In 1847, when Ireland is in the grip of the Great Famine that has ravaged the country for two long years, Feeney, a hardened Irish Ranger who has been fighting for the British Army abroad, returns home to reunite with his estranged family, only to discover the cruelest reality, a black land where death reigns.
**_Not really the Famine film we were promised, but still a decent thriller_**
> _A mother's heart was marble-clad, her eye was fierce and wild,/A hungry Demon lurked therein, while gazing on her child./The mother-love was warm and true; the Want was long withstood -/Strength failed at last; she gorged the flesh - the offspring of her blood._
- Anonymous; "Thanatos, 1849"
I'm not going to lie – I fully expected to hate _Black '47_. The trailer was awful, making it look like a generic action flick; several colleagues saw the screening at ADIFF earlier in the year and were decidedly unimpressed; I thought most of the film was in English, which rubbed me up the wrong way altogether. Mainly though, I was just fulfilling my God-given right as an Irish person – being cankerous for no earthly reason whatsoever. However, because I was expecting to hate it, when I discovered, much to my chagrin, that it's actually quite good, it led to me thoroughly enjoying it. Colour me humbled. Easily the most hyped and anticipated Irish film of the last decade or so, _Black '47_ is proudly advertised as the "_first film about the Great Famine_". And were this true, it would undoubtedly occupy a canonical place in Irish artistic output in general, and Irish cinema in specific. However, there is one vital factor that everyone really needs to know before seeing it – it isn't the first film about the Famine. It's the first film set during the Famine, but it isn't about the Famine. This is a genre film, a pseudo-western revenge thriller set against the backdrop of the Famine. The Famine is not the film's central theme, nor does it attempt to engage with it on a national scale. If you accept that, and don't go in expecting to see Cecil Woodham-Smith's _The Great Hunger_ (1991) transposed to the screen, there's actually quite a lot here to admire.
As with many genre films, the plot is simplicity itself. It is winter 1847 in Connemara, two years since _Phytophthora infestans_ caused the failure of the potato crop on which large portions of the country's poor depend. Having deserted from the British Army's 88th Regiment of Foot (Connaught Rangers) after a difficult tour in Afghanistan, Martin Feeney (James Frecheville) returns home, unaware of the state of the country; everywhere, there is eviction, homelessness, starvation, and death. As people literally lie dying on the sides of the road, hundreds of thousands have already left Ireland for the United States. With Protestant clerics exploiting the crisis to compel Catholics peasants to convert in return for soup ("_taking the soup_"), grain is stockpiled for export to England. Travelling to his home, Feeney learns his immediate family is dead; his brother sentenced to hanging for resisting eviction, and his mother driven off the land after refusing to take the soup, subsequently dying of starvation and exposure. The only remaining family he has are his sister-in-law Ellie (the always excellent Sarah Greene), and her three children. Holding up in an abandoned cottage, Feeney persuades Ellie to join him in emigrating. However, the following day, an eviction party, led by the unscrupulous bailiff Cronin (Aidan McArdle) and the sadistic Sgt. Fitzgibbon of the Irish Constabulary (yet another strong performance from Moe Dunford), arrives with orders to eject the family and burn the property. Things soon turn violent, and Feeney is arrested. Held in a nearby garrison, he escapes, and sets about exacting revenge on the judge who hanged his brother, the people in the eviction party, the landlord who ordered the eviction, and anyone else who gets in his way. Meanwhile, learning of Feeney's escape, the British Army send a three-man team after him; the idealistic and pompous Sgt. Pope (Freddie Fox), the naïve Pvt. Hobson (Barry Keoghan), and Feeney's former commander in the Rangers, the disillusioned and world-weary Hannah (Hugo Weaving). Considering Feeney a friend, Hannah is unenthusiastic about the mission, but has little choice, as he himself is awaiting execution, having killed a suspect he was supposed to be interrogating, and is told unless he brings Feeney back, his execution will go ahead. Soon joined by Conneely (Stephen Rea) as interpreter, bard, and geographical guide, the group set off after Feeney as he cuts an increasingly bloody path across the county towards the man his sees as the architect of the area's miseries; Lord Kilmichael (Jim Broadbent).
