Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 5, 2007

The Wind that Shakes the Barley

Filed under: Film,Ireland — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

You know that you have entered a kind of parallel universe when you read the first paragraph of the press notes for Ken Loach’s “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”:

The English ruling class first invaded Ireland in the twelfth century, when feudal barons staked out their territory. Over the centuries English landlords grew rich at the expense of the Irish people.

The irony, of course, is that Ken Loach’s world is real and the world that a typical Hollywood film depicts is unreal.

The specific slice of reality dealt with in Loach’s latest and perhaps greatest film is the Irish war for national independence, and the subsequent civil war between the Irish Free State regular army and IRA irregulars opposed to the sell-out treaty that ended the first war. As in the past, Loach has demonstrated a willingness to scrutinize revolutionary struggles sans romantic illusions. In his 1995 “Land and Freedom,” which dramatized the clash within the Spanish left about how to resist fascism, he staked out a uncompromising socialist position which argued in favor of organizing around class demands.

This is exactly the same outlook that shapes “The Wind that Shakes the Barley.” This is not only of historic interest. Anybody who has been following the recent drift of the Sinn Fein will understand the relevance. Unless the struggle for national independence confronts the domestic as well as the foreign ruling classes, it is doomed to fail.

Damien and Teddy O’Sullivan, IRA combatants and brothers, symbolize the two opposing currents within the Irish revolutionary movement. Damien (Cillian Murphy) is a medical student who only decides to take up arms after watching British “Black and Tans” beating up the crew of an Irish passenger train that has refused to transport them, on instructions from their trade union. His brother Teddy (Pádraic Delaney) is less educated but more of a natural leader, who joined the movement earlier than Damien.

Although Teddy was initially the more headstrong and militant of the two brothers, he becomes more and more compromised after the Irish Free State is established. As a Free State military officer, he is responsible for reining in–using deadly force if necessary–the recalcitrant IRA’ers who view the treaty as a violation of Republican principles. They are especially opposed to the rump Unionist state in the North and to Ireland’s fealty to the crown.


Ken Loach

In key scenes, we see these differences being debated out within the movement, always with scrupulous attention to historical accuracy. After the revolutionaries have taken power in a given town or neighborhood, they begin to institute new institutions of law and order, just has always been the case in conditions of what Marxists call “dual power.” A dispute between a usurious landlord and a poor, elderly woman who owes him back rent is being reviewed by the female judges of a Dail court, who are also members of the Cumann na mBan, the IRA woman’s auxiliary. After hearing both sides, they rule in favor of the woman and order the landlord to pay money to her!

This infuriates Teddy, who reminds his brother Damien–a supporter of the judge’s decision–that the landlord has been a major financial backer of the IRA. A major arms shipment is coming in soon from Glasgow; and without his money, they will not have the guns to fight the British. Damien replies that the movement is not just about replacing British landlords with Irish ones. As a disciple of the martyred James Connolly, Damien agrees with him that “If you remove the English army to-morrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain.”

After the British announce their intentions to allow the creation of a “free state,” Damien, his brother, and other veterans of the struggle debate how to respond. Teddy, always the pragmatist, argues in favor of accepting the British terms since this will provide an opening for further gains.

These debates are reminiscent of those that take place in Peter Watkin’s “Le Commune,” another film that has a fierce dedication to socialist principles and a belief that ordinary working people are the agents of historical change. Loach apparently has the same kind of ability that Watkins does to motivate his actors to think hard about the political beliefs of their characters.

Cillian Murphy, who plays Damien, is a well-traveled Irish actor who fought off the zombies in “28 Days” and tried to carve up the female protagonist of “Red Eye”. Reflecting on his character in the press notes for “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” indicates the engagement that the cast had with the ideas that Loach was grappling with:

Damien would have read Connolly, and be aware of that way of thinking, but Dan really solidifies these ideas into what sort of a republic must be put in place. Through Dan, and also knowing Peggy and all the hardship that she has lived through, Damien can see that this is the closest Ireland’s ever come to changing for good. Being a doctor, he sees the families of the under-privileged, and how that level of poverty has been a constant all the way through Irish history. He sees how, even though Ireland seems to be approaching the Free State, there’s still the constant of starving families. That’s the thing that he feels we should be changing. Of course, Teddy has never had this kind of experience, and Damien feels this limits his judgment.

