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The Banshees of Inisherin: A Poignant Discourse and a Poetic Image of War

Colm’s unexpectedly altered behaviour towards his onetime best friend, Padraic, the decadence into which Padraic descends, the ensuing destructive conflict between the two, and its
Banshees of Inisherin
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With nine nominations at the 95th Academy Awards to its credit, Martin McDonagh’s 2022 film, The Banshees of Inisherin, dramatises the sudden conflict between two friends, Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson), a folk musician and Padraic Suilleabhain (Colin Farrell), a dairy farm owner in the background of the Irish Civil War. Their conflict is set on the fictional Irish island of Inisherin in the background of the Irish Civil War (1922–23) fought between the Free State of Ireland and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on the question of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty.

The reticent Colm lives all by himself in a cottage by the seashore. Padraic, his gregarious friend, lives on his farm amidst his livestock with his favourite among them being Jenny, a small donkey. Though completely unlike each other, both have been friends all their life. They used to spend a lot of time happily in each other’s company discussing an infinite deal of insignificant things. A drink together in the afternoon at the local pub used to be part of their daily routine.  

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One day when Padraic knocks at Colm’s house to invite him to the pub for their usual drink, Colm refuses to join Padraic for the drink saying that he has ended their relationship unilaterally. Later, he tells an utterly startled Padraic that he not only does not like Padraic but also would not relate to him from that day on. Colm’s abrupt and cruel cold-shouldering of his friend comes as a bolt from the blue both to Padraic and to every islander. The irrationality in Colm’s attitude and behaviour towards Padraic is evident from their conversation.   

Colm: I just don’t like you no more.  
Padraic: You do like me.
Colm: I don’t.
Padraic: But you liked me yesterday. 
Colm: Oh, did I, Yeh? 
Padraic: I thought you did.

Colm and Padraic have not had any fight or any misunderstanding between them on any issue so far. As if overcome by some sudden spell of inexplicable existential despair, Colm tells Padraic, “I just have this tremendous sense of time slippin’ away on me, Padraic.” Therefore, he insists that he cannot afford to spend the rest of his life in “aimless chatting” and endless “dull things” in the company of a “dull” and “limited man,” Padraic, and let his life “keep dwindling.” 

IRA Hogans Flying Column
IRA Hogan’s Flying Column

To Padraic’s sister, Siobhan’s (Kerry Condon) question as to why he stopped relating to her brother who, evidently, has always been dull, Colm answers by saying. “I’ve changed. I just don’t have a place for dullness in my life anymore.” Since Colm is convinced that his relationship with Padraic has not benefitted him in advancing his artistic career in any way, he has decided to end his relationship with Padraic and spend the rest of his life in pursuit of art, especially music, which according to him will survive after him. Placing the responsibility for his personal failure in fulfilling his ambition indirectly on Padraic’s shoulders, Colm conveniently absolves himself of all his own drawbacks and failures. 

Since Padraic cannot think of a life without his friendship with Colm, he tries his best to change his friend’s heartless, arrogant, and narcissistic decision. Padraic’s relentless pursuit of Colm’s friendship makes the egotistic Colm threaten Padraic saying that he would mutilate himself by cutting one of his fingers from his left hand each time Padraic speaks to him. He would maim himself rather than relate to Padraic! Colm is a stubborn man of his word. He indeed cuts off the forefinger of his left hand and throws it at the door of Padraic because Padraic dared to speak to him after getting drunk at the local pub despite the threat. At Padraic’s second attempt to talk, Colm cuts all the remaining fingers off his left hand and throws them at Padraic’s door. Ironically, it indeed is a self-destructive act that annihilates the possibility of the artistic career for which he shunned his friendship with Padraic. Jenny tries to swallow one of the fingers and it chokes her to death – an event that pushes Padraic beyond his manifested limits of patience and humanity. 

