Among the stories of the Anglo-Irish War of Independence (1919-21) and the Irish Civil War (1922-3) which I grew up listening to my mother tell was the story of the shooting of the last three of 77 Republican prisoners of war killed by the Free State government, in the last days of the civil war, in our town, Ennis. One of the three was her cousin.
She would tell us of the sound of the early morning volleys of the firing squads ringing out from the military barracks on the edge of the small town, and the single shots in the head from the officer commanding the firing squad, the “coup de grace”.
She was 19 when the civil war ended. During the War of Independence she had lived in West Clare, where rampaging Black and Tans burned the centre of one of the small towns, Ennistymon... During the Civil War, she worked as a servant in the house of the leading republican family in Clare, the Barratts. She would describe going back at night, down a country lane outside Ennis, knowing that Free State soldiers were hiding on either side of the wall, hunting for Frank Barratt. She voted (under PR) Labour and De Valera (Fianna Fail).
Those, and many other stories, were brought back to me by Ken Loach's film, The Wind That Shakes The Barley; and, most importantly, so were her political conclusions from the experience of the War of Independence and the civil war. I will come back to that when I discuss the conclusions which Ken Loach's film is, to my mind, most likely to suggest to many of its viewers.
The Wind that Shakes the Barley is the best Loach film I’ve seen since the altogether wonderful Kes. The press outcry against this film is one measure of the fearful, repressive, illiberal political atmosphere under which we live now.
The “war on terror” is also a war against reasoned political discourse and, here, against artistic treatment of historical events now almost a century in the past.
Loach is reported to have said that he sees parallels between the events depicted in The Wind That Shakes The Barley and Iraq now. But why shouldn’t what is happening in Iraq now be viewed, if Loach wants that, in the prism of long-ago events in England’s oldest colony?
(In fact, to see any implied comment on Iraq now, of a sort that would glorify the sectarian militias there, you must, so to speak, bring it into the cinema with you.)
The Wind That Shakes The Barley is a fast-moving account of Ireland’s war of independence against Britain and of the civil war that marked the first year of nationalist Ireland’s self-government.
It is a “war film”, a very violent account of two savage wars, both of which were in a certain sense civil wars, with the bitterness and brutality from which civil wars erupt, and in turn engender and intensify.
It is a tight, highly-concentrated film covering the three years from 1920 to the early phase of the civil war of 1922-3.
The film makes no pretence at neutrality in either of the two wars it depicts. Its viewpoint is that of the soldiers of Dail Eireann who fought the British occupation forces, and, in the civil war sequences, that of the “diehard” republicans in arms against the first government of the new Irish state.
Emotionally it is entirely on the side of the Irish against the British and with the Republicans against the Free State establishment (an alignment which this writer shares). The film’s politics are a sort of left-nationalist populism. The story it tells is an important— and pioneering — part of the story of the fight against imperialism in the Twentieth Century.
In December 1918 Sinn Fein won 73 out of the 105 Irish seats, some of them without a contest, and 48% of the vote in the contested seats. Sinn Fein was pledged to set up and maintain an independent Irish Republic, which, in January 1919, it proclaimed.
This Irish secession from the UK triggered an increasingly savage war between the British forces of occupation and the forces of the Dublin parliament.
Tit-for-tat violence escalated into guerrilla war in some parts of the country, mainly in the west and south-west.
By 1920, when The Wind That Shakes The Barley opens, the British government had loosed on nationalist Ireland its “special forces”, the so-called Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries. World War One veterans, comparatively well-paid they were state-licensed terrorists operating outside the law to cow the people.
They did such splendid deeds for the British Empire as setting fire to the centre of Cork City and of the small town of Ennistymon in county Clare. They opened fire on the crowd at a sports meeting at Croke Park, Dublin. They set fire to many creameries ( small dairy-produce centres).
In the House of Commons, the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, canted about “taking murder by the throat” while in Ireland his licenced terrorists went around the country bullying, shooting and burning. The Labour Party and the labour movement in Britain agitated against the British terror in Ireland. They sent over a fact-finding mission whose report scandalised the British government. In July 1921 an armistice was agreed, and representatives of the Irish republican government went to negotiate with the British.
