Film title: The Wind that Shakes the Barley
Director: Ken Loach
Screenplay: Paul Laverty
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Padraic Delaney, Liam Cunningham, Orla Fitzgerald
Distributor: Pathé Distribution
Cinema Release Date: 23 June 2006 (UK)
Certificate: 15 (UK)


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‘Twas hard for mournful words to frame
To break the ties that bound us,
Ah but harder still to bear the shame
Of foreign chains around us.
And so I said: the mountain glen
I’ll seek at morning early
And join the brave united men
While soft winds shake the barley.

(Robert Dwyer Joyce (1830–1883) ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’

These words, expressing the difficulty, yet deeply felt necessity, of achieving liberation from British rule, are sung early on in Ken Loach’s film about the Irish war of independence. They are sung at the wake of a young man who has been beaten to death by British soldiers for answering them in Irish, not English. It is 1920 and the guerrilla war is beginning in earnest. Micheail’s death is not the only cause of distress to the rural community in County Cork – Damien (Cillian Murphy), recently qualified as a doctor in Cork, is about to leave for London to further his training. It is a great opportunity for him, but his friends and brother Teddy (Pádraic Delaney) are upset. They believe he should stay to fight against the British. At the station a platoon of soldiers are prevented from boarding the train by the guard and engine driver Dan (Liam Cunningham) because the Irish unions have agreed not to provide transport for British forces. Both men are struck by rifle butts, and Damien stays to attend to the guard’s wounds while the train leaves without him. It is the final straw for Damien who returns home, takes the oath of the Irish Republican Army and joins the local Flying Column.

When the truce is declared in the summer of 1921, it divides the republicans since the proposed Anglo-Irish Treaty promises self rule but leaves six counties in the UK, leaves the British in control of key ports, and requires members of the Irish Free State Parliament to pledge allegiance to the British crown. Teddy argues in favour of the Treaty on the basis that it was the best they could hope for and that it was better than the alternative offered by the British: ‘immediate and terrible war’. But Damien and others vow to fight on: they want a republican Ireland. They believe that otherwise, ‘all that will change will be colour of the flag’. It certainly seems that way when the Irish Free State Army – with Teddy as an officer – behaves in the same brutal way as the British. Now men who had been comrades find themselves fighting on opposite sides – including Damien and Teddy.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley is not an easy film to watch. It is, as one expects from director Ken Loach, superbly made, and it won the Palm D’Or at Cannes. Set in the beautiful surroundings of County Cork, with sets and costumes in appropriately muted colours, it is extremely atmospheric. Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography and George Fenton’s score (along with some traditional Irish songs) create exactly the right feel. The difficulty is entirely with the subject matter. It is more than a little uncomfortable to have the brutality of British rule portrayed so starkly, and it is both moving and distressing to see the desperation of the Irish and the poverty to which they were subject. Loach is always a very political director, and his realist approach to film-making (historical accuracy as far as possible in sets, costumes and dialogue as well as in the historical context itself; natural lighting;  shooting the story in sequence; and long takes) helps to bring out the seriousness and the complexities of the situation. This is a film which makes clear the ugliness of occupation by foreign powers and of armed conflict. But while it is frank and graphic in its portrayal of the violence, there is no lingering over it or celebration of it. Loach says:

There is often a hypocrisy going on in war films, where they claim to be anti-war, but then a large part of the entertainment involves all the explosions and the blood. That doesn’t seem very anti-war to me, if you’re saying we hate killing but let’s enjoy it while it’s on screen.

