Opinion

The Banshees of Inisherin is a curious tonic for these bleak times

The story of a fracturing friendship in The Banshees of Inisherin offers us a lesson in how to live, and how to live well

Colin Farrell and his little donkey in The Banshees of Inisherin

The Banshees of Inisherin lays bare the elements of Irish identity with fatalistic black humour. Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Finally, I watched The Banshees of Inisherin. Somebody who knows what they are talking about told me it was the most Irish film they’d seen in years, maybe ever. They weren’t clear if that was meant as a positive or negative. 

It is Irish, very Irish, from the title all the way through. It’s set in a fictionalised west coast of Ireland island in spring 1923. The Irish Civil War, coming to its conclusion, is present, but only as light and fury over on the mainland.

You may know something of the plot. The film has been in cinemas for a while. Essentially, it’s the story of the fracturing of a friendship. Colm (Brendan Gleeson) decides he doesn’t want to speak to his oldest friend Pádraic (Colin Farrell) any more. And that’s that. It feels like a very small thing, and it is, but within it there is everything.  

Colm is wrestling with mortality. A musician, he wants to create something that remains when he is gone. Art is the thing that matters, he believes. Pádraic thinks being ‘nice’, being good in life is the key. Between these monolithic totems is where we sit.

In this insular, claustrophobic place the components of Irish identity are played out. There is the nastiness of patriarchal state authority, frequently in league with a distant, unpleasant and self-serving church.

The idea that a small thing can rip delicate social cohesion and lead to unstoppable, and quite unfathomable self-harm is there too. As is a bleak, dark Beckett-like fatalistic humour. While the shadow of internal war and of unbridgeable differences are there, these are not uniquely Irish concerns.  

It’s really about how we are, how we live and how we get to the end. There is not a great revelation in the film. There is no neat piece of wisdom to put on a card so we can all get through. 

Life is hard. And at present, for so many, it’s really dark. And while it may seem that a bleak film with no answers and a lot of questions is no kind of solution, curiously it’s the best of tonics. 

Around the time I watched the film I learned of the death of an old colleague, James Fairweather. He was a good man and impossible not to like. In spring, all was fine. He went on a family holiday, realised something wasn’t quite right and got himself checked over on his return. Doctors discovered an inoperable and terminal brain tumour. He was 61, but a very active, very cool 61. He lived. And then on November 23, he died. He devoted his final months to raising awareness of brain cancer. At The Big Issue our thoughts are with his widow Mary and his family. 

There is no neat conclusion to any of this. Nor is there an obvious line between a cinematic fiction, even if it is one of the great works of our time, and the premature death of a good man.  

Except this. Nothing lasts forever. To be caught in futile, petty squabbles that feel to have the gravity of the universe is ridiculous. It matters that we find a way to live, as well as we can, doing as little harm as we can, and enjoy being in the life we have. That is where it all resides. 

The rest is noise.

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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