The Banshees of Inisherin: One of the Year’s Best Films

Inisherin is an island off the coast of an island, which is itself an island detached from a slightly larger island, which is, if you’ll bear with me just a moment longer, patient friend and reader, a third island separated from the land-locked continent of Europe.

This, I assure you, is more than a mere geographical point: the feeling of insularity, I think, is central to Martin McDonagh’s latest highly-acclaimed film, The Banshees of Inisherin, in which the talented Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Kerry Condon star. McDonagh’s celebrated work, toward which the Academy’s Best Picture award has been caught casting a flirtatious glance or two, was released this past autumn. It’s now available, for a nominal fee, on the usual streaming services and, while the momentum toward Oscar’s season builds, in select theaters.  

Before we get into the film’s plot, cast, symbolism, and overall cinematic merit, I’d like to begin by offering a brief comment on its peculiar title: The Banshees of Inisherin. It surely won’t evade the notice of the discerning viewer that the word, Inish-erin contains, in its latter half, the word Erin. In Gaelic, Erin means “Ireland” (to which classical topographers gave the name, Hibernia. You’ll understand why I refer to myself as a “Half-Hibernian Semi-Semite”—with the last name Finneran and a bar mitzvah under my belt). A common first name for girls and golf courses, Erin is one of the precious few Gaelic words with which the anglophone world remains fluent. 

As for Inish–well, that’s a bit rarer. You’re likely a native son or daughter of the Emerald Isles if you know what Inish means. Those of us unacquainted with that picturesque land and its ancient language, however, need not despair. I’ll tell you now: Inish means, naturally enough, “island”. 

Thus, Inisherin is, literally, an “Irish Island”—a fact about which, through the duration of the film, it’s impossible to be unmindful. 

As for the menacing word, Banshee, most people have heard it used in association with a terrible sound (“We thought she’d gone mad! She was running down the street yelling like a banshee!”). Of Gaelic origin, it means “fairy woman” or “woman of the fairy mound”, and refers to a kind of eldritch feminine spirit popular in Irish folklore. She’s something of a cross between the Greek Moirai and Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters, whose blood-curdling screams portend the death of a loved one. When depicted, she looks like an ugly, elderly woman hobbled by age and obscured by a dark cloak. 

Set in the early 1920s, The Banshees of Inisherin takes place on the little Irish island after which it’s named. On the mainland, in Ireland proper, a civil war is underway, of whose distant rifle shots and faint explosions, the half-curious residents of Inisherin take only occasional notice. Most of them are too absorbed in their daily work to pay much attention to what’s happening “abroad”. Their concerns are strictly provincial. When they’re not toiling in the field or bartering at the market, when they’re not praying in the church or drinking in the pub, they busy themselves with the idle news and gossip with which this strange little island abounds. 

For context, The First World War is a very recent memory, having ended just a few years ago in 1919. The Second World War wouldn’t begin until Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. Finding this interbellum intolerable, the Irish decided to fight amongst themselves. A pugnacious people by nature, they simply couldn’t resist! First came the Irish War of Independence, by which the previously unified country was partitioned. It gave birth to two sovereign countries, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, between whom, still to this day, a fair bit of tension persists.  

History remembers the subsequent conflict as the Irish Civil War. Bloodier than the War of Independence, the year-long Civil War pitted the Provisional Government of Ireland (backed by the British Crown and in support of the Anglo-Irish Treaty) against the Irish Republican Army (IRA). One mustn’t, while focusing on the war’s brevity, overlook its brutality: the IRA, after suffering a string of early defeats, resorted to guerrilla warfare. Accounts of the fighting at this stage of the war are harrowing and an unknown number of combatants and civilians were killed.

In retaliation, the Provisional Government forces executed IRA combatants on the spot. Under dubious charges and without the customary sanction of a court, many IRA soldiers were killed. Firing squads simply lined them up and shot them down. The killing had become gratuitous as the behavior on both sides had turned, during the course of this single bloody year, remarkably savage. It shook the very foundations of Irish society, which, at this time, had only been tenuously laid down. 

