The Palme D’Or
‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’

The historic events dramatised in this winning film at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2006 took place in the early stages of my life as I entered upon the eighty seven plus years now under my belt since April 26th 1919.

So I grew up to the great age of three, playing with two guns, one real and one a toy as the Civil War years stuttered to their end, an inconclusive, unsatisfactory settlement of the centuries-old struggle for Irish independence. That settlement still lies at the root of several subsequent efforts to address its continuing and smouldering remnants.

There is resonance now in the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, during these past thirty years or so, with the period of the 1920s both in the arguments and in the passion and intensity of the violence which, now as then, has split both families and communities.

Parallel but fiercely divergent perspectives still dominate and this film is clearly one sxympathetic to a trenchant view from the Nationalist Green stable, in opposition to the Unionist Orange one. In Ulster at the time the latter viewed the ‘Troubles’ as an insurrection rather than as a civil war.

When one is raised in either of the two traditions it is difficult to take an objective view of the event. However, I was not too deeply conditioned into the Unionist / Orange camp, and participated in the Labour College educational classes from around fourteen years of age. Consequently I hope I can approach an assessment of the film’s historic slant in an objective understanding way as well as an appreciation of the structure of the film itself.

In my judgement the film really keeps close to the history and includes the underlying savagery of the conflict, replicated in other violent confrontations. It also includes family fractures and brothers ending up on different sides with consequently heightened emotional trauma.

The internal struggles in and between organisations for control and direction and the differences in the perceptions of sister organisations ostensibly on the same side came through in the film in the discussions concerning the acceptance or rejection of the Truce / Treaty.

It may perhaps perhaps be too much to ask for an explanation in the film of how Dáil Éireann had been established so that viewers might appreciate what authority it might have for accepting the Treaty. Similarly it would have been helpful to have had something about how Partition had been legislated for in Westminster by the 1920 Government of Ireland Act.

The argument for acceptance shown in the film was that in the face of the threat of an all out war by the British Government the Nationalist forces would not be capable of withstanding the onslaught. But underlying the reluctance to accept the treaty as a final settlement was the contrast between the oath taken on joining the IRB or IRA and the oath of loyalty to the British Crown to be taken by members of the Dáil of the proposed Irish Free State.

The film also showed divisions and underlying class-based attitudes as the better off sec tions of the community, although sympathetic to ‘Home Rule’, were anxious that their economic interests would not be harmed by the locus of decision making being changed from London to Dublin.

The links to the views of James Connolly, the leader of the Irish Citizen Army who was executed for his part in the 1916 Rising, could be seen in the discussions between prisoners and in the arguments over the acceptability or otherwise of the Treaty / Truce.

The principles set out in the Declaration of Independence at the start of the 1916 Rising had a strong social revolutionary element which, as far as I can judge were contained in the oath required from those who join the Republican activists, seem to have been lost in the corridors of power of the new state. It had ‘dominion status’ and, as the film shows, its ambassadors had to be accredited by the British monarch.

That point was played out quite well in the film in the discussions between the opposing camps within the Republican movement.

There were many different factors which impelled young and old into the armed struggle depicted in the film. Aside from the economic motives the duplicity of British politicians who on the basis of the Home Rule Act placed on the statute book in 1914 encouraged the Irish Volunteers into the British army. On the other hand their promises to the Ulster Unionists also facilitated their incorporation into the British army. Both groups were involved in and on the Western Front in World War 1. At the end of that conflict the Six County separation proposals of the 1920 Act surfaced and clearly fostered distrust in the remaining 26 counties and, eventually, opposition to the Truce / Treaty.

In the film the only leader who was seen, and then only indirectly, was Michael Collins. Nothing much came through in the film of the personal antagonisms between him and the remnants and their leaders who wanted to fight on.

The amateur training and obsolete armoury of the volunteers was clearly shown as well as the fact that a lot of them were driven by a need to reject the second or third class standing that they had in the eyes of their ‘British masters’. Their determination, courage and resolution, however, came through in the course of the film.

It was clear that their ferocity and lack of humanity was racked up in response to the terror and brutality meted out by the Black and Tans, the irregular mercenaries, who could be seen roaming at will as the story unfolded.

Looking back with hindsight some might argue, as they did after 1916, that democratic non violent action might have achieved a less bloody and successful independence and avoided the many following years of strife and the Northern revolts. History, however, has a way of having its own dynamic, imperatives and logic.

The period shown in the film was the beginning of statehood and the two major political parties in the Irish republic today are founded to a large extent on the two opposing factions of the civil war. Family divisions, to a degree, are also still extant.

There was a clear juxtaposition of that in the film. The presentation of the execution of the young farm labourer Chris who had, it was alleged, betrayed the local volunteers under not very rigorous interrogation. The leader, Damien, who had deserted medical training, carried out the execution. Later he took the lad’s mother to her son’s grave whereupon she berated him and cried out that she didn’t ever want to see his face again.

This same reaction occurred when Damien, now part of the armed opposition to the Treaty was himself captured by Free State forces. He is given a chance by the commander, his own brother, to betray his comrades. He refuses and is executed by a firing squad acting under his brother’s orders.

When his brother brought Damien’s last letter to his girl friend, it was not quite clear if they were more, perhaps married. She also berates him and, like Chris’s mother, cries out that she never wants to see his face again.

I find myself tending to stray to the current stage of the Northern Ireland Peace Process which is now many years past the period set in the film.

But I would say that had the Good Friday Accord been the content of a settlement in 1920, a much better situation could possibly have arisen. That, however, is a ‘What if?’ speculation which may simply not help a solution in the present — too much blood has coloured the landscape since.

What I can say is that the film is consonant with the history, its tragedies, disappointments and underlying injustices, obstinacies and ingrained fundamentalist antagonisms. The present is intrinsically and irreparably linked to the past and in its presentation the film’s producer has given the viewer an excellent vision of the conflict. It could encourage anyone who saw it, who has not already a knowledge of the subject, to understand the forces at work and perhaps to explore the history more deeply.

It brought the period vividly to me for which I am appreciative indeed.

©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, South Wales, 17 November, 2006.




Samuel H. Boyd


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