Morgan Hegarty reflects upon the 2018 action film Black ‘47 and how we feel about the Great Famine today.
2018’s Black ’47 was an extraordinary film, the first time the seminal period of Irish history has been depicted on the big screen. As one commentator described it, the Great Famine was “the seed of the Irish nation”, creating what the signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic named the “dead generations” from which some ideas of Irish nationhood were constructed. I stress the word ‘some’ here, as there can be no single idea of a nation held by all. In Ireland since the 1990s, this is more pronounced than any time in living memory as divisive conceptions of what it is to be Irish have come into conflict. How we understand and represent this event so many years from it is very telling.
Black ’47 can, I think, be best understood as the romanticised fantasy of what one would have done. I refer to fantasy in the context of a narrative dictated by our conscious and unconscious desires. What do we take from witnessing the murder of the RIC officers who destroyed homes? What do we take from Anglican converters being cast into the rain and turning the soup over to those who need it most? And what are we being asked to feel about these events? The answers to these questions show themselves clearly in the form of the main character.
The main character Feeney is void of all personality, unless one might call the unrelenting drive for justice or revenge a personality. He is so empty and anonymous a character that by the end of the film I had to look up his name online as I had forgotten it. Thus, the character is one that can stand in for us all. He is a nobody and is thereby everybody. He drops into the Connacht setting of the film from the distant reaches of the British Empire, and is carried along by the plot until his only remaining family is evicted and starves and he is pushed into action. We view his actions through the lens of our own desire. The film succeeds in exploiting the underlying certainty that had we been there at that time, we would have done exactly the same thing as Feeney.
In some senses, Black ‘47 resolves, or at least soothes, a sort of national shame: a disappointment that there was no immediate bloody resistance or retribution in the face of British indifference and cruelty throughout the Famine. It attempts to replace this shame with a fanciful tale. It partially removes this allegory from its context and creates from its pieces a Western revenge epic, replete with hats and horses and guns one might expect from a spaghetti Western. Embedded within the Western as a genre is both individual freedom and colonialism, two ideas that at first seem contradictory but in truth follow the logic of capitalism and profit. In the case of the Great Famine, the Invisible Hand of the market was expected to correct the void of resources. The British government was ideologically opposed to halting the export of food from Ireland because it would be to admit that market forces could be at fault and to admit that the logic of supply and demand is mediated by the material resources which the dispossessed class of peasants lacked. It would have laid bare that it simply was not profitable to aid Irish peasants and that the bloody business of empire in fact required this suffering to sustain itself.
In this way, Black ’47 lays out a history we wish had happened rather than any actual history: that a brooding 19th century Jason Bourne turned on the various heads of British imperial institutions, the aristocracy and the Church of the foreign oppressors, and he fought back with cool, measured cruelty. The character of the Captain not only embodies British imperial willful ignorance and racism, but also serves to represent everything Irish people think deep down of the English. He is pompous, brutish, hopelessly ignorant, out of touch and beyond reason, unwavering in his subservience to the alien crown.
From our schooling to our meme culture, the historic Brit is seared into the Irish psyche, a space exemplified by such archetypal villains as Cromwell, Trevelyan, the Black and Tans, and separated for universal and comprehensive scorn. These figures could only truly be represented to our satisfaction in a Western, a genre which often utilises the archetype of a supposedly civilising villain who is in fact happy to inflict acts of unimaginable brutality on a population of innocents. In Black ’47,this archetype is adopted by all representatives of the British state. The Western creates an ‘uncivilised’ space separated from all others, reserved for particularly pronounced brutishness, suffering, and lawlessness. It is through this film, then, that we vindicate ourselves of the national shame of the lack of vengeance through Feeney’s fantastical arc.