Sunday, January 22, 2023

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022): A Parable of Irrationalism

Theatrical release poster

A movie review. There will be spoilers..

Pádraic Súilleabháin and Colm Doherty (the fiddle player) are old friends whose meetings are as regular as a clock - literally. They meet at 2 pm in the local pub for drinks every day as the bell tolls twice.

However, Colm is getting fed up and feels time is passing. He believes that he needs to start composing to leave something to posterity and decides to end his relationship with Pádraic. Being nice and good friends will all soon be completely forgotten about. He desires to get down to composing with his newly freed-up time instead of listening to Pádraic's 'dull' conversation every day.

Pádraic does not take the news well and is bewildered. Even Pádraic's sister Siobhán Súilleabháin is astonished. She confronts Colm who states baldly, 'He's dull, Siobhán', who replies,'but he's always been dull'.

Colm's decision triggers an alarming set of events that lead to Colm self-mutilating and a series of tit-for-tat actions between himself and Pádraic.

These odd events appear to fit in with the general oddness that abounds on the island as everyone they come into contact with seems to have their own anger issues.

However, the strange thing is that Colm and Pádraic are actually the only two people on the island who are behaving calmly and rationally. They are always civil to each other (except once when Pádraic was drunk). There is no fisticuffs or use of weapons. In general they are the calmest two people on the island. They have polite discussions about their views of each other until the very end of the film. You could even say that everyone else around them is going mad while they are swimming in a sea of tranquility in the centre of the narrative.

Maybe that's the whole idea. To take two people who are descending into madness and depict this decline from their point of view. How do all the people around Colm and Pádraic appear to them as their madness reaches new depths? While Colm and Pádraic see themselves as wanting what the other cannot give, and negotiating and discussing their problems in a calm way, the island inhabitants show more and more surreal forms of behaviour. It's the island that's going crazy, not them. We see the island folk the way Colm and Pádraic see them. Colm and Pádraic are the only sane people as everyone else becomes stranger and stranger.

Check out the actions of the dramatis personae:

Garda Peadar Kearney 'never says hello' or is extremely violent and punches Pádraic in the face. He looks forward to going to the Civil War executions with glee (for '6 bob and a free lunch') but can't figure out if 'Free Staters are shooting the IRA or the other way around'. He laughs when he hears Pádraic's donkey has died.

Jonjo (the barman) and Gerry (a customer) form a comedy double act repeating each other's sentences (not surprising considering they used to be a very popular comedy duo in real life called the D'Unbelievables) and never seem to be disturbed by the horrific goings-on.

The shopkeeper Mrs. O'Riordan is absolutely obsessed with gossip and reading people's letters while listing off all the people who had no news. Garda Peadar Kearney arrives in with horror stories of murders and Mrs. O'Riordan says to Pádraic 'That’s a lot of news. This man has no news. Don’t you not, No-Newsy?'.

During confession with Colm the priest orders him out of the confessional screaming, 'you will be pure fucked' repeating Colm's words back to him.

Dominic, the guard's son, is obsessed with the much older women around him, and Colm's fiddle students in the bar only seem slightly worried at Colm's horrific bloody stumps despite the illogic of a man with no fingers on one hand teaching them the fiddle.

In fact, only Siobhán, Pádraic's sister, and the old woman Mrs. McCormick seem to be aware of what is really going on.

When Siobhán confronts Pádraic about talking to Colm she warns him to leave Colm alone:
Do you think?
Do I think?! Yes, I do think! He’s cut his
fecking finger off and thrown it at ya!
Come on, it wasn’t at me.

Siobhan escapes the madness and leaves the island before things get worse. She later invites Pádraic to the mainland but he has no interest and now has his cow and donkey living in the house with him.

Mrs. McCormick is an almost ghostly presence on the island and forecasts that two people will die on Inisherin 'afore the month is out'. She is soon proved partly right when Dominic is found drowned.

Meanwhile Colm finishes composing his piece of music and tells Pádraic he is thinking of calling it The Banshees of Inisherin. He believes that there may be banshees but states: 'I just don't think they scream to portend death anymore, I think they just sit back amused and observe.'