Easter Rising 1916
Easter Rising 1916

Unable to take Colm’s cruel and masochistic behaviour any longer, Padraic who has been a nice man by everyone’s admission lets go of his niceness. As he sinks deep into depression, his character takes a twisted turn towards depravity. One day, he tells one of Colm’s zealous music students from the mainland that the latter’s father met with a serious accident and that he should reach home as early as possible – a lie motivated by jealousy to keep the student away from Colm. As his hatred and anger towards Colm get the better of him, once Padraic tells Colm at the pub, “tomorrow, Sunday … God’s day, around 2.00, I’m going to call up to your house and I’m gonna set fire to it, and hopefully, you’ll still be inside it … or you can do whatever’s in your power to stop me. To our graves, we’re taking this. To one of our graves anyway.” Padraic keeps his word, and he sets Colm’s house on fire with Colm inside the house even though Colm manages to escape from the house unhurt. 

Colm’s unexpectedly altered behaviour towards his onetime best friend, Padraic, the decadence into which Padraic descends, the ensuing destructive conflict between the two, and its ultimate consequence can be understood better in the context of the Irish Civil War. In fact, the conflict between the two friends serves as a powerful metaphor for the civil war. 

Colm is a stubborn man of his word. He indeed cuts off the forefinger of his left hand and throws it at the door of Padraic because Padraic dared to speak to him after getting drunk at the local pub despite the threat. At Padraic’s second attempt to talk, Colm cuts all the remaining fingers off his left hand and throws them at Padraic’s door.

The Irish War of Independence (1919-21) fought between the IRA and British forces came to an end with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 which resulted in the creation of the Irish Free State independent of the United Kingdom and yet part of the British Empire. As per the logistics of the treaty, the Irish Free State would be a self-governing state with its own army and police within the British empire with the British monarch as its head. The treaty also granted protestant-dominated Northern Ireland permission to remain as part of the United Kingdom which it did soon after the treaty was signed.  

While the Irish Free State accepted the terms and conditions of the Treaty, the IRA looked upon it as a betrayal of the cause of the envisioned independent Irish Republic since the 1916 Easter Rising. The conflict over the treaty among the Irish, the band of friends who fought the British together side by side, led to a war among themselves. The Irish who were friends so far suddenly stopped being friends and began fighting with each other. As the number of members of the IRA began to decrease significantly because many of them were either executed or imprisoned, the civil war came to an end in 1923 producing no actual winners. They fought a futile war with each other causing loss, devastation, death and suffering to all which could have easily been avoided. Similarly, the conflict between Colm and Padraic resulted in neither of them winning or gaining anything but in much loss, pain and suffering for both.  

Inisheer Island Ireland
The people of Inisherin are insulated by their own habits, customs, lifestyles, and gossip.

After Colm’s cessation of his friendship, he concentrates more intensely on composing music. One of his compositions is called The Banshees of Inisherin. A banshee in Irish and other Celtic folklore is a fairy woman who heralds the death of a member of the family of the person who hears the fairy woman’s message. She heralds the message usually by screaming, wailing, lamenting, or keening. McCormack (Sheila Flitton), one of the inhabitants of Inisherin who functions like a banshee in Inisherin once tells Padraic, “A death shall come to Inisherin afore the month is out … maybe even two deaths.” In the background of the intensifying conflict between Colm and Padraic, it appears as if she is heralding the deaths either of Padraic and Siobhan because they are brother and sister, or the deaths of Padraic and Colm because their presently strained relationship had the nature of a family bond. However, her prediction comes true in the cases of Dominic (Barry Keoghan), the dunderheaded son of a conniving constable and an abusive father, who got drowned, and Jenny, Padraic’s favourite animal. The conflict could have easily led to the death of Padraic and Colm. Appearing on different occasions at different places in the narrative, McCormack, the unwelcome messenger of death assumes the symbolic significance of death looming large over Inisherin. She serves as the banshee of Inisherin. 