Home Rule, before World War One, had meant little more power than a County Council had. In 1921, British offered nationalist Ireland “dominion status”, such as that enjoyed by Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. — within the British Empire and under the titular rule of the British king.
Negotiations centred on two areas of difference.
The British king was the visible head of the Empire, but for most nationalists, the notion of the British monarch being king of Ireland was intolerable. They had sworn an oath to the Irish republic, which, as religious men and women, they were not inclined to treat lightly.
The second area of difference concerned the partition of the country to allow the secession from the Dublin parliament of six north-eastern counties, where Protestant-Unionists, variously called “Scots-Irish” or “Ulster Scots”, who refused to accept the rule of an all-Irish Catholic parliament, were heavily concentrated.
The demands of the all-Ireland majority for independence, and of the North East Ulster Protestants for union with Britain, were incompatible.
In December 1921 the British gave the Irish negotiators an ultimatum: sign a treaty with “temporary” partition and dominion status for the 26 counties of Ireland under the English king, or face “immediate and terrible war”. We know that British contingency plans included a plan to round up most of the population and intern them in concentration camps, so as to isolate the armed Republicans. A similar policy had been pursued by Britain in South Africa in the Boer war of 1899-1902.
A majority of the Irish delegates, led by Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, agreed to accept what would be known as “The Treaty”, and set up the Irish Free State in 26 of Ireland's 32 counties.
Collins was the head of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), which exerted an underground control in republican affairs. Dail Eireann, meeting in both open and secret sessions, discussed the Treaty in December and January 1921-2. The great influence of Collins and the IRB, and that of the Catholic Church — Loach shows this in operation very well — swayed a majority of seven votes against the Republicans. Sinn Fein split.
Constance Markievicz, a member of the “horse Protestant” Irish gentry by birth, a Polish countess by marriage, and a socialist by conviction, explained simply in the Dail debate why she was against the Treaty: she was against it, she said, because the capitalists were for it. Indeed, the whole Irish Establishment rallied around the Free State government which Collins and Griffith set up.
Neither Free Staters nor Republicans felt they could do other than "temporarily" accept partition. Both sides ruled out an attempt to coerce the protestants of North East Ulster. In vain, Collins attempted to persuade the Irish Unionist leader, Craig, to allow the big areas along the border where there was a Catholic-Nationalist majority, to join the Free State. (The Wind that Shakes the Barley does not explore this question.)
A majority of the Irish Republican Army opposed the Treaty, but the Free State easily built up an army from recent ex-British soldiers.
The British government gave the Free State Government an ultimatum: disarm the Republicans, or Britain would declare the Treaty null and void.
Collins borrowed big guns from Britain and on 28 June 1922 opened fire on the Republican headquarters in Dublin. Civil war might have come anyway, but on Collins and his friends falls the odium of having deliberately started it, under a British government dictat.
Most of the central Republican leaders were captured and imprisoned. War flared in a number of centres, such as Limerick. But the large-scale war was soon over. On the Republican side, it became a war of small-scale guerrilla sorties against “the national army”, the shooting of soldiers from ambush, and for a while the assassination of Free State political figures.
Griffith soon dropped dead of a heart attack and Collins was killed during a skirmish, in August 1922. Their successors fought the civil war with escalating ruthlessness.
In December 1922 they summarily shot the four main Republican leaders who had been captured when the IRA headquarters fell in June. They shot 77 captured Republican prisoners of war — more than three times the number “executed” by Britain — and others were killed without any pseudo-legal formality.
After a year the Republicans, refusing to surrender, “dumped” (hid) arms and called off the war. Nine years later the party of those defeated in the civil war, now called Fianna Fail, gained power in the 1932 general election.
This is the political and military framework of the story told in The Wind That Shakes the Barley. In a series of incidents, we see the brutality of the Black and Tans, and the ruthlessness of the forces of Dail Eireann, shooting a simple-minded country lad as a traitor for “giving information” and a member of the Unionist gentry. We are shown the Tans pulling out a man’s fingernails with pliers to make him talk.
