Opinion: the film uses the look and themes of American Westerns to tell stories about Ireland's wild west, the famine and British colonial rule

By Alison Garden, Irish Research Council

Across a barren, windswept wilderness, a man crosses the screen on horseback, intent on securing revenge. It's a scene evocative of the iconic images of the American Western, which are immortalised in 20th century film. But this isn’t the wild west of the United States, but the wild west of Ireland, as presented to us in Lance Daly’s famine thriller, Black ‘47.

The figure on horseback is Martin Feeney (James Frecheville), a deserting Connaught Ranger. Upon returning to Connemara, he finds his mother has been killed by famine and fever, his brother hanged by the Irish constabulary and his brother’s wife and her children starving to death. Over the course of the film, Feeney unleashes a hellish catalogue of violent retribution on those he deems responsible for his family’s suffering. He soon becomes the target of a search party consisting of the jingoistic British Sergeant Pope (Freddie Fox), a raconteur and translator called Conneely (played with relish by Stephen Rea) and police Inspector Hannah (Hugo Weaving), whose relationship with Feeney is "complicated". 

Can Black ’47 be termed a "Western" in the cowboy and gunslinger type-vein? Stephen Rea thinks not, but Daly has labelled the film "a potato western", stating that the film’s key inspirations included Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. Declan Quinn’s bleached out greyscale cinematography is stunning – a remarkable Irish translation of the vast, bleak vistas we recognise from American Westerns.

The bonds between men, sometimes with erotic overtones, are usually at the core of Westerns and the complex relationship between Feeney and Hannah follows this pattern. And, like most Westerns, Black ’47 has a woeful problem with gender, featuring almost no women.

It’s striking that almost none of the film’s reviews have considered the importance of the Irish west to Black '47

There are two key reasons why we might view Black ’47 as a Western: its deep investments in revenge and violence. The cultural critic Richard Slotkin argues Westerns are driven by the concept of "regeneration through violence". Feeney’s quest for justice for his family – and by extension, the Irish people – is the perfect example of a revenge narrative.

Although nuanced, Daly’s film does not spare us from the horrors of the Famine and British colonial rule. We witness the brutality of the Irish Constabulary protecting British landowner’s interests, the cruelty of the military and stockpiles of grain being sent overseas while the Irish starve. Using tropes and ideas from the Western to explore the difficult relationship between Ireland and Britain is something other writers and artists have done too, including Paul Muldoon, Elaine Reichert and Tom Murphy. 

From RTÉ Radio One's Ryan Tubridy Show, an interview with Black '47 director Lance Daly

It’s striking that almost none of the film’s reviews have considered the importance of the Irish west to Daly’s film and the seminal role of the west in the Irish national imagination. In both Ireland and the United States, the west has been fundamental to national self-image.

In Ireland, this fascination with the west goes back to antiquity, with pagan mythology feeding into the idea that there was something more authentically "Irish" to be found in the west. Colonisation also contributed to this, as the east became associated with British rule. The Irish language, which had been in decline since the 17th century, was able to survive for longer in the western counties so, from a linguistic perspective, there was some truth to the idea that west was the "real" Ireland. 

Black ’47 draws on these ideas about the Irish west and plays with tropes of the American Western

The pinnacle of the obsession with the west happened during the Irish Literary Revival at the turn of the w0th century, when writers sought to reclaim and bolster a sense of Irish identity through cultural nationalism. The west was vital to this project and primary figures from the Revival, W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and Douglas Hyde (one of the founders of Conradh na Gaeilge), all wrote works inspired by the west.

The most iconic depiction of the west from this time is arguably J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World (1907), which presents us with an image of a wild, lawless and violent Ireland, and a young man, Christy Mahon, who claims he has killed his father. Such depictions of the Irish west find an echo in the work of the contemporary playwright (and Hollywood moviemaker), Martin McDonagh, who is, interestingly, also deeply inspired by the same Western directors – Peckinpah and Leone – that Daly cites.

From RTÉ TEN, a report on the Dublin premiere of Black '47

Black ’47 draws on these ideas about the Irish west and plays with tropes of the American Western. At one point, Lord Kilmichael (Jim Broadbent) declares he "long[s] to see the day when a Celtic Irishman is as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian in Manhattan", drawing a clear connection between the two wests. Manhattan may not be part of the imaginative terrain of the American west, but the Native American has a central role to play in Western.

This is where we need to start being careful with slippery analogies. Such talk and ideas were fundamental to 19th century British imperialism, but we need to proceed cautiously when approaching such logic today. Race and ethnicity are at the heart of the Western: it is a genre that dramatises the "conquering" of the Frontier and the genocide of an indigenous population. Black ‘47’s director suggests that his film is "almost an anti-western in that it is told from the side of the Apaches" because the Western is about "the killing of the natives".

From RTÉ Radio One's Arena, a review of Black '47 by Maia Mathieu and Paul Whitington

The devastation of British colonialism and the famine should be acknowledged, but we must be critical about laying claim to histories and narratives of suffering that are not our own. Emily Mark-Fitzgerald highlights that Black ’47 can be viewed in some ways "as historical tragedy screened through the nationalist lens of subsequent generations" and one wonders what Daly’s intention is by using such ethnically-inflected language. The director and cast also spoke how Frecheville looked "too Irish" to play the British soldier Pope because of his ginger beard and, in an important early scene, we meet a Young Irelander with auburn hair.

Such "Celtic coding" isn’t particularly productive and might actually be an internationalisation of the kinds of ideas that the British propagated about its Celtic fringe (including Scotland and Wales) in the 19th century, when red hair was used to mark out those deemed to be "racially inferior". Black ’47 is a gripping and satisfying depiction of a particularly horrific moment in Irish history, but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ask questions about who is included in this Irish history and whose stories are still untold. 

Dr Alison Garden is currently an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities Institute at UCD and will be a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at Queen’s University, Belfast from October 2018.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