My article on it is here:
‘Twas hard for mournful words to frame
To break the ties that bound us,
Ah but harder still to bear the shame
Of foreign chains around us.
And so I said: the mountain glen
I’ll seek at morning early
And join the brave united men
While soft winds shake the barley.
(Robert Dwyer Joyce (1830–1883) ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’
These words, expressing the difficulty, yet deeply-felt necessity, of achieving liberation from British rule, are sung early on in Ken Loach’s film about the Irish war of independence. They are sung at the wake of a young man who has been beaten to death by British soldiers for answering them in Irish, not English. It is 1920 and the guerrilla war is beginning in earnest. Micheail’s death is not the only cause of distress to the rural community in County Cork – Damien (Cillian Murphy), recently qualified as a doctor in Cork, is about to leave for London to further his training. It is a great opportunity for him, but his friends and brother Teddy (Pádraic Delaney) are upset. They believe he should stay to fight against the British. At the station a platoon of soldiers are prevented from boarding the train by the guard and engine driver Dan (Liam Cunningham) because the Irish unions have agreed not to provide transport for British forces. Both men are struck by rifle butts, and Damien stays to attend to the guard’s wounds while the train leaves without him. It is the final straw for Damien who returns home, takes the oath of the Irish Republican Army and joins the local Flying Column.
When the truce is declared in the summer of 1921, it divides the republicans since the proposed Anglo-Irish Treaty promises self rule but leaves six counties in the UK, leaves the British in control of key ports, and requires members of the Irish Free State Parliament to pledge allegiance to the British crown. Teddy argues in favour of the Treaty on the basis that it was the best they could hope for and that it was better than the alternative offered by the British: ‘immediate and terrible war’. But Damien and others vow to fight on: they want a republican Ireland. They believe that otherwise, ‘all that will change will be colour of the flag’. It certainly seems that way when the Irish Free State Army – with Teddy as an officer – behaves in the same brutal way as the British. Now men who had been comrades find themselves fighting on opposite sides – including Damien and Teddy.
The Wind that Shakes the Barley is not an easy film to watch. It is, as one expects from director Ken Loach, superbly made, and it won the Palm D’Or at Cannes. Set in the beautiful surroundings of County Cork, with sets and costumes in appropriately muted colours, it is extremely atmospheric. Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography and George Fenton’s score (along with some traditional Irish songs) create exactly the right feel. The difficulty is entirely with the subject matter. . . .