The action is set in a small rural community. The protagonists, two brothers, wind up on different sides in the civil war. The one we’d seen earlier on having his nails pulled out, is on the Free State side and commands the firing squad that kills his brother in the name of Free State law and order.
As I have said, the film makes no pretence of neutrality.
There is a moving scene in a jail, where a group of prisoners try to protect a comrade by all declaring, one after the other, that they are the man being sought. Defiantly, they sing the fine anthem of the Republic (written by the socialist Paedar Kearney) which boldy — and , alas, prematurely — proclaims: “No more our ancient sireland shall shelter the despot or the slave”.
Politically, the account of the War of Independence is on solid ground — as indeed, according to all notions of democracy and self-determination, were Dail Eireann and its ragged army resisting the British terror.
Some attempt is made is to show the social contradictions in republican Ireland. We see a "gombeen" small bourgeois in litigation with someone poorer in a Republican court, and the IRA overruling the court to side with him: they need his money to buy guns. Here the later civil-war division is prefigured. There is a flash of historical perspective on the events we see unfolding in the film, when the upper-class Unionist, before the IRA kill him, shouts that if they win their Ireland will be a “priest-ridden backwater”.
But as an account of the Ireland that fought the British and forced them to concede dominion status, and then split into civil war factions, the film, focused as it is on a small rural community and eschewing other than “framing” concern with the big political events and those who shaped them, has too narrow a “canvas”.
This was also an Ireland of towns and — and not only in north east Ulster — of a working-class movement; an Ireland that had had a general strike in 1918 against conscription and would have another on the eve of the civil war, “against militarism”.
Working-class Ireland is represented by a scene in which rail workers are savagely beaten by British forces for trying to insist on their union policy of not moving British forces on the railway, and by a rail worker who joins the rural band. It is too little, and it does not alter the central focus.
And the rural group is more or less classless. One of the brothers is a medical doctor in company with farm boys, but sharp class stratification counts for nothing here. The upper classes are presented as outsiders; like the Unionist gentleman they shoot. Some were, but most, even of the remaining landlords, were not. The Irish, or most of them, are presented as just “a people”. All this is a serious misrepresentation of the real Ireland of that time.
In reality, the Irish towns and countryside were riddled with class distinctions, calibrated in fine gradations and nuances.
In reality, there was an Irish bourgeoisie, weak compared to the British and north-east Ulster bourgeoisies, but strong and socially powerful in its own area. There were many well off and middling farmers, professional people, and so on — beneficiaries of the bourgeois social revolution from above which the British state had organised in the previous 4-5 decades. They rallied to Collins and Griffith.
The only 'visualisation' of this in the film - apart from the "gombeenman" in the Republican court - is a sight of a few well-dressed people in the background of one shot, warmly shaking the hand of a uniformed Free State officer. This is all very understated. This bourgeoisie is too thin on the ground, too shadowy, to account for its 'sudden' later predominance, the dramatic reversal for the republicans that preceded the civil war.
And in the Ireland of the two wars depicted here, there was a strong social ferment. In those years the workers of no fewer than 38 small rural dairies (“creameries”) went on strike, hoisted the red flag, and declared soviets. The Workers’ Council — the equivalent of the Trades Councils in England — in Limerick declared itself a soviet early in 1919, to contest control of the city with the British forces.
Stalinists like Desmond Greaves have set a fashion — picked up by such respect-worthy academic historians as David Fitzpatrick — of disparaging those movements and minimising their importance. In The Wind That Shakes The Barley you get no hint of them at all.
The weakest part of the film is the account of the civil war. Civil wars encompass many human tragedies, but as a whole some are necessary to resolve irreconcilable differences of class and regime. The Irish civil war was a true tragedy — a conflict of right against right. A civil war that should not have happened.
In terms of Irish independence, the common objective, history has vindicated Michael Collin’s claim that the Treaty with Britain gave the 26 Counties “the freedom to win freedom”. It did.
