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In his films, director Martin McDonagh takes the kitschified, cliched landscape of Ireland and hands it back to itself, cleansed. Born in England of Irish parents, McDonagh is the intimate outsider who sees not what the natives see but sees the natives for what they truly are: lost heroes in bodies too small for their dreams, trapped by the pratfall history that happened before they arrived. His latest, The Banshees of Inisherin, is billed as a “comedy,” but it is impossible to view it as anything but a work of strange but plausible naturalism.

McDonagh first took the world by storm twenty-odd years ago with plays like The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Cripple of Inishmaan. His plays made the world laugh without quite knowing what it was laughing at. Many of the jokes revealed how his characters were imprisoned in an older world that the modern world threatened to subsume. The coexistence of familiar items of contemporary living, like potato crisps and Australian soaps, with people who seemed reluctantly to belong to a much older version of history, created a tremendous poignancy and pathos. For the insider Irish, however, the laughter was shot through with both nostalgia and sorrow, and exaggerated in an attempt to bury the sorrow. McDonagh’s characters remain in poverty and desolation, but occupy a place which, in the memories of the insiders, has a connotation of paradise. To avoid entering the darkness their existences imply, we agree to turn them into comic figures. McDonagh’s outsider’s eye removes the filter of denial and the depths become visible.

The people of the western island of Inisherin live out their lives within spitting distance of the mainland, and yet a thousand light-years from its concerns. It is 1923, the first year of our independence, when item one on the agenda is civil war. The sound of cannon fire on the mainland echoes over the mountains and the brief stretch of sea, ricocheting off the cliffs of the island. The island’s inhabitants neither know nor care what the war is about. They live their lives hithering and thithering around the public house, the post office, and the church.

The story concerns two longtime fast friends, Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) and Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson), who have abruptly fallen out because Colm has decided the friendship is holding him back. For years they hung around the pub, chatting and laughing, with Colm taking breaks to play his fiddle for the assembled drinkers. At first the breach between them seems surreal and irrational. But then it dawns on the viewer that it is precisely like the break-up of a teenage romantic relationship, where there is the sudden consciousness of something missing, but no coherent explanation, as though the split has arisen from some sudden shift in chemistry. Colm, a musician of more than local renown, wants to achieve immortality by composing a great tune. He matter-of-factly tells Pádraic that he feels their friendship has held him back from his true calling as a composer. “I don’t like you no more,” he explains, telling his friend that he distracts him with “aimless chatter” and blocks him off from his Muse. The abandoned party is uncomprehending, but the decision has been made, and the other party implacable in holding to it. 

When Colm finishes his composition, he tells Pádraic it will be called The Banshees of Inisherin. The Banshee is a female spirit, a fairy, whose wailing is the harbinger of imminent death. “I don’t think they serve to portend death anymore,” Colm adds conversationally, “I think they just sit back and observe.”

They edge closer to the deep truth of their difference. Pádraic wants Colm to go back to being “nice,” but Colm politely explains that niceness never lasts, is never remembered. “Music lasts,” he elaborates. “Paintings last. Poetry lasts. Niceness doesn’t last.” 

It goes mental then, as Colm threatens to amputate one of his digits every time his former friend seeks to mend their friendship by engaging him in conversation. What ought to be surreal and unthinkable becomes mythically plausible in the world that McDonagh has not so much “created” but mined out of the rocks and bogs of the island.

Frustrated by Pádraic’s inability to accept that he is serious, Colm eventually makes good on his gauntlet, creating a moment of “existential slapstick” that is both appalling and strangely comic—albeit in the sense that the great Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh meant in observing that “tragedy is merely underdeveloped comedy.”

In McDonagh’s work, there is no visible sociology, no history, no psychology worth a damn. The people are motivated by spite and loneliness, each one ultimately an island unto himself. The church is here no symbol of repression or prohibition, but an ineffectual clown show, its priests simply ministers of the pratfall slapstick. The priest in the confessional jauntily asks Colm, “How’s the despair?”

Later, Colm returns to the confessional, to confess his role in the death of Pádraic’s “miniature donkey.” “Do you think,” the priest asks him, “that God gives a damn about miniature donkeys?”

“I feel he doesn’t,” Colm replies, “and that that’s where it all started to go wrong.” 

A radically interrupted culture becomes unable to trace the true line of its authentic development. The old icons remain, functional and beloved, but capable of an artistic life only ironically. The idiotic, self-devouring cultural dialectic of Ireland since independence has ensured that these damaged iconographies have blocked access to certain elements of the past, and therefore stymied the artist in the present. Once the stream of Irish culture was interrupted in its course, it could not be restored. Most Irish writers and artists simply run away from the tainted iconography, but McDonagh cleans it off and kisses it, redeeming it with a new meaning in which the irony is both present and transcended. McDonagh solves the problem by breathing a form of eternal life into his characters, for they are demonstrably not “of their time” and yet might belong to any time in the life of Ireland. Almost magically, what he redeems are not so much the artifacts of a stalled nation but the people.  

In Banshees, McDonagh crams the symbolic elements of such bankrupt “Irishry” into a tiny bar, custom-built for the movie on the edge of a cliff: the fiddle, the bodhrán, the “pint of plain,” the lilting repetition of the English words atop the Irish syntax. Outside, the landscape is studded with thatched cottages, with animals snoozing in the kitchens, the roads traversed by donkeys and carts, here an old crone with clay pipe, there a comely maiden, now a dissipated bachelor, then another (possibly his brother)—all simultaneous parts of both reality and myth, all hackneyed and yet breathing, all true and yet false.  

At the back of the story is a mí-ádh of decay—of community, country, culture, and consciousness—that no one talks about but which inhabits everybody and every body. (In this sense the film is weirdly timely, since a similar dissolution now threatens the larger island of Ireland, under attack from related but more “modern” forces. Another story.) It is as though McDonagh is on a mission to play with and expose the dilemma of the artist in an Ireland that sought to make itself “modern” without first finding its independent feet, ignoring the interrupted state of its cultural thoughtstream, and thus unable to see itself clearly except in imposed iconographies and cliches. Well might the banshees wail. 

John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of ten books, and a playwright.

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Photo by Giuseppe Milo via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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