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Vol. 71/No. 23      June 11, 2007

‘Wind that Shakes the Barley’:
A historically accurate film
(In Review column)
The opening of Ken Loach’s latest movie, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which won the top prize at the Cannes film festival, paints a brutal but historically accurate portrait of Irish history.

After the failure of the 1916 Easter Rebellion, an armed uprising led by Irish nationalists against British colonial rule, most of its leaders were executed or imprisoned. However, as republicans were released from prison they began to reestablish a guerrilla army and become active in politics.

A quarter of all Irish men served in the British Army in World War I, and almost 50,000 of them died. Under the impact of this and inspired by the 1917 Russian Revolution, workers began forming councils in many Irish cities—which they named “soviets” after those that were formed during the Russian Revolution. Widespread land seizures also took place in response to the brutality of the British occupiers. By the 1918 election, Sinn Fein, a party advocating Irish national independence, had won 73 of the 105 Irish seats in the English parliament. Its deputies refused to take their seats or pledge loyalty to the Crown. Instead they formed their own parliament in Dublin, called Dáil éireann, and in 1919 declared independence from Britain. The same year the Irish Volunteers, later renamed the Irish Republican Army (IRA), launched a guerrilla campaign to force Britain out of Ireland. This was the beginning of the 1919-21 Irish War of Independence.

The movie follows the lives of the members of an IRA column in County Cork during the war.

In the opening scene a group of young men are just returning home from playing a game of hurling, which is similar to field hockey. A British auxiliary army unit, known as the Black and Tans because of the color of their uniforms, arrives at their farm. The British troops declare the Irishmen were involved in an illegal gathering. They then beat one young man to death because he insists on answering in the Irish language, refusing to speak English.

The film shows how the Black and Tans quickly gained a reputation for brutality and torture. They retaliated against any IRA attacks by punishing entire communities and murdering suspected IRA and Sinn Fein members or sympathizers.

Dan, who joins the column, was a train driver badly beaten by the Tans for refusing to let them board a train. In what is known as the Munitions of War Strike, the Irish Trade Union Congress had voted in 1920 not to let any armed soldiers on trains or to transport munitions. This strike was inspired by the London dock workers who refused to load munitions on a ship that was to be used against the Bolsheviks, who had led the October 1917 Russian Revolution.

A vignette of a trial organized by republicans in territory they controlled gives a hint of the political and class divisions that would later lead to the Irish Civil War. The court is presided by members of the Cumann na mBan, the IRA’s women’s organization. During the War of Independence, when an underground government had been established, it was the women who carried out much of the daily work of the councils set up to oppose the British administration.

In the trial, a shopkeeper has accused an elderly woman of not paying her debts to him. But the court rules against the shopkeeper, who was charging her 500 percent interest, and orders him instead to pay the woman 10.

The republicans who will later oppose the treaty with London agree with the court’s decision. But those who will go on to support the Irish “Free State” show their class-collaborationist stance by denouncing the verdict and trying to placate the wealthy shopkeeper because his contributions pay for weapons.

The main characters are brothers who wind up on opposite sides. After the British colonizers offered a truce, a treaty was signed in December 1921 establishing a “Free State” comprising the southern 26 counties of Ireland, which were granted sovereignty within the British commonwealth. The accord required all members of the Irish parliament to swear loyalty to the British Crown.

British prime minister David Lloyd George threatened an “immediate and terrible war” if the treaty was not signed.

The bourgeois forces in the republican movement, called the Freestaters, accepted partition of the six northern counties, which remained under British control, while the left wing opposed it. This caused a split in the IRA. The Cumann na mBan was among those denouncing the treaty, after a special convention of the group voted against it 419-63.

The civil war followed, between June 1922 and May 1923. This is where the film closes, as Freestaters begin executing their former comrades-in-arms.

The pro-independence forces could not hold off the might of the Free State army, which by then was collaborating with the British military and the pro-British Loyalists in Northern Ireland. As a result, a cease-fire was called on May 24, 1923.

My ear perked up when I heard the film’s hero, Damien, tell his girlfriend, Sinéad, “It’s not what you are against, but what you are for that counts.” For me that captured the moral of the story—the value of an uncompromising struggle for independence and an end to British colonial rule throughout Ireland.

If you go to see the movie bring some tissues. And remember the brutality of the Black and Tans is not an exception to the rule—it is how imperialism works.  
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