NUI Galway, Ireland
by Tony Tracy. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
(Martin McDonagh, 2021)
In 1994 McDonagh quit his job at the Department of Trade and Industry and, alone in the house in Camberwell, began to write every day. In nine months, he produced drafts of seven plays—his entire dramatic corpus. (Only one of the plays has not been staged: “The Banshees of Inisheer,” which, McDonagh says, “isn’t any good.”)
When the dramas of Martin McDonagh burst onto Irish, British and American stages in the late 1990s, they became an immediate theatrical phenomenon that attracted both large, enthusiastic audiences and critical ambivalence. Combining elements of global audio-visual popular entertainment – the excessive verbosity and violence of classical/post-modern American cinema being the most often cited – with scenes and situations first forged within the smithy of Irish cultural nationalism (notably Synge), McDonagh immediately became a genre unto himself, a hyphenated playwright whose outlook was shaped and split between ‘Camberwell and Connemara.’ In Ireland this presented particular challenges as theatre critics and commentators were keen to celebrate the exuberance and success of one of our own, while also remaining wary of familiar charges of exploiting native types and stereotypes. Much ink was spilled on questions of authenticity and irony. To an extent this may have developed from anxieties around McDonagh’s outsider/insider status as London-Irish – a very different perspective to the American-Irish tradition of, say John Ford – but also because he didn’t seem to regard theatre very highly, from the outset he was aloof from the art form he was being celebrated for revitalising. Rather, he expressed a deep admiration for 1970s American cinema and certain directors – Sam Peckinpah, Terence Mallick, Sergio Leone, Martin Scorsese and Akira Kurosawa – male and masculine auteurs who revised the tropes and themes of classical Hollywood genre filmmaking, in particular the masculine codes and brutal violence of the post-classical Western.
It was unsurprising therefore that, having taken the transatlantic theatre world by storm in the late 1990s McDonagh soon made a (modest) foray into film making with Six Shooter (2004), a 26 min ‘short’ film co-financed by the Irish Film Board and Film Four Lab. While he later claimed he didn’t have a clue what he was doing as a newbie director, the film won the Academy Award for Best Short film along with a raft of other nominations and awards. Certainly, the film derives its essential power from qualities already familiar from McDonagh’s writing, a distinctive handling of character, language and tonal incongruities in a rural-set drama that is at once a grotesque and poignant treatment of [the fragility of?] male mental health.
Six Shooter takes place within the bare and slightly grubby surrounds of an Irish Rail carriage as it moves through the sparse and slightly murderous Irish midlands. On an obvious level this is still theatre by other means, a stage-set on wheels, the author merely moving his characters through settings that previously were held off-stage. Still, the same might be said of John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), a film set in similarly confined circumstances that became a defining Hollywood western of the sound era and made John Wayne a star. Indeed, as the title, setting and other narrative elements suggest, the Hollywood western is a key inspiration for Six Shooter, as it would also be for McDonagh’s first American film 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) – a gender-flipped tale of revenge in the American mid-west. And while his feature debut In Bruges (2008) offered a quintessentially old-world European setting and was frequently more Fellini than Ford, it also remained at heart a story of men and retributive (if regrettable) violence. That film marked the inspired pairing of Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, a kind of development of the odd-couple relationship between Brendan Gleeson and Rúaidhrí Conroy relationship in Six Shooter – a wiser/older man who must put up with a wayward/younger counterpart and similar intergenerational pairings found throughout McDonagh’s stage plays.
The Banshees of Inisherin – a title now repurposed for film – returns to many of these elements, overlaying the Irish and American Wests on stylistic and thematic levels as well, perhaps, as gesturing towards the Western classical tradition itself in its final moments as its leading men look out to sea. It might also be read in relation to two highly successful Irish films made by McDonagh’s older brother John – The Guard and Calvary – both of which also feature Brendan Gleeson as an ageing figure of male authority whose independence of mind sets him apart from the tight-knit west of Ireland locations where he lives. In the latter film he is similarly threatened by a younger male member of the community and achieves a kind of stoicism and wisdom under threat of immanent, violent death.
