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The Banshees of Inisherin

Terri Murray thinks the film perfectly captures the zeitgeist [CONTAINS SPOILERS].

“And maybe there are banshees too. I just don’t think they scream to portend death anymore. I think they just sit back amused, and observe.”
(Colm in The Banshees of Inisherin)

At first glance, The Banshees of Inisherin (2022) is a ‘bromance breakup saga’ drawn on the small canvas of its titular fictional island. There, in 1923, the inhabitants churn through quotidian pursuits while the Irish Civil War rages on the mainland. Martin McDonagh’s wise fable plumbs the depths of human nature and illustrates why and how ordinary people stumble into mischief and mass destruction, so it is a perennial parable.

Padraic (Colin Farrell), is a humble and completely inoffensive fellow. As an everyman, there is ostensibly nothing to dislike about him. Yet his innocuous but bland existence is thrown off balance in the first act when his best friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) unceremoniously decides, with no animosity, that he simply ‘doesn’t like’ Padraic anymore, and so won’t be drinking down the pub with him as has been usual. Padraic’s ever more desperate response to Colm’s rejection escalates into an existential crisis that one can’t but watch with fascinated recognition. Padraic goes through the usual stages of grief, starting with disbelief and denial – at first convincing himself that Colm’s rejection is an April Fool’s ruse. But when the penny drops that Colm’s snub is real, Padraic’s response transforms into anger, and ultimately into a foetid depression, eating away at his character and twisting him to destruction.

There is tragedy in this response, because if Padraic could only distance himself from the immediate sting of the rejection, he could receive Colm’s all too honest appraisal of his character as a gift. Padraic could choose to learn from Colm’s exemplary reverence for life. Colm’s raison d’etre is composing, playing, and teaching music for the fiddle. His music is the life of the pub, and an inspiration to listeners and co-creators. But making things means choosing – and all choice involves inevitable destruction, since at the same time it is a negation of that which has not been chosen.

Colm, who secretly wrestles with depression, has come to realise that life is too short and too precious to waste on idle chit-chat with his former buddy, when he could be adding something of value to the world: “And by Wednesday there’ll be a new tune in the world, which wouldn’t’ve been there if I’d spent the week listening to your bollocks.” Like the founder of the S ō t ō Zen school of Buddhism, D ō gen Zenji, Colm exhibits a profound self-knowledge that allows him to forget himself and become absorbed in artistic creation. This attitude is resonant of D ō gen’s insight that “Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken! Take heed, do not squander your life!” Indeed, two leitmotifs run through the film: the sound of cannon and rifle fire from the war on the mainland, and the chiming of clocks. Both portend death, reminding us of life’s transience.

Unfortunately, in contrast to Colm, Padraic’s egocentrism makes him defensive, and incapable of honest self-evaluation. So all-consuming is his wounded ego that he loses perspective not only on the value of his own life, but also on other people’s needs and motives. When Padraic’s sister Siobhan responds positively to Colm’s wake-up call and decides to leave Inisherin to pursue her passion for literature, Padraic can yet again only lament his own loss, and is incapable of celebrating her opportunity. Both she and her brother like to read; but while books have made Siobhan both highly intelligent and sufficiently passionate to become a librarian on the mainland, Padraic has used books as a mere idle amusement, an escape from self-improvement.

Despite Padraic’s persistent struggle with Colm’s indifference to him, Colm makes it abundantly clear that he bears no grudge towards him, nor does he have any ill-will towards Padraic. Apart from no longer wanting to waste precious time on Padraic’s dull chatter, Colm’s behaviour towards him is the epitome of compassion. Colm honestly says that he has a tremendous sense of time slipping away from him, and a desire to spend the time he has left in thinking and composing rather than listening to Padraic’s nattering; but he adds that he is genuinely sorry about it. There’s a scene at the church where Padraic can overhear some locals gossiping about him and his little donkey, and how Colm stopped talking to him overnight because he ‘always was a bit that way’ (dull). Colm shuts it down instantly by shouting “Stop talking about him!” When Padraic refuses to let the disengagement drop, Colm grows so desperate to be left in peace that, rather than threatening to hurt Padraic, he vows he’ll injure himself. He tells Padraic that if his ex-friend bothers him from that day on, he will use his shears to take a finger off his left, fiddle-player’s hand, and give it to him. He reiterates that he doesn’t want to hurt Padraic’s feelings, and doesn’t like doing so, but he feels that this drastic vow is the only option left to him. And ultimately, Colm does cut off, first one finger, and later the other four, because of Padraic’s insistence on talking to him. Despite this, Colm does not dwell on his own mutilation or grow hostile or resentful towards Padraic. He continues happily plucking out tunes on another musician’s fiddle with his good hand, and ‘conducts’ the student musicians with the bloody stump of his left hand.

