When I think of Irish history and the travails of the Irish people, I can’t help but want to repurpose what Porfirio Díaz allegedly said about Mexico: “So far from God, so close to Britain.”
The history of English, and later British, rule in that green isle is suffused with cruelty. Ireland has been described as Britain’s “laboratory of empire”. Ben Kiernan, author of Blood and Soil: a Global History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (2007), and the chair of the Genocide Studies Department at Yale, argues that there was a certain genocidal logic in Ireland that preceded what the British, and later Americans, did to the indigenous peoples of North America and Australasia.
The most infamous British atrocity is the Great Irish Famine, sometimes called the Irish Potato Famine, which lasted from 1845 to 1852. Black ’47 takes place in what is said to be the worst year of this catastrophe.
It is a truism that famine of this scale is never solely brought about by natural causes. Human callousness and human cruelty always have their hand to play in such events, be they in Ireland or Ukraine or Bengal or China. Here, the catalyst was the potato blight that affected a good portion of Europe more broadly, but was exacerbated by a British government that refused to send aid in the name of defending the free market. The ruling Tories in Westminster could not agree to repeal the Corn Laws, which drove up the price of bread, to help relief efforts. They even told the Ottoman Empire to reduce its cash donations so as to not embarrass the Crown. The sultan got around this by sending ships filled with food.
Black ’47 is visually bleak. Everything is tinted grey. There is very little color. It’s an aesthetic choice that gives proper gravitas to the blighted hellscape that was Ireland during the famine, when human lives withered like rotting weeds. Overall, the film struck me as being properly and effectively subdued. Never at any point does it become maudlin or melodramatic.
The story begins with Hannah, an investigator in British service (portrayed by Hugo Weaving), brutally interrogating a member of the Young Ireland movement. After doing his grisly duty there, he is assigned to hunt Feeney (James Frecheville), who has been terrorizing enforcers of British rule. The complexity of the situation plays out in these two characters: Hannah, the conflicted enforcer of empire, versus Feeney, the enraged victim of empire. Both performances are compelling.
Black ’47 can feel a bit like a slasher movie, with the serial killer being the vengeful Feeney and his victims being the callous British and Anglo-Irish landlords and enforcers. In this regard, this film shows very well what awful things the desperate and the downtrodden can do if they feel there are no better options left to them. The stark, uneasy tone that runs through the film really helps this sense along. You feel that Feeney might be lurking behind any wall and door. To quote a song from another people victimized by empire, “You can run on for a long time, let me tell you God Almighty will cut you down.”
At its core, Black ’47 is a scathing, seething diatribe against the very concept of empire. It shows the utter moral bankruptcy of the imperialist fantasy that a conquest can do anything good for the conquered. It is a cry of sympathy to those bearing the brunt of it, and searing invective to those that promote it. This is not an easy message, but it is one that is still relevant.