Trick of the Light: On Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin”

By Frank FalisiMarch 10, 2023

Trick of the Light: On Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin”
IT IS APRIL 1974 and four figures—three in black balaclavas, one in a jet-black wig—stand outside Russborough House, a stately home in County Wicklow, Republic of Ireland. One of them knocks. When two servants answer and ask who’s there, the wigged figure speaks softly in French. She demurs about car trouble. Before either servant can react, the figures force their way through the now-open door and demand to see the owners of the house. Sir Alfred and Lady Clementine Beit, the lord and lady of Russborough House, are summoned. They are pistol-whipped, threatened, and restrained while the intruders gather up their haul: a stack of 19 paintings from the house’s vaunted art collection, among them a Goya, a Gainsborough, and a Vermeer. Just two weeks prior, another Vermeer, his late-period masterwork The Guitar Player, had been lifted from another stately home, Kenwood House, in London. Police come to suspect the same players in both heists.

The ransom for the artwork is not money but a demand: Dolours and Marian Price, two Provisional Irish Republican Army members convicted in the 1973 Old Bailey car bombings, are to be transferred from London’s Brixton Prison to a Northern Irish prison. As if to prove the severity of the demand, the ransom notice sent to The Times of London is accompanied by a jagged scrap of canvas hewn from The Guitar Player.

Not entirely unlike a Vermeer, The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)—the fourth feature film from writer-director Martin McDonagh—begins with a trick of the light. We see a shock of white, as if surveying a grand blank canvas, only to descend below the cloud line and realize we’re falling through wisps of clouds above a great green island. We cut to another idyllic shot, the foreground in shadow, the farther landscape sun-drenched. Houses come into view at the bottom of the frame, rustic and stone-hewn. At the horizon line is a jagged limb of land that extends out beyond our field of vision. We have landed, presumably, in Inisherin. It looks nice.

A rainbow slides over a harbor as Pádraic Súilleabháin, presumably our hero, walks into frame. He is good-looking and clean. Do we think he is a nice man? We do: he looks like Colin Farrell. He raises his million-dollar eyebrows. He waves to someone. He’s wearing dark woolens with just a splash of pink. It is, based on these clothes, somewhere in the past, maybe in the never; “idyllic” practically doesn’t cut it. The world appears halcyon in this instant, soundtracked by an Irish choir and every inch the image of an Irish Country fantasy.

Perhaps our first indication that history and memory are being played fast and loose is that the Irish choir, labeled as “soft folk music” by the closed captioning, is not Irish at all. “Polegnala e Todora” is a traditional Bulgarian love song arranged by Filip Kutev, one of the co-founders of the State Ensemble for Folk Song and Dance. This ensemble, which became Bulgaria’s first professional, state-backed musical organization, soundtracks these opening scenes.

It’s no great sin, this needle drop. There are no rules governing which music is and isn’t fair game, and the song’s construction—a bright quartet that fades in and out against a full choir, at once hearty and melodious and tellingly discordant—is a great assist for the fabular mood McDonagh seeks to establish. Its inclusion, however, reveals a strategic disjunction, a subtle feint. What does the cultural object look like, absent of historical context? What is the role of nationalism in cultural production? And what responsibility, if any, does the artist have to the world around them?

Like many questions around art-making and making it in the world—especially in a place like Ireland, like Northern Ireland—these answers depend on many shifting truths. The incarcerated Price sisters, Dolours and Marian, conveyed to their father Albert (himself a Republican veteran of Northern Ireland’s armed anti-colonial struggle) that they hoped the Vermeer would be returned unscathed. “They are art students and they appreciate the value of this to the people of London,” Albert Price said. The painting was eventually returned, with one of the chief art thieves revealed to be Rose Dugdale, a British woman who renounced her one-time familial wealth to join the fight for Irish liberation.

The Price sisters were part of an 11-member active service unit of the Provisional IRA that carried out a 1973 car bombing in London. One British civilian died of a heart attack that was attributed to the bombings. Between 180 and 220 civilians were estimated to have been injured. It was the first major attack on English soil during the period that came to be known as the Troubles, a turbulence colloquially understood to span the late 1960s through to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

The framing matters, as does the language: organizer and historian David Swanson has proposed calling this period “the Second Irish Civil War” instead of “the Troubles,” a term that feels inept (if not outright patronizing) towards the Irish effort to dismantle the British colonial apparatus in their own land. To make art about Ireland—to make art in Ireland—is to grapple with a second civil war (1969–98) not 40 years removed from the first (1922–23), itself an outgrowth of the Irish War of Independence (1919–21.) All of this violence is neither glorious nor incidental but rather the only action left for people living under imperialism.

