A Great and Terrible Beauty

By Chelsea Grieger '12

Irish Literature

How I came to nominate this essay is a strange story. I had already picked a couple essays that I thought might be worthy of inclusion in the Writing Anthology. And then during the portfolio review that the English Department faculty conduct twice a year, I happened to be one of the readers for Chelsea’s portfolio. To read her portfolio turned out to be a “Eureka” moment for me. I had always admired Chelsea’s writing (having had her in several classes), but when I read the two essays in her portfolio that she had written in my Irish Literature class, I suddenly realized she was even better than I thought. Chelsea’s a very hard-working student and her writing has the same workman-like craftsmanship. I thought that “A Great Terrible Beauty,” which boldly compares a poem (W. B. Yeats’ “Easter 1916”) to a film (The Wind That Shakes the Barley), was not only insightful and creative, but also impressive in its probing of common ground between the Yeats poem and Ken Loach film, both of which try to capture a key event in Irish history. The opportunity to reacquaint myself with Chelsea’s work as a result of the portfolio review was an unexpected pleasure. I’m happy for her that her paper can reach a wider audience.

-Michael Harris

But blood for blood without remorse I’ve taken at Oulart Hollow

And laid my true love’s clay-cold corpse

Where I full soon may follow

As ‘round her grave I wander drear

Noon, night and morning early

With breaking heart when e’er I hear

The wind that shakes the barley.

-Robert Dower Joyce,

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

Ireland struggled with its freedom from Britain since the beginning of British rule in the country. From the start of 20th century, the makings of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) were ready to fight for their lost country. The people of Ireland were caught in the midst of a war for independence and then a civil war that brought bloodshed to the entire Free State. The Irish-made film, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” and the poem by William Butler Yeats,

“Easter, 1916,” interconnect as they portray changes in Ireland as well as varied and confused feelings towards the rebels and rebellions in Ireland. “Easter, 1916” deals with the emotions that Yeats felt towards the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. On Easter Monday, a group of The Irish Volunteers and The Irish Citizens’ Army took over the General Post Office, protesting against the British government. The British troops stopped the takeover in less than one week and captured many of the rebels. Fifteen of the leaders were executed in response to their hostile actions. Hundreds more were killed, including civilians. Because Yeats knew many of the rebellion leaders, he was particularly affected by the tragic end of the familiar men. After the executions took place, the Irish people began to support the cause for which the rebels died. Set just a few years later, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” follows members of the IRA, a product of The Irish Volunteers and The Irish Citizens’ Army, as they fight the British and one another to convince the people that a treaty established with Britain is not in Ireland’s best interest.

In the first stanza of the poem, Yeats describes the people and “vivid faces” he encounters in the streets (Line 2). The people are seen on a backdrop that is dreary and ordinary – they are commonplace. These individuals mean nothing to Yeats in the streets, just as he says in lines 6 and 8; he exchanges “polite meaningless words” with people that he does not truly know. The lead character in the beginning of the film, Damien, finds himself getting ready to leave on a train to London to pursue a career as a doctor. The train driver, Dan, is beaten by the Black and Tans (the brutal British police force) because he refuses to carry British troops on the train. Damien feels a sense of pride for the man – for the Irish – similar to Yeats when he passes strangers in the street. They know that the strangers are Irish and that is what unifies them for a common cause. All of the men that spent their nights “[a]round the fire at the club” had to modify their lives drastically to fight for their freedom (12). This rebellion becomes a part of the everyday living of the ordinary people.

After Easter of 1916, the people of Ireland looked to the IRA to free their country (before the civil war), as seen in the film. Damien lives “where motley is worn” because he does not take the Irish independence movement seriously at first (14). He wants to study in England and leave his life in Ireland behind. But his brother, Teddy, changes Damien’s life forever by having him join the IRA and train young men to fight discreetly in the Irish countryside. Immense transformation is building throughout the entire movie, and Yeats recognizes that in Ireland as well: “All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born” (15-16). This brutal change – uprising – is seen in Micheail, a young man in the film, when he refuses to say his name in English for the Black and Tans. He is beaten to death for speaking Gaelic, the Irish language. This small act of revolt in the early 1920s is something that the Irish thought was loyal and necessary. At the time, the people of Ireland were being born to a great and beautiful country, but many of them were dying horrific deaths to save the country they love. That situation in itself is a terrible beauty.

