Even though Ken Loach’s new film The Wind That Shakes The Barley hasn’t yet opened in cinemas, it has already won a high profile award and created controversy. Ken Loach is on a high after winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Some elements of the British media have insinuated it was just a fluke, or that he won as a kind of “lifetime achievement award”.
This is nonsense – the jury’s decision was unanimous. Some newspapers have been far worse, and Loach is rightly livid.
Ken Loach told Socialist Worker, “The right wing has reacted hysterically. The Daily Mail has written, ‘Why does this man loathe his country so much?’
“The Times has compared me to Leni Riefenstahl – a Nazi propagandist! Such a response is crude, vicious and lying, so we’ve obviously hurt them. It’s all because they can’t stand the idea of the British Empire being questioned.
“They liked it when people went out for the ‘benefit of the poor benighted natives and brought them the Bible and British virtues’. But in reality we went out to exploit and destroy them.”
Conscious of his huge worldwide popularity, Loach remains defiant. He said, “We have a responsibility to attack the mistakes and brutalities of our own leaders, past and present.”
The Wind That Shakes The Barley is a film about the struggle for Irish independence, and it can be compared – in all senses – to Loach’s masterpiece about the Spanish Civil War, Land and Freedom.
But instead of the dust and sun of Spain, this film is set in the misty green countryside of County Cork.
Like nearly all of Ken Loach’s films, your ears work overtime in the first few minutes as you get used to the local pronunciation. The voices are soft Irish country accents.
The film opens in 1920 – two years after the Irish nationalists Sinn Fein had won a huge majority in the new Irish parliament. The only problem was that the British government wasn’t having any of it, and was sending in more troops to shore up its rule.
The Wind That Shakes The Barley shows the cruelty of war on both sides – how people are dragged into fighting a foreign army of occupation, and why such a huge commitment will not be satisfied if fundamental change is not achieved.
The film begins with the British “Black and Tans” forces raiding a farmhouse. They were named after the colour of their uniforms, and to British viewers their brutality might seem excessive.
But ask most Irish people, and they will tell you there’s no argument about this and that the British forces were absolutely barbaric.
That’s not surprising as they had virtually no local support – nobody wanted them in Ireland.
The backbone of the movement against British occupation was made up of ordinary people. Loach’s film is sure to be attacked by “revisionists”, historians who argue that the Irish struggle was not a popular movement for national liberation.
As Loach explains, “These people basically argue that what happened during what we call the ‘War of Independence’ was an opportunity to settle old scores, on a sectarian basis.
“So we worked very closely with a historian at Cork university named Donal O’Driscoll, and many other experts. Together with the scriptwriter Paul Laverty we went back to primary sources, to eyewitness accounts, because this was all 80 years ago.”
Another group that will watch the film very closely will be the Sinn Fein leadership, who formally stand in the tradition of the IRA of the 1920s.
“It’s going to be very interesting to see their reaction,” Loach ponders. “I remember when we made Carla’s Song, a film about the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, we showed it to a group of leading Sandinista politicians. Their criticism was that it was too pro-Sandinista!
“At the end of the day I believe in ‘no justice, no peace’ – therefore you need to come to terms with that pivotal moment, when Ireland nearly got full independence, when the people voted overwhelmingly for total independence – and the British denied that democratic mandate.
“So they sent in the troops, brutalised the population, and then the resistance was born. On both sides of the water, we need to come to terms with this.
“You have to deal with the substance of what happened – but they try to cover things up, and for 80 years trying to patch these things over simply hasn’t worked.”
Damien (Cillian Murphy), one of the main characters in The Wind That Shakes The Barley, is a recently graduated medical student. He decides to join his local IRA “flying column” after seeing too much Black and Tan violence.
He had come across the writings of the great socialist James Connolly at university, after Connolly had been executed by the British following the 1916 Easter Rising. So when Damien first encountered Connolly, it was in a context of “all talk”.
Another theme that emerges repeatedly in the film is the scale of local support, without which no guerrilla movement can exist. Women were in the forefront, carrying messages and sometimes weapons.
Farmhouses were a vital base for food and rest for IRA volunteers on active service. Trade unions were active in the struggle too, refusing to transport British soldiers and equipment.
One of the main characters, Dan, became politicised in a huge strike in Dublin in 1913. He is a railway driver who had been involved in the 1913 Dublin lockout and James Connolly’s Citizen Army. Loach explains how somebody who represents this kind of politics was integrated into the film:
“The Connolly strand wasn’t that strong in the south west, in the rural areas, but it was a significant element in the republican movement as a whole – that’s why we wanted to have a character such as Dan.