That, in brief, is a crude sketch of the context in which McDonagh’s film takes place.

Already, just by setting the scene and talking about the title, we’ve touched on two major symbols of which McDonagh makes use: civil strife, or the conflict between countrymen and brothers, and isolation—both in time and in place. That the story is set on a tiny little island in the North Atlantic highlights a sense of smallness and detachment from the larger world. Everyone responds to this insularity differently: some embrace it with quiet contentment; some resist but can’t overcome it; and others abandon it for a chance to be integrated into that grander cosmos beyond. 

To be sure, the symbolism doesn’t end there, but I shall, if only temporarily, divert your attention from it in order to talk about the cast. The sparseness of the cast reminds me of a Sophoclean play, for which, in compliance with the tragic standards of that age, only three actors were needed. The same is true in The Banshees of Inisherin

Padraic, a kind-hearted rustic simpleton of whom everyone on the island is fond, is the film’s central figure. Played by the supremely-talented Colin Farrell, Padraic is sweet, charming, and amiable to a fault. He is absolutely devoid of pretense and rancor, and exudes a perfect vibe of sincerity, warmth, and happy bonhomie.

That said, he’s also quite dull. He’s all heart and no head and has little interest in reading books and learning new things. 

His sister, Siobhán (played by the radiant Kerry Condon), is his opposite. She’s bookish, serious, and, as we later come to know, ambitious. Approaching the status of a spinster, she’s unmarried well into her forties and, by all evidence, uninterested in the pursuit and enjoyment of romantic love. Perhaps the lot of Inisherin men among whom she’s left to choose has simply failed to excite her passions. One can understand why; she’s a sophisticated, pretty, headstrong woman for whom a match, anywhere outside a highly-cultured city like Dublin or London, might be difficult to find. 

The third character on whom we need to comment is Padraic’s erstwhile friend, Colm. Colm, played by Brendan Gleeson, is something of a hot-shot on the island–a big fish in a little pond. He’s the type of man of whom everyone thinks highly, for whose attention the entire village is eager to vie. Significantly older than Padraic, Colm lives alone in a small house on the empty beach. His only company is his handsome dog (an Irish Collie). I mention the specific breed of the dog because, unsurprisingly, the animal has great symbolic importance. 

Whereas Padraic, a cattle-driver and shepherd, spends the bulk of his time in the company of a lovable but mindless ass, Colm is accompanied by an Irish Collie. At the risk of offending asses, it’s known that these obstinate beasts are somewhat deficient in the department of cognitive power. That is to say, they are loyal but hopelessly dull, not unlike Padraic himself. Colm, on the other hand, enjoys the lively companionship of an Irish Collie, a dog than whom, according to experienced breeders and trainers, there is none more intelligent. 

Colm is, like his clever dog, possessed of a lively, penetrating mind, but his type of intelligence isn’t very highly esteemed on a backward little island such as Inisherin. Of his prior trade, we know absolutely nothing. One can only assume that it involved him in some kind of physical work for which his refined sensibilities probably weren’t suited. From these difficult labors, he seems to have retired and, in the dwindling hours of leisure that mark his remaining days, taken up his true passion—music, in the pursuit of which he’s determined no longer to be friends with Padraic. 

The decision to end the friendship is unilateral and, as we learn, unalterable. In order to pursue his dream of becoming a famous musician, to add his name to the constellation of great composers bedazzling the firmament above, Colm must break his attachment to Padraic. Intellectual unequals, Padraic is one of those friends whom a man gains as an accident of birth. He’s one of those people whose intimacy is a consequence of a fixed station in life. We all know the type: someone near whom you just so happened to grow up, but with whom, in terms of interest and aptitude, you truly never shared very much. 

Padraic has become a tedious, burdensome anchor tugging on Colm’s leg. He’s become a heavy weight of which Colm must quickly free himself if he’s to achieve immortality (in the form of his music). Colm realizes that his time on this earth is running short and that success, if he’s to attain it, must be vigorously and single-mindedly pursued. Yet, Padraic, a slow, sensitive soul, can’t accept that Colm no longer wishes to be his friend. This leads him repeatedly to attempt to reconcile with Colm, who rejects his pathetic efforts every time. 