Before looking at why I enjoyed the film so much, a (very) small bit of background. The Famine is the single most significant event in Irish history; a cataclysmic tragedy on a biblical scale. Whilst you'll often hear it said that it was caused by either blight, an over-reliance on the potato crop, or colonial mismanagement (or organised genocide, if you believe Tim Pat Coogan), the fact is that it was the result of a myriad of factors, which, in 1845, combined to form a deadly perfect storm; bad luck, a natural occurrence, political ineptitude, pronounced socio-economic disparity, racism, massive poverty, national arrogance, etc. What is certain, however, is that it was a _completely_ preventable tragedy; even after the blight was initially recognised in 1844 (one year _prior_ to the crop failure), landowners continued to export grain. By the time 1847 had come around, the Irish Poor Law Extension Act had made Irish property owners fully responsible for public relief, and the "Gregory Clause" stated that any famer with at least a quarter of an acre was not eligible for such relief. The Amendment and the Clause, both ostensibly intended to ease the poor's suffering, had a catastrophic effect on the country, leading to an unprecedented rise in evictions. This was because the property tax assigned to pay for the Poor Law was levied on each rented holding, meaning it fell on landlords. Facing the possibility of this drastically increased taxation, many simply sidestepped the problem by evicting their tenants and destroying the dwellings. Simultaneously, due to the Gregory Clause, tens of thousands of tenants were trying to sell most of their land to the landlords so they could qualify for relief. However, because of the Amendment, many landlords refused to accept partial land surrenders, demanding instead the entire holding, plus the dwelling, which they could then burn, leading to a vicious cycle of homelessness, poverty, and destitution.
Between 1845 and 1852, around one-and-a-half million people died and nearly two million emigrated, reducing the populace by roughly 25% (1847 is known as "Black '47" because both the death and emigration rates were at their highest). In a lot of ways, the country still hasn't recovered; the Irish language was laid to waste; the myths and sagas of Irish folklore were forgotten for decades, until the advent of the Celtic Twilight and the _Athbheochan na Gaeilge_, and even with these movements, large portions of the folklore have never been reintegrated into the zeitgeist; the proud tradition of Irish bards changed forever, with thousands of songs lost; Irish literature slowed down to a trickle, taking over a hundred years before returning to its pre-Famine affluence; and hatred of the English occupiers became more galvanised than at any point in the previous 700 years of their presence – the common man blamed the Famine on the English, and for the first time, the poor and uneducated began to think along the lines of political insurgency.
The Famine was so devastating that even Irish literature, one of the finest literary traditions in the world, was reluctant to engage with it, both at the time, and ever since. Beyond a few poems by the likes of James Clarence Mangan, Aubrey De Vere, and Thomas D'Arcy McGee, isolated poetry like "Thanatos, 1849", and a few novels such as William Carleton's _The Black Prophet: A Tale of Irish Famine_ (1847), there really is no such thing as "Famine literature", certainly no Famine literary tradition. And even since then, the national literature has proved reluctant to engage, with only a few texts such as Patrick Kavanagh's _The Great Hunger_ (1942) and Seamus Heaney's "At a Potato Digging" (1966) willing to address it (even the masters, W.B. Yeats and James Joyce themselves, never explicitly dealt with the Famine head-on).
All of which brings us to _Black '47_. Considering how important an event this is in Irish history, it is as conspicuous by its absence from the national cinema as it is from the national literature. Here, however, there are practical considerations beyond the thematic enormity of the task; representing something of this scale and with this level of suffering is massively difficult on film, especially with a limited budget. And in any case, how does one fashion a narrative which could possibly convey the bleakness of the Famine. Maybe in this era of long-form narrative on TV, there's a possibility of doing something Famine-related, but condensing the most significant seven years in Irish history into a two (or three, or four) hour film is nigh-on impossible, not to mention the sheer unrelenting misery one would need to put on screen. It wouldn't exactly be a crowd-pleaser – watching an entire country slowly starve to death probably isn't going to pack Marvel fanboys into the local multiplex. And so, with that in mind, Black '47 has no intentions of dealing with the Famine on that kind of scale. This is a genre piece, it's a western, a revenge thriller. It's basically Clint Eastwood's _The Outlaw Josey Wales_ (1976), with Feeney having more than a hint of the Man with No Name.
