Caitlin McGrane on “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”

Posted on June 1, 2013

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A couple of weeks ago I picked up a book at the Grub Street Bookstore on Brunswick Street. Bad Blood by Colm Tóibín is a short autobiographical telling of when the author decided to walk along the border between The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in 1987. Very shortly after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement he set out, and along the way he encounters a variety of residents on both sides of the border with their own stories to tell about ‘The Troubles’. There is, however, a good deal of violence occurring on both sides – Republicans and Loyalists, Catholics and Protestants.

It is unclear to me how well most people understand the conflict: that, in fact, the original Irish Republican Army (IRA) was fighting for freedom from vicious colonial oppression.  I am opposed to any and all forms of violence, yet I understand the Irish desire to be free after centuries of British rule.

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The Wind that Shakes the Barley is set in 1920 and opens with a hurling match (an ancient Irish sport). The players are all clearly friends and afterwards they walk home together in high spirits, despite some friendly name-calling during the match. Shortly after they arrive home, it is raided by the ‘Black and Tans’ (British soldiers). They line them all up against the wall and when one refuses to say his name in English they drag him off into the barn, where only his cries of pain can be heard.

Damien O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy) is set to go to London to work as a doctor; however, following the incident after the match, he decides to join his brother Teddy (Pádraic Delaney), in the IRA. Their particular faction is led by a man named Finbar (Damien Kearney) who directs them around the local area, causing havoc and making life very difficult for the British army. The murder and mayhem caused by these men is brutal, but there is the very real sense that what they are doing is a ridiculous risk to the safety of themselves and their families. Watch out for Liam Cunningham before Game of Thrones as Dan.

It is impossible to pass great judgement on events that happened so many years ago, but (director) Ken Loach does a stellar job of tugging most violently at one’s heartstrings. When the Anglo-Irish Treaty is passed on screen (in 1921), the film beautifully portrays the way in which it tore families and communities apart.

The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2006, which is one of the reasons I chose it (after Blue is the Warmest Colour won the prestigious award earlier this week). I predict that The Wind that Shakes the Barley will make you want to spend some quality time with your family. It’s beautiful and it’s haunting. And let me know if you cry, because I always do.

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