Dolours and Marian Price eventually embarked on a hunger strike to accomplish the same end the art thieves were attempting—that is, transfer to Northern Ireland instead of continued incarceration in the heart of Britain’s colonial entity. Their hunger strike would profoundly impact their relationships with their own health and beliefs, a history sketched in Patrick Radden Keefe’s 2018 Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. That the sisters requested the art be returned is possibly a crack in their commitment, an admission that some cultural objects exist outside of radical struggle. Or perhaps it was a frank calculation: surely, the British government, willing to let the sisters annihilate their bodies for their cause, wouldn’t budge at the mutilation of some old art.

The instinct to tell stories about Ireland as stories about fracture is understandable, if not unavoidable. The Banshees of Inisherin, McDonagh might suggest, is not at all concerned with the Price sisters or Rose Dugdale or British imperialism. “It’s a breakup movie,” Keefe suggests in a recent interview with the writer-director. “That’s all it is for me,” McDonagh responds. “That’s definitely the starting point of it, to be as truthful to the sadness, I suppose, of a horrible breakup where you can understand both sides in it.”

Like some breakups, it’s not immediately apparent to both parties that it needs to happen. Dull-faced Pádraic (the great Farrell, trapped acting from behind “dull face”) stops by his friend’s beachside house en route to the pub, just as he does every day. Serious-faced Colm Doherty (the great Brendan Gleeson, trapped acting from behind “serious face”) is the friend in question. Pádraic calls to his friend from the other side of his front window—the first of the film’s fixation on such windowed shots. Colm is unresponsive. The pair finally exchange words five minutes later, when Pádraic finds his friend drinking at the pub without him.

Pádraic interrogates Colm, wondering if he somehow hurt his friend’s feelings, if he maybe said something when he was drunk, apologizing for any and all possible unremembered sins. “[Y]ou didn’t say anything to me. And you didn’t do anything to me,” Colm says. “That’s what I was thinking,” Pádraic says. “I just don’t like you no more,” Colm says. This simple conflict that will come to inform their entire story lands on Pádraic’s expression like a piano. This is the story of two men who ended their day as friends and woke up the next morning as strangers, or worse. This is the knot in the Irish idyll, McDonagh suggests. It is a land defined by these dark realizations and an almost fanatical, infinite capacity for men to inflict violence and melancholy on themselves and each other.

There is an honesty in this breakup story. From our timeline’s horrified fascination with deeply wayward advice regarding #friendbreakup to the seemingly constant stream of more rigorous (though no less misanthropic) pieces on “pruning friends,” friendship remains at the forefront of our social crisis. Specifically, how we might maintain our nonproductive intimacies in the face of decreased free time and living situations that privilege nuclear family structures. And if it doesn’t represent a political line unto itself, friendship is the connective tissue of revolutionary politics and palpable joy. It is the way we might struggle and the thing we struggle for.

And so a film about two former friends negotiating their own separation might have been vital in 2022. It might even have been elegant when placed into context with Ireland in 1923, a republic on the verge of another molt in its necessary motion away from and through the violence of British colonialism. In 1923, the Irish Civil War was in its final months, a war that sparked as a result of the signing of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. That treaty established—as of December 6, 1922—a self-governing body called the Irish Free State, which would remain, in word and deed, a dominion of the British monarchy.

The Irish Civil War, the one Pádraic catches sight of from across the channel, saw the splintering of the IRA—a paramilitary outfit dating back to the 1913 formation of the Irish Volunteers, who staged the Easter Rising in 1916—into pro- and anti-treaty factions. Pro-treaty forces advocated a pragmatism emblematized by Michael Collins, who claimed that the treaty provided “not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire and develop to, but the freedom to achieve it.” Anti-treaty forces argued against the fiction of such a compromise: Ireland would still remain part of the British Empire, vulnerable to resource extraction and the boot of constabulary rule. On the one hand, a continuation of the status quo, imperfect but not without its small joys; on the other, denying the depression of realism for a cause bigger than any one person.

The crucial flaw of The Banshees of Inisherin isn’t that it suggests a figurative representation of 1923’s historical fracture as a split between best friends. Rather, it’s that the film insists on imposing the terms of that historical context onto characters who themselves stand only for McDonagh’s own aesthetic observations. In the process, both history (of Ireland) and art (of film) become victim to the dullest literalism: a broken friendship has to stand in for the whole of Irish revolutionary struggle and the friends have to stand in for warmed-over concepts of niceness and depression, art and aspiration.

