If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.”
Made at the height of the United States occupation of Iraq in 2006, the opening of Ken Loach’s film about the Irish War of Independence grabs you by the throat, and forces you to look at a reality that very few Americans understand, a military occupation by a foreign power. We are in Cork, Ireland in 1920. A group of men are engaged in a curling match. We know we are about to look at a war movie, but this feels like the calm before the storm. After all, there’s nothing political about a hurling match, is there?
The men return home. One of them, Damien O’Donovan, a young man in his mid-20s who’s about to leave Ireland to study medicine, is chatting with, Sinead, his childhood sweetheart, and her younger brother Micheál. Suddenly, a group of heavily armed soldiers storm their block and hold the entire neighborhood at gunpoint. We learn that The Defense of the Realm Act has banned all public meetings, including hurling matches. The soldiers, the infamous Black and Tans, veterans of the First World War who were recruited by the British government as brownshirts to brutalize the Irish people, take us through all the stages an occupied people go through. Damien and his friends are made to shout out their names. They’re made to take off their clothes. They have to watch while foreigners scream at Irish women things like “shut up you bitch.” After Micheál refuses to comply, after he speaks Celtic, refuses to strip, and punches the leader of the Black and Tans, the Black and Tans take him into a shed and beat him to death with a Hurley, one of the hurling sticks they had just confiscated.
Micheál’s death is the catalyst that turns both Sinead and Damien, whose brother Teddy is the commander of a local IRA flying column, into committed revolutionaries. After taking the oath of allegiance to the IRA, Damien becomes a valued member of Teddy’s column. If the first 15 minutes of The Wind that Shake the Barley are about dramatizing what it’s like to live under a foreign occupier, the next 45 minutes are about the struggle against the occupier. Teddy, Damien, Sinead and their fellow activists are by no means romanticized. Indeed, after Damien carries out an order to execute Chris Reilly, a teenage boy who was strong armed into turning their names over to the police, we see how unsentimental Ken Loach is, even about a guerrilla war he so obviously supports.
In the second half of the film, after the British government and the IRA call a truce, Loach flips the narrative he had so effectively drawn us into in the first 15 minutes. Teddy and Damien find themselves on opposite sides of the coming civil war. Damien, who had come under the influence of an old militant named Dan, a disciple of James Connolly, wants to overthrow the Irish land owners and the Catholic Church along with expelling the British. He recognizes that the Irish poor can be exploited and repressed by the Irish as well as the English. Teddy, on the other hand, who feels a bit like Ken Loach’s stand in for Michael Collins, is willing to accept not only the existing system of class relations, but a partitioned country, dominion status, and the necessity of Irish politicians to take an oath to the King before being seated in the Irish Parliament. Try to imagine the American Revolution ending, not only with slavery intact but with a permanent British occupation of New York City.
We get a hint at what’s to come when Teddy interferes with the decision a “republican” (in this case “republican” would mean socialist) court in liberated Cork has made to compel a local moneylender to refund some of the money he had made off an old woman by lending at extortionate interest rates. Teddy needs his money to buy guns. Damien doesn’t see the point of independence if all it does is carry the old class repression along with it. But it’s only after Michael Collins goes to London and negotiates not independence, but dominion status within the British empire that the two brothers come to blows. Teddy becomes an official in the new Irish Free State. Damien joins the newly born anti-Treaty IRA. After Teddy has Damien arrested for stealing guns for the anti-treaty IRA, Damien is imprisoned in the very same jail where both brothers had earlier been imprisoned, and tortured, by the Black and Tans. Teddy has taken the place of the British occupier. Damien is leading an armed rebellion against his own brother.
Ken Loach, a socialist, is squarely in Damien’s camp. Indeed, Damien O’Donovan, is one of the more principled revolutionaries film has given us. He knows that from the moment he had chosen to execute Chris Reilly, he himself was a dead man, that he had given his life for the revolution, and that any attempt at compromise would be a betrayal. Teddy is much less self-aware, thinking that he can stop halfway, at “changing the flag and the accents of the powerful,” as Damien’s friend Dan had earlier said, paraphrasing James Connolly. But Loach also has the benefit of history. He realizes that very few people from Damien’s generation would live to see the Republic of Ireland break completely with Great Britain in 1948, let alone achieve complete independence, which still hasn’t happened. He knows how long the civil war will go on. Damien, perversely in the eyes of his brother, chooses to die rather than betray the anti-treaty IRA. Teddy, even more perversely, agrees to carry out the execution himself. The viewer is left shattered. Did Irish independence really mean the destruction of a family that had done so much to make it possible?