Paradoxically, Padraic is the one who is embittered by this. He only thinks about how Colm’s finger inadvertently ‘killed’ his donkey, who attempted to swallow it. He’s so consumed with self-pity that he cannot see past himself, to Colm’s far greater loss. Even so, Colm stands up for Padraic when the callous police officer Peadar begins to pick on him: “Leave him Peadar. His donkey’s just died.” And when Peadar continues to taunt Padraic, Colm intervenes, smashing the old bully in the face. Later, Colm confesses his sins to the local priest, stating that one of them is “Definitely pride, this time. I killed a miniature donkey. It was an accident, but I do feel bad about it.” One cannot help but marvel at Colm’s curious lack of resentment and his almost holy detachment from his mortal flesh. Again, there are echoes of D ō gen Zenji here: “To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away.”

The Banshees of Inisherin
A fool and an ass
Banshees images G Searchlight Pictures 2022

‘Nice’ is Overrated

When Padraic is still in the early throes of heartbreak, he decides to ask the fellas at the pub whether they agree that he’s dull. They say Colm was ‘always more of a thinker’. When Padraic retorts that he thinks, locals Jonjo and Gerry say that his sister does, but that Padraic is “more one of life’s good guys.”

Not long afterwards, Padraic, still wallowing in his own stew, drunkenly confronts Colm at the pub. He says Colm ‘used to be nice’ but now he is not nice. “Ah well then,” says Colm, “I guess niceness just doesn’t last then, does it, Padraic?” He then explains that what does last is music, and paintings, and poetry, that no one ever remembers any historical person for how nice they were. There are shades here of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883): “And, whoever must be a creator in good and evil, verily, he must first be an annihilator and break values. Thus, the highest evil belongs to the highest goodness: but this is creative.” Yet despite the inevitable destruction that is part and parcel of creativity, Colm takes the destruction upon himself rather than inflicting it on others. He never demonizes Padraic, nor seeks revenge. Colm’s destruction of their friendship is amoral insofar as it is a by-product of his creative needs, and is not intended for its own sake.

This re-evaluation of ‘niceness’ is very well timed in an era where ubiquitous rainbow-festooned Orwellian platitudes like ‘Be Kind’ now pass for meaningful discourse. Self-censoring any dissenting opinion that might be construed as offensive to someone seems to be a new civic virtue. I am reminded of what Manhattan Institute fellow, Leor Sapir, recently said in a Savage Minds podcast interview. The context was a discussion about transgender policy, but it could just as easily have been any controversial public issue:

“So many of the policies on the ground depend on left of center voters who are totally uninformed about the particulars… who just want to be kind. For them, all of morality reduces to the imperative ‘be kind’. And ‘be kind’ they interpret as ‘don’t be judgemental’. And ‘don’t be judgemental’ they interpret as ‘don’t care what somebody else is doing if it doesn’t affect you personally’. At bottom it’s a kind of apathy. The philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville famously warned in his book Democracy in America that this is what democratic societies tend to produce – this kind of individualism and apathy – a total lack of concern for anything that doesn’t directly affect me.”

Padraic is only ‘nice’ because he is too dull to risk any value judgement or make any choice, as though he wants everything and everybody to be happy – a non-choosing that ultimately costs him his own happiness. Choosing everything is identical to choosing nothing. It is the epitome of blandness because nothing is permitted to stand out or above or in preference to anything else. If all is of equal value, values lose any meaning.

The Banshees of Inisherin
“Two Irishmen walk into a bar…”

What is Evil?

Near the end of the film, Padraic, consumed by resentment, loses all control of himself and burns down Colm’s house with Colm inside it. In the final scene we see that Colm has managed to escape. He’s standing on the shoreline as his cottage smoulders to ashes with all his music inside. When Padraic approaches Colm, all the older man has to say is, “I am sorry about your donkey, Padraic. Honestly I am.” Padraic’s reply however shows that he’s still cognizant only of the impact on himself: “I was nice before all this. I don’t know what I am now.” Colm reassures him that he is still nice; he is ‘just dull’. He also thanks Padraic for looking after the dog rather than letting it burn with the house.