The Statute of Westminster in 1931 gave effective independence. to the Dominions. The political leader of the losers in the civil war, De Valera, would rightly claim that the Free Staters had not known what to do with the “freedom to win freedom”. De Valera did. By the mid-30s the Free State was, as De Valera claimed, “a republic within the British Commonwealth”, having peacefully sloughed off the claims in Ireland of the British monarch. The naval bases which Britain had retained in the Free State were evacuated after negotiations in 1938.
But the Republicans in their own, tragically incoherent, way — the rank and file Republicans anyway — were right too. The Free State rallied the “stake in the country” people (as the left-wing republican leader Liam Mellows, one of those prisoners shot by the Free State government in December 1922, put it). The Republic rallied those who had little “stake” in the country, town and farm labourers , people who had seen in the fight for “the Republic” a fight for a shining transformation of their lives that would mean social equality, prosperity and a greatly enlarged freedom.
There were small bourgeois, like Cathal Brugha, on the Republican side, but most of those who faced the firing squads and the internment camps and jails of the Free State, were mainly people of no property. Their tragedy was that they had no coherent policy against that of the Free State bourgeoisie.
They certainly had no general notion of coherent socialism. Liam Mellows attempted from jail to make sense of the catastrophe that had engulfed Republicanism. He concluded that the “stake in the country” people had “betrayed” the Republic and that the Republic could only be salvaged if its devotees turned to “the men of no property”. He wrote about a workers’ republic.
His letters from prison were intercepted and published by the Free State government to brand the republicans as “communistic”, and its firing squad soon put paid to Mellows.
Mellows’ approach was populism, not working-class socialism. Socialism here was something to be used to succour and restore the Republic. Working class socialists would approach that, and all such questions, the other way round. It was the modern beginning of a stream of populist republicanism that still flows.
In the late 1920s and the 1930s, and again in the 1960s and 70s, that current merged with and was polluted by Stalinists preaching “the completion of the Irish bourgeois-democratic revolution” and identifying that with the unification of the island.
Accounting for the civil war that broke out in mid-1922 is difficult. It is a complicated question. Loach solves it by presenting the republicans as fighting for a workers’ and farmers’ republic (defined in loose, populist terms). The Republicans were nowhere near as coherent, still less as politically united, as that. Very few of them would have said that they fought for the workers’ republic, even in Mellows’ terms.
To suggest that they were fighting for the workers’ republic is to falsify the tragic history — to give it a sense and purpose which the Republicans did not have, not even the politically best of them. It is to depart from the true history into populist myth and fantasy.
To be sure, this sort of myth-making is - to me, anyway -more congenial than the vile travesty of history in Neil Jordan's film "Michael Collins", with its Hollywood-style glorification of the man who decided to start the civil war and casual libels of his opponents, such as De Valera and Cathal Brugha. But to transmute the confused, tragic real history into mythology of any sort is inevitably to diminish it.
In The Wind That Shakes The Barley, what you see on the screen is the almost inexplicable transformation of some of the heroes of the fight against Britain into people very like their old foes, with their comrades fighting them exactly as they fought the British. Words in short passages explain it – inadequately, and in terms of history, falsely — but the strong images are, naturally, dominant.
I’m not sure that most people won’t - despite Loach's intentions - come out of The Wind That Shakes The Barley and draw from it political conclusions akin to those my mother drew: “Ah, sure, when the English went, didn’t they aet each other”! The conclusion that revolutions, like the god Kronos, devour their own children....
NOTE: Because of hasty last-minute cuts (mine) the version of this review in Solidarity (3/96) is, I think, unfair to Ken Loach's film. The version of the review on this website has been edited to rectify that and one or two other defects. Sorry!
Author's PS, April 2014
I've just watched The Wind that Shakes the Barley again, together with my 2 grand children, Nina and Charley, aged 12 and nine respectively, their father, Ruah, and I explaining the events on the screen. All political caveats aside, it is, I think, a pretty marvelous film. Those who made it have good reason to be proud of their achievement.