“But it would have been wrong for him to dominate more than he does. He connects with Damien in a prison cell – while Damien has only had these ideas in his head, Dan has lived them.”
Although the film contains a lot of violence, unlike most Hollywood films none of it is glorified. At one point local activists realise who has betrayed them – Chris, a young part time member of the flying column.
The order comes through to execute him. Many of the group don’t want to kill somebody so young, but a quieter member starts to speak up, voicing the terrible logic of guerrilla warfare, “I’m sorry, lads, but this is war. What are we doing here? It’s a war.”
Damien then volunteers to kill Chris, who he has known since he was a young boy. Later he admits to his girlfriend, “I can’t feel anything anymore.”
Chris is being executed alongside a local landlord.
After having told the volunteers to tell his mother he loves her, Chris suddenly blurts out his final request a split second before they fire, “Don’t bury me next to him!” He accepts his fate as a traitor, but still doesn’t want to be identified with the enemy.
Many urban socialists were perhaps surprised by who was doing the fighting. These were country people, often referred to as “bogmen”. County Cork is next to County Kerry, and people from Kerry are often the butt of Dubliners’ jokes for their apparent stupidity.
The film shows how local people were forced to fight fire with fire. After one attack on a British patrol, an IRA commander tells his troops, “If they bring their savagery over here, we will meet it with a savagery of our own.”
This sustained military resistance forced the British government to negotiate – Michael Collins and other Republican leaders went to London and signed a treaty.
Back in Cork, members of the local flying column are in the cinema watching a silent newsreel.
People groan when the king of Britain comes on screen, and start cheering when the subtitled screen announces independence has been won.
The pianist strikes up “The Rising of the Moon” – an old nationalist song – but this is drowned out by uproar as the next subtitles scroll before them.
The Irish parliament will have to swear allegiance to the British crown. And then worst of all, in the north, six of Ireland’s 32 counties will have no independence at all.
The majority of the IRA want to accept the treaty because they think it’s the best they can get, and the British threaten even more violence if they don’t sign.
But there’s also another reason, played out in a key scene – the local leadership are cutting deals with local landlords who have financed some of the weapons that have been used.
In other words, the Sinn Fein majority were happy for Irish landlords to continue to dominate poor Irish peasants, the backbone of the resistance.
Discussions about curbing landlords’ power and eliminating poverty wasn’t something abstract – poverty was so extreme it was virtually a matter of life or death.
In this period Ireland had the highest infant mortality rate in Europe. In 1921, a quarter of all Dublin families lived in a single room.
As the argument over the treaty rages back and forth among the volunteers, one of the anti-treaty activists says, “We didn’t go through all this to just change the colour of the flag.”
And another volunteer, Congo, who was quiet at the start, finally speaks up. His words are stilted. He is grappling with the notion of something totally new being created.
He says, “Lads, we have freedom within our grasp. We’re that close. It’s just one inch but it’s still out of reach. And if we stop now, we will never again… regain the power that I can feel in this room today. And if we stop short now, never in our lifetime… will we see that energy again. Ever!”
The IRA splits, with the church supporting the treaty. People start thinking the unthinkable, and even interrupt a priest in the middle of his church sermon.
But the British soldiers march out. The anti-treaty volunteers look at their old commander putting on the military uniform of the new Irish Free State and call him “gombeen man” (a term of abuse for a rural landlord).
As these new forces march past them they mutter, “Send out the Black and Tans – bring in the Green and Tans.”
The last quarter of the film deals with the civil war between these two warring Republican camps, which the British had managed to divide. This is something Loach shows in all its human tragedy.
But by the end of the film you can’t help being reminded of the British army in Iraq today, and Loach is the first to admit this.
He said, “I think what happened in Ireland is such a classic story of a fight for independence, to establish a democratic mandate and to resist an occupying army.
“Yet it was also a fight for a country with a new social structure.
“The British army in Ireland during 1920-21 did what armies of occupation do the world over – adopt a racist attitude towards the people they are attacking and occupying.
“They destroy people’s houses, engage in acts of brutality and generally oppress the people – and in Iraq that’s exactly what the British army is doing.
“In spite of the suffering depicted, the fact still remains that the British marched out of Ireland. There is an element of hope in that.”
The Wind That Shakes The Barley is released on Friday 23 June.
Hear Ken Loach talk about the Spanish Civil War and his film Land and Freedom at Marxism 2006, a five day political festival from 6-10 July, central London. Go to www.marxism2006.org.uk