34 CinÉireann / Issue 9
In Black ’47, the land suddenly stopped yielding food for the native Irish people. Although this crisis was deepened and exacerbated by the British policy of casting the Irish out of their home and confiscating what little food they had, it still represented a fundamental horror. In order to survive, people need the land to provide them with food and material. The Irish landscape of Black ’47 has turned upon its people.
If anything, the nightmarish landscape feeds upon its people. The early sequence of Feeney returning home presents a glimpse of the sort of funeral service that many Irish peasants could expect; a reusable coffin with a trick bottom that dumps the body into a hole in the ground as if some sort of grim conveyor belt. Feeney himself visits the grave of his mother, another claimed by the land.
Indeed, there is so much death that the land seems gorged. It has had its fill, and cannot possibly take all those lost souls into its warm embrace. That early shot of the skull protruding from the dirty puddle suggests the ground has had its fill. Later in the film, Feeley returns to the destroyed family home to find his last two remaining relatives frozen dead above ground.
This perhaps reflects the ultimate inversion of the classic western dynamic within Black ’47. The classic American western is predicated upon the assumption of manifest destiny, the belief that the land rightfully belongs to the settlers who must impose civilisation upon the wilderness. The land belongs to these people by divine providence, by the mercy of an authority who – to quote the Great Seal – “favours [their] enterprise.”
In the American Western, the landscape serves as a crucible. It is a bountiful frontier, upon which men might find not only opportunity, but also themselves. In the American West, the soil offers more than literal nutrition, but also spiritual sustenance. The big fear in the American Western is that the land does not actually belong to the settlers, that the ancestors of those who claimed it might have to one day confront the horrors that were committed in taming and winning it.
Black ’47 suggests that an Irish western must be built on a different understanding. Black ’47 understands that the Irish have a deep and abiding connection to the land, certainly more than those who have attempted to colonise it could claim to have. However, there is also an underlying fear that the land itself might reject the Irish, that it might betray them, that the sustenance that it provides might turn to dirt in their hands.
Black ’47 offers a western turned upside down.