After Teddy’s supporters become the majority, a civil war will leave Ireland in the sorry state that it is still in today. Loach’s unstinting portrayal of British manipulation and malfeasance, and a willingness of the formerly colonized political leadership to accept the colonizer’s terms, is unparalleled in motion picture history, with one obvious exception. “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” now joins Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Burn” as the quintessential study of the power of the imperialist to derail freedom struggles. Loach is crystal-clear in the press notes about how the powerful maintain their grip on the less powerful:

I think what happened in Ireland in 1920 -1922 is one of those stories that is of permanent interest. Like the Spanish Civil War, it was a pivotal moment. It reveals how a long struggle for independence was thwarted at its moment of success by a colonial power who, in divesting itself of its empire, still managed to keep its strategic interests in tact. That was the cunning of people like Churchill, Lloyd George, Birkenhead et al. When they were forced into a corner, when it wasn’t really in their best interests to keep denying independence, they sought to divide the country and give their support to those in the independence movement who were prepared to allow economic power to stay in the same hands, who, in the time honored phrase, ‘they could do business with’. There is a pattern you see again and again – this kind of manipulation by the ruling power, how different interests will unite in the face of a common oppressor and then ultimately how those contradictions inevitably have to work their way out. I’m sure you can see it in places like Iraq now, where the opposition to the US and Britain brings together a lot of people who will find that they have different interests when the US and the British are finally forced out.

Considering all the roadblocks that are put in front of serious, political film-making today, it is a testament to Ken Loach’s creativity and professionalism that he breaks through them time and time again. Along with Gillo Pontecorvo and Ousmane Sembene, Loach demonstrates that there is no conflict between political engagement and art. Since the problems of how to achieve genuine national independence are among the most pressing of our time (from Iraq to East Timor), the films of Pontecorvo, Sembene and Loach amount to weapons in our arsenal–important in their own way as the writings of Frantz Fanon or Edward Said.

“The Wind that Shakes the Barley” opens in New York City and Los Angeles on March 16th and elsewhere around the country later on. It is a film for the ages and should not be missed.


  1. A great review, better than what the world socialist website put out http://www.wsws.org/articles/2006/oct2006/loac-o11_prn.shtml I was wondering if this movie would come out in the USA. I’ve been looking for a movie on colonialism that shows the tension between social revolution and national liberation (the quote by Connolly definitely shows the linkage between the two in an anti-colonial revolution). Well, I’m rambling but you whetted my appetite.

    Comment by Doug — March 5, 2007 @ 10:34 pm

  2. So the “civil war will leave Ireland in the sorry state that it is still in today”. Might I ask when the reviewer was last in Ireland? Historians find it in a better state than it has been for 2000 years. They also point out errors in Loach’s view of history. Perhaps the most outlandish is that the opposers of the treaty of 1922–a minority–were socialists and not simply nationalists. It’s also an aesthetic error to keep ranking Loach with Pontecorvo. The Italian never imposed a romantic socialist framework on his material but respected events.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — March 6, 2007 @ 10:59 am

  3. I am chomping at the bit to see this movie released in the states.

    Comment by John Dowling — March 22, 2007 @ 1:01 am

  4. Just saw the movie a few days ago, feels like a (faithful )film adaptation of Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution by Desmond Greaves.

    Comment by Doug — September 13, 2007 @ 5:01 pm

  5. Here is a socialist review from Ireland:


    Comment by Gerry Fitzpatrick — February 26, 2008 @ 11:51 am

  6. this film was very good — but there was almost no role for women in it.

    Comment by sambarns — October 30, 2008 @ 6:42 pm

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