Robin Wilkinson writes: When shooting In Bruges in 2008 the director did daily battle with the studio on matters from the storyboard to the lighting of individual scenes. He won that war and the resulting gem was very much his own, in every sense a Martin McDonagh film, as is The Banshees of Inisherin. Since Bruges, he has always obtained final cut in his contracts, ensuring a smooth passage from pen to screen. He does not allow his actors to improvise and he tends to stay with the ones he knows and trusts, in his Irish films at least. He wrote the The Banshees with Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell very much in mind and several actors from his 2004 short film Six Shooter return in The Banshees, along with Gleeson, eighteen years later.
Nevertheless, every artist or writer yields control when their painting is displayed or their book published. And once released, films lives their own lives, whether the director has the final cut or not. In a global business like cinema the firmest intentions may well escape the hugely diverse audiences who see foreign films through the prisms of their own language and culture. I happened to see The Banshees of Inisherin in Lyon, the French city famous for gastronomy and the invention of cinema. In 1895 the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière shot the first film in what is now the rue du premier film. Emerging from Les Banshees d’Inisherin at the Cinéma Lumière, I could not help wondering whether I’d seen the same film as the lyonnais audience, given my English-Irish origins and passing familiarity with banshees and fiddle music.
At home or abroad, directors and leading actors are often required to explain their characters and story, whereas poets and painters, out of choice or otherwise, tend to stand back and let their creations speak for themselves. Samuel Beckett, for example, would never elucidate the non-appearance of Godot and his friend Jack Yeats was famously reluctant to discuss the meaning of his enigmatic late paintings. The creative moment was to remain sub rosa (secret), hence the pink paper rose he attached to his easel and the title of a 1943 work, This Grand Conversation Was Under the Rose. Although Martin McDonagh gives interviews and answers questions about his work, he does not go in for public introspection. As director, he rarely divulges his grand conversations with the writer.
His fictional island of Inisherin sounds like one of the Aran Islands, off the coast of Galway, but it also represents Ireland itself: inish means a small island, erin echoes Éirinn or Eire, and the two main characters, Pádraic and Colm, probably owe their names to Saint Patrick and Saint Columba. The opening sequence sets the scene and the tone: a rainbow glistens in the background as a smiling Pádraic Súilleabháin walks the stone-walled lanes of Inisherin, past thatched cottages and beneath a statue of the Virgin Mary. He is blessed indeed, but then his closest friend announces: ‘I just don’t like you no more.’ The sensitive studied performances of Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson make the end-of-a-friendship story so compelling that it seems to leave room for little else.
Until Pádraic checks his calendar and notices, with relief, that yesterday was April Fools’ Day. However, the year is 1923, the dark days of the Civil War pitting the provisional government of the Irish Free State against the anti-treaty Irish Republican Army. The so-called ‘irregulars’ were defeated, leaving the country bitter and divided for generations to come. For any audience unacquainted with 1923 and Ireland’s troubled past, the historical background plays second or even third fiddle, but the dialogue resonates all the more powerfully when it speaks to the tale of two friends and the tale of two Irelands at one and the same time.
Whichever tale one hears, the title of the film poses a conundrum. Who or what are the banshees? Why so many? There appears to be just the one, Mrs McCormick, a wizened hag who haunts the rocky roads and cliffs. Banshees were supposed to announce the death of a loved one by wailing but as Colm remarks, the banshees on Inisherin ‘just sit back quietly, amused, and observe’. Sitting outside the post office, Mrs McCormick looks on in silence as the postmistress paints her red postbox green. The devil is in the telling detail: as the death tally mounted in 1922, the Irish Free State was bringing out the first postage stamps marked Éire and the imperial red postboxes were being repainted in emerald green.
On one of the occasions that Mrs McCormick crosses Pádraic’s path, she foresees death coming to the island ‑ a ‘death by suicide in cold water’ and a second one. Cross-cutting will later juxtapose a body floating in a lake and the prone figure of Pádraic snuffing out a candle, as if laying to rest his former blessed self ‑ like so many of his countrymen when hostilities tore the country apart. And Mrs McCormick is still there, sitting and watching, when Pádraic and Colm seal their parting of the ways. She stands for all the banshees on the mainland, sitting and watching.
If all war is an affront to humanity, there is something even more terrible about a country at war with itself. The wounds heal slowly, if ever, as the histories of America and Ireland attest. Images of suicide or self-harm come to mind, but can the historical analogy account for Colm’s threat to cut off one finger and then four more if Pádraic does not leave him in peace? Audiences that remember In Bruges or The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996) will also remember that McDonagh’s characters do not do things by halves. Colm chooses to lose the fingers of his left hand, his fiddle hand, precisely because he is a right-handed fiddler. Had he been a painter, he would have put out his eyes. In other words, the fiddler embraces his worst nightmare, which suggests that there is much more than friendship and Ireland at stake.
