Marxist Revolutions in the Irish Civil War: “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”
by Sean Leake
Ken Loach’s 2006 film, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, follows a band of Irish Republican Army (IRA) fighters as they transition from civilians to passionate but inexperienced volunteers to hardened guerrillas during the 1920’s Irish War of Independence. Named after a centuries old Irish ballad written from the perspective of a doomed young rebel who is about to sacrifice his relationship with his loved one and plunge into the cauldron of violence associated with a previous Irish rebellion, the title The Wind that Shakes the Barley is a direct reference to the regenerative nature of Irish resistance to their British colonial masters. Although on its surface The Wind that Shakes the Barley is a historical fiction war drama, on a deeper level it is a Marxist commentary about the injustice of structural and institutional violence and abstract cultural differences layered behind historical facts and class struggle.
The Wind that Shakes the Barely opens in 1920 as Damien O’Donovan, a young, apolitical doctor prepares to leave rural Ireland to work in a London hospital. His elder brother, Teddy, is the commander of the local IRA detachment. Before departing for London, Damien witnesses the brutal execution of a local 17 year old boy who refuses to speak English and submit to a random strip search by British Black and Tans, a paramilitary organization used to hunt down Irish rebels. Damien does not agree that the IRA is strong enough to win independence from Britain and leaves for London. As he is leaving, Damien witnesses a railroad conductor nearly get beaten to death for following his trade union’s orders to refuse passage to British soldiers. The arbitrary brutality has an immediate radicalizing effect on Damien. Convinced that the British occupation must be resisted, he returns home to join the IRA.
The IRA unit retaliates for the brutal actions of the British by raiding their barracks for guns and executing 4 unarmed British prisoners. In the aftermath, the local wealthy English aristocrat, Sir John, coerces one of his servants, a teenaged IRA member, Chris Reilly, to inform on his comrades. The IRA unit is ambushed and taken prisoner, and Teddy O’Donovan, Damien’s brother and unit commander, is tortured. In their cell, Damien meets the train conductor, Dan, a union organizer who holds strongly Marxist views that Damien finds he agrees with. After escaping, Damien is placed in command of the unit while his brother recuperates. He learns that the IRA prisoners who couldn’t escape were tortured and executed and that Chris Reilly was the informant that led to their capture. Damien’s hardening resolve is demonstrated when the IRA kidnaps Sir John and Damien personally executes him and Chris Reilly. Damien blames the English aristocrat for oppressing the working class of Ireland, whose poverty is demonstrated repeatedly throughout the film. The characters visit family members who mostly live in homes resembling medieval huts despite it being the 20th century while Sir John and other English settlers live on huge estates with hundreds of Irish servants. After the IRA ambushes and slaughters an armed convoy of the British Army, another detachment of British soldiers loots and burns the local village in retaliation. Damien’s girlfriend, Sinéad, is held at gunpoint and raped while her head is shaved.
At this point a peace treaty is declared between the Irish rebels and the British government. The IRA unit is split on whether to sign the treaty, with Teddy leading those that support it claiming that it is the best alternative to a hopeless war to the death. Damien leads others who argue that since the treaty doesn’t establish a socialist Ireland, the only thing that is truly changing is “the accents of the powerful and the color of the flag.” Teddy joins the new Irish Army while Damien and his Marxist allies refuse to disarm and begin a civil war against the newly established Irish government. Damien’s friends are killed in a battle with the Irish Army, and Damien is taken prisoner and held in the same prison cell he previously occupied. Although Damien is offered full amnesty if he reveals where the rebels weapons are being stored, he refuses and is sentenced to death. The film closes when Damien is taken before a firing squad, where his brother Teddy tearfully gives the order to fire, executing his younger brother.
The Wind that Shakes the Barley, through its brutal depiction of the Irish War of Independence and later the Irish Civil War, illustrates how violence dominated Irish society. Philippe Bourgois’s theory of structural and institutional violence is on clear display in the film as the IRA launches attacks on the occupying British Army and the British respond. The cycle of violence perpetuates itself as every violent act invites a reprisal which in turn must also be countered by the other side and so on. Injustice, in the Marxist context of the film, tends to be a simple matter. It resides in the dehumanizing exercise of power whether wielded by wealthy landowners, the state (either the British or Irish government in this context), or an army of occupation against those who have no power. Complications arise and the violence starts when the powerless try to fight back.