In the next stanza of “Easter, 1916,” Yeats describes some of the leaders of the rebellion and how it has changed them and their lives. The first lines depict a woman who had a prominent role in the uprising, Countess Markievicz. She was spared execution because she was a woman, but Yeats mentions her to show that the role of women in the rebellion was still important. Sinead, Damien’s love interest, and Micheail’s older sister, is a strong female figure in the movie. She houses, feeds, and supports the IRA, possibly similar to Markievicz. Sinead’s loved ones die (including Micheail, her brother) and she is tortured, but she remains a part of the revolution. As the stanza moves on, Yeats tries to reconcile his feelings for the rebellion because he believes in independence, but maybe, not all of their methods. He calls a man “[a] drunken, vainglorious lout,” but still counts him a part of the cause because he was an Irish revolutionary (32). In the film, there is a different attitude towards fellow IRA members. For example, Chris Reilly, a young IRA member, reveals the hiding place of their weapons store that leads to the deaths of several IRA members. For such an offense, Damien must kill Reilly, to which he tells Dan, “I’m going to shoot this man in the head. I’ve known Chris Reilly since he was a child. I hope this Ireland we’re fighting for is worth it” (IMDb). There is a sense of devotion to the republican cause, but unlike Yeats’ approach of acceptance, the IRA will fire on their own, if they must, in “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.” Although Yeats may not personally like all of the martyrs he describes, they are all part of the Irish Revolution, so he memorializes them for their brave actions.

One of the underlying themes of the movie and the poem is that of change. In the third stanza of the poem, the stone that sits in the middle of the “living stream” disrupts the flow of the water (44). The clouds in the sky, the birds that fly, and the horses that return from the road are all examples of the innate flow of nature that moves around this stationary object – they “[c]hange minute by minute” (50). Seen in the movie, the Ireland that the Irish and IRA knew before is gone because of conflict. The country changes dramatically when Ireland signs a treaty with England, establishing peace, but also a “Free State” that would still report to the British government. Despite the fact that Teddy chalks the treaty up as a victory for Ireland, Damien remains convinced that it is not for the best. Ireland undergoes one of the largest changes yet – a civil war that will test the brothers’ loyalties. Yeats is saying this change is inevitable, but the stone is still there, disrupting the flow of the river. He contrasts the deaths of the rebellious leaders to nature, showing that life moves on, but their deaths (as well as the eventual death of Damien and other IRA members) are like that stone. Forever a stone – death cannot be changed.

As death takes its toll in Ireland, the civil war brings doubt about the IRA. The Irish army members are convinced that the Irish Free State will not bring them what they ultimately desired – a completely independent Ireland. Of the change to a Free State, Dan says, “If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, all you have done is change the accents of the powerful and the color of the flag” (IMDb). There really is no independence in the sense that the IRA dreamed. But, according to Teddy, Ireland will be able to rule itself after the World War. There is confusion among the people, and Yeats expresses that in the last stanza of his poem. The men that he mentions previously died, and he wants to understand their deaths in terms of the changing world. Yeats wonders “if excess of love / Bewildered them till they died?” (72-73). If any of the IRA members in the movie had not loved Ireland and their cause so much, they would have still been alive; the same can be said for the leaders of the Easter Rising. There are so many questions, and Yeats has a hard time coming to terms with sacrifice, wondering when enough is enough because “[t]oo long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart” (57-58). There is so much to lose, but the days are especially limited for the rebels.

This questioning attitude that emerges in Yeats’ poem has a profound effect on Yeats in the overall tone of the last lines of the poem. People often have dreams for a better future, but realize that there is no way to succeed; there may be that possibility, and Yeats ponders that thought because “[w]e know their dream; enough / To know they dreamed and are dead” (70-71). The idealism that many of the people felt gives Yeats the opportunity to reflect on that optimism. He has trouble understanding what the leaders were fighting for, and Damien struggles with that as well: “It’s easy to know what you are against, but quite another to know what you are for” (IMDb). Although Yeats may not have been able to predict a civil war at the time the poem was published, his views on a “terrible beauty” are certainly prevalent among the IRA members who refuse to lay down arms against the new Free State Army. The film captures misery, anger, justice, and the Irish find themselves in a situation that has changed their lives and leaves them dreaming for a better and more peaceful Ireland.

The film “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” and Yeats’ poem, “Easter, 1916,” share the thematic elements of inevitable change and depict the feelings of bewilderment that the Irish people have towards Ireland, the rebellions by the Irish Republican Army, and the civil war. But, Irish pride and love drive the rebellion leaders and characters of the film to fight against the injustices they saw in their government. While fighting heroically, Damien and the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916 could not escape death – the stone that changes the course of the river. The Irish fought with the British – and with one another – at great cost. Yeats ends his poem and repeats his conviction that “[a] terrible beauty is born,” leaving the reader to wonder if the beautiful dream that Damien and the leaders fought for is worth enduring a terrible nightmare.

Works Cited

“The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)-Memorable Quotes.” The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 1 Mar. 2011.