An audience does not need to be familiar with this chain of texts and intertexts, but they are perhaps useful in approaching a distinctly “McDonaghesque” universe in which such elements are reworked and, I would argue, given a new depth and finesse. Much of the more negative debates and commentary around the film – specifically its use of Irish types and settings – have been levelled at McDonagh’s previous work; none are new. While its elements may be recognisable, the film feels a more concentrated and controlled work than much of his previous works, its ambitions more achieved. McDonagh, as well as his leading players Gleeson and Farrell (now matured and more secure in their status), have walked this territory before and far from re-hashing familiar tropes, they bring depth to the tale and its telling.
Clearly more visual in ambition, it opens to stunning effect with broad, high angle perspectives on the stone walled landscape of ‘Inisherin’, a fictionalisation of Co. Galway’s western islands immortalised in the plays of Synge and Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1934) (itself a central element in The Cripple of Inishmaan ). The setting seems Technicolor pastoral and peaceful, but a second viewing re-reads the neat subdivisions as the carving up what would have been otherwise open fields and suggest the film’s central themes of intra-neighbour conflict and its legacies; a theme less subtly expressed through the growling presence of the civil war across on the Irish mainland.
A second shot brings us to ground level as Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) moves through the lush island landscape against a backdrop of turf and donkeys, a busy harbour and a rainbow, under the watchful eye of a statue of the Virgin Mary as he greets locals and makes his progress. A half-smile expresses a simplicity of character and a setting of permanence and predictability: he is at home. The scene has an exaggerated, heightened quality, a folkloric rather than simply romantic flavour. The visuals are a knowing amalgamation of Irish tourist and Hollywood imagery that recall films like Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), Finian’s Rainbow (1968) or Far and Away (1992), the music a traditional Bulgarian folk tune sung by a female choir. Finally, Pádraic reaches his destination – a thatched white cottage belonging to his friend Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) – where he knocks but receives no answer. Peering through a window he sees his friend sitting inside, indifferent. The confusion provoked by the literal and symbolic closed door sets the narrative in motion.
The opening sequence is incredibly economical, introducing the setting, central characters and theme of rejection while establishing its particular, uneasy tone. And it is the finely modulated tone – between pathos and pathology – that makes the film the resounding success it is.
In an influential re-reading of The Quiet Man, critic Luke Gibbons sees John Ford’s classic 1953 film as more ironic and self-aware than it had been given long been given credit for, particularly in Ireland, where it had long been dismissed as the clichéd stereotype of a misty-eyed immigrant. Drawing attention to its opening scene where the train journey ends and Wayne steps through a ‘looking glass’ into some parallel reality Gibbons notes elements such as voice over, visual framing, referencing of earlier texts and the redemptive use of violence to argue for a knowingness that asked, out loud, ‘Is that for real?’ Clearly the answer is ‘no’ and the film, notwithstanding its origins as an Irish short story becomes more than the tale of a returned immigrant with the civil war politics around its fringes
Banshees is a clearly a cinematic descendent of The Quiet Man and Ford’s cinema of the West more generally in its small-town setting with, for example, an emphasis on the male space and tensions of the saloon, its rich cast of local oddballs and characters, the visual elements of landscape, and the framing of scenes through windows and doors. It also understands the value of an opening but rather than ‘arriving’ we are dropped straight into a world that overlays naturalism with expressionist tendencies: the colours are hyper-saturated, camera angles and perspectives subtly exaggerated, the music slightly excessive. British photographer John Hinde’s 1950s postcard images of Ireland are a clear reference and McDonagh draws not only on their overall aesthetic but their widely recognised subjects to an almost uncanny degree; the cottages, seascape, the shawled old woman, even Pádraic’s miniature donkey all have their precedents. [figs 2 & 3]. While Hinde’s images – like Ford’s contemporaneous film – were decried by politicians and commentators for their ‘backward’ stereotypes and tourist gaze as post-war Ireland sought to become modern, here their excess distances us from any simplistic social reading. Gone also is the ‘new nostalgia’ for a lost Ireland when these images were recuperated in the 1990s and exhibited at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (‘Hindesight’). Instead they are mobilised as one might the elements of a fable or folktale; exaggerated but familiar signifiers of a pre-modern community. That is not to say that there are not distinctly Irish social and historical elements within the story – there clearly are in its mention of national independence and civil war – but that McDonagh’s text deploys these signifiers of Irishness to frame his central, personal theme; what happens when a person unilaterally rejects the love of another? As with the battle raging across the bay, individual independence comes at a heavy price.
