The very first thing we see, in the opening seconds of The Banshees of Inisherin, is clouds. We don’t know that it’s clouds we’re looking at until the aerial shot makes its descent, and the vapor begins to lift, like a rising theater curtain, to reveal a strange and gorgeous landscape. We’ve seen it a thousand times, and it’s like nothing we’ve ever beheld: a bizarre terrain, almost luminously green and latticed by a crazed network of low walls enclosing nonsensically tiny fields. The image brings a number of associations to mind—the paintings of Paul Henry, the imagined west of Ireland of J.M. Synge’s plays, a thousand ads for Irish tourism—and is at once beautiful, unique, and irredeemably cliché. It advises the audience to prepare itself for levels of Irishness both unprecedented and intimately familiar. Hold on to your flat caps, it says: Here comes Ireland.
Over the next two hours, Martin McDonagh’s film—nominated this week for nine Oscars, including Best Picture—delivers exactly that. Landscapes of ravishing desolation. Donkeys, and occasionally other livestock, inside cottages. People wearing thick woolen clothes that look like they would be horribly scratchy. Auld fellas drinking loads of pints. Stoic and long-suffering women. People talking in poetically inverted syntax, and committing acts of unfathomable savagery. You know: Ireland. Or rather, “Ireland,” because—as McDonagh knows as well as anyone—this version of Irishness has always had an uneasy relationship with the actual country and the people who live in it.
Those people, American viewers might be surprised to learn, do not include the writer and director of the film himself. McDonagh was born and raised in London. His parents were both from the west of Ireland, and he spent frequent summer months there as a child; when he was in his early 20s, his parents returned to live in Galway while he stayed behind in London to pursue a writing career. His early plays, which went on to massive international success, were all set in the rural west of Ireland. Those plays drew far more deeply on the Irish literary tradition than on the complexities of the contemporary country itself, and their dialogue was characterized by an intense, at times luridly lyrical Hiberno-English. Those plays are clearly the work of an “Irish writer,” but it’s an Irishness formed as much by distance as intimacy. It’s as though they’re reacting against a somewhat abstract idea of the place, informed by an emigrant’s reverence and romanticism. They are absurdist, and often shockingly violent, and it isn’t always clear whether McDonagh is subverting ancient clichés about Ireland and the Irish—misty poeticism, rural backwardness, prodigious boozing, etc.—or merely employing them in his own distinct way. The Banshees of Inisherin, which is his first feature film to be set in Ireland, was initially begun in the late 1990s as a work for the stage, and its version of Ireland treats the real country with the same theatrical abstraction as those early plays.
Early in Banshees, Pádraic—the guileless farmer played by Colin Farrell—shaves while gazing at himself in a cracked mirror. I couldn’t decide whether this was a deliberate reference or just a bit of coincidental set dressing, but it was hard not to think of Stephen Dedalus’ famous remark, in the opening pages of Ulysses, about a similarly damaged mirror: “It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked lookingglass of a servant.” The line is among the most resonant in the novel, and therefore in all of Irish literature, because it encapsulates Stephen’s (and Joyce’s) desire to break free of colonialism’s disfiguring influence on representations of Ireland and Irishness. It alludes, in particular, to the sentimental renderings of rugged Irish peasant life that were at the time among the predominant modes of Irish representation in literature and art: the donkeys, the landscape, the stoic women. Joyce is merciless in pillorying this sort of stuff throughout Ulysses, and other Irish writers have been just as derisive; Flann O’Brien, for instance, took it to ingeniously absurd extremes in The Poor Mouth, his ruthless satire of the romanticization of rural poverty.