It has dawned upon Colm that life is passing and thus far he has achieved nothing that will remain when he is gone. Rather than fritter and waste his remaining hours and days, he discards his happy-go-lucky friend in order to compose a great tune, one that will last. The three stages of Colm’s creative struggle provide the third thread of the plot. His initial efforts end in failure and depression; then he manages to compose the first part of a beautiful melancholy tune; after cutting off one finger, he plays through the pain to add an equally satisfying second part; he eventually finishes his miniature masterpiece and then commits the irreparable act, ensuring that his first great tune will be his last. The fiddler’s crisis of creation brings suffering and elation in roughly equal measures and ends with the symbolic suicide of the artist.
Significantly, McDonagh gave the same title ‑ The Banshees of Inisherin ‑ to his film and to his fiddler’s tune (composed by Brendan Gleeson, who also performs it). The mise en abyme suggests that the fictional tale of conflicted composition mirrors the making of the film. That last conversation remains under the rose, but the musician’s story is up on the screen, asking to be understood. Colm comes across as a solitary brooding figure, prone to anger and despair, who spends long moments staring into the fire. He shows all the ambition and self-doubt of the Romantic artist. By choosing Mozart and Beethoven as his models, the fiddler all but guarantees that the composer will fall short. And when we eventually leave Colm, he looks out to sea as he ‘whistles his tune a few moments, then lets it drift away to nothing’ (McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin, 2022). Can this be his enduring masterpiece?
One night in the bar, Colm is lauding the genius of Mozart when Pádraic, full of local whiskey and Dutch courage, cuts him off in full flow: ‘“Yet” he says, like he’s English!’ The jibe hits home because of course no self-respecting Irish fiddler wants to sound English, in 1923 or 2023, but also because Colm’s aspirations are quite out of keeping with the ethos of traditional musicians. There are few known composers because the tunes were learned by ear and passed down from one generation to the next. That sense of a living tradition is felt by the rapt audience of an earlier music session where a local woman sings a few verses of ‘I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day’, an Irish-Scottish folk song often ascribed to The Pogues. Like most traditional songs, it has been performed by many generations of musicians and different versions can be traced back as far as the nineteenth century. In other words, the singers and fiddlers come and go while the songs and tunes remain. In embracing the Romantic conception of the individual artist striving for originality and individual recognition, Colm is out of tune.
Seen from the outside, Colm’s cottage blends easily into the picturesque landscape but the dark interior, oddly adorned with primitive masks and oriental puppets, tells a different story. The light enters through a small window and in that window hangs a black Celtic picture frame. The picture itself remains unseen or out of focus for most of the film. Finally, when Pádraic peers through the window for the last time, the camera accompanies his gaze and shows an old pen-and-ink drawing. The artist is Jack Yeats and the title, written ‘in the plate’, identifies the standing figure as The Shanachie or seanchaí, a traditional Irish story-teller.
An Post used this same drawing for a 1997 stamp commemorating Irish folklore but The Shanachie first appeared in a 1913 issue of A Broadside. This was a monthly publication which associated Jack Yeats’s illustrations with Irish poems, ballads and song-sheets, all hand-printed at Cuala Press, an arts and crafts cooperative managed by the Yeats sisters, Elizabeth and Lily, with the support of their elder brother, William Butler Yeats. In the seven years he spent contributing to the Cuala Broadsides, Jack the younger brother created, almost single-handedly, the enduring images of Western Irish life, tinged with romance and reminiscence: low cottages and drystone walls, race meetings and fair days, swarthy seamen and wandering ballad-sellers, galloping horses and trotting donkeys. Unlike Paul Henry, Yeats used the landscapes as a backdrop for his emblematic Irish characters. Although The Banshees is set in 1923, the island is as free from encroaching modernity as was the idealised West of Jack Yeats. Our first impressions ‑ the Inisherin characters, the cottages and animals, the ever-present drystone walls ‑ match the vision of Yeats and the Celtic Revival, a readymade imagery reused here to conjure up the pre-civil war dream of a new Ireland.
A second visual source adds later colour. If you sent or received a postcard from Ireland in the last thirty or so years of the twentieth century, chances are that the sky and sea were improbable shades of blue, the grass was greener than green, and some figure in the landscape would be wearing a bright red sweater or yellow jacket. They were the work of an enterprising English photographer named John Hinde whose colour-enhanced photographs sent this ideal Ireland all over the world. Pádraic’s sister Siobhan, the least insular of all the islanders by a country mile, wears first a red coat and then a bright yellow one (with a Tara brooch) so she stands out prettily against the blue sky and scenic landscapes, like one of John Hinde’s red-skirted colleens from the 1960s. The postcard cinematography suggests that this 1920s Inisherin is a recreated time and place, filtered through rose-tinted hindsight, or as Mrs McCormick foresees, a short-lived utopia.