Most would consider Padraic’s act as evil. It’s tempting to see evildoers as possessed, inhuman, psychotic, or as otherwise having fixed ‘evil’ personality traits. Nietzsche was sceptical about this sort of outlook, partly because he saw it as having been misused by weak people to demonise their enemies – precisely what Colm, in his wisdom, refuses to do to Padraic. By contrast, the projection of ‘evil’ onto those we resent is captured vividly in the ‘Not nice’ charge that Padraic imputed to Colm. As the story unfolds, we perceive that this is an inversion of the truth. Nietzsche argued that the concept of evil arose from envy, hatred, and resentment; he uses the French term ‘ ressentiment’ to label an emotion that is easy to recognise in Padraic’s all-too-human suffering. It is tempting to view Colm’s self-isolating as insensitive, or certainly the opposite of how any ‘good’ friend might be expected to act. However, Nietzsche believed that the concepts of good and evil contribute to an unhealthy view of life which judges relief from suffering as more valuable than creative self-expression and accomplishment. For this reason, Nietzsche believed that we should seek to move beyond such judgements.

Hannah Arendt would probably agree with Nietzsche that the evil man’s core attribute is not usually cruelty or maliciousness, but his sheer banality [see elsewhere in this very Issue, Ed]. Arendt described Adolf Eichmann, organiser of the transport to the concentration camps, as a ‘terrifyingly normal’ human being who simply did not think very deeply about what he was doing. Her insight on totalitarianism is that it’s not about monstrous people: it’s about normal people who stick to a dehumanizing way of thinking. Banshees itself hints that evil is the product of people who are exceedingly dull precisely because they are insensitive to anything beyond their own noses.

Evil could also be defined as the absence of all that is life-affirming and creative, but is simultaneously attached to and dependent upon these things, in a negative way. It is pretty obvious that the flipside of Padraic’s apparent hatred is his deep love for Colm. Having little vitality or energy of his own, an ‘evil’ man both loves and resents everything and everyone that does.

Incidentally, this is a key feature of narcissistic personality disorder. Narcissistic injury is a wound to such an individual’s fragile, dysfunctional ego. Psychology professor Dr Sam Vaknin has written about how narcissists are parasites on other people. In courting praise and affection, the narcissist risks rejection, criticism, even ridicule and mockery. He is aware of this dependence and of the risks associated with it, and resents his weakness, but dreads possible disruptions in the flow of his narcissistic ‘supply’ of external affirmation. He lacks self-knowledge, so has no sense of his own creative potential, and is the slave of a pathological, all-consuming envy. Consequently, he can only see the vital, thriving, creative life-giving forces in the world as a distorting mirror in which he sees his own inadequacy. Because the narcissist cannot transcend his ego, he doesn’t see others; he sees himself in them. However, the ‘self’ that he sees when he looks at others is not his best self – the self that loses ‘itself’ in the beauty of another’s creative gifts – but a twisted and resentful version. Yet he can’t stop looking because the very people he holds in contempt are also the source of his narcissistic affirmation.

The assessment of evil as negatively dependent upon that which possesses goodness also has some overlap with both the Neoplatonist and Augustinian views. Contrary to Manichean dualism, in which the universe is the product of an ongoing battle between two coequal forces of good and evil, Neoplatonists do not see evil as an independent substance or property. Instead, they conceive it as a privation of goodness (Plotinus, Enneads, I, 8). For instance, the evil of sickness is just the privation of health, and sin consists in a privation of virtue. All of God’s creation is good, but evil is a lack of goodness.

In Irish folklore, a banshee is a female spirit who heralds the death of a family member, usually by screaming or wailing. Just so, The Banshees of Inisherin is a profoundly penetrating allegory about the psychology of human destruction, as well as a rousing existentialist call to embrace our potential and make something of the precious short time we have.

© Dr Terri Murray 2023

Terri Murray is an Anglo-American educator who has spent the past twenty-two years corrupting the youth of London. She read philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London, and Oxford Brookes University. She’s the author of Thinking Straight About Being Gay: Why it Matters if We’re Born That Way (2015); Identity, Islam and the Twilight of Liberal Values (2018); and Studying Feminist Film Theory (2019).

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