Desperate to dissociate once and for all with the importunate Padraic, Colm declares that, henceforth, every time Padraic calls on him, he will cut off one of his fingers. Mind you, it is with his nimble, precious fingers that he frets and plucks his beloved instrument, the violin. He is willing to unhand himself, if you will, so that he can pursue his passion uninterruptedly. It’s akin to Van Gogh opting to amputate not an ear, but an entire wrist. Colm, not quite a Van Gogh, is prepared to mutilate himself for the sake of his art. 

I won’t tell you if Colm makes good on his threat and cuts off his fingers. I will, however, remind you of Chekhov’s timeless Law, which asserts that, if a gun is present among the scenery at the outset of a play, you can confidently expect its discharge before the conclusion. As for Colm’s shears, they are very prominently displayed on his kitchen table early in the film. And as for McDonagh, he is, like every dramatist, subject to Chekhov’s Law. Is that hint enough that they might be used? 

The shears, as you might’ve guessed, play as much a symbolic function as they do an operational one. They are severing not only fingers, but prior attachments. They are cutting through a friendship whose connective tissue—grown strong through the decades of an uneventful life—is now difficult to pierce, much less entirely lop off. 

We conclude, patient reader, with a few more symbols of which we’d be remiss not to take note: the mirror in Padraic’s house, at which, in a fit of rage, he throws a lamp. It’s at this point in the film that Padraic, the kind-hearted, guileless simpleton, becomes suddenly unrecognizable. Enraged by Colm’s mean behavior, and unable to recover the lost sympathy of his friend, Padraic resolves to take an action that’s totally out of character. In the fragments of the shattered mirror that dangles on his wall, a distorted image of Padraic, the new man, is returned.

Another symbol or technique, of which all good cinematographers and directors make subtle use, is the role of windows. Time and again, Padraic is seen looking into a building through a window. Sometimes the window is cloudy, sometimes it’s clear, but it always signifies an unbridgeable distance that Padraic yearns to cross. It always denotes separation. Padraic is, much more so as the film proceeds, a definite outsider. He stands at a marked distance from the community and his friend. He suffers the cold of the outdoors while others bask in the building’s warmth. He looks into a building as he looks into a man like Colm, of whom only a partial image is ever really visible or knowable. 

One last symbol, and that is color–of which McDonagh makes masterful use. He begins with green. Green, of course, is the color with which the Emerald Isles are synonymous. Just think of the breathtaking verdure by which their rolling hills and grassy groves are blanketed. It’s also the color associated with greed. The gossip-mongering shopkeeper, to whom Padraic divulges a secret or two, is seen painting her lintels green. Yellow, in this case, is symbolic of hope. Colm is seen wearing a yellow shirt beneath his vest. His bushy, graying eyebrows retain a shock of their youthful blond. The interior of his house (with its morbid decorations) is painted yellow. And the big jacket Siobhán wears upon embarking for the mainland (where she’ll finally realize her dream of becoming a professional librarian) is yellow. And red, in which Siobhán at the beginning, and Padraic toward the end of the film are clad, symbolizes resentment and anger. One need only observe their actions for confirmation of this.

A final word before we depart: The Banshees of Inisherin is, mercifully, uncontaminated by the ubiquitous and all-consuming blight of wokeness. In it, there is no genuflection to Hollywood’s tyranny of “D.I.E.”. There isn’t a rainbow of races, sexes, and genders on garish display. There is no being beat over the head with some nonsensical progressive message by which you’d really rather not be cudgeled. McDonagh appears, on this score, to be somewhat sane. He never forgets that his story takes place on a tiny Irish island in 1923. 

That’s important: he never does forget his story. 

Nor shall I. 

While unlikely to win the Oscar for Best Picture, The Banshees of Inisherin is a film you’ll not want to miss. I do hope that you enjoy it as much as I did.

Four stars out of five.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.