The Irish War of Independence was a period of gory, anarchy and tumult for Ireland. Many promising young leaders who could have brought glory to the country died in this war which continued for approximately two years. In the works of famous Irish writers of those times such as WB Yeats’s poem ‘Easter 1916’ which is an elegy for the leaders of IRA, whose loss deeply affected the poet or JM Synge’s play “The Playboy of the Western World” which exposes the lifestyle and mindset of agrarian Irish society, riots took place after it was staged on Abbey Theatre for the first time as the play depicted patricide and it’s women characters to be more dominant than men. Through both these texts the commotion in Ireland of 1919- 1921 is reflected, similarly Martin McDonagh being a British-Irish filmmaker like his predecessors(Yeats and Synge) captures the depravity of the Irish Civil War of Independence in his film “The Banshees of Inisherin” subtly through the fractured friendship between Colm Doherty and Pádraic Súilleabháin.
The film is set during the 1920s at the end of Irish Civil War in an imaginary Irish island named Inisherin similar to the island of Mayo in Synge’s ‘The Playboy of the Western World’. The island initially seemed like a pastoral idyllic land separated from the upheaval ravaging the mainland until the conversation between Colm and Pádraic surfaces.
Colm and Pádraic have been longtime friends and drinking buddies till Colm decided one day to distance himself from his friend, Pádraic whom he considers dull of all a sudden and a hindrance for his pursuit towards his art(music), in order to leave his mark through his passionate devotion to only music. Colm’s ultimatum that he will cut off his left fingers with a sheep shear if Pádraic doesn’t leave him alone initially seemed to be an exaggeration till he started cutting of his fingers with Pádraic’s every incessant attempt to reestablish the long lost bond with his old friend. This fractured friendship somehow echoes with the problematic relationship between Britain and Ireland over religion mainly the tussle between Protestantism and Catholicism which was one the culminating reasons why a small majority of Irish people who were mostly catholics wanted their independence and which partly led to the Irish Civil War fueled by the Home Rule Crisis and Easter Rising.
Inisherin is like Mayo of Synge’s play, “The Playboy of the Western World” in many aspects. In the island of Mayo people mostly lived in a delusion, in their own bubble completely cut off from the mainland, in Inisherin as well we see people squandering their time mostly in a pub singing, a store owner who is hungry for news, an old woman named Mrs McCormick who is more like a fortune teller. The people of Mayo and Inisherin have created their own worlds which looks enamored with the picturesque natural beauty evident in the frames of green grasslands kissed by glittering sunshine playing hide and seek among clouds of the azure sky, the frames of animals especially Pádraic’s donkey Jenny, his horse and cow, Colm’s dog, showing a peaceful coexistence of human and animal world like the Garden of Eden however amidst this serenity, the sound of explosions with rising smoke indicated that it’s all an illusion and the reality is yet to come.
Reality struck Inisherin as the relationship between Colm and Pádraic worsened, we see it’s impact even on nature as fogs obscure the roads, sun shining dimly with grey clouds. Beneath this mask of happiness worn by the people of Inisherin lurked their loneliness and the drudgery of their everyday life, they were all depressed in a way, Siobhán(Pádraic’s sister) was frustrated with loneliness and her brother’s stubbornness to mend his friendship, Colm’s desperate decision to cut off his fingers, the policeman Garda brutally beating his son Dominic deriving a sadistic pleasure out of it, shows glimpses of unrefillable voids in the lives of the inhabitants of Inisherin.
Irish people and their equation with the policemen during 1920s were very bad, Irish people almost hated the Policeman as they were representative of the law which symbolized the supremacy of British monarchy, in Inisherin we see everyone detesting their local Policeman Garda and the way he treats his troubled son but only Pádraic speaks up about this child abuse in public, maybe because the innocence he possessed gave him the courage to be truthful about the injustice inflicted upon poor Dominic. In certain scenes we also see Colm standing up for Pádraic shielding him from Garda because he knew Pádraic was too nice to stand up for himself and according to Colm being nice is never enough as nobody remembers people for being nice.
‘Because there’s nothing for you on Inisherin. Nothing more bleakness and grudges and loneliness and spite and the slow passing of time until death’ – Siobhán’s letter to her brother Pádraic (after she left him, getting a job in library) urging him to move to the city with her, very appropriately captures the mundane routined life of the people of Inisherin, they have no source of entertainment other than idle talking and grappling onto their beliefs and superstitions. Yet in the end when Pádraic tells Com that, ‘Some things there’s no moving on from’, we realize Pádraic has accepted his life at Inisherin as his reality no matter however woeful or lonely it is because he has his friends and animals here, he feels rooted to Inisherin, a sense of belonging. However the same line is also indicative of Pádraic’s loss of innocence(evident his quest to avenge upon Colm by setting him and his house on fire as eating Colm’s severed fingers, resulted in Pádraic’s donkey Jenny’s death due to poisoning) similar to Adam and Eve’s loss of innocence followed by their fall from Paradise and once mankind gained knowledge there’s no going back as knowledge and pain always goes hand in hand.
The war between Ireland and Britain and the war between two friends Colm and Pádraic we don’t know if it will ever end as during the 1920s it was all uncertain, it’s a match of eternal madness (human beings’s quest for power and war as it’s consequence). The film offers no steady resolution, the chances of reconciliation between two friends seems grim but we see a changed Pádraic whose tender heart has hardened with time and will help him to survive on this island where he is left with no companion other than his animals. The setting of the sea, standing on whose shore, the two ex-bestfriends converse together, which is their last conversation in the film gives a flickering ray of hope that maybe someday their friendship will be restored.
In Gaelic folklore Banshee meant a female spirit whose appearance or wailing warns a family that one of them will soon die, Mrs McCormick is that Banshee in the film who warns Pádraic, foretelling about two deaths in the island. Jenny and Dominic’s premature death indeed proves her to be a truth-teller. Moreover Colm names the last tune he finishes as, “The Banshees of Inisherin” after which he can never compose any more tunes as he cuts off all his left hand fingers, this last tune also marks the death of harmony in the lives of the people of Inisherin particularly in both Colm’s and Pádraic’s life.
“The Banshees of Inisherin” poignantly depicts a tale of despair and friendship in which the former overpowers the latter, and the dichotomy between the two stands as a metaphor for the collective angst of Irish people during the Irish War of Independence.