The combination of structural and institutional violence leads to a downtrodden society where being in the wrong place at the wrong time can lead to horrific deaths at the hands of the powerful British Army. Under the relevant conditions of structural violence, the outcome of harm is not necessarily intended by a specific individual or group. The structural violence in The Wind that Shakes the Barley is inherently linked to institutional violence, which is violence perpetrated by institutions, whether that be the IRA, British Army, British Government or Irish Government. The inherent structural violence in the film is the degradation of the Irish people by their British colonial masters. The Irish are overwhelmingly poorer, speak differently and follow a different religion than the British. It is therefore natural for a British Army officer who is stationed in a hostile land to adopt an us-vs.-them mentality and look down upon the Irish subjects he has direct power over. Bayoneting a boy to death for refusing to submit to an arbitrary strip search would never be allowed in Britain, but in Ireland institutional violence is tolerated because of the structural violence of national identity. The Irish, in the minds of the British Army, aren’t quite civilized and thus don’t deserve to be treated like people, as evident when a British officer screams at the, “dirty, illiterate peasants”.
The abstract cultural differences between the Irish and the British are at the forefront of the storytelling, using the historical facts and events of the Irish War of Independence to create a commentary on “otherness”. The British speak differently, dress differently, and above all are portrayed as brutal monsters, committing horrible acts of violence against the people with little to no explanation for their motivation. The Irish speak a mix of heavily accented English and the occasional Gaeilge, the native language of Ireland, dress in patched together wools and are portrayed as freedom fighters, though as the film progresses their brutality begins to match that of the English. Once the British and Irish sign a peace treaty, a definitive historical event, the “otherness” between the British occupiers disappears, and only the Irish culture remains. Even here though, there are differences. The speech and mannerisms of the educated middle and upper class Irish subtlety remind the viewer of the British while the poor, working Irish are clearly culturally distinct.
The Italian Marxist writer Antonio Gramsci says, “creating a new culture does not only mean one individual’s ‘original’ discoveries’ . . . [it] means the diffusion in a critical form of truths already discovered.” This Gramscian idea of civil society, capable of resisting structural and institutional violence, is a direct goal of Damien and his fellow militants. In addition to traditional Marxist economic proposals such as collectivization of agriculture and industry, two goals Damien supports, the Marxist IRA members also attempt to combat structural violence within their own community.
One scene in the film serves as an example of the attempt to change the civil society to a more just and fair system, while also illustrating how class conflict has shifted from the poor Irish against the wealthy English to intra-community disputes within the Irish society. An IRA court is arbitrating a dispute between an Irish businessman who sues a poor widow to get interest back on a loan he made to her but that she cannot repay. Damien and the Court argue that the relatively wealthy businessman is, “abusing [his] position in the community by charging such extoriante interest rates”. On the other side, though, is his brother Teddy who asks, “Do you want every merchant and businessman in the country against us? We have a war to fight and it’s businessmen like Mr. Rafferty that fund that war.” This argument is a hallmark of Gramscian discourse, as Damien supports Gramsci’s Marxist ideal of creating a new civil society while Teddy takes a classical market realist view, saying class warfare is not a relevant idea once the English have been driven out. However, it is clear that the film takes a favorable view of Damien and thus Gramsci’s Marxist perspective by equating the pro-Treaty Irish, as exemplified by Teddy O’Donovan, with the former English occupiers, clearly signaling that capitalist Irish are as bad as the imperialist English. Indeed, in one scene where the British Army hands over authority to the new Irish Army, the two sides are nearly indistinguishable with the only difference between them being their accents and the color of the flag, exactly what Damien had warned against when advocating for a socialist Ireland.
This Marxist commentary is further developed when the Catholic Church formally sanctions the peace treaty ending the war, supporting the new Irish government over the objections of Damien and his socialist comrades. As Gramsci says, “Religion and common sense cannot constitute an intellectual order because they cannot be reduced to unity and coherence…within an individual conscience, much less collective consciousness.” Damien is forcibly thrown out of a Church when the Father preaches support for, “[the] common sense” peace treaty. The common sense beliefs of Teddy work with religion to constitute an order that is portrayed as perpetuating a top-down order of oppression towards the working class.
Although The Wind that Shakes the Barley does not take a heavy handed approach to promoting a Marxist commentary, the film layers Marxist philosophy behind a story of war and tragedy. The Wind that Shakes the Barley provides a thorough account of how culture and cultural struggle fit within a larger narrative of class struggle, fighting against oppressive forces of structural and institutional violence. The historical narrative of the Irish War of Independence and later the Irish Civil War serve as backdrops for an intensely personal story of struggle against oppressive invaders, and later when the greatest of all national tragedies occurs, a civil war, brothers fighting each other. Damien O’Donovan personifies the young idealist who embraces Marxism and passionately carries out his personal revolution, even though it ultimately leads to his death. His brother, Teddy O’Donovan provides a parallel path, supporting the middle classes and wealthy while still fighting against the British. Together, the two brothers illustrate cultural differences struggling with violence and class warfare.
The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Dir. Ken Loach. UK Film Council, 2006. Film
Gramsci, Antonio. The Study of Philosophy: Selections From the Prison Notebooks. 323-325. Print.