Professor Joy Porter, who researches treaties and their significance and is principal investigator of the Treatied Spaces Research Group at the University of Hull, shares her views on the BAFTA-winning film The Banshees of Inisherin.
I never made it to the end of Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, which won four Baftas on Sunday and has been tipped for further success at the Oscars next month. Inisherin is a fictional place that apparently translates as ‘Island Ireland’. I know it’s probably churlish of me, but, being Irish, I was turned off by the film’s maudlin sentimentality mixed with self-obsession, self-harm, child abuse, wanton violence, dead pets and suicidal ideation. It bothered me that the film trotted out as many Oirish stereotypes as were in Gone With the Wind, released in 1939. Let me list some of the most obvious of these at the outset. Then allow me to explain what really unsettled me on an intellectual and political level – the larger, insidious falsehood perpetuated by this film about my home country’s history of partition and civil war.
Inisherin presents a very specific version of Ireland – one that gels with the childhood holiday memories of the film’s British-Irish writer who is several generations away from a deep-seated relationship with Ireland’s lands and cultures. Even the good people of the Irish Tourist Board are no doubt blushing at the deep sugariness with which The Banshees of Inisherin coats this part of the EU. The opening scene locates its main character at the end of a sea-dappled rainbow, the place where Disney leprechauns are traditionally found. He then trudges seemingly without a smidgin of maturity or self-awareness through a landscape where, bizarrely for an island in the Wild Atlantic, it never rains – not a single drop. The evenings in Inisherin are marked only by stunning, poetry-inspiring sunsets.
Not one person, ever, speaks Gaelic, the indigenous language on Inisherin. This despite Inis Mór and the Achill Islands where much of the film was shot being part of the Gaeltacht – the regions recognised by the Irish government as where Gaelic, rather than English, predominates. The people of Inisherin live in the kind of small thatched cottages within walking distance of a beach and pub that are beloved of tourists to Ireland who are desperate to ‘get away from it all’. It is a land where animals, even large ruminants, are always scrupulously clean. Their dung and pats of excrement are never seen. However, the animals in this film are by far its most plausible characters and are all terrific actors, so I would not put it past them to have cleaned up after themselves as filming progressed.
On Inisherin, very little work is required, despite it being a remote island with no apparent export economy where most food must be produced on site. Life on the island revolves, as it so often can for bored tourists on holiday, around time spent in front of pints of stout in the pub listening to traditional music. Often they sit outside to drink, as if they are living in the Balearics. The wealth of the Inisherin islanders is such that they can even keep miniature donkeys as indoor pets. This aspect of a film set in 1923 is truly remarkable, given that Ireland’s miniature donkeys were imported from the North American strain introduced to Canada and the United States from Sicily and Sardinia in 1929.
Be all this as it may, the film’s miniature donkey is the true star of the show. And this is not only because she is cute. Her unlikely presence alerts us to the dangerously ahistorical myth-making at the film’s heart – the elision and ridiculing of the circumstances that led to the Irish Civil War from 28 June 1922 to 24 May 1923. That conflict, so costly to Ireland in life and treasure, is the backdrop to the film’s narrative depiction of senseless self-harm, abuse and violence. The film directly links life on Inisherin to the larger conflict and makes one overall message clear. It is that the Irish Civil War – a battle over the terms of a treaty with the British crown that ensured six of Ireland’s counties remained under British control – was futile. The film suggests it was an inexplicably bloody fight between neighbours on an island so insular and beset by repression and child abuse that the only thing anyone sane (such as Siobhán, the sister of the main character) can or should do is leave. Siobhán goes to live on a bigger island, presumably mainland Britain.
Don’t get me wrong, I get why a simplistic version of the British partition of Ireland can appear palatable in 2023 – after all, Irish history is complex, messy and often misunderstood. Few in Anglophone school systems encounter it. Plus, it’s tricky nowadays to construct successful movie narratives, since they so often rely on binary oppositions and simplified versions of the past. People can take offence. For some years now, the attention of American film-making has been on redressing the harms of colonialism that played out within its own borders. But perhaps the US movie-going public’s appetite has begun to diminish for stories that unsettle the feel-good foundational narratives that underpin the republic. There is a desire to engage with stories about other, supposedly simpler times – and the stereotyped version of Ireland seems to fit the bill.
However, like the United States, Ireland is a republic. Like the United States, it fought a war to detach itself from the British Empire. Long before indigenous American lands were colonised, it had endured waves of colonisation. After the defeat of the Gaelic chieftains on the North, Britain had planted settlers there in the early 17th century to solidify its control. At the time, this was the part of Ireland least populated and most Gaelic. Lands were granted to Scottish and English settlers in Derry, Donegal, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Cavan and Armagh, adding to large private plantations already owned by Scottish nobles in Antrim and Down. It was a land grab of some four million acres that led to open warfare and massacre. Its long-term legacy is one of conflict or ‘Troubles’ and it is an argument that continues to threaten peace in Ireland.
In sum, Ireland’s Civil War, fought in the wake of independence stemming from the uprising against the British in 1916, bore little resemblance to any aspect of the narrative in The Banshees of Inisherin. It was far from an episode of inexplicable self-harm rooted in one side’s despair, ennui and yearning for solitude. Neither was it caused by pique, stupidity or ego-filled lust for revenge. It was a war over the appropriate nature and limits of national independence.
At the core of the conflict was a fight over the treaty struck in 1921, effectively a peace treaty between Ireland and Britain that outlined the Irish Free State as a dominion within the British Commonwealth. Ireland was to have the same constitutional status as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa. An Irish oath of faithfulness was sworn to the British monarch and Britain retained control of militarily significant ‘treaty ports’. Britain also retained control over six counties in the North – this was the partition of Ireland, spoken of in Irish as críochdheighilt na H’Éireann. It is a division of the island of Ireland into two countries that has been a taproot for violent conflict in its North and South ever since.
Tools of empire such as partition, in Ireland’s case rooted in the past mass settlement of migrants from elsewhere within the empire with the deliberate aim of entrenching the empire’s purchase within a sovereign nation, must not be forgotten, mythologised or ignored by future generations. The violence that surrounds partition as a geopolitical tool is not the senseless, inexplicable fighting of primitive, benighted peoples among themselves, despite the attractions of such a simplistic reading. Partition, after all, has marked the 20th century, its legacies still clear not just in the Republic of Ireland/Northern Ireland, but in India/Pakistan and Israel/Palestine. It is the customary option favoured by powers forced to give up aspects of dominion. Partition allows them to retain power through seeded conflict, a power nurtured by the fears of minorities faced with the new reality of nationalist government.
Ireland’s history and its relationship to Great Britain and Northern Ireland is too important to forget via the portrayal within a film like The Banshees of Inisherin. After all, if we choose to forget a hard lesson learned about power and war in one place and time, we run the risk it may be equally or even more brutally replicated in another.
Bearing this in mind, in my humble opinion, any Bafta or Oscar awarded to this film rightfully belongs not to two-legged actors, but to the miniature donkey. Her character alone is the one that reminds us of the importance of history and context. She reminds us that consuming unthinkingly what may at first appear pleasant and palatable is dangerous. Despite seeming charming, it can choke. Upon reflection, it is dangerous to consume. So it is with this beautifully staged but dangerously ahistorical and misleading film.
This article was originally published in The Spectator.