Eventually, the screenplay gives more context for the schism: Pádraic—gentle but dull—is no longer interesting to the mercurial Colm, who wants to use his remaining earthly time to write songs that might be worth remembering. Colm elides his creeping depression, something he obliquely admits in confession, and something McDonagh’s screenplay seems to suggest motivates his quiet mania for legacy-making. We meet the story’s other main players: Pádraic’s book-reading sister Siobhán (a game Kerry Condon stuck playing a character whose personality is “smart”) and the village outcast, Dominic (an equally game Barry Keoghan stuck in McDonagh’s long line of characters whose personality is “dull”). The veteran Irish stage and screen actor Sheila Flitton plays Mrs. McCormick, a ghoulish woman who presides from the story’s edges with fabular dread. She is, presumably, the banshee of the title.

The Banshees of Inisherin has been rightly criticized for its creator’s flimsy relationship with its setting and people, nowhere more righteously than in Mark O’Connell’s recent essay. Accusations of blarney have pursued McDonagh through his career—the Londoner (born to Irish parents who moved abroad in search of work) built his playwriting bona fides on the backs of two loose trilogies of plays set in Leenane and the Aran Islands, all coastal Irish locales. The plays establish McDonagh’s penchant for pinching; everything from dialect to physicality is fair game in the creator’s pursuit of his own particular truth.

The reckless extraction might seem less egregious if the truths to be offered were perhaps more insightful, if they cared more about having a world to resound in. The violence (of action and languaging) in the works of David Mamet and Quentin Tarantino pervades McDonagh’s authorial voice, though he possesses neither the former’s dispassionate engagement with the truth nor the latter’s passionate disengagement with it. Surely, violence saturates McDonagh’s work, though it’s hard to assign it anything more than the shallowest kind of figurative meaning (if it contains any at all): after attempting his clean break, Colm repeatedly threatens to sever one of his fingers for every time Pádraic talks to him.

Is the filmic image of Colm’s palm ending only in stubs meant to conjure the hands of IRA Volunteers, who often suffered gruesome dismemberments in the homemaking of explosives? No, it’s just proof of how insistence on a belief might mislead an artist. It is not engagement with despair but the expression of it. The same goes for the tragic ends of both Jenny the donkey and Dominic, the first a result of Colm’s depressive phalange-shedding, the latter proof that the only end that awaits the “dull” is despair, followed by suicide. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” McDonagh intones, mistaking Thoreau’s warning for gospel.

Beyond its composting of revolutionary history into rank metaphor, The Banshees of Inisherin does itself a disservice by insisting that the puerility of In Bruges—the last McDonagh film to star Farrell and Gleeson as a pair under fracture—be subsumed under seriousness and the mood à la mode: despair. It’s a shame because the film has potential: not unlike the story of the stolen Vermeers, The Banshees of Inisherin is narratively concerned with the leveraging of artistic merit against personal liberty, and the fallout of that negotiation. McDonagh has devised a compelling device whereby the result—Pádraic and Colm are no longer friends—is arrived at before the cause. Both men must piece together a meaning for the result from all the absences and abscesses in their small life on Inisherin. Pádraic begins to question the virtues of niceness, a tenet he used to think admirable, and experiments with being mean. Colm pours himself into writing a fiddle tune—called “The Banshees of Inisherin”—and threatens Pádraic’s attempts at engagement by holding his own fingers hostage. He’ll end the movie fingerless on his fiddle hand, unable to make the art he could barely halfheartedly swear was something divine. At this point, he is subsumed in full-blown despair, tempered with no small amount of relief.

There is something aching about the two men ending their story in silent acquiescence, something compelling in the way Siobhán sees them right away, exhaustively calling Colm “one more silent man on Inisherin.” Siobhán escapes the story, getting a job at a library on the mainland, and it’s not unreasonable to squint—as Pádraic does from the cliffside, watching his sister get smaller and smaller—at a version of this story more focused on the carceral impact of a certain kind of masculinity, an improvisation on something John Ford explored in his own atomization of small-village Irishness, The Quiet Man (1952).

It is also possible to imagine a version of The Banshees of Inisherin sincerely invested in talking about mental health in communities and epochs historically bereft of such discourse. An understated facet of John Ford’s other variation on Irish silence, The Informer (1935), as well as Keefe’s Say Nothing, is the way keeping silent caused an epidemic of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorders in every body touched by British colonialism.