But what of The Shanachie glimpsed through the window of Colm Doherty’s cottage? He wears worn black clothes and a wide-brimmed hat, much like Colm, and stands with his back to the blazing fireplace, like an old-time story-teller facing his rapt listeners, but in spite of the resemblance, Colm is neither Jack Yeats’s Shanachie nor WB’s merry ‘Fiddler of Dooney’.
Before the English conquest, shanachies were the chroniclers of kingly households but after the defeat of the Irish nobles, they became the historians and entertainers of ordinary rural communities, passing down a broad repertoire of oral tales. In The Aran Islands (published in 1906 with illustrations by his friend Jack Yeats) John Millington Synge relates his first-hand experience of life on the three islands. Some of the most memorable pages concern Synge’s friendship with Pat Dirane, the old storyteller he listened to in the McDonough cottage on Inishmaan. One senses a deep affinity between the young Anglo-Irish writer and the Gaelic-speaking storyteller whose tales, translated into English, become part of Synge’s written narrative. The author dispenses with quotation marks but signals the end of each embedded tale with Pat Dirane’s simple words: ‘That is my story.’
There is an intriguing parallel between Synge’s experience and that of the English writer and art critic John Berger (1926-2017) ,who lived for many years in a remote part of Haute Savoie in the French Alps. He too became friends with the local storyteller and wondered about their unlikely complicity: ‘And suddenly I realised what it was. It was his recognition of our equal intelligence; we are both historians of our time. We both see how events fit together’ (‘The story-teller’, Landscapes, 2016). According to Berger, the role of the storyteller is not only to entertain but, more profoundly, to give voice to the village’s portrait of itself. I suspect that Synge and Yeats would have agreed with this appreciation.
As a cultivated musician worried about his own legacy, Colm does not share the shanachie’s vocation, nor does anyone else on the island. With mischievous irony, the plot has each and every character telling tales and spilling the beans, spitefully or inadvertently, and provoking terrible unforeseen consequences. With all the satirical verve of Jonathan Swift, McDonagh takes special aim at the proprietress of the island’s shop/post office, a busybody whose insatiable craving for gruesome ‘stories’ points to the very absence of any bona fide storyteller on Inisherin. Phone-hacking and other dark arts spring to mind as Mrs O’Riordan steams open letters and badgers every customer for the most morbid ‘news’ ‑ a tabloid travesty of shanachie storytelling.
The real storyteller turns out to be the Londoner who chose to place The Shanachie in Colm’s window. In 1998, McDonagh told Fintan O’Toole about the third play of his Aran Islands trilogy: “It isn’t as good as the other two, but it’s all about the Irish story-tellers, the seanchaís.” Although never published or performed, it had a name: The Banshees of Inisheer. Yeats’s Shanachie becomes a discreet epitaph for the play that never was.
If the unstaged play was about Irish storytellers, the film is Irish storytelling. It makes abundant use of American Western techniques like shooting (with the camera) through doorways and windows, but the screenplay is still very much an Irish story, as was In Bruges ‑ the gallows humour and grotesques, the ironic plot reversals, the tragicomic consequences of carefully hatched plans, telltale signs of Irish storytelling from Tristram Shandy through to The Playboy, and not forgetting the Irish-American Gothic of Edgar Allan Poe and Flannery O’Connor.
Synge claimed to have found the subject of his Playboy of the Western World in a story he overheard on Inishmaan about “a Connaught man who killed his father with the blow of a spade when he was in a passion, and then fled to this island where the natives hid him from the police”. McDonagh in turn has us all thinking, hoping, perhaps dreaming, that the hapless Dominic, also beaten and battered about by a tyrannical father, might just follow in the footsteps of Christy Mahon or the Connaught man, felling his father and climbing down the beanstalk and escaping on a ship to America.
Like any gifted storyteller, McDonagh takes the tale handed down and makes it very much his own. In the centuries before storytelling became subject to copyright law, shanachies would borrow their material without so much as a word of acknowledgement. Did they or their illiterate listeners care a jot about provenance or authorship? The first copyright law in Britain came into force in 1710, just eleven years before Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels. Was Swift the only begetter of Gulliver’s Travels or just the first writer to put them down on paper?
And could there be some provenance behind the shot of a dejected Pádraic sitting in his kitchen and talking away to his pony? In the fourth part of his travels, Gulliver arrives in the country of the Houyhnhnms (pronounced either hoo-IN-ums or HWIN-ums but no one today really knows), a species of civilised horse who cohabit, reluctantly, with a race of bestial humanoids known as Yahoos. When Gulliver eventually finds his way back to England, he is so disgusted with “Yahoo-kind” that he stays at home, spending hours every day conversing with his horses, who “understand him tolerably well”.
That may or may not be another story.