A crucial element of the film’s tone and meaning is the dissociation between the visual imagery and its soundtrack. We note this in the use of Bulgarian choral music in the opening sequence and throughout the film Carter Burwell’s enigmatic score avoids the expected traditional Irish jigs and airs, alienating – to borrow Brecht’s sense of the term – our response to the setting and storyworld. Burwell – long-time collaborator of the Coen Brothers and composer for McDonagh’s two previous feature films – has said the director made it clear that he absolutely hated «diddly-di Olde Worlde Oirish film music» and wanted none of it in the film outside of one or two diegetic instances. Seeking to find a suitable idiom for the soundtrack the composer was inspired when reading a Grimms Brothers’ version of «Cinderella» with his young daughter: “In this version the stepmother has her daughters cut off parts of their feet in order to fit into the slipper. I began to look at Martin’s story … as a fairy tale, and that perspective informed a lot of the writing and instrumentation: celesta, harp, flute, marimba and gamelan. Sparkly, dreamy music that matched the beauty of the island but also distanced one from the brutality of the physical action.”
The film’s blending of tones – pastoral, irony, pastiche and pathos – within the culturally sacred landscape of Ireland’s western islands has confused and divided some viewers, particularly McDonagh’s controversial track record in regard to such settings. While some see it as perpetuating the long-running romanticisation of Emerald Ireland by international cinema, others have (unfavourably) compared it with popular Irish-made TV sitcoms from the 1990s/early 2000s such as D’Unbelievables, Killinascully or Father Ted. Certainly, the highly effective reunion of D’Unbelievables comedy duo Jon Kenny and Pat Shortt [creator of Killinacully and a regular presence in Father Ted] at the village bar prompts such comparisons and suggests that McDonagh draws liberally on this popular, if often unsophisticated genre of indigenous TV comedy. (He has elsewhere suggested the unlikely influence of Australian soap opera on his earliest plays). Banshees certainly shares familiar elements with such productions including stereotypical rural Irish settings, a tight-knit community of eccentric characters and internecine relationships, and even a central animating male friendship a la Father Ted/Dougal. But while these sitcoms played such tropes for (canned) laughter, McDonagh directs them towards darker themes. The ominous presence of Mrs McCormack (Sheila Flitton), a Cailleach/Banshee figure who shadows Colm, and suggestion of the sexual and physical abuse suffered by Dominic and his later suicide lay a veil of death over the otherwise glorious and verdant setting. At the heart of this darkness are the sensitive men at the centre of the story – Pádriac, Colm and Dominic – each longing for meaning and recognition in different ways and each pushed to sublimate these longings into acts of harm against self and others.
The Banshees of Inisherin returns McDonagh to the territory of Synge and The Playboy of the Western World (1907) of his stage plays in its portrait of islandmen seeking self-actualisation and the violence this gives rise to, while also inverting its trajectory. For the younger men Dominic Kearney (Barry Keoghan) and Pádraic (Farrell) this is pursued through the desire for intimacy – both platonic and romantic – with catastrophic consequences. Colm – an inversion of Old Mahon’s paternal type – seeks something larger, to move beyond the claustrophobia of his small circle and find creative expression. An ageing musician, he has recently experienced an epiphany that his time is finite and he wants to use it to more purposeful ends. In a sense this is a familiar theme; the older artist seeking immortality, a rage against the dying of the light through art and creativity. What makes it wholly unique is that Colm is willing to deny himself the very means by which to pursue that dream in order to be granted the right to. He is willing to suffer mutilation to make music.
The daily visit to the pub gives Pádraic’s life both structure and meaning. But for Colm however, Pádraic is and always has been ‘dull’ and he had simply not said so before. In setting up this shift, McDonagh captures the comforting shelter as well as the repetitive routine of male barroom friendship that glosses over the incongruity of associations forged in the haze of alcohol. While the bar is a frequent and important setting for male interaction and conflict in many Irish plays and films, McDonagh uses it especially well here as a site of ritual and the chaos arising from its rupture.
Colm’s abrupt change in perspective is unfathomable to the loyal and local focus of Pádraic’s life and character. ‘I don’t like you no more’ is as confusing and shattering a sentence as anyone emotionally invested in another can imagine. It is telling that the only character who truly and dispassionately grasps this is Pádraic’s sister Siobhán, played with a combination of sympathy and simple pragmatism by Kerry Condon. Siobhán’s intelligence and ambition are greater than anyone on the island yet she is powerless to shake her brother from the heartbreak-turned vengeance resulting from Colm’s rejection.
