The Wind That Shakes the Barley

By Ryan Scharfenberg

Wars are often a much discussed topic, but some conflicts like the Irish war of independence, are little known to anyone outside the country in which they happened. The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a film by Ken Loach, brings the story of this conflict to a wider audience. As tension brews in early 1920’s Ireland brothers Damien and Teddy O’Donovan abandon their civilian lives and take up arms to liberate their country from the British. The struggle for Irish independence and the impact it has on its participants is portrayed from the time of the British occupation to the eventual splitting off of the IRA and the civil war.

The story begins with British troops gathering a town by gunpoint, proclaiming that all public meeting are banned. The troops begin questioning the townspeople, Damien’s friend cannot pronounce his name in English, and so they beat him to death. Afterwards, Damien is asked to join the IRA by his brother, Teddy, but he declines, asking “you’re going to take down the British army with your Hurley, is that it?” Damien is set to attend medical school in London, but on his way to catch his train, he witnesses something that will change his mind. British troops are angered that they cannot be transported on Irish trains, which the conductor explains. Upon hearing this made the troops begin beating the train crew with their rifle butts, even striking an elderly crew member. So Damien sides with his brother and joins the IRA. Wasting no time, the brothers form a small group and rob the local police station, taking weapons and supplies. They continue this covert action for a while, until they are eventually identified and imprisoned, their position given away by one of their own, the young Chris. By sheer luck, the night before Damien is to be executed, a young British soldier sets all the prisoners free. The rebels find the British leader Sir John, and force him to write a letter to England, pardoning them. They then capture Sir John, taking him to the hills and executing him, along with the traitor. The scene switches to a courtroom, where a merchant is on trial for charging high interest rates. The republican court finds him guilty, but the O’Donovan brothers side with him because they need his and other merchants’ money to buy weapons. After a typical raid, the IRA finds British troops burning Sinead’s home, interrogating Sinead, Damien’s girlfriend, by cutting her hair. Shortly after, a messenger boy brings news that there’s a truce, peace at last. Or so they thought. The IRA splits into two factions: one loyal to the new government, called Free Staters and the original IRA whose members want complete independence. The following scenes show the turmoil of what would become the civil war. The opposing sides strike one another in retaliation, and the violent cycle is repeated. The movie concludes with Damien being captured by the IRA. Unwilling to give up any information, he is executed.

The view of historical characters presented helps the viewer to understand the issues behind this conflict. The British “Black and Tan” squads that patrolled Ireland during the time were composed mostly of World War 1 veterans and convicts. Not surprisingly, they are portrayed as very ruthless, burning homes, attacking civilians, and imprisoning whomever they wish. An accurate description, this shows just how much respect the British troops had for the Irish. This treatment was nothing new, since England had dominated Ireland since the 16th century. Therefore, the English believed they should keep control of the territory: a few rebels wouldn’t stand in the way of their God-given rights. Moreover, their ruthlessness demonstrates the attitude an occupying force has towards the conquered area. Occupying forces usually believe they have some kind of right to be occupying the land. They believe the ends justify the means, so they will do whatever they can to get what they want. This is clearly shown when Teddy’s fingernails are pulled out, and when Sinead’s hair is cut by the British general.

The very few historical characters in the movie are only briefly mentioned. The focus is more on the common people than the figures in history. However a few real people are mentioned. In the courtroom scene the two Irish sides are discussing which path to take, an elder mentions the villains who signed the contract. Among others, David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill are mentioned. Figures the British consider great heroes are presented as greedy imperialists.

Fictional characters are numerous throughout the story and they help to illustrate what normal people were going through at that time. For example, Damian reluctantly joined the struggle as many did during that time. Young people then, no matter how hard they tried, were forced into the war. The attitudes of the ruling British class are demonstrated by the character Sir John Hamilton. Sir John is portrayed as a ruthless man who has no care for the Irish, not even trusting them to govern themselves, “God preserve Ireland if your kind take control.” This shows the disdain the English had for the Irish, but not all English are like this, another example is the young British soldier in the jail, he releases all the prisoners because he doesn’t want their deaths to be on his hands. This represents the compassionate stance some English people might have taken towards their Irish neighbors. Most importantly, the taking of the separate sides by the O’Donovan brothers demonstrates the social turmoil brought by the civil war. This war pits family against family, brother against brother, and history shows that these are the worst kinds of wars.

Where the film really excels is its depiction of everyday life in that time period. Every detail, from the cigarettes to the Lee-Enfield rifles, comes together to immerse you in early 1920s Ireland. Virtually the whole movie is shot with natural light sources giving the viewer a sense of what things were like before electricity came around. The opening scene occurs during a game of hurling, a sport similar to hockey. This introduces Irish culture to the audience, as something unique and different from other parts of Europe. Messengers are shown repeatedly throughout the film, which tells the viewer how important the role these people played was how much they relied on them.

I learned much from this movie, I knew of this conflict, but only slightly. By the end of the movie, a clear picture of civil war is painted for the audience. The way the civil war begins is very interesting to me. The Anglo-Irish treaty supposedly granted Ireland independence, but did it? The treaty did not completely, giving Ireland status as a dominion within the British Empire. The Free State was led by a governor general, but he had to report to the British monarch. Also, members of the new parliament were required to take an oath of allegiance to the crown. “All that’s changing is the accents of the powerful and the colour of the flag.” The IRA didn’t like these ideas, wanting a completely independent Ireland. This is how the IRA was split and how the Irish civil war began. What I also found interesting was the Catholic Church’s stance on the events. In the film the preacher is preaching how good the treaty is, how close they are to peace. But as Damien points out, “once again, with honorable exception, the Catholic Church sides with the rich” - which is true: since the time of Philip II and the religious wars, the Catholics have always taken the most profitable side.

In terms of promoting knowledge, The Wind that Shakes the Barley is a definite winner. Instead of focusing on the interplay of relationships caught in this struggle, the film stays as objective as possible, portraying events as they happened. It shows both sides of the civil war and what the leaders were thinking, and doesn’t lean towards one side in the process. It functions more as a history lesson than as a dramatic work. Therefore, the film is very good at promoting historical knowledge.