Ken Loach's use of Irish history

US communist Jim Creegan revisits the controversy over a film that has at last reached New York

A year after winning the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival, The wind that shakes the barley, Ken Loach's drama of the Irish war of independence and subsequent civil war, has finally arrived at theatres in the United States, to mostly favourable notices.

But praise for Loach's work has been by no means universal. Both Barley and Loach's earlier historical film, Land and freedom, tell stories consigned to a memory hole that few care to plumb. Among Loach's detractors are not only the usual reactionary suspects, but leftists like Vincente Navarro and George Galloway, both of whom took him to task in the leftish American online magazine, Counterpunch, for daring, in the latter film, to tarnish the heroic popular front legend of the Spanish civil war with his depiction of the class struggles that took place behind loyalist lines.

And Barley has, in its turn, provoked the predictable howls from sentimentalists of the British empire, as well as Blairites who regard as terrorism weapons in the hands of anyone other than governments, particularly the American and British ones. In what seems to have become a favourite rightwing trope, one scribbler for the British Daily Telegraph has likened Loach to the Nazis. It is not any inaccuracies Barley may contain that makes these watchdogs bay, but the truth it tells about the brutality of imperial Britain's war against the Irish people from 1919 to 1923. Many are also unsettled by the obvious resemblance, coincidental or not, between events depicted on the screen and the evening news from the Middle East over the past several years.

Yet there are legitimate questions about the accuracy of Loach's treatment of the Irish civil war. He depicts the conflict between pro- and anti-treaty forces as, among other things, a class struggle. Local bigwigs and republicans unwilling to challenge them are on one side, and the majority of poor workers and farmers, whose champions in effect advocate a socialist republic, are on the other.

The film's action centres around a west Cork IRA band. The main character is a young doctor, Damien O'Donovan (Cillian Murphy); the local commander is Damien's brother, Teddy (Padraic Delaney). While in jail for rebel activity, Damien befriends Dan (Liam Cunningham), a Dublin railwayman who has been a member of Connolly's Irish Citizen Army. Both these men are present in a republican court when a fracas erupts over whether a poor woman should be held liable for extortionate interest rates charged by a local moneylender. The sympathies of most IRA members are on the woman's side, and the judge orders the usurer to make restitution to her. But the commandant, Damien's brother Teddy, tries to subvert the court's verdict, arguing that the gombeen-man, who funds rebel arms purchases, is too important to their cause to be defied.

The social question erupts even more explosively, as IRA fighters begin to take up sides for or against the treaty in 1922. For his part, Damien argues that the treaty would leave intact the same setup that permits high unemployment and degrading working conditions. Dan concurs in a dramatic speech, which ends with the assertion that the treaty will only "change the accents of the powerful". We then see the parish priest denouncing from the altar an anti-treaty leaflet which calls for the nationalisation of the land and all of Ireland's wealth. Loach thus makes a clear equation: pro-treaty equals pro-capitalist and anti-people; anti-treaty equals pro-people and socialist.

Would that issues were always so neatly posed. In the event (ah, that irksome, formula-confounding event!), things were much murkier. It is true that the division between treaty supporters and opponents contained class undertones. Landowners, business people, the church - all of catholic Ireland's respectable classes, in short - were anxious for the fighting, and the social instability it created, to come to an end. The treaty's foes, on the other hand, tended to be the young, poor and unemployed of town and country - Wolf Tone's "men of no property" - for whom the independence struggle held the promise of a better society. A majority of IRA combatants - those who had sacrificed most in the fight for independence and had been most empowered by it - came out against the treaty.

The revolutionary wave that swept Europe in the wake of World War I and October 1917 also lapped at Ireland's shores. The Russian Revolution was greeted by the masses with great enthusiasm. There was, from 1918 on, a powerful upsurge of Ireland's small but militant labour movement, as striking workers in many parts of the country styled their strike committees 'soviets'. This working class upheaval intersected the national independence fight at numerous points. Most famously, a general strike called in response to anti-republican repression became known to history as the Limerick Soviet. These events could not have been without their effect on the anti-treaty wing of Sinn Féin.

Yet there is little evidence to suggest that the spontaneous class feelings of the anti-treaty forces ever rose to the level of a conscious political programme. A newspaper published by one of the most leftwing leaders of the 'Irregulars', Liam Mellowes, wrote: "The national welfare, as distinct from the welfare of this or that class, is a thing sacred to the opponents of the treaty" (quoted in C Kostick Revolution in Ireland Chicago 1996, p182). And if the free state army broke a strike of farm labourers in Waterford in 1923, the anti-treaty IRA herded scabs in another such strike in Meath in 1922, and decreed lower wages for agricultural workers in Clare (RF Foster Modern Ireland New York 1988, p515). Peader O'Donnell, doyen of the republican left, bitterly recalled IRA men in the west being used to "patrol estate walls, enforce decrees for rent, arrest or even order out of the country leaders of local land agitations" (P O'Donnell There will be another way Dublin 1963, pp19-20, quoted in RF Foster op cit p515).

