British review of Ken Loach’s award-winning War of Independence film The Wind That Shakes the Barley reflected a general reluctance in British society to accept that Crown forces had embarked on a brutal campaign in Ireland between 1919 and 1921, according to a prominent historian.
Dr Edward Madigan of Royal Holloway University in London said the critical and popular reaction to Loach’s film reflected both a British ignorance of the conflict and a reluctance to recognize that the British military could and did behave. so scandalously.
“The reaction of the British press and some British politicians has been overwhelmingly antagonistic – the idea that the portrayal of Blacks and Tans torturing and summarily executing prisoners and harassing people was anathema to commentators in Britain, and not only in the right-wing press. . “
Dr Madigan cited Daily Mail criticism that compared Loach to Nazi propagandist filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl with the caveat that Riefenstahl was more talented while Tory politician Michael Gove described the film as “anti-British propaganda. extreme ”.
Participating in a discussion of British perceptions of the War of Independence at the West Cork History Festival, Dr Madigan noted that modern ignorance of the conflict contrasted with the enormous contemporary coverage he had received in the British press at the ‘era.
“It is important when we consider the way the British reacted to the war in Ireland and the way they interpreted the conduct of the Crown Forces in Ireland that we recognize that all their perceptions of it were informed by their World War I experience, “he said.
“Millions of people across Britain mourned the loss of some 780,000 men from all these islands and especially the idea that these men, the Fallen, had given their lives in a great struggle to defend civilization was a source of real comfort to those bereaved at the time.
“This idea is inscribed on the side of the cenotaph in Whitehall, the glorious dead – the conflict had to be considered glorious for the sacrifice of the dead to be redeemed and this narrative worked because it had a base in fact as far away as many Britons were concerned.
“The British viewed World War I as a war against tyranny, and the murder of thousands of unarmed civilians by invading German soldiers in Belgium and France in 1914 really reinforced British opinion that it was of a moral crusade against the Germans. military aggression.
Similar behavior to Germans
However, a major difficulty arose for the British public embracing such a consolation tale when they had to try to reconcile it with reports that British soldiers and ex-servicemen serving with the Black and Tans and the Auxiliary in Ireland behaved in the same way as the Germans.
“When there were reports of an escalation of violence in Ireland, where British servicemen were committing atrocities against civilians similar to those perpetrated by German soldiers in Belgium and France in 1914, well, it was profoundly disturbing to so many British commentators. “
Dr Madigan said the UK media covered the conflict in Ireland with admirable frankness and honesty, focusing first on the violence perpetrated by the IRA, but then not hesitating to report with the same honesty the campaign of retaliation by Crown forces.
“Much of the commentary initially focuses on the IRA killings and other violence and intimidation by the IRA and IRA are routinely denounced as ‘The Murder Gang’, as ‘Cowards and thugs’, but the The tone of UK press coverage has changed quite markedly in recent years. summer and early fall 1920.
Dr Madigan said Balbriggan’s sack in North Dublin on September 20, 1920, when Gormanston camp auxiliaries killed two local men and burned more than 50 locals in retaliation to the IRA killing two RIC men, seemed to have a decisive impact on the audience. opinion in Britain.
“The Manchester Guardian published a damning editorial two days later on the Crown Forces and their campaign, titled ‘An Irish Louvain’ in direct reference to the Flemish town of Leuven sacked by the Germans in 1914,” did he declare.
“A week later, The Times denounced the British Army after a troop of horsemen went on a rampage in Fermoy, ‘A national disgrace’ – media coverage unanimous enough to condemn Crown Forces and government to support a retaliation policy either tacitly or on command.
Dr Madigan said coverage of such events along with the Cork fire in 1920 led to a wave of protests in Britain with commentators including journalists, clergy and trade unionists who had the experience. of the Great War, drawing unfavorable comparisons with German soldiers in 1914.
“From the fall of 1920 until the truce of July 1921, the actions of the Crown Forces were regularly denounced by British commentators, the press, in parliament and virtually every public forum – it is truly striking how how unanimous this denunciation is.
“And this criticism is very diverse – it comes from commentators who are an integral part of the British establishment and have no sympathy for Irish nationalism, let alone Irish republicanism or Irish aspirations for independence, but are dismayed. by what they see happening.
“The British had emerged from the Great War on high moral ground with a perception of themselves as defenders of the weak against military aggression, but the violence unleashed by Crown forces against civilians in Ireland in 1920 and 1921 undermined that narrative.
“And worse, it seemed to dishonor the war dead – it’s no coincidence, people like Arthur Henderson of the Labor Party and Herbert Asquith, both grieving fathers, were among the critical voices in the House of Commons. common during discussions on the policy of retaliation in Ireland. “
Dr Madigan said that public stigma did not limit state violence initially because violence escalated towards the end of 1920, but by the spring of 1921 the British government could no longer ignore criticism, especially from the clergy, including the Archbishop of Canterbury.
“The cacophony of critics is not the only factor in accepting a truce, but it is a key factor and accepting a truce is almost anathema to the military as it legitimizes the IRA’s struggle and the larger Republican movement that it had previously refused to recognize as legitimate. “