In Ireland in 1918, the radical nationalist party Sinn Fein won an overwhelming majority of seats in the Irish Parliament and declared sovereignty over all of Ireland. Ireland had been ruled by Great Britain, and had in recent years been going through a long, controversial period where the parties tried to work out some system of partial independence tolerable to all. But it just got more and more acrimonious, as a small number of Irish turned to armed rebellion, and the British responded with massive, violent retaliation. Sinn Fein’s declaration of complete independence was a further escalation, which the British felt compelled to respond to even more harshly.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley takes place just after Sinn Fein’s call for an independent Ireland, when the fighting was at its worst. It follows a group of Irish who take up arms against the British, with varying degrees of enthusiasm depending on how and how much they feel they have been provoked.
The Irish fighters engage in what could be called terrorism, depending on what side you’re on. They ambush and kill British soldiers, kidnap British officials to swap for Irish prisoners, and execute other Irish they regard as collaborators or spies.
Meanwhile, the British engage in the kind of ham-handed, arrogant, contemptuous, ultra-violent oppression and retaliation we’ve come to expect from occupying armies, whether Nazis in France, Soviets in Afghanistan, or Americans in, well, take your pick. They insult, they beat, they torture (pulling out fingernails and such), they execute, they ransack or burn down houses, etc.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a very good film, because it’s not just—or indeed, not primarily—an action war movie about raids and battles and shooting and all that. It’s more about human relationships, psychology, ethical choices, and politics.
What are the Irish fighting for, for instance? For some they just want to not be ruled by the British, to achieve national independence like any other country. But many of them are fighting for something a lot more specific, a left wing republic where those at the bottom will finally have the freedom and wherewithal to live a decent life. They seek to throw off the oppression not just of the British but of the rich, to create a certain kind of just society.
One of the most intriguing scenes of the movie takes place in a kind of makeshift courtroom in an area that at least for now is operating independent of British control. A Henry Potter type local rich guy is suing a poor woman for some money she owes him. He apparently has the rigid rules of contracts and Ayn Randian capitalism on his side, and thus is confident it’s an open-and-shut case in his favor, but the feisty female judge (in this country that we think of as so socially conservative and religious, which is delightful) insists on also taking into account abstract issues of fairness and exploitation, ruling that his behavior in manipulating a person in need into such crushing debt was so unconscionable that not only does she not owe him money but he must pay her.
He explodes in indignation, but before the situation can escalate further he is quickly ushered out by some of the rebel fighters, basically being assured that they’ll see to it that the judge’s decision is not enforced. The judge angrily confronts them later, and they insist that you have to make compromises like that in wartime, that he has been hugely valuable to their struggle in slipping them money so they can obtain arms, and that they cannot afford to lose his support in the fight against the British.
This leads to an ethical debate about means and ends. May you behave unjustly when it’s necessary as a means to the end of achieving independence and building a just state? Or must you strive for a greater purity, to embody the justice you’re fighting for during the fight itself, even if that may lessen your chances of winning that fight and achieving your ends?
Similar debates erupt later after a truce is declared. The Irish government, evidently beaten into submission by the British military reign of terror over the occupied nation, agrees to a form of partial independence that’s probably not much different from what eventually would have come about if Sinn Fein had never declared total independence. The Irish are to have a large degree of autonomy over their affairs, especially domestic matters, but they are to remain in the British Commonwealth of Nations and swear an oath of allegiance to the British government, and the northern corner of the island with the most British and Protestant folks is to be allowed to opt out of Ireland and remain with Great Britain.
In highly emotional, but still largely civil, gatherings that put me in mind of New England town meetings, the Irish meet to decide whether to cooperate with this new arrangement or continue the fight without their government’s support. Those in favor of cooperation insist that the people are sick of war and violence and being unsafe in their homes, that the Irish government that agreed to the plan was democratically elected, and that accepting this for the time being doesn’t preclude achieving fuller independence down the road.
Those opposed to cooperation charge that it is a sellout, and that any democratic consent of the people to it was achieved through the coercion of military oppression and thus does not count. They fear that Ireland will not have the kind of free hand it would need to create the left wing just society they have been fighting for, that at best this will simply put rich Irish oppressors of the poor in charge instead of rich British oppressors of the poor.
Of course it’s a common dilemma in a revolutionary struggle. To what extent is settling for less than what you want a sellout by people who have been coopted by the oppressors, and to what extent is it a realistic recognition that this is the best you’re going to get for now without a horrific amount of additional bloodshed?
I’ve done a lot of reading about Gandhi and the struggle for Indian independence, and certainly issues like this arose all the time in India. There were always people wanting to move much faster, infuriated when Gandhi or other leaders would counsel patience, make compromises, etc., while at the same time there were always people insisting that things were moving too fast, that it was necessary to work within the system, to avoid behaving in a way likely to provoke retaliation, to understand that very slow, gradual change was all that was realistic.
Such situations rarely have one obviously right side and one obviously wrong side, yet the stakes are so high that people get highly emotional and treat those they disagree with as if they are even more the enemy than is the entity that they have up until now been fighting against together.
It really can be an effective “divide and conquer” strategy for a country in Great Britain’s position to bargain for the kind of compromise arrangement that you know will generate great controversy and then animosity on the other side between those who are willing to accept the compromise and those who are not, and then to just sit back and watch them fight each other.
It can lead to some terrible, even heartbreaking, outcomes. As depicted in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, it can pit friend against friend, former military comrade against former military comrade, and even brother against brother. People used to fighting alongside each other become convinced that their erstwhile allies have stabbed them in the back.
What I most value about The Wind That Shakes the Barley is its thoughtful examination of ethical and political complexities like these. On the other hand, the biggest negative about the movie is that due to the heavy accents I could understand only 60%-70% of what was said. This is one of those movies that even though it’s in English, I would have appreciated subtitles.