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'Conflicted' characters? - The Black and Tans
history and heritage |
Thursday July 13, 2006 01:36 by Nick Folley - None
(Originally written in response to this article - ed)
I am one of the legion of the amused who watched as (mainly British) critics lashed "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" before they'd even seen it - a fact which in itself speaks volumes for their motives. I have seen it, and in terms of historical accuracy it seems pretty close to what I've read in IRA veterans accounts and heard from their mouths. True, in real life there were some decent individuals - there always are. There was a Black and Tan who allowed an IRA captive to nip in and see his dying brother when the Tan's officer's back was turned. Yet there were also ones like those who slit Kathleen Clarke's sister's hand from fingers to wrist with a razor. I think critics of Loach would do well for their own sakes not to make too much noise about the depiction of the Tans.
Loach is actually letting the British establishment off the hook more lightly than many of his critics realise in putting most of the onus on the Tans. The torture scene (nail pulling) is most probably based on the torture of Tom Hales, which was in fact carried out by the Essex regiment - a regular part of the professional British army. Likewise, Sean Moylan commented that in his area of North Cork, it was the British army who carried out most of the atrocities.
Mossie Hartnett's brother (West Limerick) recalled seeing a British tommie use a local peasant quite casually for target practice, firing at a distance at some farm labourer far off, shooting him dead for no reason whatsoever. The tommy then strolled over to view his handiwork and returend muttering "clean through the forehead at 220 paces - not bad shooting" (see Mossie Hartnett, 'Victory and Woe' UCD Press, 2002. p.166).
No doubt these are not isolated incidents. Peter Hart quoted (in 'The IRA and its Enemies') from Michael O'Suilleabhain's 'Where Mountainy Men Have Sown' to back his claim that the Tans weren't so bad, that they were tough, professional soliders, physically very fit and so on. Yet, true to form, he cut the quote short at a point where it conflicts with the image he's trying to create. For O'Suilleabhain went on to add that the Tans would shoot a man for standing still, and they would shoot him for running away, without reason, that was the order of the day and no one doubted it, not even citizens with no Republican sympathies.
Perhaps it's time to compile a database of all such recorded acts in those troubled times. Loach cannot portray every such act in a 2 hr film, so he can only try and give an overall flavour. This he achieves quiet sucessfully, and his depiction of the Tans is accurate: the abiding impression they left is of terror and bruatlity, even if there were one or two 'conflicted' characters.
Loach, does in fact try and explain the Tans' behaviour, such as with the officer's mournful comment on 'what do you expect? They've been in the trenches' and the locals' comments on the Tans being recruited for £1 a day (though I think it was less than that). Loach is in essence saying they, too, are victims of a kind, brutalised by the needs of the Imperial system, by the 'Old Boys' club that uses them like pawns to get riches and power (note one of the characters comments on Winston Churchill in passing). My feeling is that he wishes to show the British Imperial system as a failed social entity: the best it could offer its 'war heroes' (the men who would go on to become Tans) after their years' of sacrifice in the trenches, was not to come home to settle down with a home and family - to the rewards and fruits of their patriotic effort; but to grim unemployment. The best livelihood it could offer them was one shooting and harrassing the citziens of West Cork and other areas.
Furthermore, regarding portraylas of 'goodies' and 'baddies' in movies, I think we all know who the 'goodies' are supposed to be in 'Saving Private Ryan' - no flood of outrage from the establishment then about one-sided characterisation, or about the lack of 'conflicted' Nazis, though there must also have been some decent sods in both the Wermacht and even the SS. I don't remember any critic sneering about a crusading Spielberg 'free to roam with his camera' along the lines of the unflattering comments made by Ruth Dudley Edwards about Loach. There may have been a few conflicted Nazis, but the overall impression they left was of terror and brutality. Likewise, the Tans left much the same impression here. The great difficulty the British establishment (of whom Loach's critics seem a mouthpiece) has with Loach is that they cannot handle being the 'baddies'. They have spent so long telling themsleves that the only real baddies in history were Nazis, they are unable to confront the darker aspects of their own history.
Over this side of the Pond there is much talk these days about 'honouring our shared traditions' as evidenced by the recent Somme Commemorations. No such attitude seems to be reciprocal in the UK. You would have to search long and hard before giving up, to find any monuments or even a plaque to any of the IRA leaders such as Tom Barry or Dan Breen, anywhere in England, Scotland or Wales. Yet these men were British citizens, too, until 1922, albeit unwilling ones.
Why is it so difficult for Britain to commemorate 'our shared history' as we are constantly exhorted to do here? Our past is a part of Britain's past but those like Loach's critics are unable to square up to this uncomfortable fact. Loach, in the Wind That Shakes the Barley, seems to be saying that until Britain is able to face its ghosts, it'll be a poorer place, especially in moral and social terms.