The debate over the treaty, by most historical accounts, was conducted in almost exclusively nationalist terms. Even more than opposition to partition, which was not finalised or fully understood at the time, there was a visceral reaction against the treaty's requirement of an oath of allegiance to the crown. IRA volunteers argued that the war of independence placed the goal for which they had given their blood - the 'republic one and indivisible' - within their grasp, and to settle for 'dominion status' within the British empire, as offered by Lloyd George, would amount to a betrayal of all the nation's martyrs from 1798 on, as well as of the 1916 proclamation of the Irish Republic.

These arguments are faithfully reproduced in Barley. But Loach tacks on to this further disputation over the 'social question', for which the evidence is scanty. And there was certainly, at least on the national level, nothing resembling a programmatic call for the nationalisation of the country's wealth that Loach attributes to the leaflet denounced by the local priest and hotly debated after mass by Damien and his brother Teddy.

Why did the Irish working class, perhaps more powerful than at any other time, fail to find an independent voice at this turning point in the country's history? And why does Loach, 85 years on, feel compelled to invent, or at least greatly amplify, such a voice? The answer to both questions can be found in a single line of reasoning: that the national liberation struggle, consistently and militantly waged, will lead inevitably to socialism. This notion goes at least as far back as the thinking of Ireland's greatest working class revolutionary, James Connolly. Connolly saw capitalism as an alien imposition by the British on a pre-capitalist Ireland, and the ruling class as either British or British-allied. He therefore concluded that the fight against capitalism and the fight against British rule in Ireland were essentially one and the same.

To be sure, Connolly recognised the existence of "green-vested" bourgeois patriots, who proclaimed their allegiance to the nationalist cause without caring one whit for the real condition of the Irish people. They were the object of some of his most withering denunciations. But he regarded their nationalism as hypocritical, and viewed workers and the poor as the only genuine repository of national feeling. He thought that Ireland's freedom could only be achieved by the establishment of a workers' republic. Yet Connolly was to modify this view, in practice at least, when he joined the Easter rising, led by the bourgeois nationalists of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Volunteers. Connolly concluded not only a military alliance with these forces, but joined their 'provisional government', united around the exclusive aim of an independent republic.

The reasons for Connolly's historic decision are the subject of controversy among historians. Other than theoretical considerations were certainly at play. Connolly was so devastated by the enthusiastic response that Britain's war recruiting initially met with in Ireland, as well as by the capitulation of the Second International, that he was willing to ally with anyone willing to raise the standard of armed resistance to inter-imperialist slaughter. However, one cannot but suspect that his tendency to equate class with national struggle also had something to do with his choice to liquidate the Citizen Army, founded as a workers' defence guard, into a purely nationalist fighting force. If the cause of the nation was the cause of the workers and peasants, yet nationalists were willing to make the supreme sacrifice for it, how could they be the workers' enemy?

But they were. Whatever the historical origins of Irish capitalism, the fact was that by 1918 the Irish bourgeoisie were far from being mere colonial hangers-on. They had put down firm roots in native soil, and had largely embraced the idea of national independence. They were more than willing to ride the Sinn Féin electoral landslide to power in a new state.

The failure of the working class to intervene in its own name is no doubt partly due to its small size where it was most militant, in catholic Ireland, and to sectarian divisions where it was biggest, in the north. But it was also caused by the tendency of Irish socialists to amalgamate two antithetical things: working class socialism, which has as its objective a new social order that can only be arrived at through class struggle, and traditional republicanism, which advocates the unity of all classes in the national cause. In practice, the latter always means accepting the social status quo.

There are clearly moments when nationalist and working class interests coincide. Connolly dubbed reformists who would ignore the reality of national oppression "gas and water socialists". Any movement that seeks the abolition of social classes must also oppose inequality among nations, and champion the cause of self-determination. Moreover, in a colonially dominated country, the state of the coloniser is the only one in existence. It upholds both national and class oppression simultaneously, and is therefore the enemy of working class revolutionaries and nationalist rebels alike.

This situation can logically lead to tactical alliances and military cooperation between the two. But to abandon the political independence of the working class in the belief that nationalist and class struggle are identical, or that the one will lead automatically to the other, is a fatal error - one which prevented the working class from acting in its own name in Ireland during the early 1920s, and haunts the Irish left to this day.

It was this false amalgam which moved the radical Dublin songster, Dominick Behan, to compose hymns of praise to a 28-year-old Limerick man named Sean South, killed in a border raid in County Fermanagh in 1957 during an IRA campaign. Courageous though he undeniably was, South was strongly under the influence of the fascistic, anti-semitic ideas prominent in nationalist circles at the time.

This amalgam also leads the hosts of Radio Free Erin, a left-republican radio programme in New York City, to revere the memory of Michael Flannery, an IRA veteran prominent in American republican circles until his death in 1994. Like South, Flannery was a man of great integrity and dedication - in addition to being a devout catholic reactionary and strident anti-communist.

And Ken Loach, in bringing to the screen a heroic chapter of Irish history, falls victim to the same confusion when he misportrays the past by imputing to the anti-treaty IRA an explicit socialist position that few among it held, and fewer still openly expressed.