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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Wind that shakes the reality

We were at another Irish wedding last weekend. I don’t mean to suggest that marriage rites in Ireland are some kind of marathon or endurance test, but they do tend to go on longer than I was accustomed to back in the States. But you do get to meet some very interesting people at these affairs. For example, in Hour 28 of last weekend’s wedding, I was charmed to be listening to the bridegroom’s grandfather.

Grandda Eddie will be celebrating his 91st birthday in a couple of months and, from the impression he made, I’d say “celebrating” is the right word for it. His memory was long and extraordinary, and he was full of stories, not only about his own County Tipperary but about all of Ireland, since he had had a job that required him to spend time all over the country. As he was leaving the party, his granddaughter asked me if I had seen Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley. (I hadn’t yet.) She said Eddie was very keen to see it because he wanted to see if it was accurate. Only then did it dawn on me that, yes, of course, this man is old enough to have childhood memories of Ireland’s war for independence and civil war and, certainly, clear recollections of their aftermath. The granddaughter mentioned that he had seen Neil Jordan’s 1996 movie Michael Collins and had found it very true to the time.

If Eddie found Jordan’s film faithful, then it is difficult for me to see how he could say the same of Loach’s. After all, in Michael Collins the eponymous Corkman is the hero and Eamon de Valera is a villain. On the other hand, The Wind That Shakes the Barley implies that de Valera was the hero and that Collins was a villain. So both versions of events cannot be true, can they? Well, this is Ireland, and I won’t be surprised if Eddie and lots of his fellow countrymen wind up embracing both films as “how it was.”

It reminds of the time I spent living in Chile during the earliest years of the Pinochet regime. People on both sides of the political spectrum were anxious to tell me their version of the events of the Allende government and of its downfall. But the details from the two sides were so divergent that I couldn’t believe that everybody was talking about the same country. Pinochetistas told me horrible stories of what Allende and his followers had done. Anti-junta people, on the other hand, painted the Allende era as paradise on earth. The stories from left and right were so at odds with each other that one side certainly had to be an elaborate conspiracy of lies. (On the other hand, accounts of the military coup and the subsequent repression were less divergent.) But where exactly did the truth lie? Finally, I happened to meet an American Peace Corps volunteer, who had been in Chile before, during and after the Allende government. He had been there through the whole thing. Finally, I thought, I would get to the exact truth of the history. I put it to him that I had been hearing such divergent stories about the Allende years, and I asked him which side had the better grip on reality.

“It’s all true,” he said, rather inscrutably. What? “Everything you’ve heard is true,” he insisted. And that’s all he would say about it. It was one of my analytical mind’s first serious brushes with the slippery concept of co-existing realities in Latin America and other parts of the world and, let’s face it, increasingly in my own country.

Anyway, what I think might well happen with Irish perception of the past decade’s two major motion pictures about Ireland’s war for independence and civil war is that much of the Irish public will embrace both of them, in spite of the two films’ opposing takes on who was right and who was wrong in the civil war. I think that many people will react viscerally and patriotically to the narrative of the Irish pushing the British out of the 26 counties and filter out the uncomfortable remainder of the story. The fact that I could meet a man who actually remembers these events underscores just how recent, and raw, this history really is. My impression of how the Irish cope with the memory of the civil war which, as Loach’s film literally has it, pitted brother against brother, is to suppress it. I rarely, if ever, hear it discussed.

Indeed, an interesting thing has happened with the narrative of Ireland’s 20th-century history. Usually it’s the winner who gets to write the history of the war. But in Ireland, it was actually the side that lost the civil war that wound up writing the history. People who pay only casual attention to the history may be forgiven for thinking that de Valera’s side won. But it was the Free State that prevailed, at least in the short term. In the long term de Valera, a legendary figure by dint of being the lone survivor among the leaders of the 1916 rising, dominated the country’s politics for decades and eventually achieved the goal of making the break from Britain complete—for the 26 counties of the Free State, that is—through political means.

It’s a bit as if—to make an admittedly crude comparison—Jefferson Davis had been able to participate in U.S politics after the American Civil War and had gone on to be elected and re-elected president multiple times. If that unlikely event had somehow occurred, you can bet that the history of the War Between the States would read a bit differently today.

On this topic, Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole had a fascinating piece a few weeks ago in which he recounted a conversation in the 1960s, between the elderly President de Valera and a young architect, about Daniel O’Connell, the early 19th-century figure who made great strides toward Irish sovereignty through political (i.e. non-violent) means. O’Connell’s place in history was de-emphasized in the 20th century, and apparently deliberately so. The architect passed on to O’Toole this astounding quote from the aged de Valera: “You must think, you must consider our feelings at that time. We firmly believed that the Irish people could only be ‘jolted’ from their lethargy and Irish freedom and liberty achieved by force of arms. How then could we promote the memory of the man who achieved so much by parliamentary means with no loss of life? To praise him would have made it impossible for us to justify armed insurrection.”

Of course, there is only one living witness to this conversation, so it isn’t verifiable. But, if accurate, it virtually has the icon Dev backing up those who suggest that the 1916 rising and the IRA war as a bloody, violent distraction in Ireland’s inevitable path to independence. This is diametrically opposed to the narrative that Dev’s party has inculcated in generations of Irish people: that the rising and the war were instrumental and key to Ireland’s independence.

All of that adds a sense of irony to Loach’s film. Another irony is Loach’s implication that Dev’s side would have totally revamped the system of land ownership in Ireland. Some estates of the departing British were redistributed in the rural areas. In fact, my father-in-law grew up on one of numerous sites carved out of such an old estate, but this happened under the Free State. At the end of the day, Dev’s party has controlled the Irish government for decades and is, in fact, in power to this very day, and it isn’t much different than any other center-right European political party.

As I noted upon the anniversary of the 1916 rising, Ireland’s insurgency and civil war may actually prove a hopeful example to present-day Iraq, although not necessarily in the short term. And, as also noted here, Loach himself reportedly suggested a comparison between the two situations in Cannes. Upon seeing his movie, though, I had to chuckle when he actually managed to draw the U.S. into a movie about 1920s Ireland.

At one point, a character attributes the British government’s supposedly tough stance in negotiating a treaty with the Irish insurgents to a desire to “impress the Americans.” I suppose this means that the Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George was the Tony Blair of his time. So, Lloyd George was Woodrow Wilson’s poodle?

-S.L., 6 July 2006

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