‘Banshees of Inisherin’ & the Irish Civil War

The Banshees of Inisherin, a dark comedy about the estrangement of two friends living on a sparsely-populated Irish island, has received three Golden Globe awards and now appears favored to win a few Oscars. Colin Farrell won in the best comedy actor category, and the Martin McDonagh-directed film was honored as best comedy/musical and best screenplay.

The fictional story, set in 1923, contains several references to the real life Civil War on the nearby mainland. The war started soon after Ireland won a measure of independence through a treaty with the United Kingdom. Ireland became a “free state” similar to Canada, not the full “republic” fought for in the Irish war of independence, 1919-1921. Separate legislation created the political partition of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which remained part of the U.K. The treaty split Irish brothers-in-arms into the civil war, which lasted from June 1922 to May 1923.

As Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson wrote, the feud between the two movie friends Colm (Brendan Gleeson) and Pádraic (Farrell) “works on its own terms, but it’s also a startlingly violent fight between men who are basically brothers, a fight that has a logic to it and yet is heartbreaking precisely because of the depth of history between them. It’s the conflict in microcosm.”

I would add two points:

1) The screenplay does not suggest that one of the friends is a republican “irregular” opposed to the treaty and the other a Free Stater who supported the deal. Their feud is personal, not political.

2) Pádraic says he doesn’t know what the fighting is about on the mainland. Though presented as a “dull” and uneducated character, this could be the film’s biggest fiction. When explosions and gun fire can be heard across the water, the island’s inhabitants surely understood what the fighting was about. We see regular boat service bring mail, supplies, and a priest to celebrate mass and hear confessions. The islanders are not that isolated.

  • Quick aside: the real life film locations are Achill Island, County Mayo, and Inishmore, one of the three Aran Islands, County Galway.

At one point in the movie Pádraic looks at the calendar and realizes it is April 1. He wonders if Colm’s coldness is a cruel April Fools’ Day joke. It is not. Using the date as a marker, I found this description of the civil war in that day’s 1923 issue of The Boston Globe:

Tragedy is still monarch in Ireland, more firmly enthroned today than ever before in the country’s distressful history. The daily chronicle is a repetitive catalogue of outrage and destruction, of executions and killings, differing only from the world horrifying reign of the English ‘Black and Tans’ in the fact that the perpetrators are now exclusively Irish, and that Ireland’s present day Calvary is inflicted not by foreign invaders but by her own sons and daughters. It is a heart-breaking, tear-compelling experience for an American, particularly one of Irish ancestry … The staccato of machine guns, the ping of rifles, the phut of revolvers, detonations of land mines and bombs, the glare of incendiary fires, with their toll of life and property have become as routine as the succession of day by night. Twenty-four hours without a series of destructive incidents or outrages would be regarded almost as epochal.[1]”Former Boston Journalist Wonders If Gov Al Smith Couldn’t Help Ireland Find Happy Bridge To Peace”, The Boston Globe, April 1, 1923.

Colin Farrell, left, and Brendan Gleeson.                                                                                            Searchlight Pictures  

References

References
1 ”Former Boston Journalist Wonders If Gov Al Smith Couldn’t Help Ireland Find Happy Bridge To Peace”, The Boston Globe, April 1, 1923.

2 thoughts on “‘Banshees of Inisherin’ & the Irish Civil War

  1. Jackie McConnell

    Going to the theater to see this film, I anticipated banshees as the main characters. I was surprised but not disappointed. As you say, there’s so much history, plus it’s a story of sensitivity and male friendship with a backdrop of war, aging and end of life, and the need to pass down tradition and to exercise creativity. All this is enhanced by the secondary characters, including animals.

    Reply
  2. Bill Toohey

    I think it is a great film. But it is certainly neither a comedy or musical. Sorry foreign film critics. You still don’t have it right.

    Reply

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