Luke Callinan reviews Black 47, a film which reminds us of the brutal and inhuman nature of colonisation.
Lance Daly’s Black 47, which was released in September 2018, is the first feature-length film dealing directly with the catastrophic events of 1845-1849 in Ireland that became known subsequently as “The Famine”. It is an adaption of the much lesser-known short movie An Ranger (2008) directed by P.J. Dillon in which a Connemara man named Myles returns home in 1854 after serving abroad in the British Army for 21 years. He arrives home to a community that has been ravaged by starvation, fever, executions, murder and emigration. Myles finds pigs grazing in his family home which has been vacated and has had its thatched roof removed. The dialogue of An Ranger is completely in Irish with English language subtitles, reflecting the linguistic reality of Connemara during the mid-19th century.
In Black 47 we are presented with the dour and stern figure of Máirtín Ó Fiannaidhe (played by Australian actor James Frecheville) who has served for many years with an infantry regiment of the British Army known as the “Connacht Rangers”, and returns to his native Connemara with the intention of travelling on from there to America. We later learn that he had gone absent without leave from the British Army in Afghanistan and was branded a deserter. There is an historical inaccuracy here in that the Connacht Rangers were deployed in the West Indies, not Afghanistan, at this time. Ó Fiannaidhe arrives home in 1847 while Ireland remains in the throes of a famine to discover that his brother had been executed because he attacked an officer who had come to evict his family from their home, and that his mother had later perished of hunger.
Máirtín’s sister-in-law Ellie (Sarah Greene) had been raising her three children alone after the death of her husband. The soldier is deeply affected by the searing poverty and destitution that now blights his community, and appears physically moved by the circumstances in which his late brother’s family now live. Shortly after his arrival, he witnesses the authorities attempting to forcefully evict Ellie and her children from their home and intervenes in an effort to save them as they do not understand the orders being barked at them in English. He even offers to the attacking party that he will pay any outstanding debts the family owe.
Máirtín speaks both English and Irish so tries to explain the situation in Irish to Ellie who is distressed and confused by the events but he is immediately tackled to the ground and arrested. As the authorities begin to break in the roof of Ellie’s home, her young son bursts out of the front door and stabs one of the attacking police officers in the neck. He is promptly fired upon by several surrounding police officers and shot dead. Ellie, who is severely distraught by the violent death of her son, is turfed out on the road along with her two other children, while Máirtín is arrested and brought back to the barracks. In a daring and bloody encounter, Máirtín manages to escape from custody and returns to Ellie’s house, to find her lifeless body huddled together with her youngest child in the corner of the now roofless home, having perished in the freezing cold conditions without food or shelter.
It is at this point that Máirtín’s plans to emigrate are put on hold and he begins a one-man campaign to seek revenge for the deaths of his family.
One of the most striking aspects of Black 47 is the arguably unprecedented level of Irish language used by main actors in a popular feature-length film. All spoken dialogue between native Irish characters in the film is through the medium of Irish, and in one scene Máirtín and Ellie recite songs to the young children in Irish. There are even a handful of greetings, blessings and commonly-used idioms in Irish that are not subtitled such as when Ellie, addressing a neighbour, says “Bailigh leat!” (“Be off!). This usage of the Irish language in a major film, while logical in the setting of 1840s Connemara, is a remarkable departure for Irish cinematography. The dialect and linguistic fluency of Máirtín Jaimsie’s language as Ignatius in An Ranger helps the audience place the scene and adds to its authenticity. While this same fluency of speech is not matched by any main character in Black 47, the script and pronunciation of Irish is nonetheless impressive.
The most profound line is uttered by the film’s ‘hero’ Máirtín Ó Fiannaidhe when he confronts a judge who has just sentenced a man to penal servitude in Van Diemen's Land (now known as Tasmania). During the trial the defendent, pleading his innocence in Irish, is reprimanded by the judge who states “Irish is not the language of this court” and proceeds to convict him on the basis that his refusal to engage with the court in English is evidence enough of his guilt. Ó Fiannaidhe is waiting for the judge in his office as he returns from the court sitting and when the judge orders him to leave, Ó Fiannaidhe snaps “Ní hé Béarla teanga na cúirte seo” (“English is not the language of this court”). When in court, the judge – who regularly sentences young men and women for execution, penal servitude and incarceration – possesses the arrogant demeanor typical of those who implement British colonial “justice”. Outside the protection of the courtroom, however, he is powerless and exposed when he meets face-to-face with a member of the community for which he ruthlessly dispenses “justice”, and is left pleading for mercy. This line by Ó Fiannaidhe embodies a universal expression of anti-colonial sentiment that could be employed by figures of resistance in colonised nations anywhere in the world. In his classic text The Wretched of the Earth, written at the height of the Algerian war, Frantz Fanon gives expression to this:
The violence which has ruled over the ordering of the colonial world, which has ceaselessly drummed the rhythm for the destruction of native social forms and broken up without reserve the systems of reference of the economy, the customs of dress and external life, that same violence will be claimed and taken over by the native at the moment when, deciding to embody history in his own person, he surges into the forbidden quarters. To wreck the colonial world is henceforward a mental picture of action which is very clear, very east to understand and which may be assumed by each one of the individuals which constitute the colonized people.”
Liam O’Flaherty’s 1937 novel Famine set in the fictionally named Black Valley addresses the situation in plain terms:
To be afflicted with hunger was considered, in the world of the rich, a crime which placed sufferers outside the bounds of humanity. They were to be pursued by the servants of the rich, thrown in to jail, or bayoneted, or hanged.
In a particularly revealing scene, Lord Kilmichael, the land-owning representative of the British aristocracy makes clear his desire for the day when the sight of a Gael in Ireland would be as rare as a native American in Manhattan. The sentiment contained in this statement indicates the tacit support of Kilmichael and the landlord class generally for a policy of cultural genocide against native Irish people similar to that carried out against the native Americans.
Private Hobson is a young British Army soldier who accompanies Hannah (Hugo Weaving) – the man who had been sent to capture Ó Fiannaidhe but who also happens to be an old army comrade of his – and the pretentious officer Pope, on their trip west to track down Ó Fiannaidhe . He is a committed member of this party but becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the starving and fever-stricken tenants that appear at the house of Lord Kilmichael, their landlord, while Kilmichael hoards copious amounts of grain that is being prepared for transport to England. It is not insignificant that Hobson speaks with a North-West English accent, a region marked by deep levels of poverty relative to the rest of England as well as a concentration of Irish economic emigrants.
If there was to be a significant criticism of the film it would be the lack of collective resistance by the community. Ó Fiannaidhe at times comes across as a mythical figure with an inhuman ability to single-handedly take on several soldiers and/or policemen at any one time. We do not see any significant interaction or collaboration between Ó Fiannaidhe and the broader community, which is portrayed as broken and helpless, incapable of anything other than mocking and clownish behaviour. It contrasts sharply with the scene in O’Flaherty’s Famine where a gang of starving peasants carry out the premediated murder of land agent Jocelyn Chadwick who had collected the rent on behalf of absentee English landlord Mark Thompson.
Black 47 is a film that is well worth watching. It tackles one of the most traumatic periods of Irish history in the last 200 years without overly engaging in romantic notions of an Ireland that is servile in the face of oppression and that willingly submits to a policy described by O’Flaherty as “peace at any price” which inevitably creates “a disillusioned, disheartened, disorganised people” that are left at “the mercy of a tyrannical government”. It furthermore opens the door to new understandings and interpretations of our past while also serving as an important reminder of the brutal and inhuman nature of colonisation. To its credit, it succeeds in doing this in a profoundly universal manner.