2018 11 – ‘Black ’47’ – film about the Irish Potato Famine

Black ’47.

Film Review by Angela Clifford

It is with trepidation that anyone would go to see a film about the Famine/ Holocaust. But Black ’47 is in a class of its own. Its history cannot be faulted. It conveys the devastation of a people and way of life—but as incidental to the action. It enables the viewer to comprehend that here was a well-populated, Gaelic-speaking population driven from their homes, cold and starving, finding bits of shelter where they can. But this is conveyed as background to the story.

The hero is an Irish Ranger who, having served in India and Afghanistan, deserts after saving enough money to bring his family to America, returns home to Connemara to find his family wrecked: mother dead, brother executed for resisting eviction, brother’s wife and children barely alive—subsisting on nettles and little else.

While he is with the family, the evictors come to take down the roof of their dwelling. He offers to pay the rent, which is rejected. His nephew, a child who is wanted for stealing some food, is killed for trying to escape and he is arrested for trying to protect the boy.

The story then features his escape from custody and the retribution he exacts.

In the course of the action we encounter hard facts: that Ireland’s population was reduced by a quarter; the view of the blond lieutenant that the Gaelic Irish are a feckless, inferior species; the export of grain under armed guard; the landlord who is making the most of this opportunity to start making money by clearing out his tenants and moving from cultivation to pasture; the official aim to make a Gael as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian in New York; the functionaries who are only ‘doing their duty’; and, above all, the sanctimonious ‘Soupers’.

The hero’s mother had died, refusing ‘to take the soup’. A particularly strong scene has the hero attending a field church service—benches of starving youngsters with no English—a cauldron of soup steaming in the corner of the tent, and a Protestant clergyman sermonising about the iniquities of Rome.

An unusual feature of the film is the way that acute political analysis is delivered in one-line remarks, which are in character for the person delivering them. There is no dwelling on the obvious or over-egging of the puddingno speeches. In fact the hero doesn’t say much. What is said is terse and to the point.

Where appropriate the dialogue is in Irish, with well-placed English sub-titles. The action of the film holds the attention, much like a Hollywood production.

This has been the highest-grossing film in Ireland as of September 2018. But, not surprisingly, a Guardian reviewer found it “draggy”, a “weak revenge drama” (30.9.18).

Director, Lance Daly (a Dubliner) and the screenplay writers—P.J. Dillon, Pierce Ryan, Eugene O’Brien and Lance Daly himself—are to be congratulated. (The film is based on an Irish language short film called An Ranger—I have seen some of these Irish language bijou films made for schools, and their quality is outstanding.)

It is amazing that Lance Daly and his team got the funding to make this film, in view of the home truths it tells about British policy in Ireland—possibly a by-product of Brexit. This is a film that should not be missed.


Malachi Lawless and Fergus O Rahallaigh add:

The late Adrian Hardiman’s book, “Joyce in Court—James Joyce and the Law” (page 45), quotes James Joyce’s ‘the Citizen’ on the English in Ireland: “We’ll meet force with force, says the Citizen. We have our greater Ireland beyond the sea. They were driven out of house and home in the black ’47. Their mudcabins and their shielings by the roadside were laid low by the battering ram and the Times rubbed its hands and told the whitelivered Saxons there would soon be as few Irish in Ireland as redskins in America. Even the Grand Turk sent us his piastres. But the Sassenach tried to starve the nation at home while the land was full of crops that the British hyenas bought and sold in Rio de Janeiro. Ay, they drove out the peasants in hordes. Twenty thousand of them died in the coffinships. But those that came to the land of the free remember the land of bondage. And they will come again and with a vengeance, no cravens, the sons of Granuaile, the champions of Kathleen ni Houlihan” (Ulysses: 12: 1364-7).

This is from the so-called ‘Cyclops’ episode, allowing the sneering sophisticated of suburban Dublin to dismiss the Citizen therein quoted as a one-eyed monstrosity to be at all costs ignored, censored, suppressed. The current film “Black 47” is a fairly accurate, forceful expression of the period it depicts, redressing sneering, sophisticated, hand-me-down accounts of a mere potato failure—the ‘act of God’ school of history of the period.