One of the most obvious targets of Stephen’s “cracked mirror” quip was the Abbey Theatre, an institution set up as part of the Irish Literary Revival movement by a cohort of mostly Anglo-Irish cultural grandees, and which promoted a bleakly idealized image of Irish peasant life. W.B. Yeats and J.M. Synge, both Anglo-Irish—Irish, that is, but members of a Protestant ruling class descended from the original English colonial settlers—were among the most prominent of the Revival’s writers, and both contributed to this focus on rural poverty as the true soul of Irishness. As well-intentioned as the Abbey’s mission might have been as a contribution to Irish cultural self-consciousness, and as aesthetically powerful as the plays often were, this stuff unwittingly reasserted England’s colonial hegemony by staging Ireland as an unsophisticated peasant culture. The defiant cosmopolitanism of Joyce’s novel—with its urban setting, its relentless ridicule of narrow nationalism, and the son of a Hungarian Jew at its center—was, among other things, a reaction against such restrictive conceptions of Irishness.
One of the ironies of McDonagh’s career is that his early work as a playwright, deeply informed as it was by the poetry and violence of Synge’s Abbey plays in particular, was rejected by the Abbey when he submitted it. Those plays—The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West, and The Cripple of Inishmaan—were eventually produced by the Galway-based Druid Theatre, and went on to become career-launching stage sensations. I’d wager that at this point the Abbey would be happy to have him, but as recently as last year, McDonagh insisted in an interview that, because of that early objection, he would never work with them. (I’ve always considered pettiness to be a minor hallmark of a serious artist, and in at least this sense, McDonagh qualifies.)
Those plays of his, so wildly successful in the West End and on Broadway—as well as in Ireland—in the 1990s and early 2000s, traded in a postmodern version of the stock Irishisms long familiar to international audiences. It was customary for reviewers to invoke as forebears both Synge (fluent, stylized lyricism) and Quentin Tarantino (fluent, stylized violence). The Cripple of Inishmaan, for instance, is set on the Aran Islands in the early 1930s during the making of Robert J. Flaherty’s The Man of Aran—a film which, though ostensibly a work of ethnographic documentary, featured numerous carefully staged scenes of practices, like shark hunting, that had long since been abandoned on the islands. In McDonagh’s play, the characters clamor to be involved in the documentary—not out of any interest in portraying the real life of their community, but because they want to get the hell out of there and escape to Hollywood. Although McDonagh has a lot of fun with the performance and fakery of national identity, he never really examines or subverts the stage clichés he draws on. The islanders are all, in one way or another, childish—either cruelly or naïvely so—and they speak in a musical language of sentiment and violence.
Reading the plays, and sometimes seeing them staged, I was always struck by a sense that he was self-consciously playing with clichés of Irishness without ever trying to say anything about those signifiers or what it might mean to employ them. Irish theater critics, while typically acknowledging McDonagh’s obvious talent, were often wary of his play’s insistent deployment of these tropes. When The Lieutenant of Inishmore, an ultraviolent black farce about a republican terrorist avenging his dead cat, opened in London’s Royal Court in 2001, a critic for the Irish Times wrote that the play’s anger about paramilitary violence had “blinded its author so that the caricatures he has created in place of characters do not have even the semblance of a resemblance either to Aran islanders or to the members of the INLA—or even most other paramilitaries. Every caricature is dim-witted to the point of retardation, and violence seems endemic in all souls.”*
McDonagh himself has always sounded fairly noncommittal about his own claims to being an Irish writer; indeed, he has never—at least in interviews—seemed to give the concept all that much weight. In a 1998 conversation with the Irish critic and writer Fintan O’Toole, he said that “thinking about being Irish only came into my life when I decided to write Irish plays … It would be phony of me to say I have anything to do with Irish storytelling.” As off-the-cuff as these reflections are, they hint at something interesting and revealing about McDonagh’s work: that being an “Irish writer” might be a kind of choice, in the same way that it is a choice to work in a particular genre, such as crime or sci-fi, or Oscar-worthy drama.
