Criticism of The Wind that Shakes the Barley reflected British unfamiliarity with conflict, says historian

British media ‘reluctant’ to accept army engaged in brutal campaign in Ireland

Cillian Murphy with Pádraic Delaney in Ken Loach’s 2006 film The Wind That Shakes the Barley

Cillian Murphy with Pádraic Delaney in Ken Loach’s 2006 film The Wind That Shakes the Barley


British criticism of Ken Loach’s award-winning film about the War of Independence, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, reflected a general unwillingness by British society to accept that Crown Forces engaged in a brutal campaign in Ireland between 1919 and 1921, according to a leading historian.

Dr Edward Madigan of Royal Holloway University of London said the critical and popular reaction to Loach’s film reflected both a British unfamiliarity with the conflict and an unwillingness to recognise that British servicemen could and did behave in such an outrageous manner.

“The reaction in the British press and from certain British politicians was extraordinarily antagonistic – the idea that the portrayal of Black and Tans torturing and summarily executing prisoners and harassing people was an anathema to commentators in Britain, and not just in the right-wing press.”

Dr Madigan instanced the review in the Daily Mail which compared Loach to Nazi propagandist film maker Leni Riefenstahl, with the caveat that Riefenstahl was more talented, while Tory politician, Michael Gove described the film as “extreme anti-British propaganda”.

During in a discussion on British perceptions of the War of Independence at the West Cork History Festival, Dr Madigan noted that the modern-day ignorance of the conflict contrasted with the huge contemporaneous coverage it received in the British press at the time.

“It’s important when we are considering the way British people responded to the war in Ireland and the way they interpreted the conduct of the Crown Forces in Ireland that we recognise that all their perceptions of these were informed by their experience of the first World War,” he said.

“Millions of people across Britain were mourning the loss of some 780,000 men from across these islands and crucially the idea that these men, the Fallen, had given their lives in a great struggle to defend civilisation was a source of genuine consolation for the bereaved at the time.

“That idea is enshrined on the side of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, the Glorious Dead – the conflict had to be regarded as glorious in order for the sacrifice of the dead to be redeemed and that narrative worked because it had a basis in fact as far as many British people were concerned.”

“British people looked back at the first World War as a war that was waged against tyranny, and the killing of thousands of unarmed civilians by invading German soldiers in Belgium and France in 1914 really enhanced the British view that it was a moral crusade against German military aggression.”

Similar behaviour to Germans

However, a major difficulty arose for the British public embracing such a narrative of consolation when it had to try and reconcile it with reports that British soldiers and ex-servicemen serving with the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries in Ireland were behaving in a similar fashion to the Germans.

“When reports emerged of escalating violence in Ireland, where British servicemen were committing atrocities against civilians that were similar to those perpetrated by German soldiers in Belgium and France in 1914, well, that was deeply disturbing for so many British commentators.”

Dr Madigan said the British media covered the conflict in Ireland with admirable candour and honesty, focusing initially on the violence being perpetrated by the IRA but then not shirking away from reporting with equal honesty on the campaign of reprisals perpetrated by Crown Forces.

“Much of the commentary initially focuses on IRA killings and other violence and intimidation by the IRA and the IRA are routinely denounced as ‘The Murder Gang’, as ‘cowards and thugs’ but the tone of British press coverage changes quite markedly in the later summer and early autumn of 1920.”

Dr Madigan said that the Sack of Balbriggan in north Dublin on September 20th, 1920, when the Auxiliaries from Gormanston camp killed two local men and burned mor than 50 premises in reprisal for the IRA killing two RIC men, seemed to have a decisive impact on public opinion in Britain.

“The Manchester Guardian two days later published a damning editorial about the Crown Forces and the campaign they were waging, entitled ‘An Irish Louvain’ in direct reference to the Flemish city of Louvain sacked by the German in 1914,” he said.

“A week later the Times denounced the British army after a troop of cavalry men went on the rampage in Fermoy, ‘A National Disgrace’ – press coverage is fairly unanimous in damning the Crown Forces and the government in support a policy of reprisals either tacitly or by order.”

Actions denounced

Dr Madigan said the coverage of such events along with the later Burning of Cork in 1920 led to a wave of protest in Britain with commentators such as journalists, clergy and trade unionists who had experience of the first World War, drawing unfavourable comparisons with German soldiers in 1914.

“From the autumn of 1920 until the truce in July 1921, the actions of the Crown Forces were regularly denounced by British commentators, the press, in parliament and virtually every public platform – it’s really striking how that unanimous that denunciation is.

“And that criticism is very diverse – it’s coming from commentators who are very much part of the British establishment and have no sympathy with Irish nationalism, much less Irish republicanism or Irish aspirations for independence but are appalled at what they see is happening.

“The British had emerged from the Great War on the moral high ground with a perception of themselves as defenders of the weak against military aggression but the violence unleashed by Crown Forces against civilians in Ireland in 1920 and 1921 undermined that narrative.

“And worse, it seemed to dishonour the war dead – it’s no coincidence people like Arthur Henderson of the Labour Party and Herbert Asquith, both of whom were bereaved fathers, were among the critical voices in the House of Commons when discussing the policy of reprisals in Ireland.”

Dr Madigan said the public opprobrium did not limit the state violence initially because the violence intensified towards the end of 1920 but by the spring of 1921 the British government could no longer ignore the criticism, particularly that from the clergy, including the Archbishop of Canterbury.

“The cacophony of criticism is not the only factor in accepting a truce but it is a key factor and accepting a truce is almost an anathema to the military because this legitimises the IRA struggle and the wider republican movement which it previously had refused to recognise as legitimate.”