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The Banshees of Inisherin: No glib conclusions here

Just as with any civil war, the seemingly tiny conflicts on the fictional Irish island of Inisherin are deeply meaningful. An essential film in every sense. 

October 28 2022, 18.32pm

It’s April 1923. The Irish Civil War is dwindling to a close. Less than a year ago, James Joyce’s Ulysses, chronicling the inner lives of diverse Dubliners going about their day, was published.

But on the opposite side of Ireland from Dublin, concepts like the inner life are barely recognised, never mind tolerated.

On the fictional island setting of Martin McDonagh’s new film, The Banshees of Inisherin, we find the Plain People of Ireland, characterised by Colin Farrell’s Pádraic Súilleabháin ​​, a simple man with a few dairy cows, a pony, a miniature donkey, and a sister. Pádraic wants for nothing - he doesn’t have the imagination necessary to bring forth desire. His world is a simple one. There is work, and there are chats in the pub - chats mostly inflicted on his friend Colm - portrayed by the ever-hulking, ever-melancholic Brendan Gleeson.

The island setting is a familiar one for fans of McDonagh’s theatre work - in particular the global hit, the Cripple of Inishmaan. That play portrayed a society of violence, enmity and backstabbing, as locals on the (real) island of Inishmaan, one of the Aran Islands off the coast of Galway, dream of being cast in Robert J Flaherty’s The Man of Aran.

Two things to note about Flaherty’s 1934 film. One - it is an epic, enthralling, thrilling documentary account of a way of life that was soon to be lost to the world. Two - it is a complete fabrication, much like Flaherty’s previous blockbuster, Nanook of the North, an entirely staged film about Inuit life (brilliantly lampooned by the Documentary Now! team).

McDonagh’s Irish stories (including the Lieutenant of Inishmore and the Beauty Queen of Leenane) have always played with perceptions of identity and history. He knows these dilemmas well: as a second generation London Irish man with deep Connemara roots, he knows how myths and reality interact. The west coast, Irish-speaking life has been fetishised by nationalists and revolutionaries for centuries - the west being seen as the last refuge of the fior Gael (real or true Irish) driven off their lands by successive English campaigns of occupation and plantation. The west represents the Tin Pan Alley version of Ireland: cosy cottages, rolling hills, comely maidens and all.  This version was sold to the descendants of famine refugees in the United States for generations, first by music hall impresarios and then by a nationalist movement desperate for funds to fight the War of Independence and keep the fledgling free state alive. It’s a representation that, in spite of Ireland’s leaps and bounds in the last three decades, still endures in the domestic and international imagination.

So Pádraic, of simple peasant stock (as McDonagh’s fellow second generation London Irish boy Brendan O’Neill would have it), ambles along in his usual, natural way to call on his Colm, all set for another day of pub chat. But Colm does not answer the door to him, and later, when he does make it to Jon Jo’s pub, does not sit with him or speak to him. Colm, we learn, is reaching an age where the life of the mind does concern him: he wishes to waste less time talking shite, and more time working on his music - he being a moderately talented fiddler with a tune in his head which, he hopes, when perfected and transcribed, will be his legacy.

This is the fundamental clash between Pádraic and Colm: is it enough to simply pass the time? To enjoy your animals and your drink and your chats? Or must you become something, be something? Can someone who just wants to be nice and someone who wants to be remembered relate, when one feels the other is wasting their time, and the other doesn’t even understand the idea of time wasted?

In an age when every second thought and action is recorded - where we all curate our archive endlessly - Pádraic’s obliviousness to posterity is obviously ridiculous. But Colm’s desperation to be remembered - to be known - should be examined as equally mad. He is buoyed by the enthusiasm for his work from music students visiting from the mainland. But he doesn’t realise that his own possible oblivion is the only reason they accompany him in the pub - he is not a teacher, but a subject to be observed, a curiosity whose islander melodies and techniques will be chalked down to his folkish ways, not his individual talent. Colm’s value to his mainland admirers  lies in their belief that he thinks and lives like the simple Pádraic. That is how he will last, if he lasts at all. An archetype and not an individual.

Colm and Pádraic’s friendship turns to bitterness and to violence, as Colm threatens to mutilate himself every time Pádraic attempts to speak with him, which leads to some extraordinarily tense set pieces as Pádraic struggles to come to terms with Colm’s rejection. And as McDonagh fans will anticipate and appreciate, there is a crescendo of violence that doesn’t serve to resolve anything, and only brings the threat of further violence.

There are jokes to be found in the stage Irishry, particularly with the casting of Pat Short and Jon Kenny as the pub landlord and one of his regulars:  Short and Kenny made their reputation with fond lampooning of rural Irish stereotypes as the hugely successful D'Unbelievables comedy act, and have always known how to tread that fine line between parody and mockery.

But alongside the absurd here are great wells of sadness, most acutely portrayed by Barry Keoghan’s as the young Dominic, a hapless soul who tries to step into the vacated role of Pádraic’s best friend. The son of the sadistic local policema, Dominic could be a village idiot-cum Shakespearean fool, a la John Mills in Ryan’s Daughter, or John Hurt in the field, but his youth and his circumstances - stuck with an abusive father who wields ultimate authority in the town - make him so much more than a mere cipher.

And beyond the absurdity and despair, there is Kerry Condon’s Siobhan, the sister of Pádraic. Siobhan is neither long suffering Irish mammy nor virginal innocent. She is frustrated by island life, by the busybody postmistress, by triviality of village chat, but also by Colm’s notions. When Colm complains to Siobhan that her brother is boring, she retorts ‘Ye’re all FECKING BORING” with the force of a lifetime’s pent-up rage, and at the end of an intense public argument between Pádraic and Colm, she cuts her brother’s tormenter down to size with a brutal factual correction.

Siobhan represents a seldom eulogised figure in traditional Irish emigrant culture - she is to be neither adored nor lamented, and she takes her destiny into her own hands, refusing to let male self pity and stifling hierarchies dictate her future. Her determination to control of her own story (and her dealings with the malicious postmistress) bring to mind another quietly revolutionary figure in the annals of Irish film - Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis in the film adaptation of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, who refused to be defined by what the men around her wanted.

Like McDonagh’s last film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, The Banshees of Inisherin is a film about how a sense of being wronged can make one at first noble, and then savage. Violence is the product of rage, but also confusion and self-pity.

McDonagh’s civil war setting feels deliberately calibrated to make us shake our heads wistfully at the “pointlessness” of all this conflict, but ultimately the film rejects glib conclusions. Just as with any civil war, the conflicts on Inisherin are real and meaningful. This film is, in every sense, essential.