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Preoccupied by historical rhythms of rural resistance

THE British Film Institute (BFI) is currently organising a celebratory retrospective programme for Ken Loach, and this has prompted some admiring profiles of the film-maker.

The BFI's tribute to Loach's craftsmanship raises once again the question that dogged his self-pitying Irish film, The Wind that Shakes the Barley; what precisely is wrong with him?

Loach's admirers usually take refuge in the idea that those of us who resent his hectoring foray into our war of independence dislike him because his 'radical' message makes us uncomfortable.

Those Irish viewers who gagged at his romanticised rendition of the chaotic 1919-22 period resented the experience not because Loach's dissenting celluloid 'anti- imperialism' flayed right down to the bone, but because his whole approach shows obvious contempt for his Irish viewers.

Echoing many of George Galloway's ruminations on the dim and distant Irish past, Loach said explicitly that the violence of 1919-23 was largely indistinguishable from the violence in Iraq after 2004.

Loach was so enraptured by the rhythms of rural 'resistance' that he never really registered the corollary of his bizarre Iraq parallel -- if Lloyd George was a Twenties Bush-Blair clone, then did that not mean that Loach's IRA dynamos were the equivalents of the suicide sadists in Iraq whose 'anti-imperialism' brought them into perfect sequence with Al-Qaeda?

The sequence of Loach's film also assumed a fair degree of ignorance and credulity on the part of his viewers.

As seen in the radicalisation of Cillian Murphy's Ernie O'Malley character, Loach's IRA is presented as a response to the Black and Tans, as part of the 'resistance' dialectic that so preoccupies British leftists of Loach's generation.

The idea that the Flying Columns needed British stimulus to take to the hills would, no doubt, have come as a considerable shock to veterans like Dan Breen in Tipperary.

TG4's recent terrifying documentary on Breen made it clear that he was determined to start a dirty war against local Catholic policemen on his own timetable, well before Churchill sent the infamous Duchronaigh.

Rebroadcasting archived interviews with an elderly Breen, TG4 caught his malevolence and defiance rather well as he glared straight to camera and brushed aside any thoughts of remorse for shooting two policemen in January 1919, one of whom was a fluent Irish-speaking widower, shot down before he even knew he was in a death trap.

Even the local quarry workers in Soloheadbeg who watched these murders were appalled by the brutality of Breen, as were local patriots like the retired RIC man Thomas Fennell who was certain that these murders were premeditated.

Loach had no interest in exploring the vanguard element in rural IRA violence, or the way relatively small groups of brutalised men can intimidate entire communities into co-operating or at least acquiescing in their violence, a theme rendered chillingly in Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

A recent biography of Eoin O'Duffy, an IRA leader in Monaghan, showed that many IRA men were more sensitive to their relative isolation than Loach was, and that one volunteer estimated local IRA support at roughly 20 per cent between 1919 and 1921.

Lenin's vanguard theory of history should be front and centre for all leftist intellectuals, but it always rather crumbles when confronted with the delights of 'resistance' history.

There were many strong, tough Cork voices that Loach chose to ignore in his account, voices that help us see the aridity of his portraiture.

There was the Cork Fenian PS O'Hegarty, who wrote that the violence of the whole 1919-23 period was so squalid that it needed the pen of a HG Wells to render it properly. O'Hegarty attacked his own friends in the Cork city IRA for what he called their "fiendish and indefensible" tactics, and when he complained to Dail Eireann about the lack of meaningful civilian control over local IRA men, Arthur Griffith said, "our military men are as bad as the British. They think of nothing but their own particular end".

Loach's morality tale had no room for hardened patriots like O'Hegarty who came to see what Dr King saw in America, that the ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral.

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.

Loach had no room either for the wisdom of another tough veteran of the Cork IRA, Sean O Faolain, a patriot who was haunted in later life by the thought that "a tragic series of private lives and a dreadful squalor and brutality of common life lie behind the gilded page of the chronicler".

Cautioning against ascribing uncommon moral and political wisdom to young men with guns, O Faolain confessed to his readers that neither he nor his IRA comrades had any real "concept of the State we wished to found".

Such sad syllables echoed no further than these men's studies though, and the idea that many veterans of 1919-23 might have felt coarsened or brutalised by their own tactics cannot be entertained in Loach's analysis. For him, it seems, to be poor is always to be violent and radical.

By contrast, for Irish-speaking scholars like Niall O Ciosain and Cormac O Grada, to be poor in Ireland was simply to be afraid. And fear is as much a part of our common historical ruin as is the 'resistance' that looms so large in the minds of our condescending British neighbours.

Sunday Independent