Instead The Wind that Shakes the Barley shows how violence breeds more violence in an escalation of tit-for-tat cruelty. It shows the pain and tragic consequences of betrayal, and the agonies of a nation which becomes so divided that former comrades, friends and even brothers end up struggling with conflicts of loyalty and fighting each other because of passionately held principles. And perhaps most distressing of all, it shows the traumatic experience of ordinary men who end up becoming killers because of what is at stake. In some ways the callousness of the British soldiers at this particular point in history is understandable – the ‘Black and Tans’ were largely men who had experienced the horrors of the French trenches before being posted to Ireland. Many of the Irish fighters had fought with them and were equally inured to violence, but the younger men like Damien had had no experience of warfare. Cillian Murphy says:

I would say that Damien is very much a realist. He realises, reluctantly, that he has to engage in violence, and he knows there’s a chance he will get killed. . . . Damien will say he is prepared to fight to the death for this, but he doesn’t want to be held up as a martyr; he wants to put in place a tangible, working republic. . . . For him the movement should be about the people – it’s a very humanitarian perspective – he’s not interested in the political hierarchy at all. . . .

The fact that Damien is a doctor who finds himself having to kill people is dramatically very powerful – but there are actual historical instances of it. . . . I feel that the only way Damien could handle this situation is to have a goal, and then numb himself to it. A lot of men must have done this, especially those like Damien, who had other opportunities ahead of them. They must have needed complete focus, and huge determination to get through it. Somehow Damien has to try and not think of it as killing, and think of it as objectives, and targets met in pursuit of something more important than himself.

This is, of course, an extremely sensitive part of history – the Anglo-Irish Treaty casts a shadow over Ireland’s history right up to the present day. This is true not only in Northern Ireland where the arguments continue despite the current relative peace, but, says Loach in the South too:

I was surprised how familiar the arguments still are in and around Cork where we were filming. . . . I thought in the South it would have faded, but we were always meeting people who had stories to tell. . . . the memory lingers a lot longer than people think.

There are those who feel that Loach has made an anti-British film which portrays British rule as more brutal than it really was and which puts the IRA into a very positive light. Loach denies this saying

What was in our mind was to be as accurate as we could [about] what happened and to show why they fought, how they fought, the consequences of that war of independence and what happened afterwards, and to be rigorous about that. There’s nothing in the film that we can’t substantiate over and over again, and in fact in almost all cases we could have been much more extreme.

He also says, ‘You can argue that we have a responsibility to attack the mistakes and brutalities of our leaders, past and present. Far from being unpatriotic, it is a duty we cannot ignore.’ He believes it was extremely important that the film follows the history further than the truce into the time of the civil war between Pro-Treatyites and Anti-Treatyites, and he sees the film as an exploration of this tragedy.

The way in which the republicans fragment after the truce is, for me, one of the most interesting aspects of the film. They can put their differences on one side while fighting a common enemy, but once that single goal is gone it becomes apparent that people are really working towards very different goals. Some characters see the end results as all-important and will do whatever is takes to achieve them. Teddy is a pragmatist who just wants the English out in whatever way is most expedient. Damien and Dan want more, though. Having been influenced by Marxist socialist James Connolly (one of the leaders of the 1916 uprising), they want total social transformation – common ownership of the land leading to an end of the poverty. Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald) wants true democracy and equal rights for women. Others are driven by a sense of duty. Finbar (Damien Kearney) fights on because he believes he owes it to those who have died for the cause; Steady Boy cannot justify any more killing and abandons the struggle.

Regardless of the details of the historical and political situation, The Wind that Shakes the Barley is a film which honestly explores these tensions which are very real and probably part of every struggle against injustice. The reality, as Loach makes clear, is that human beings always bring their own agendas to a conflict, and that the roots of such conflicts are firmly in the soil of fallen human nature – greed, grasping after power, prejudice, resentment, arrogance, exploitation and rivalry. The church is a key part of the backdrop to this story, but the deepest tragedy of all is that the good news of Jesus Christ – and its message of peace, reconciliation and justice – seems not to have been taken to heart by the major players in the conflict.  It had never brought about the complete transformation of hearts and minds which was so needed – and which has been the testimony of a number of former paramilitaries from both sides in Northern Ireland in our own generation.


For more historical background to this story, see

Quotations are taken from The Wind that Shakes the Barley production notes and a press conference with Ken Loach on 9 June 2006.

Author: Tony Watkins
© Copyright: Tony Watkins 2006