September 10, 2007

My review of "The Wind that Shakes the Barley"

The Wind that Shakes the Barley

Reviewed by Steve Sailer for The American Conservative

April 9, 2007

Neoconservatives who extol Winston Churchill's adamancy never mention that in 1921, after Britain suffered no more than 700 army and police deaths in Ireland, he played a key role in negotiations with insurgents that resulted in Britain suddenly cutting and running from southern Ireland after 700 years of occupation.

Why did the UK, which sent 20,000 Tommies to their deaths on the first day of the Battle of the Somme a half decade earlier, not stay the course in Ireland? Ken Loach's film about Irish Republican Army gunmen in 1920-22, "The Wind that Shakes the Barley," which won the top prize at the 2006 Cannes festival, graphically conveys why the English, a civilized people, went home. Defeating a guerrilla uprising broadly supported by the local populace requires a level of frightfulness that does not bear close inspection.

Loach, the 70-year-old English movie director, is an old-fashioned lefty of the didactic Marxist sort. His films include "A Contemporary Case for Common Ownership" and "Which Side Are You On?" Not surprisingly, these haven't made him a big name in America, but "Barley" is worth a watch. Loach is neither the most fluid of filmmakers nor the most historically trustworthy, but "Barley" is consistently informative about the Anglo-Irish War, if spectacularly wrong-headed about the subsequent Irish Civil War among the victors.

In recounting the history of a rebellion, with its endless alternations of terrorism and reprisal, you have to start the story at some particular incident, which inevitably biases your allocation of blame. Loach's sympathies are heavily with the IRA, the more radical the better, so he begins in 1920 when the Black and Tans (tough demobbed British WWI vets sent to Ireland to augment the police, but given little appropriate training) rough up some fine Irish lads enjoying a game of hurling, killing a boy for the crime of speaking only Gaelic.

If he wanted to be more even-handed, Loach could have commenced the previous year when the IRA began attacks on the Royal Irish Constabulary, necessitating the dispatching of the Black and Tans.

Or, then again, he could have begun with any date going back to 1167, when the first English soldiers arrived (at the invitation of an Irish king to assist his war with another local king). Compared to England, the Emerald Isle was smaller and rockier, so less populated. It was also more chaotic (no national king ever emerged), leaving at its well-organized neighbor's highly limited mercy until its sons could win her freedom.

"Barley" tells of two fictional County Cork brothers, Damien, a doctor (played by Cillian Murphy), and Teddy, a natural leader of fighting men (portrayed by Padraic Delaney), who withstands having his fingernails ripped out without spilling the IRA's secrets. (Unfortunately, the Cork accents are so impenetrable for the first half hour that I didn't realize until the end of the movie that they are brothers.)

The brothers roughly represent, transformed to merely a local scale, those initial partners and eventual enemies in Irish revolution, √Čamon de Valera, the math professor and intellectual turned future president, and Michael Collins, the postman turned general. (In 1996's "Michael Collins," they were played by Alan Rickman and Liam Neeson, respectively).

Murphy, the dark-haired young actor from Cork with the alarming cheekbones and oddly pale blue eyes, is best known as the villain in "Batman Begins." His looks make him easy to pick out in a crowd of Irishmen, which is useful since Loach doesn't adequately distinguish between the supporting characters. When an IRA man tremulously announces after a firefight with the Black & Tans that "Gogan's dead!" it's not as moving as Loach intends because we had never gotten straight in our heads that Gogan was alive in the first place.

Murphy's skull-like head and intense eyes (he'd make an ideal Lenin) become more suited to the role of Doctor Damien as the healer turned killer, a Hibernian Che Guevara, grows ever more fanatically radical. He denounces his brother for supporting the compromise peace that Collins brokered with Churchill and David Lloyd George, and demands that the Irish guerillas, with their 3,500 rifles, fight the entire British Empire to the death in the name of socialism. (Loach's better dead than not red mindset perversely mischaracterizes the stance of the anti-Treaty fighters led by the deeply Catholic de Valera.)

In Loach's worldview, a resemblance to Lenin is to be cherished, but less bloodthirsty viewers will increasingly sympathize with Damien's brother Teddy, the man of violence who chooses peace for his people, but at a terrible price to his family.

Not rated, but would be R for language and torture.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

In the end, Steve, British domestic opinion had been moving to grant the Irish their independence for decades.

The myth of the unstoppable guerilla is just that, a myth. Ask Geronimo, Cochise, Sitting Bull, and Pancho Villa about that one.

Britain had been primed to give Ireland home rule before WWI, and had been looking to get out since it wasn't bringing them money and only Protestant votes in the North were a reason to stick around.

[Violence CAN push nations to do things they already wanted to do. Of course the IRA's links to the Kaiser, and later Hitler, didn't bear examining by Loach.]

Anonymous said...

Actually, it was an army made up of Normans and Welsh. Other than that, not a bad review.

Still, I wish that Irish kid had not beaten you up in fourth grade. You wouldn't be so bitter.

Let bygones be bygones I always say.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure you're onto something, Ollie. Mike Myers must have spent his entire time in elementary school being kicked around by some big red-headed kid called MacGregor. What else would explain the endless parade of Scottish grotesques in his films?
Oh, and Hitler's career was driven by his hatred and envy of Wittgenstein, who was a couple of grades above him in school in Austria and won the debating trophy and all the other prizes by slyly redefining the terms of competition.

Anonymous said...


Don't you know it.

Prince Rupert used to kick me around all the time when I was a kid. If only I could've just let it go......

Fortunately for me, I was not into philosophy and never had to worry about tricky upperclassmen.

Anonymous said...

[Violence CAN push nations to do things they already wanted to do. Of course the IRA's links to the Kaiser, and later Hitler, didn't bear examining by Loach.]

He also did not examine Churchill's comment about allying with the devil when you needed to.

Anonymous said...

Let bygones be bygones I always say

Then you must not be Irish.

Anonymous said...

IRA allying with Germany in WW1 & 2. What did that bring them exactly? A warm feeling inside engendered by hanging out with the big boys?

Better to have had no alliance at all until they were pretty certain the Germans were going to win. Especially in WW1, any probable German victory would have involved some sort of negotiated settlement. Im sure there would have been no German occupation of Britain and what would Ireland get out of it? Independence for Ireland would hardly be something the Germans would be pressing.

So a big mistake really.

Anonymous said...

"Let bygones be bygones I always say"

"Then you must not be Irish."

You seem to hold a grudge well enough.

Anonymous said...

The Irish Home Rule Act was passed in 1914, to be held in abeyance only until WWI was over. The British government was therefore looking for peace to break out in Ireland so that it could put the Act into effect. The problem was that the IRA did not want to accept Home Rule as granted by Act of Parliament, but felt that it ought to be obtained by the spilling of blood. Fascists, effectively.