In this sense, using the Famine as a backdrop for a genre exercise is probably a wise choice – it allows limited engagement by way of a plot-driven story, without setting up massive expectations (advertising hyperbole aside) and unconquerable thematic hurdles. Speaking to the _Irish Independent_, co-screenwriter/director Lance Daly explains,
> _the genre route was the only way to go. I mean, do you want to make a film that's just about suffering, about people watching their children starve and families lying dead in their homes? Do you want to watch it, do you want to make it, do you want to be someone who tries to dramatise that? You had to tackle it in a less direct way._
And whilst grafting an historical tragedy onto a generic template runs the risk of the tragedy muting the genre elements, and the genre distracting from the tragedy, Daly and his fellow screenwriters, Pierce Ryan, P.J. Dillon, and Eugene O'Brien, make a fine stab at it.
Doing it this way also makes a great deal of sense for a number of additional reasons. For example, no Famine narrative could ever depict a story in which a protagonist rights all the wrongs of Ireland, because no such person existed. However, the relatively contained story of Feeney's revenge is more than aware of that. He is never painted as someone out to liberate the country, spurred on by the wrongs done to him personally – he's no Mel Gib…sorry, William Wallace. He wants revenge on the people who wronged him; he has no aspirations of saving Ireland, and is powerless to do anything on a larger socio-economic canvas. The film never lets the audience forget this, whether it be shots of Feeney emotionlessly riding past starving peasants on the roadside, or his invasion of a Protestant soup tent, where he eats his own fill and then leaves. He's not the avenging spirit of Ireland made flesh, he's not Cú Chulainn, Fionn mac Cumhaill, or one of the Tuatha Dé Danann. This is not a piece of nationalist wish fulfilment, and it makes no claim to be.
In terms of how the film represents the Famine, apart from its importance to the plot, Daly employs a number of what could be called "quintessential Famine images". These include one of the first shots in the film, which shows a skull sinking into the wet mud, representing the dead and their connection to the land (a little on the nose, but it does the job); when Ellie first appears, she looks like Caitlín Ní Uallacháin, the implication being that Ireland itself is literally dying; when Ellie and her children are evicted, the scene is very much an archetype of such evictions – women and children crying, men being restrained, the thatched roof of a cottage burning, callous bailiffs, brutalising police; a Catholic priest warning the starving peasants not to take the soup (Feeney's disdain for this priest recalls the scene in Jim Sheridan's _The Field_ (1990) when the Bull McCabe (Richard Harris) reminds Fr. Doran (Sean McGinley) "_no priests died in the time of the Famine, only poor people_"); peasants taking the soup, a scene which throws up one of the most controversial and long-lasting ramifications of the Famine (more on this in a moment); grain being stockpiled for export to England; bedraggled peasants huddled at the gates of an affluent estate, begging the rich occupants to give them food, in a scene visually reminiscent of Rowan Gillespie's _Famine_ memorial on Dublin's Custom House Quay); multiple references to emigration. In point of fact, although the Famine is essentially just background, Daly works hard to make sure the viewer never forgets what's happening beyond the edges of the frame, by occasionally allowing it within the frame.
