The Banshees of Inisherin: Morals, Niceness, and the Truth of the Times

A new film poses some interesting religious questions even if, in the end, its nexus to religion is faux.

The Banshees of Inisherin is a new film from Ireland which premiered to critical acclaim in New York in October and is making its way around the country. It poses some interesting religious questions even if, in the end, its nexus to religion is faux. The film bills itself as a “dark comedy.”

Set in 1923, as the Irish Civil War is winding down, the film centers on its own uncivil war between Colm Doherty and Pádraic Súilleabháin on an island off the west coast of Ireland. They are old friends, but Colm suddenly severs all ties, including conversation, with Pádraic, ostensibly because, as he tells Pádraic, “I don’t like you no more.”  

We learn that the elder Colm apparently fancies himself a promising Mozart of the Irish fiddle. He now regards Pádraic as “dull” and calculates that their conversations waste time that he could be using to writing timeless airs. He imagines that, like Mozart’s music, his airs will survive him. Pádraic notes that, before his quest for immortality, Colm—like himself—used to just be “nice.” Colm blows that off: “Do you know who we remember for how nice they were in the 17th century? No one.”

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While I admit there’s no Encyclopedia of Nice People, let’s admit two truths.  Even most of the non-nice people who get space in the encyclopedia pull about a quarter of a page max. And moral qualities leave a stain on, if not overshadow, the professional achievements in most people’s stories. No biography accentuates Nero’s violin prowess.

The film was a lesson in the snowball effects of sin. Colm is proud in the sinful sense of that term. He might be a good fiddle player, but nobody’s going to remember his four-finger fortes. They will remember that his hand was deformed by his own hand over a stupid quarrel, which I guess the writer thought is the comedic aspect of the film.  

Colm is a weird sort of island in himself. He lives alone with his dog. While cutting off Pádraic, he still goes to the pub and cultivates a coterie of student fiddlers. By ostracizing Pádraic, Colm makes him an island on a very small island and, despite Pádraic’s efforts to restore things to what they were, both men’s isolation deepens.

Colm, probably suffering depression, rebuffs Pádraic’s efforts, eventually threatening to cut off one of his own fingers and throw it at Pádraic’s door every time Pádraic still bothers him. By the film’s end, Colm is down five fingers.

Happily, Colm limited himself to digital rather than nasal mutilation. An earlier time would have recoiled at the idea that cutting off your nose to spite your face is funny. Is it a testimony to the nihilistic current in postmodern culture that we’re supposed to think that’s amusing? Don’t get me wrong, there are funny and great one-liners in the film; but their presence, at best, lightens a tragedy spiraling out of control. 

Eventually, after Pádraic’s sister, Siobhán, moves out, he finds his beloved donkey dead, having choked on one of Colm’s fingers that the fiddler of Inisherin hurled at his door. That, in turn, sets off another cycle of sin, as Pádraic calmly but publicly informs Colm he intends to burn down his house—preferably with him, but not his dog, in it. At the appointed hour, he does, taking the dog home with him after checking the window to note Colm sitting calmly on his rocker in the smoldering cottage.

The next day, when Pádraic comes to survey the damage, he discovers that Colm apparently got off his rocker; he finds him standing on the beach next to the smoky ruin. Master and dog reunite. Colm and Pádraic promise ongoing hostilities while expressing gratitude for tending the mutt. The end.

The problem of male loneliness is prominent, but never really well addressed, in Banshee. That’s too bad, because loneliness and social isolation are growing modern maladies, especially among working and middle-class males. Colm is depressed. Pádraic—who lives with his sister (until she moves out) and donkey—is clearly a “nice guy” who’s clearly been the recipient, from men and women, of “you’re a nice guy, but….” Dominic, the policeman’s son with his own sexual problems, is his father’s punching bag. After Siobhán rebuffs his interest, he suicidally “slips” into the lake.

Perhaps the filmmaker thought the film spoke for itself. But, like the taciturn males in the film, some speaking would have been welcome. Perhaps the filmmaker felt that having early-20th-century Irish men talk about their isolation would have been out of the times. Maybe. But the film is out of its times anyway.  

This film is arguably anachronistic: it projects modernity into the past and then tries to blame the past for modernity’s problems. In that, it’s more like Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, where the faith dilemmas of a 20th-century postmodern Swedish Protestant are dressed up in knight’s armor and set in medieval Scandinavia.  

Catholicism largely functions as atmosphere for Banshee, like the green fields of Ireland, the crosses, crucifixes, and Marian statues provide more local color than meaning. Colm’s two confessions are opportunities for laughs and vulgarity not serious questions: can one imagine priest and penitent hurling audible “f-ings” at each other in a confessional on a Sunday in 1920s rural Ireland? (The gratuitous “f-word,” along with the self-maimings, are probably also why the film was rated “R”). Maybe in postmodern 2020s Dublin, but the 1920s west of Ireland? Colm and Pádraic’s problems may be the film’s plot, but—the confessional scene notwithstanding—they are never seen as sins.

I hoped for a moment of seriousness when the priest questions Colm why he’s not talking to Pádraic, only to be asked, “That’s not a sin, is it, Father?”  The priest replies, “It’s not a sin, but it’s not nice, either.” 

Well, in the manualist theology of the times, a priest would have told a penitent that refusing even minimal civilities to someone, absent a serious reason, is sinful. Whether it’s “nice” might matter to the contemporary Church of Nice, preoccupied with keeping things that way. That, however, is a postmodern “morality,” not one from a century ago.

The Church and religion appear in Banshee as props, as stage decorations rather than an actor. I am not Irish, so I defer to those more familiar with its culture. But I find it hard to believe that, as an institution that exerted such influence at the founding of independent Ireland—supposedly the setting of this film—the Church’s primary contribution to a local quarrel would have been limited to some confessional punchlines. 

Again, today’s religiously-alienated Irish—especially its cultural elites—prefer a Church that provides local color rather than faith and morals; but it’s unjust to time-warp that caricature back a century.  

[Image Credit: Searchlight Pictures]


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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