Rebellion done justice

revolutionary Ireland on  screen



Watching any film that centres around revolution awakens a plethora of emotions. From fierce pride to uncontrollable anger, it is easy to get caught up in historical adaptations as if they are fact. As I am not a history buff of any sort, I can let the inaccuracies sail over my head and let myself become immersed in the romantic depictions of Irish history. There is something unique that comes from film which cannot be created by any other medium, that is, inclusion. Whilst a book can introduce you to a different world, it also runs the risk of alienation and emotional detachment. Film, especially film that is based in the country you have been raised in and whose streets you continue to wander, lets you be a part of the story. That inclusion is critical when watching historical films about your own country, especially those that reflect times where rebellion was on everyone’s lips.

As with most revolutions, bloodshed will be inevitable and the Irish War of Independence was no exception. The beginning of the uproar of the Irish people stemmed from the 1916 Rising. Even though it was not the most organised rebellion, the idea of revolution wormed itself into the minds and hearts of the people. In Michael Collins, we see Liam Neeson depicting Collins himself alongside the late Alan Rickman as the Long Fella, Eamon DeValera. In the opening scene the pair find themselves lined up as the leaders of the Rising are gathered for execution. Neeson is a fiery Collins, enraged by the injustice of British rule. This is continued throughout as he begins to earn himself the moniker of Irish revolutionary and true legend.

Although Neeson delivers a fantastic performance, his character is romanticised as the tragic hero. He commits himself to the cause and is portrayed as the martyr who won the Free State and an angel sent down to save the Irish people from British Rule. This romanticism makes the film comical at times. One scene sees a British officer shot in his vehicle. Whilst this should be a dramatic moment that depicts the brutality of the rebels, a Dublin voice in the background shouts, “oh for fuck’s sake”, breaking the tension. Most of the brutal executions of British officers, although warranted within the context, are portrayed in this oddly casual manner.

The grittiness that Michael Collins lacks is made up for in Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley. The brutal crimes inflicted by the Black and Tans is emphasised throughout the film and draws your attention away from Dublin, the hub of most of the revolutionary action. The poignant scenes of heartbreak, unmotivated attacks and family feuds make this film a classic in its own right. The burning of houses and the murder of innocent rural people reflect the harsh British rule that came down on Ireland post-Rising. This refreshing take doesn’t shy away from the determination that the rebels had to rid themselves of their cruel oppressors. The locals are terrorised but the rebels have their flaws also which is highlighted by the conflict between Cillian Murphy and his onscreen brother Teddy (played to powerful perfection by Pádraic Delaney) as they fall on opposite sides of the conflict. There is no hiding from the harsh, brutal reality that was the Irish War of Independence.

The seriousness of this time period is emphasised by the lack of music in The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Men are lined up against their farmhouses, looking down the barrels of British guns. Powerless, they witness new atrocities every day, another local dead for catching the eye of a soldier. All of this surrounded by stark silence. The rare appearance of musical accompaniment comes with the training of the local men to become soldiers. They crawl through the rugged landscape with camáns as guns. Traditional Irish music softly plays as they begin to find the determination to fight back. Michael Collins is different in that its use of music is jovial. It fulfils an Irish stereotype by having fast paced traditional tunes in the backdrop of most scenes. It begs the question, can revolutions be viewed as triumphs as well as tragedies?

Many lives were lost in the War of Independence with plenty of sacrifices made to establish a Republic, albeit not the full 32 counties. In both of these screen depictions, the national trauma strikes a chord. Whether it was a message sent in secret or a bullet fired, there was determination and passion behind each act, big or small.

One of the most poignant scenes offered by these films is at the beginning of The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Black and Tans flood the courtyard of a rural cottage, ordering every man to stand against the wall for violent inspection, as punishment for taking part in a gathering: a hurling match. The Black and Tans scream at the innocent Irish, demanding names. One of the men, aged only seventeen, proudly refuses to speak English and repeatedly gives his name as Gaeilge. For this he is killed, and the soldiers leave his beaten body as a warning, in his family’s barn. He never got to fight in the battlefield but he fought against the British with the simplest of actions.

Whilst the rebels are romanticised to a certain extent, the way Loach’s film depicts them remains true to what they fought for and how they fought. They were trained by each other and were poorly armed, threatened every day and murdered without a second thought. The passion that drove them forward is in every shot and piece of dialogue. The films present those who fought for self-governance and freedom, making these films honourable depictions of a war well-fought.