One of the reasons I thought I was going to hate _Black '47_ was because I thought it was entirely in English, which would have been patently ridiculous. Perhaps the most long-lasting effect of the Famine is that it decimated _Gaeilge_, the Irish language. The Famine is why this review is in English, and why I can speak only a few sentences in my native tongue. In seven years, the Famine did what the English couldn't manage in 700 – it destroyed that which defined us as a people, our very national identity. However, not only are large sections of _Black '47_ in Irish, the film actually uses the Irish language and the attempts to suppress it as an important recurring motif. For example, Feeney speaks both English and Irish, but he makes a conscious decision to only speak Irish, even when talking to non-Irish speakers, several of whom demand he speak in English. The film also shows a judge (Dermot Crowley) erupting in anger as peasants in his courtroom, unable to speak English, begin to converse in Irish, whilst Kilmichael refers to Gaeilge as "_that aboriginal gibberish_". However, the most important scene concerning the Irish language is one which recalls the linguistic brilliance of Brian Friel's play, Translations (1980). In the Protestant soup kitchen, when the priest asks a peasant his name, the man replies "_Séamus Ó Súilleabháin_". The priest turns around to a translator, who responds, "_James Sullivan_". This speaks to the Anglicisation of Irish place names by the British (Béal an Átha became Ballina, Dún Dealgan became Dundalk, Trá Lí became Tralee, etc), itself an attempt to destroy the language and undermine our sense of place. Daly never allows the devastating effect the Famine had on the language to fade too far into the background, and the narrative is all the better for it.
The film also seems to have one eye on the contemporary political climate. For example, the scenes of English gentry seizing land and demolishing homes perhaps alludes to the situation in Palestine, where Israeli forces can be seen doing essentially the same thing. Even more pertinent, and closer to home, the scenes of empty dwellings, as people try to survive in ditches, clearly alludes to the ludicrous phenomenon of empty, boarded-up houses found all over Dublin, which, for some reason best known to the council, can't be let out to the ever-increasing number of homeless families. Similarly, the scenes of people dying on the side of the road recalls the bitter 2018 winter, when four homeless people died on the streets of Dublin within a few weeks of one another. Even the eviction scene is comparable to contemporary events; just last week, at the behest of a landlord, balaclava wearing Gardaí, flanked by private security personnel (also wearing balaclavas), violently evicted a peaceful Take Back the City protest which had occupied an empty house in Dublin so as to highlight the growing homeless crisis.
Looking beyond the Famine, thematically, the film hits the ground running; the first scene is Hannah's murder of his prisoner, which is preceded by a short debate between the two on the issue of loyalty to one's nation vs duty to the Crown, a duality with which Hannah wrestles for the duration of the plot. Indeed, speaking of Hannah, he and Feeney are very much two sides of the same coin; they are, for all intents and purposes, Javert and Jean Valjean, locked into a pursuit by a system neither of them respect. In fact, in relation to this, whereas Hugo gradually fazes Javert out of the narrative, Daly goes in the opposite direction – as the film progresses, Hannah comes to the fore and Feeney drops into the background. This has the effect of making Feeney seem almost non-human, an elemental force who turns up now and again when things kick off, and it's a really well handled structural component.
Of course, all of this is not to say the film is perfect. Composer Brian Byrne's score, which features a heavy usage of uilleann pipes, is decent, but overly didactic. Additionally, the character of Kilmichael is something of a clichéd, token villain, coming out with lines such as "_this potato business has simplified things considerably_". Daly also has a slight tendency to unsuccessfully mix naturalism with stylisation, perhaps most obvious in the use of intentionally artificial looking matte paintings as backgrounds in some of the panoramic scenes. Whilst the intention behind this was most likely to try to evoke the look of old sepia photographs, contemporary audiences used to photorealistic CGI in every shot will probably interpret it as cheap effects work, which is a shame, and does the film no favours. Finally, if there's one thing I was surprised that wasn't mentioned, especially given all the references to emigration, it would be the coffin ship, the image of which is a permanent component of the Famine's legacy in Ireland.
However, all things considered, this is a strong and reasonably important piece of filmmaking. Yes, it's essentially just a revenge western, and yes, in that sense, it's nothing overly special; there are a hundred films along these lines, and several of them are better than _Black '47_. However, Daly allows the Famine background to come to the fore sufficiently so that we never forget when and where we are, and because of this, it's undoubtedly an important film. Mixing the historical with the generic just enough so that each informs the other without either becoming (too) diluted, it's not the first "Famine film", but it is a very decent, honest, and respectful attempt to put something (anything) of that great tragedy on screen. And that is something to be lauded.