Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2624

Black 47’s Western genre does justice to the horror of Ireland’s famine

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Black 47 is a familiar tale of righteous violent revenge. But its subject matter sees it stand alone from other classics of the genre, writes?Simon Basketter
Issue 2624
Cold and brutal—James Frecheville and Hugo Weaving in Black 47
Cold and brutal—James Frecheville and Hugo Weaving in Black 47

Director Lance Daly’s powerful revenge fable Black 47 is an Irish Western.

Set in an Ireland where the sun never shines. A skull in a puddle—the hardship tangible in a striking cold, bleached-out look. The year is 1847, and Ireland’s Great Famine is scarcely approaching its devastating midpoint.

The hero who’s wronged by evildoers is common enough on screen. It’s normally little more than an excuse to justify righteous bloodshed.

But Black 47 asks, “What if an entire society was devastated?”

Martin Feeney, played by James Frecheville, has come back after serving with the British army in Afghanistan.

There is death and destruction wherever he looks. The potato crops have failed. Landlords have evicted their tenants whose roofless homes are now pens for livestock.

Feeney embarks on a journey of revenge against the officials, ­landowners, and collaborators responsible. The Irish are victimised because of their language and their religion.

The obscenity of landowners hoarding grain at a time when so many are dying of starvation is there.

Feeney is pursued by a motley posse led by Captain Pope (Freddie Fox), an eminently punchable posh officer.

Private Hobson (Barry Keoghan) serves as his more sensitive orderly and Stephen Rea’s ambivalent, pragmatic Conneely sells the party his services as translator and guide.

Watching bastions of brutal repressive British rule get some comeuppance is cathartic

Jim Broadbent plays Anglo-Irish aristocrat Lord Kilmichael, the top name on Feeney’s death list. He’s an eccentric, stubborn and seemingly genial figure—but one who has no sympathy for those starving outside the gates of his country house.

Repeating, with a chortle, a refrain that would subsequently make it into Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Kilmichael looks forward to the day when “a Celtic Irishman in Ireland will be as rare a sight as a Red Indian in Manhattan”.

He observes that the Irish, being peasants, don’t appreciate the Connemara landscape.

“Beauty would be held in much higher regard it if could be eaten,” replies Conneely.

There are familiar tropes and the occasional cliché—but done well. We’re unused to seeing the Irish countryside dotted with so many dwellings, because of the very decimation of the rural population the film portrays.

It is grafting genre onto disregarded history. Though the absence of significant women characters is noticeable.

There are plenty of cinematic nods to the westerns of Sam Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood and others. It rises in a different direction to those and more modern equivalents by situating itself more strongly.

Watching bastions of brutal repressive British rule get some comeuppance is cathartic.

But grounding the story in the real history of the Great Famine makes it more than a revenge film.

Escapist entertainment touching on grim subject matter is not a bad trick to pull off and it makes for a fine movie.

Starvation was a weapon of British colonialism

The Great Famine of 1845-50 saw over a million people die. Another million emigrated and the population fell by a quarter.

It was the result of British colonialism.

The idea, propagated by the British ruling class at the time, that feckless Irish peasants were unable to help themselves has been repeated often since.

The key was that landlords invested next to nothing in their lands, dividing it into small patches to draw as much rent as possible.

Irish agriculture had already entered a deep crisis in the early 1840s. Landlords resorted to mass evictions.

The demand for land reform had fuelled monster rallies for repeal of the union between Ireland and Britain which Daniel O’Connell organised in 1843.

Potato blight infected crops across Europe in the 1840s. For British politicians the blight was a gift from god which would remove the Irish peasantry.

Public work schemes, food imports and soup kitchens were all scrapped.

Underlying the British government’s approach to the famine was the fear of revolution in Ireland.

There was resistance. In 1846 the government imported maize after food riots in Tipperary and Kilkenny.

These were known as centres of agrarian rebellion and were also grain growing regions where the victims of the famine could see convoys removing grain for export.

In the winter of 1848-49 there was a revival of widespread armed resistance to mass evictions.

Republicans led an abortive rising in 1848 but did not try to ally themselves with rural rebels.

Pinter at the pinter

The Jamie Lloyd Company presents a season of Harold Pinter’s one-act plays on the tenth anniversary of his death, in the theatre that bears his name.

Pinter at the Pinter is a unique event featuring all twenty of his short plays.

They will be presented in repertoire by a company of world class actors, many of whom were Harold Pinter’s friends and collaborators.

The Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton St, central London SW1Y 4DN. Until Saturday 23 February 2019. Go to

Claude Cahun—Beneath This Mask

This Hayward Gallery Touring exhibition features the work of French photographer Claude Cahun whose practice investigated gender and identity.

Born Lucy Schwob, she adopted the pseudonym in 1917 to free herself from the narrow confines of gender.

Cahun achieved posthumous fame for her elusive self-portraits in which she assumed multiple personas.

Her work subverts traditional portraiture and the constructed nature of identity and gender.

Gala Gallery, Millennium Place, Durham, DH1 1WA. Sunday 11 November

Jamie Reid XXXXX—50 Years of subversion and the spirit

Humber Street Gallery presents a retrospective look at the British artist and activist’s work and life of rebelling against society’s social and cultural injustices.

Spanning a career of over 50 years, Reid has become synonymous with the spirit of British punk with his signature newspaper cutting graphics.

Humber Street Gallery, 64 Humber Street, Hull, HU1 1TU. From 12 October until 6 January


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