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The Wind that Shakes the Barley
Directed by Ken Loach
Twas hard the woeful words to frame to break the ties that bound us
But harder still to bear the shame of foreign chains around us
And so I said "The mountain glen I'll seek at morning early
And join the bold united men, while soft winds shake the barley"
The title of Ken Loach's latest film is taken from an old Irish rebel song whose theme is the sacrifices people make in their struggle for freedom. It speaks volumes for his talent as a film maker that this is only one of several highly charged topics that are examined in this stunning film set against the backdrop of the Irish war of Independence and subsequent civil war.
Neil Cafferkey Lambeth
However, this is no mere historical epic. Rather it shows how ordinary people can shape history and in turn are shaped by it. The story centre's around an IRA 'flying column' or guerrilla unit in the mountains of Cork.
The lead character Damian develops from sceptical student to full-blown revolutionary through his experiences of violence and oppression. His brother Teddy is the leader of the group whose single-minded determination to drive the British out of Ireland blinds him to the bigger political picture.
Dan, one time trade unionist and radical socialist, is the voice of the left wing of the Irish independence movement that in many ways has been obscured by official Irish history. Finally, there is Sinead who demonstrates the pivotal role women played during the war.
But make no mistake, this isn't a story about plucky Irish guerrillas taking on the might of the British Empire. This is a violent, brutal film that depicts the dehumanising effect an army of occupation can have both on the occupiers and occupied.
Several commentators have drawn parallels between the Black and Tans, a paramilitary organisation recruited mostly from former World War One veterans who were used for what we would now call counter-insurgency against the civilian population, and the conduct of the US and British armed forces in Iraq.
The film illustrates how the combination of a racist ideology, alienation from a local population that can turn hostile at any moment and a 'gloves off' attitude by the occupying army's high command is a recipe for atrocities. This in turn provokes resistance that itself is often brutal.
Loach also explores the influence of the ideas of revolutionary socialist James Connolly on the movement, through the discussions between Damien and Dan.
One quote of Connolly's has particular resonance throughout the film. "If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of a Socialist Republic your efforts will have been in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country..."
The backbone of the IRA is made up of poor farmers and workers but the middle-class leadership has no programme to lift Ireland out of its grinding poverty and dependence on Britain. Indeed, the film makes clear that the well-to-do in Ireland are as great oppressors of ordinary Irish people as the British.
This class antagonism is a grim prelude to the murderous antagonism that erupts as the initial euphoria following the truce between the IRA and Britain is replaced by a sense of betrayal over the peace treaty signed by the IRA leadership which stops short of full independence.
The more middle-class element in the IRA, including Teddy, genuinely believes this is the best deal possible for the people of Ireland. In this they are backed by the Irish establishment, the newspaper owners and the Catholic Church. Those against the Treaty are overwhelmingly poor farmers and workers who feel an independence struggle is meaningless without freeing people from hunger and poverty.
The final scenes of the film are harrowing as former comrades turn on each other and prove that the only thing more tragic and brutal than an independence struggle is a civil war.
The Wind That Shakes The Barley has been criticised in some quarters as a museum piece, irrelevant to a modern Ireland of economic prosperity, and that the links to Iraq are tenuous at best.
However, there is a less obvious lesson here that has relevance to Iraq. It shows that an independence movement that does not have a clear programme that breaks with capitalism, as Connolly argued, can be split by the meddling of foreign imperialism even after it withdraws its troops from the country. In Ireland, the movement was split along class lines with the British sending arms and advice to the pro-Treaty, more socially moderate faction.
In Iraq at the moment the only thing that seems to unite the resistance is hatred of the Americans. When the Americans withdraw, what then will unite the armed factions, if not a vision for a socialist society which can pull in support from all sections of the religious divide?
All in all The Wind That Shakes The Barley comes highly recommended for anyone looking for an insight into this tumultuous period in Irish history. Its commitment to telling the story of many of the forgotten people of that era makes for a moving and fascinating film.
In The Socialist 6 July 2006:
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