We are better served reading the object in front of us than the one that might be. It’s not a matter of what The Banshees of Inisherin isn’t and could be but rather what it is and, therefore, isn’t. It’s not an examination of the specific contours of male friendships and breakups, or a portrait of bodies nudging each other towards illness, but a crass attempt to wrench cheap aesthetic points from the story of freedom fighters. Maybe we should just take McDonagh at his word: it’s a film about a breakup. “I’ve also always been anti-nationalist and antipatriotic and all those things, so the whole Irish-English thing I find a bit boring,” he says to Keefe in their interview. “That makes one of us,” the journalist confesses.

That truth-taking forces us to confront the central debilitating tradition in McDonagh’s work, which is that all social and political realities exist for the author to mine in search of truth. This dictum runs beyond the merely reductive or even the baldly exploitative, asserting that art itself is an ennobling force. Rather than excuse McDonagh’s bad politics merely by saying he’s a man with bad politics (true as that may be), I would argue that an aesthetic principle that insists on aesthetic principles as not just plausible but ideal tools for engaging with a world ravaged by imperialism itself creates bad politics. It’s the method by which violence is simultaneously fetishized and elided. It’s a worldview that posits moments of political crisis as narratively—or worse, naturally—occurring.

McDonagh metaphorizes history: the struggle to create a genuinely free Irish State becomes “a breakup” (The Banshees of Inisherin); police violence against Black people in the United States becomes “reconciliation” (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri); traditions of paramilitary activity become “madness” (The Lieutenant of Inishmore). And metaphor—absent a desire to disrupt the power structures of language—becomes merely a different way to say the same thing.

It’s the same motivating principle behind McDonagh’s penchant for using neurodiverse (my word) conditions to motivate “dull” (his word) characters in his stories. Dominic is doomed to suffer, first at the hands of his molesting father, and, eventually, drowned in the channel under unexplained circumstances. Whether he’s dead by his own hand or the author’s, he’s still dead by despair. Pádraic, too, is a role that demands an actor—and, crucially, an audience—“play dumb” to land a cheap aesthetic point. Colm’s depression serves a similar purpose, as do Michal’s abuse and subsequent “slowness” in The Pillowman and Red Welby’s (to say nothing of Jason Dixon’s) in Three Billboards. And Mad Padraic, the titular officer of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, is a kind of adenoidal fervor incarnate, as if the only way revolutionary violence might be understood is in absurd, self-destructive terms.

These figures become sites of ever more figurative language, unable to be anything but symbolic containers for audiences to glean meaning from. The violence suffered today by neurodiverse people is often a direct result of capitalist imperialism. Such violence can’t be understood as apolitical—it’s only fitting that an art convinced of its own importance (or, conversely, unable to be convinced of any importance at all) misunderstands that fact.

McDonagh has given himself a cipher of an out. “If there is politics in them,” his character Katurian, a writer, says of his stories in The Pillowman, “it’s incidental. It’s accidental.” The Pillowman—albeit a play that uses a dystopian police state as a setting without thinking about how dystopian police states might come to be formed—is a good play. It deserves generosity in our reading. Katurian, who’s facing interrogation over a series of gruesome child killings that eerily match the situations depicted in his short stories, is not a stand-in for the author. Nor is he vindicated in his assertion that art should exist in the world without context or circumstance.

But personal liberty is not political liberation, and an inability to conceive of the latter is often the result of an overabundance of the former. The Banshees of Inisherin—perfectly, inadvertently—tips its hand at its end. Standing together but apart, Pádraic and Colm stare out to the sea. It’s an echo of an earlier shot, where Pádraic stared across the channel. “Good luck to ye, whatever it is you’re fighting about,” he said in response to the far-off rifle fire. Here, that salutation is rendered in a (literally) figurative context as he and Colm are left to their own destructive theories of self, self-annihilating forever. Finally, history is held hostage, ripping off in bits and shreds but without the whole picture. It’s merely despair masquerading as profundity, an artist in search of a world to believe in, let alone a worldview.


Frank Falisi is a New Jersey writer working around moving image culture and popular music. He previously wrote for Tiny Mix Tapes and is currently a staff writer at Bright Wall/Dark Room and an ensemble member at Shakespeare 70.

LARB Contributor

Frank Falisi is a New Jersey writer working around moving image culture and popular music. He previously wrote for Tiny Mix Tapes and is currently a staff writer at Bright Wall/Dark Room and an ensemble member at Shakespeare 70.


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