McDonagh started directing films in the early 2000s, winning an Academy Award for his first short, Six Shooter. In his film work, he seemed to push himself closer to the Tarantino side of the equation than the Synge, so that even when there were Irish characters in his films, they were—for example—chatty hit-men wandering the streets of a European capital, in 2008’s In Bruges. As in early Tarantino, McDonagh’s films had an ungainly tendency to coerce the audience into scandalized laughter, often seeming depressingly pleased with their own apparent transgressiveness. There were, reliably, jokes about “midgets,” fat people, racial minorities, gay people, and so forth, as though he wrote these films in the midst of a long and punishing round of Cards Against Humanity. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, his commercial and critical breakthrough, was nominated for seven Oscars and won two, but it is arguably the worst of his films in this regard. Some critics in the U.S. took it to task for its clumsy exploitations of America’s complex racial sensitivities, in a way that echoed the ambivalence a lot of Irish audiences and critics had felt about his plays. “There’s certainly a place for a white artist to poke, laughingly, at our racial and class messes,” wrote Wesley Morris in the New York Times. “But Mr. McDonagh doesn’t want to do more than poke.”
Banshees, whose origins seem to lie in an unproduced stage play McDonagh mentioned in interviews as early as 1998, seems at first glance to have less in common with his preceding films than with his work for the stage. The language returns to the kind of heightened Hiberno-English that was such a feature of the plays, and the setting is the rural west of Ireland of his formative works. The critical response to this return has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s true that Banshees is McDonagh’s most mature and accomplished work for cinema, and the two central performances—Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, as two feuding former friends—are exceptional. But it’s worth noting, though maybe not surprising, that international critics have failed to take issue with its deployment of the hoariest Irish stereotypes, which—and maybe this is just because I’m Irish—seem to me even broader than the vacuum-packed Americana of Three Billboards.
I spent a lot of time while I watched The Banshees of Inisherin trying to figure out whether, and to what extent, Martin McDonagh was finally interested in interrogating the tropes he draws on throughout the film. When Colin Farrell’s character Pádraic first appears on screen, striding contentedly across a bustling island harbor, there is an honest-to-god rainbow in the establishing shot. The film gets pretty dark, or at any rate bad things happen—it’s a Martin McDonagh film, after all—and the rainbow is clearly intended as a bit of jokey foreshadowing, but, as with the plays, the film never really deviates from the stagey “Irishness” it sets out, in these opening moments, as its stock in trade.
The film’s story is simple, if enigmatic. It begins with Pádraic calling, as he does every day, at his best friend Colm’s house so that they can walk to the pub together. Colm inexplicably refuses to acknowledge Pádraic’s presence at his window. As the story unfolds, we learn that Colm, who is significantly older than Pádraic, has decided he is simply tired of hanging out with his nice but dull former companion, and that he wants to spend his remaining years in more meaningful pursuits—namely writing and composing music on his fiddle. Pádraic refuses to allow Colm to ignore him, and eventually Colm is driven to an act of insane, almost terroristic self-harm to secure his own freedom from Pádraic’s dullness: He vows to cut off a finger of his fiddle-playing hand every time Pádraic talks to him.
Banshees draws deeply from the same pool of Irish tropes as McDonagh’s early theatrical work. The characters go to the pub in the early afternoon and drink pints until they get chucked out—at which point they stop messing around and get properly fucked-up on poitín. Everyone’s perpetually bored out of their mind, and alternately tyrannized by a thuggish local policeman and an insidious parish priest. A tiny, wizened old lady in a shawl keeps looming balefully into view and making gnomic pronouncements about death. Dominic, portrayed by the gifted young actor Barry Keoghan in what felt to me like an excessively mannered performance, is a particularly broad and clichéd character—simpleminded but morally pure, despite being the victim of seemingly relentless physical and sexual abuse by his father. Dominic seems to exist purely to play the audience’s heartstrings like a fiddle, and despite the sad arc of his story, we never see anything like a real darkness at its core.