Pádraic's donkey chokes to death on one of Colm's fingers and as revenge he tells Colm the day and the time he is going to burn down his house. Again Colm reacts calmly and the guard is not called.

The next day Pádraic burns down Colm's house and meets him on the beach in front of the burnt-out remains. The old woman, Mrs. McCormick, arrives at the house and sits in a chair outside watching Colm and Pádraic talk, from a distance. Colm's calm response is that he was thankful that the dog had been saved (by Pádraic), and that he thought it was fair revenge for the death of the donkey.

Even their last conversation is cordial, almost matter-of-fact, as Colm thanks Pádraic for minding his dog and Pádraic replies 'anytime' from a distance.

The film ends with Colm staring out to sea, lilting, while Mrs. McCormick watches on from the house.

Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Martin McDonagh at the 
premiere of the film at the 66th BFI London Film Festival

Martin McDonagh's rhetorical device of getting into the minds of two people who are going mad but are not aware of it is fascinating in that we see the other islanders also from Colm and Pádraic's perspective. The islanders' crazy behaviour serves to divert our attention away from the horrors committed by Colm and Pádraic who always appear calm and rational no matter how gruesome things get, thus making Colm and Pádraic appear to be normal. It is a valuable lesson.

In real life, we are often presented with irrational proposals or events that are presented in a rational, calm, logical way by rational, calm protagonists; and where objectors are presented in caricatured ways as hippies, do-gooders, conspiracy theorists, liberals, commies etc., and we are persuaded that all is fine. Then, and it is often years later, after cover-ups have been exposed, documents brought in the public domain, or unwilling participants reveal the awkward truth, that we finally understand who were the rational actors and who was actually crazy. This game plan is played over and over again until we cannot distinguish between the rational and the irrational, which of course, is the most subtle part of the whole operation.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. Caoimhghin has just published his new book – Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery, which looks at philosophy, politics and the history of 10 different art forms arguing that Romanticism is dominating modern culture to the detriment of Enlightenment ideals. It is available on Amazon ( and the info page is here.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Aisha (2022): Despair and Desperation in Ireland's Detention Centres

"When you're in survival mode, you numb yourself."
Clemantine Wamariya

Frank Berry is an Irish film director and screenwriter who doesn't shy away from exposing the harsh realities of contemporary life in Ireland. In his films, Berry has tackled difficult topics such as prisons, suicide and poverty. He doesn't indulge in middle-class condescension of working class people either. Those in power know they have power and use it to lord it over the weak and vulnerable. Berry's previous work includes films such as Ballymun Lullaby (2011), I Used to Live Here (2014), and Michael Inside [see my review here](2017).

His latest film is no exception. Aisha (2022) stars Letitia Wright as Aisha, a Nigerian refugee living in an Irish detention centre. Her life is constrained by the fact that her father and brothers were killed by gangsters and she needs to get her elderly mother over to stay with her before she too becomes a victim of the violence.

Actress Letitia Wright By Ron Raffety.
Red Carpet Hollywood, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The staff in the centre are not particularly friendly or sympathetic except for one new security guard, Conor (played by Josh O’Connor). They strike up a difficult friendship as Aisha's family problems weigh heavily on her emotional life. She works in a hairdressers which she enjoys while also learning a trade, yet this is taken from her too when she is transferred to a different detention centre in the countryside, further isolating her. The problem of state bureaucracy is examined through interview panels of experts who don't realise or care how serious her situation is.

Berry's approach to directing is understated. Throughout the film Aisha tries to keep calm but eventually explodes with anger when the situation becomes too much for her. The audience understands the difficulty of her position in Ireland but Aisha keeps much to herself, out of fear and possibly worry that revealing too much might make her position worse. It shows us that, in many cases, what emigrants are going through is something we cannot really comprehend in a country that has not had similar political and violent upheavals in nearly one hundred years.

Berry's social realist style is typical in that he depicts the most vulnerable people in society, while at the same time rooting the story in a realistic, contemporary situation that may be shocking for those who have no idea what life is like for the less fortunate that they coexist with. Gaining such awareness creates empathy and understanding, maybe not in everyone who sees the film but hopefully even the most cynical will have their biases disturbed. As Sartre wrote,'to reveal is to change.'

