Directed by Lance Daly, the historical drama Black 47 centres around a battle-hardened Connaught Ranger, Feeney (played by the Australian actor James Frecheville), who deserts his unit and returns home to Connemara at the height of this most calamitous period in Ireland’s history.
Upon discovering that his mother has died, and that his brother has been hanged for resisting eviction, Feeney resolves to take his remaining kinsfolk to America. Fate intervenes however, and having witnessed true cruelty first-hand, Feeney sets about exacting a bloody vengeance on those responsible for the tragedy that has been befallen his people. This challenge to the authorities cannot go unchecked, and Feeney’s former comrade from the war in Afghanistan, Hannah (played by familiar face Hugo Weaving), is employed to track down his old friend.
In spite of the abysmal standard of history education here, the majority of Irish people know the central truths of An Gorta Mór, which need no elaboration here. It is incredibly strange, though, that an event which shaped our nation like no other has not been dramatised in film before. Even within our literature, the Famine is left mostly untouched, though it is frequently alluded to. The death of a million Irish men, women and children, and the departure of over a million more from these shores, is a catastrophe that has been beyond the imagination of most of our storytellers.
Its long-term effects can scarcely be over-exaggerated, however. Ireland has never fully recovered in population terms, and possibly never will. Its remnants are all around us, and yet little reflected upon. Workhouses and Famine memorials are dotted throughout the country, along with Famine graveyards. These small empty fields contain the remains of thousands of dead: too numerous to be listed, too deprived to have obtained headstones.
The challenge of bringing this hellish reality to light has fallen to Daly and his crew, and the final product is highly admirable in many ways.
Black 47 is the result of exhaustive research, involving much interaction with historians, as well as visits to Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, which houses the most extensive collection of Famine-related art work in the world. Painstaking analysis of contemporary visual representations has been undertaken, to discover how people at the time tended to be dressed, what sort of homes they lived in, and so on. This certainly pays off.
The haunting beauty of Connemara is a sight to behold, particularly given the contrast between the glorious landscape and the appalling human misery all around. Enthusiasts for Irish culture will also appreciate being transported to a place where Irish is the spoken language, and where soulful Irish melodies are sung before a roaring fire, where entire families huddle to stay warm.
The central narrative is a compelling one. Frecheville’s solitary Feeney is chased by Hannah, who, like his erstwhile comrade, struggles with past demons. The frequent action scenes are well-performed, and the villains – the cruel landowner Lord Kilmichael, and the self-righteous British officer Pope, whom Hannah is accompanying on his quest to find Feeney – are suitably loathsome.
However, a story such as this is as only as good as its protagonist. Feeney’s actions speak louder than his words, and his losses are terrible, but it is difficult to establish any emotional connection with such a distant figure.
Black 47’s failures are, for the most part though, not the fault of the leading man or those who produced it. This is a low-budget movie, part-funded by the Irish Film Board. While the effort to depict the rural peasantry accurately produces some good results, without considerable expense on large-scale sets or computer generated imagery, no movie could come close to showing what the Famine actually looked like.
This is particularly true when one considers the situation in Connemara, which appears to be very sparsely populated in Black 47. Yet Galway county had a population of over 440,000 in 1841, compared to just over 250,000 in 2016. Isolated areas which are now unoccupied would have teemed with people, packed together as they were in tiny homes spread all across the land, which often consisted of mere holes in the ground.
By minimising the scale of the population, the film’s makers have also – through necessity and through no fault of their own – minimised the gravity of what truly occurred. Sadly, they lacked the financial resources to create a truly authentic visual experience, and unless Hollywood producers decide to produce a Famine drama, Daly’s artistic vision might not be bested in future.
It would be difficult to produce any substantive drama about 19th century Ireland which does not address the two elephants in the room: the role of Protestant churchmen, and the question of armed rebellion.
While none of the central characters in Black 47 is motivated by faith, in an interesting move, one very contentious religious issue is highlighted: souperism.
Protestant missionaries – clearly imbued with an Anglicising purpose in linguistic policy as well – are shown dispensing alms to impoverished Irish people on the condition that they renounce their Catholic faith. Feeney’s mother, the hero finds out, died rather than follow the apostasy of others and risk her damnation. Revisionists in recent times – Eoghan Harris of The Sunday Independent, for instance – have devoted considerable efforts to downplaying such inconvenient facts of history, but this did occur.
Far more emphasis is placed on the political questions facing Famine-era Ireland. The film begins with the interrogation of a Young Ireland prisoner, and several of Feeney’s pursuers speak in dark terms of the Ribbonmen whose violent resistance threatened to upset the status quo. Other characters bemoan the fact that Feeney ever enlisted in the British forces.
Feeney’s bloody rampage leaves the audience with a key question, one which is not posed openly but which is clearly in the mind of the director: should more have followed his lead? Why did a nation in such desperation not rebel against its occupiers?
There are many possible answers: the lack of awareness as to what was happening elsewhere in the country; the limited influence and reach of revolutionary movements such as the Young Irelanders; the restraining influence of the Catholic clergy; the physical weakness of a starved population; and perhaps above all, the knowledge that such a rebellion would have been crushed, and crushed mercilessly.
If ever there were a case where violence was justified, 1847 Ireland was it. And yet perhaps we should be glad that our ancestors chose not to engage in it.
Nor does Black 47 argue that they should have. Unlike Ken Loach in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Daly chooses not to pronounce upon what should have happened, and the film’s portrayal of Feeney’s choice to use force is ultimately an ambiguous one.
Even for someone who is free of Loach’s ideological extremism, historical film-making is a very difficult art. When done well, such films can become valuable resources for students of a particular era, event or figure. Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi is one such example; Dunkirk is a more recent one.
A day may come when a film is made that fully captures what happened during the Irish Famine, and explains to generations of Irish viewers exactly how significant these years were, and why they should never be forgotten.
Black 47 isn’t it. But it’s worth seeing nonetheless.