The people of Inisherin are insulated by their own habits, customs, lifestyles, and gossip. Issues of weightier importance in the larger world, such as the Irish Civil War is no serious concern for the islanders. The fact that they are not even sufficiently informed about the war is evident from Padraic’s response to the war. Right at the onset of the film, one day, while walking towards the pub, Padraic stops on the way for a while listening to the gunshots from the mainland saying, “Good luck to ye, whatever it is you’re fighting about,” and he moves on. The islanders are concerned only about their parochial issues. For example, the plot of the film unfolds with the people’s preoccupation with the conflict between Colm, and Padraic. It is a world doomed by its own isolation and smaller parochial concerns. 

There is a church, the most visible religious symbol of redemption and new life, at the heart of the island of Inisherin. Furthermore, the entire island is studded with religious symbols. In spite of this pervasive sense of religion, ironically, in the words of Siobhan, at Inisherin there is “nothing but more bleakness and grudges and loneliness and spite and the slow passing of time until death.” Colm’s cottage is replete with images of death. It displays several images of hanging heads (masks). One prominent image among them is the effigy of a man hanging by a rope. Life and redemption, it appears, must be found beyond the bounds of Inisherin, in the mainland or in the larger world. The possibility of redemption for the people of Inisherin is suggested through the perceptive, intelligent, book-reading, and aspirational Siobhan who serves as a foil to Padraic and who leaves Inisherin for the mainland and takes up a job there.  

In the background of the intensifying conflict between Colm and Padraic, it appears as if she is heralding the deaths either of Padraic and Siobhan because they are brother and sister, or the deaths of Padraic and Colm because their presently strained relationship had the nature of a family bond.

A happy Siobhan from the mainland invites Padraic to leave Inisherin for a better, larger, happier world and life on the mainland.  Bound strongly and deeply to the island, he would not leave the place because, as he writes to her, his “life is on Inisherin. Me friend, me animals.” He feels more at home in Inisherin amidst his animals on his farm, amidst the gossipy acquaintances, his estranged friend, and the dull, brute, corrupt and opportunistic police constable, Peadar Kearney (Gray Lydon).  

The film ends with a short conversation between the two broken and estranged friends, Colm and Padraic, on the beach outside Colm’s charred house. Both have suffered losses. Colm lost his fingers (his ability to make music) and his home. Padraic lost his loved ones, Siobhan and Jenny. The content of their conversation reveals that their conflict will continue. At one moment as Colm wonders, if the civil war on the mainland has come to an end, Padraic uses the occasion to affirm that the war between them friends is not over yet. He says, “I’m sure they’ll be at it again soon enough, aren’t you? Some things there’s no movin’ on from. And I think that’s a good thing.” Padraic has not finished with Colm yet. He will have his revenge. While they converse about their unfinished business and part ways, McCormack, the banshee of Inisherin, sits on Colm’s chair in front of his charred house, as if presiding over their manifest hostility. Her hovering presence over them tends to suggest that death is casting its eyes on both. Has her prophecy of the two deaths in Inisherin already been fulfilled in the deaths of Dominic and Jenny, or is it still in abeyance? If in abeyance, will it be fulfilled through the deaths of Colm and Padraic? After all, their conflict has not yet been resolved, and so long as it is not resolved, both are perfect candidates for the fulfilment of the banshee’s prophecy, just the way so long as the IRA and the Free State of Ireland were in conflict, both were perfect candidates for death and self-destruction anytime.  

All conflicts and all wars lead to nothing but loss, devastation, and death. Along with the conflicting factions, many others who have nothing to do with the conflict also become helpless victims of the conflict. The vulnerable Dominic and the helpless Jenny who die, and the free-spirited and independent-minded Siobhan who migrates to the mainland (hence displaced), while the conflict between Colm and Padraic is at its peak, are telling images of the consequences and the victims of war. The Banshees of Inisherin is a poignant discourse on war as well as a poetic image of the ravages of war. 

Images courtesy: Wikipedia 

Sacaria Joseph is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. Having pursued his undergraduate studies at St. Xavier’s College, he furthered his academic journey by obtaining a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from Pune University, a Master of Philosophy from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and a PhD from Visva-Bharati University, West Bengal. In addition to his academic pursuits, he writes on a wide array of subjects encompassing literature, philosophy, religion, culture, cinema, politics, and the environment.

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