Housing crisis
The context for Aisha is also important to note. The refugee issue in Ireland is hitting serious crisis proportions. The Irish government struggles to find accommodation for refugees in a national situation where house prices are very high, rents are very high, and homelessness is on the increase. According to (main site for buying/renting/selling property in Ireland) in August 2022: "Ireland's rental market has plumbed new depths as the number of homes available has dropped to an all-time low while the rate of inflation in prices climbed to its highest level in at least 15 years."

The rental market has been decreasing for various reasons: high taxes, constant changes in law (as the government tries to figure out how to solve the rent increases problem), and a "lack of any effective enforcement or regulation if a dispute between Tenant/Landlord arises."

Adding to all of these issues is the arrival of "more than 62,000 Ukrainian refugees" which the Irish government has been accommodating in hostels, hotels and other private accommodations, even in tents.

Journalists Ferghal Blaney and Eithne Dodd have written (as recently as 6 Jan 2023), that: "Despite government promises that tents would not be used to accommodate refugees anyone, nearly 90 people slept in a tent last night in county Clare. [...] Before Christmas, news that asylum seekers were being housed in tents caused outrage and promises were made that the move was purely temporary and would end on 12 December 2022."

In an interview with Roderic O'Gorman (a spokesperson for Minister for Equality): "The war in Ukraine combined with the high number of International Protection applicants continues to put real pressure on the government's ability to offer accommodation, and has resulted in the largest humanitarian effort in the State's history."

The upshot of these multivaried pressures on accommodation is the dramatic increase of homelessness in Ireland. The online Irish journal,, (published on 8 January 2023) an article stating that:"Homelessness record broken again as 11,542 people in emergency accommodation in November. The CEO of Dublin Simon Community said that the figures convey “nothing short of a tragedy.” The number of people experiencing homelessness in Ireland has once again hit a record high with latest government figures showing that 11,542 people were living in emergency accommodation in November. It is the fifth consecutive month that the record number has been broken. A total of 5,423 single adults, 1,371 young people and 3,494 children were living in emergency accommodation between 21 and 27 November." 

All this in a country with a relatively small population. The CSO (Central Office for Statistics) stated that: “Ireland’s population was estimated to be 5.10 million, increasing by 88,800 persons in the year to April 2022. This was the largest 12-month population increase since 2008 when the population increased by 109,200.”

In fact, Ireland is a big country with a small population, and one of the very few countries in the world that has fewer inhabitants now than in the nineteenth century when Ireland is estimated to have had over 8 million (in 1841).

Compare these figures for Ireland with those of the Netherlands, for example:

Population: 7,026,636 (2022) [combining Republic of Ireland: 5,123,536 (2022) and Northern Ireland: 1,903,100 (2021)],
Area: 84,421 km2 (32,595 sq mi),
Pop. density: 77.8/km2 (201.5/sq mi).

The Netherlands -
Population: 17,783,400 (2023 estimate),
Area Total: 41,850 km2 (16,160 sq mi),
Pop. density: 520/km2 (1,346.8/sq mi), 

The Netherlands has more than twice the population of Ireland on half the total area. Thus, it can be seen that Ireland's immigrant problems are not due to any lack of space but decades of mismanagement of resources.

Aisha's story points up the stresses and anxiety that these bureaucratic issues pile onto the many immigrants whose sense of insecurity is already badly shaken.

These days the billionaire media makes political change difficult. Making art that not only looks at the plight of ordinary people, but also in a very expensive medium, cinema, is a victory over a dominant and very conservative cultural hegemony. Berry's films are shining stars in a galaxy of romanticist superhero, super-funded, short-lived supernovas. What we need are more artists - a new movement even - of artists willing to go against the dominant cultural hegemony and produce a new culture of progressive change, with an understanding of how neo-liberal politics and economics affects ordinary people. How we treat other people reflects how we would like to be treated, and the vagaries of the late capitalist global system mean that the situation can suddenly reverse when we least expect it.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. Caoimhghin has just published his new book – Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery, which looks at philosophy, politics and the history of 10 different art forms arguing that Romanticism is dominating modern culture to the detriment of Enlightenment ideals. It is available on Amazon ( and the info page is here.