Unable to deflect Pádraic ongoing intrusions Colm makes good on his threat and cuts off a finger. Then another, until all four. These acts of self-mutilation represent a paradoxical effort by Colm to control his world narrative through word, will and action, even if the grotesque result is him gleefully conducting his composition for fiddle – ‘the Banshees of Inisherin’ – with one mutilated hand while swinging his now unplayable fiddle with his other.
While a short story might end with this surreal image, McDonagh now drives the narrative to a darker conclusion in its final act. Pádraic discovers his miniature donkey Jenny dead having eaten the mutilated fingers. The donkey as a figure of innocence and mistreatment is a familiar trope of both film and literature – Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), Eo (2022) being two notable examples – but she also functions to externalise Pádraic’s essential goodness and simplicity, or what Colm disparagingly refers to as his ‘niceness.’ Her death by choking on one of Colm’s mutilated fingers thus marks the death of his innocence and his entry into the realm of violence summoned up by Colm. McDonagh’s characterisation – and especially Farrell’s skilful performance – position Pádraic as embarking on a path he barely understands but sees little choice in pursing, like the young men now fighting brothers and neighbours in the Irish civil war. Pádraic then delivers an unprecedented and wholly uncharacteristic threat of violence – to burn down his friend’s cottage – even as his promise of protection towards Colm’s dog indicates a residual unshakable ‘niceness.’
The film’s final scene – used as the image for the film’s poster (fig 1) – sees the two men encounter one another the morning after the cottage burning. As the once easy friends look out to sea and contemplate the meaning and future of a relationship now ruptured, the scene takes on a Homeric quality. Colm proposes they are quits but Pádraic insists it is only beginning, though Farrell’s uncertain facial expressions tinges this assertion/determination? with confusion and a desire for reconciliation. The camera returns to the hilltop of the opening scene where Pádraic first came to visit Colm but now we see Mrs McCormack observing it, ominously placed between the two men. Such is the nature of violence, once introduced who can say when it is finished, when is victory achieved?
Fintan O’Toole’s 2006 interview with McDonagh includes the recollection of one of his earliest writing efforts:
When he was sixteen, he told John a story based on an old folktale: A lonely little boy is on a bridge at dusk when a sinister man approaches. The man is driving a cart on the back of which are foul-smelling animal cages. The boy conquers his fear, offers the man some of his supper, and the two sit and talk. Before the man leaves, he says that he wants to give the boy something whose value he may not understand but will soon come to appreciate. The boy accepts. The man takes a meat cleaver from his pocket and chops off the toes of the boy’s right foot. As the man drives away, he tosses the boy’s toes to the rats that have suddenly begun to gather in the gutters of the town, whose name, we now learn, is Hamelin. The boy is the only one of Hamelin’s children to survive, because he cannot keep up with the other kids, who follow the Piper out of town.
The Banshees of Inisherin clearly reworks this early modification of a folktale in which an older male (also a musician) tells a younger man that the mutilation – the symbolic castration – is for a greater good. But now, the mature artist turns the violence on himself but loses control and unleashes unintended consequences. In his desire to live and create on his own terms, the musician has brought pain, harm and potentially even his own death. Yet perhaps it is worth it. This, after all, is what he truly aspires to …
- Do you know who we remember for how nice they was in the 17th Century?
- Absolutely no-one. Yet we all remember the music of the time. Everyone, to a man, knows Mozart’s name.
 Fintan O’Toole, ‘A Mind in Connemara: The savage world of Martin McDonagh.’ February 26, 2006. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/03/06/a-mind-in-connemara
 Film4’s experimental low-budget arm, the Lab was founded in 1998. It initially drew inspiration from developments in digital technology and the ethos of the Dogme movement.
 Polegnala E Todora (Love Chant) sung by the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir.
 Circa Art Magazine, Issue 65: Autumn 1993
Fintan O’Toole (2006). ‘A Mind in Connemara: The savage world of Martin McDonagh.’ February 26. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/03/06/a-mind-in-connemara
Circa Art Magazine, Issue 65: Autumn 1993.