There are many episodes in British history about which those in authority should be ashamed, events that lead the historian to wonder: What if we had behaved better? Ireland presents a bookful of what ifs from the plantations of the 15th Century to the Black and Tans of the 1920s. It is a trail of blood and bitterness that still runs along the streets of Ulster.
With an Irish patriot song for its title, Ken Loach’s masterful The Wind That Shakes The Barley at first appears to be a partisan view of the events that lead to the Irish Free State in 1921. But Loach is a more complex filmmaker than that, and so avoids mythologising the period. He also shows that in any independence movement, the things that unite the freedom fighters need to be stronger than the mere desire to overthrow the oppressor, if a bloody civil war is to be avoided once independence is achieved. It is a message British and Americans should heed in their dealings with Iraq.
The film opens in 1920. A group of men play hurling in a field in Cork. It is a good-natured game to be followed by drink and chat at a local farm. Damien, a young doctor, is being joshed. He is plans to leave for England soon after to pursue his career. But the easy going atmosphere is shattered when a squad of Black and Tans, part of the British Royal Irish Constabulary, burst onto the scene like happy slappers. They accuse the hurlers of playing “Paddy” games, made illegal by the oppressive British rulers. Their brutality, repeated on a railway platform, politicises Damien (Cillian Murphy), who throws up his career to join his Republican brother Teddy (Pdraic Delaney) in the struggle for independence.
Teddy and Damien become leading lights in the local IRA. Though our sympathies are with them, Loach does not hold back from showing the dark side of their struggle, especially in the punishment meted out by Damien on a young informer. It is a scene that resonates much later in the film, as the two brothers find themselves on opposing sides when civil war breaks out. It epitomises that terrible brand of harsh, unforgiving, righteousness that fuels family feuds and civil wars.
Loach shows how a struggle for autonomy can be fractured by internal disputes, both ideological and personal, as happened within the Republican movement. In personalising this struggle around the relationship between Damien and Teddy, Loach conveys the true horror of civil war, its fracturing of families and friends, and the way in which our humanity can become buried under the rhetoric of ideology and indignation.
He is aided by a very strong cast, led by the excellent Murphy, whose pretty boy sensitivity is countered by the muscular Delaney. Filmed on location in the West of Ireland, The Wind That Shakes The Barley is as lush on the eye as it is demanding on the head and heart. And demanding it is, not least as a reminder that imperial powers have a responsibility to ensure that when they hand over power, they do not leave a legacy drenched in blood and bitterness.