Watching the film, I found myself wondering why it was that McDonagh chose to tell his story in this particular time and place. Despite the gorgeous specificity of its Atlantic coast setting, and the enthusiasm with which it leans into the above-mentioned array of Irish signifiers, there is little inherently Irish about the story itself. The enjoyably perverse parable about self-determination is closer to Kafka than, say, Synge or Seán O’Casey: It’s about a man who attempts to secure his freedom to make art by hacking off the very appendages which enable him to make art in the first place. I suspect the reason it’s set in Ireland is that McDonagh simply feels at home in the place, imaginatively and literally. He is at ease in the language, or his own heightened version of it. But I confess there’s something about the country, or the abstract idea of it, that lends itself to the particular kind of fabulism that is the film’s mode—where everything is slightly heightened and unreal, and nothing much makes, or can be expected to make, any sense. Inisherin, crucially, is not a real place, but its name, translated back from Irish, would mean something like “Ireland Island,” which playfully suggests we should be thinking of it as a kind of fantasy microcosm of Ireland as a whole.
The Irish Civil War, which is the film’s one concession to the stubborn actuality of the country’s history, is a case in point. Throughout Banshees, periodic references to battles raging on the mainland situate the film in 1923, toward the end of the short but vicious conflict. McDonagh, in a way that manages to be both open-ended and heavy-handed, seems to want the audience to think of the film’s action as somehow a metaphor for the Civil War, or vice versa. As the conflict between Pádraic and Colm unfolds in the foreground, the characters periodically attend to the sound of gunfire and explosions from the mainland. But as with Colm’s abrupt decision to end his friendship with Pádraic, no one seems to quite know what the fighting is all about. (“The free-state lads are executing a couple of the IRA lads—or is it the other way around?” says a character at one point.) As a metaphor it’s both vague and clumsy; for it to work, you’d have to think of the Irish Civil War as some kind of basically unfathomable squabble between former best friends, as opposed to a conflict over a treaty with the British government that granted only partial independence and divided Ireland into two political entities, to disastrous results. As a political allegory, it seems obviously retrofitted, tacked onto the narrative to add unearned resonance.
And this is characteristic of McDonagh in general; for all its reputation for darkness and perversity, his work is expertly crafted light entertainment passing itself off, sometimes almost convincingly, as provocative, serious art. In interviews early on in his career, McDonagh tended to dismiss theater as a form, and to suggest that he was only writing and producing plays until he could get himself in a position to make films. But Banshees makes it clear that McDonagh’s strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker have their origins in his work as a playwright. As a screenwriter, McDonagh evinces the theater-maker’s anxiety that the audience might go quiet, and never misses an opportunity to have a character make a humorous or provocative aside. You can always tell where you are supposed to gasp, and you can always tell when you’re supposed to be laughing—even, and especially, when you’re supposed to feel like you’re not supposed to be laughing. Banshees, like so many of his films and plays, follows an inexorable logic of tragedy, but is mostly too glib to be properly unsettling or emotionally cathartic. If there were such a genre as Light Tragedy, McDonagh would be among its most successful practitioners.
Toward the end of the film, as the story approaches its lightly tragic conclusion, the cracked looking-glass motif returns. We see Pádraic regarding himself again in the mirror before smashing it with the oil lamp he’s about to use to exact vengeance on his former friend. The cracked looking-glass of the servant is now completely shattered. Again, it’s hard to know whether to read the image as a familiar cinematic symbol of psychic disintegration, or a reference, via Joyce, to the film’s own engagement with immemorial representations of Irishness. Like the film itself, and like so much of McDonagh’s work, the moment seems to gesture toward subverting its clichéd reflections, while really just reconfiguring them. The looking-glass is still hanging there, as insistently as it was in Joyce’s time; McDonagh hasn’t broken it, he’s just added to the cracks.
Correction, Jan. 26, 2023: This article originally referred incorrectly to one of Martin McDonagh’s plays. It is The Lieutenant of Inishmore, not The Lieutenant of Inishmaan.