“Even reason can bring sorrow in its wake” The Banshees of Inisherin’s Luminous Tragedy

I know of a woman whose family banshee emitted blood-chilling shrieks from the lonely depths of the Irish countryside. She abruptly changed her travel plans, only to find out later there was a fatal pile up on the road she had intended to take.

Inisherin, Martin McDonagh’s fictional island, is traditional banshee territory. Yeats and Lady Gregory would have loved it.  The warnings in this tightly written film, though, mostly go unheeded.

Sheila Fitton’s old Mrs McCormick is the representative banshee. Wrapped in her hooded burlap cloak, her pale-faced appearances subtly suggest escalations of the grisly plot. You hardly notice her but she’s there all right. She’ll be smoking her clay pipe outside the general store, a mere meditative observer, or she’ll be trailing down the dusty road – watching. By the time she pops up in the dusk with her emphatic prophesy the film’s chief antagonists have put themselves beyond listening and listening seems to me the crux of this story.

Inisherin sits in dreamy isolation across the water from the west coast of Ireland. It is 1923 and on the mainland the Civil War is in full swing. The film can be viewed as a meditation on the stomach churning folly of that historic violence where neighbor murdered neighbor. Brendan Gleeson’s Colm, a fiddler, insists to his drinking buddy Colin Farrell’s Padraig, that they must stop meeting for their long established ritual pint at the pub. Colm needs silence to hear the music in his head, a tune he must write before he dies. Incredulous Padraig asks why he refuses to meet. ‘Because you’re boring,’ Colm replies, adding his draconian edict that Colm must never talk to him again at all.

Most writers and artists of a contemplative disposition can get that. The phone rings, the neighbour drops in, the needy relative demands an ear and the Trappist vocation becomes alluring. Music, prayer and poetry are born out of listening to the silence. But what use is the silence if you can’t hear the sound of someone’s breaking heart? Ridiculous a character though Padraig may be, I heard it and it made me cry.

Colm’s rather so-so jig finally emerges but not before Padraig has disobeyed the gagging order in awful, frantic increments and Colm has made good what initially seems a bizarre threat: to cut the fingers off of his fiddling hand if the prattle doesn’t stop. He has destroyed the very point of his longed for silence – a silence he is, I suspect, incapable of hearing. It is one of the film’s dreadful ironies. There’s too much noise in his own head, perhaps the noise of artistic conceit. His tune isn’t on the Mozart level he would like to think it, and it’s unlikely to survive him except down at the pub.

McDonagh’s brilliance as Inisherin’s writer/director and the stunning cast ensure that here is finally a film with enough meat in it to chew: His savage wit sheds a bleak light on something far more dark and painful.

Mrs McCormick knows, and the Church knows too, that whatever it is lies slightly beyond our ken and we fail to listen for it at our peril. Like banshees with their ancient wisdom, the faith is subtly signaled at every turn. An enormous statue of Our Lady cloaked in blue and white stands at a fork in the main road, the better route not chosen by either Padraig or Colm. The whole island turns out for Sunday Mass, the Latin rubric piously recited but the mystery of goodness it represents goes largely unheeded.  

Gary Lydon’s village policeman stands tall at Mass, a holy intermission in the ritual abuse of his own son.  Dominic, the film’s most touching character is played by Barry Keoghan who richly deserves his predicted Oscar. The boy’s brain is damaged, one suspects, by his father’s blows to the head and sexual abuse lurks as a ghastly subtext. There is pity and terror enough for Sophocles in Inisherin. McDonagh honors that but with the modern gloss of wry, dry absurdity.

The Church, in turn, provides a weary priest in David Pearse. He tries to talk sense into Padraig.  who cannot see sin in his cruel rejection of Colm nor in his self-mutilation. ‘How’s the despair?’ the priest asks in recognition of Padraig’s complex needs. And even though there is humor in the confessional exchanges, it’s a penetrating question neither answered nor addressed. The film opens with a rainbow on the water, the sunset illuminating roofs topped with crosses. The signs are all there but who sees them?

There is, however, someone who does listen: Kerry Condon’s Siobhan, the film’s raisonneur. And it needs one. As gormless Padraig’s sister, she has sense. When she isn’t mothering him and keeping their tiny house in order, she pores over books, an exotic pastime in Inisherin. ‘What are books?’ Colm asks her scornfully, comparing them to his music – ceilidh music which he thinks incomparable. ‘Why do you read sad books?’ her brother asks interrupting her perusal of Dostoyevsky. Siobhan actually thinks and acts upon her thought. As the feud between the two men heats up, she tries to make peace, but in vain.

She does seem to have read the Gospels because she is the only one who shows a modicum of self-sacrificial kindness. She invites Mrs McCormick in for tea, not qua banshee but as an elderly neighbour who might need a chat. Padraig shudders away from a mere smelly old person and Colm rudely rejects her succinct and timely intervention. As the brothers Grimm would have it, ignoring a crone usually has dire consequences; giving her an ear brings rewards. Whereas the two combatants finally destroy nearly everything of importance to them both, Siobhan manages to escape and not without banshee assistance.

There are so many levels of irony in this film that it is impossible to unravel them but one of the saddest is the suggestion – to me at any rate – that even reason can bring sorrow in its wake. Having given it her all to solve the insoluble imbroglio, Siobhan leaves Inisherin to be a librarian on the mainland. Before she goes, a mist-enshrouded Mrs McCormick summons her  across the water just as Siobhan encounters poor Dominic on the opposite shore. In a desperate sort of adolescent lust, which in the past she’s had to stop getting out of hand, he declares his love for her.  The poignance of this exchange on both sides is almost unbearable. She is very gentle, telling him it’s impossible. And it is. Of course it is. But there are tragic consequences.

Her heart is heavy as she goes. In a marvellous touch, the sail on the boat she takes is black. Her helpless brother waves frantically from the cliff. Alone in their little house now he lets his cow and pony wander freely in, his affinity with them stronger than with his more evolved sister. The final exchange between Padraig and Colm has, in fact, to do with animals. Colm has thrown his severed fingers at Padraig’s house where his pet miniature donkey eats one and chokes to death. Padraig has set Colm’s house on fire but has saved his dog. Meeting after this auto de fe, the only way they can communicate is through the donkey and the dog.

McDonagh has provided us with ancient Irish presence, the Church’s presence and the presence of sweet reason. None of them have worked in Inisherin but the deepest irony of all is he doesn’t suggest that they don’t. He suggests to me, rather, that they do because if we refuse or fail to listen to what they say or imply, then we lose what makes us human. Mother Nature claws us back.

Anne Redmon is the author of seven novels (Emily Stone; Music and Silence; Second Sight; The Genius of the Sea; The Judgement of Solomon; The Head of Dionysus; In Denial), an NUJ journalism course for prisoners and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She is married to theatre critic Benedict Nightingale and they live in London.

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