Ireland apart after the republican movement split over the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. As the new Irish Free State came into being, it fought a brutal war against the irredentist IRA. This is the background to the lonely and claustrophobic life of McDonagh’s islanders, but he usually presents it in glancing and off-hand ways; comments about news from the mainland, rumours of a ceasefire, and – very effectively – the rumble of gunfire reverberating across the straits that separate the island from Ireland.

Significantly, in the original play the island was named “Inisheer” – a slightly Anglicised version of an actual place (the smallest of the Aran Islands, off western Ireland). By contrast, the island of the film is called “Inisherin”, which literally means “the island of Ireland”. This seems to encourage us to take events on the island as an allegory of what is going on in the mainland as a whole – an impression strengthened by the character of the island’s repellent policeman, who is corrupt, sexually abusive and happy to take part in an execution for “six bob and a free lunch”, as he puts it. “The Free State lads are executin’ a couple of the IRA lads. Or is it the other way around? I find it hard to follow these days. Wasn’t it so much easier when we was all on the same side, and it was just the English we was killin’? I think it was. I preferred it.”

The main theme of the film is what constitutes a life well lived, and the decisions this entails. But if the struggle between the two principal characters is also intended as a neat metaphor for civil war, it is not entirely convincing. Civil wars certainly represent fraternal strife, but they do not happen when one brother stops talking to another. They occur when brothers fall out over a political or ideological issue that cannot be negotiated. In the Irish case this was the oath of fidelity to the British Crown as accepted by the treaty (not, as sometimes assumed, the issue of the partitioning of Ireland, though that would acquire sharper relevance later).

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The war was savage on both sides, sundering old comrades and dividing families, and leaving a bitter legacy when the Free State won out in 1923. The continuing animosity created the enduring party-political divide between the inheritors of the anti-treaty cause, Fianna Fáil, and its pro-treaty opponents, Fine Gael. The rawness of the wound was reflected in Irish memory and historiography, with the events post-treaty airbrushed over in school syllabuses until comparatively recently. The first major scholarly study, published 35 years ago, was written by Michael Hopkinson, an English historian working in a Scottish university. Over the past two decades this has changed and the subject has been addressed directly in remarkable works by younger historians such as Gemma Clark, Anne Dolan and Bill Kissane, as well as by the doyen of Irish revolutionary studies, Charles Townshend; while international historians like Robert Gerwarth and Stathis Kalyvas have brought a comparative perspective to bear on the Irish struggles of a century ago and contemporary events in central and eastern Europe.

This refocusing of attention is welcome, and plays an important role in the tricky business of commemorating, while not celebrating, the centenary of the bitter struggle of 1922-23. One form of “commemoration” can be seen in the power-sharing coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in 2020. The arrangement arguably handled the convulsive global crises of the last two years in a far more stable, considered and mature fashion than the chaotic farce in Westminster and Whitehall. If Martin McDonagh were looking for a theme to exercise his penchant for derisive savagery, he might do well to turn his attention to another island racked by violent antipathies and chronic self-delusion, but which no longer has any “mainland” to provide escape or liberation.

This article was originally published on 24 January 2023.

[See also: The “Banshees of Inisherin” review: a brilliantly nasty Irish fable]

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