The Irish Goodbye in The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)

Endings are a selfish concept. Just because you have ended doesn’t mean it ends. As a favourite Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink quote of mine goes: “Death is only the end if you assume the story is about you”, and that assumption is crucial. Decay, growth, life, death. More like a violent dryer heating and pumping its contents than some gentle cycle sung about in Disney. Things don’t really end; they just continue to drag along in different shapes. Since ‘ending’ is a comforting illusion, how does one end a story? Some take a fairy tale angle, insisting that their characters lived “happily ever after”, whatever that means. It’s as vague as the other fairy tale bookend, the “once upon a time”, but allows the reader to implant whatever future they desire onto the characters. Marriage perhaps, peace. These endings, like any other, reflect their audience. Certain Irish stories offer a different picture, one I’ve studied in literature and family members. It might at times feel more bleak or unsatisfying, but it’s honest to each. The story ends abruptly, with things still happening, as they always will. There might be some resolution, but it’s not as tidy as most North American projects. The story will just stop and back away, leaving the characters to continue on, in light of what has happened, but also in spite.

One of the most famous examples of unending comes from Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable (1953), which ends with, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”. It speaks to the unrelenting and undefinable (hence the name), which is a terror of everything happening and still going on among that, accepting it however you can. The quote is part of a much broader line in the work, one that at times feels like a scribed panic attack. There aren’t many periods in this Beckett sequence, just a series of commas to allow the subject and reader to breathe before going on, much like the quote suggests. Beckett’s form and punctuation can be confusing, as can his subject, but that discomfort lends to the reading experience. Meaning, however you want to define that for Beckett’s abstract work, is found in subject and form simultaneously, building on one another, and the reader’s bias. Unrelenting is a good word for it, as that quality is almost more remarkable than whatever literally happens in Beckett’s work.

“I can’t be waiting around for anymore of this madness.”

Beckett is just one of multiple Irish authors who emphasize this unending quality; James Joyce is another. Ulysses (1922), perhaps his most recognized work, sort of drifts off at the end. It’s stream of thought delivery moves from the chaotic lotus eater form of it’s fifth episode to a winding pace in episode eighteen as Molly Bloom falls asleep. The work is abstract, and unfortunately, given that and its high academic status, it’s viewed as a monumental and inaccessible thing, reserved for the elites. As someone who has studied in those spaces, I can say two things. First, that inaccessibility is entirely constructed, maintained, and intentional, largely by people who want the work to stay in those reserved spaces, spoken by the same voices, in the same ways, for generations. Second, they are not monumental; it’s almost ironic they’ve been given that status. They are interesting, and difficult to read at times, but not so complex that you cannot approach them without some academic baptism.

Consider the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes; how he wandered around naked, telling people that only the smartest would see his brilliant clothes, and everyone was too afraid to admit that they couldn’t see anything. Getting over the fear of being stupid is difficult, but as I’ve often stated on this blog, with enough evidence, respect, and critical thought, your opinion of a work can be just as valid as another, however trained that other may be. I once knew a girl who dedicated her entire studies to liquid in Joyce, and it was fascinating and bizarre. Was that a traditional take for Joyce? Not really, but that is what made it so fantastic. I highly recommend listening to Joyce and Beckett audiobooks, which does count as reading, and conveys similar meaning. It’s a different experience, but you’ll hear form in a new way and that offers other analysis opportunities. So that in mind, why is this unrelenting quality so important to Irish media and storytelling in general?

My Nana developed an amazing Irish goodbye. She would hover by the front door, carrying an empty glass dish, and then in a blink, gone. No awkward goodbyes, or stumbling for coats, she would just be gone. I remember leaving with her on these occasions, how she would swoop from nearby and lead me to the door, ushering for my Dad. I remember her disappointment as I would turn around and wave madly at everyone, shouting “goodbye!” as she tried to silently disappear. If you could get away without anyone noticing, then you had done well. The goal was to get away so well that no one would know until they were doing the dishes hours later, and even then, only by realizing that your grandmother had washed her own dish. It’s a skill, not unique to my Nana, hence the term. It’s the no fuss option, memorable only in later reflection. I mention the Irish goodbye because it relates to this Irish non-ending in media. Rather than ending things with a spectacular event and resolution, the story continues, and we the audience are just not present for it. It’s well-crafted and abrupt. Martin McDonagh’s newest film, The Banshees of Inisherin is my favourite contemporary example, as it fades to the credits without resolving its major conflict. Steps have been taken, but rather than decreasing the tension, it’s building, and to what? Not even that is defined, and so instead, the audience is left with this unending story, one where the conflict will continue to build, but without us, and so it never really ends.

“Because worse comes to worst, he can still play the fiddle with four fingers, I bet you.”

The Banshees of Inisherin takes place during the Irish Civil War in 1923, but rather than focusing on those events, it occurs on an isolated island. A fictional island, specifically. The characters are surrounded by two vistas: the ocean and lake, with steep cliffs and hills, and the patchwork farms with stone walls, routinely shot far above, to highlight a flat and carved landscape. Each vista is beautiful in its own way, but both go on to highlight the characters’ isolation and routine. We often see characters strolling through these landscapes, using the stone walls to hide from sinister old women, and sitting by the water, commenting on the people and farms between those walls. The characters are caught in this almost limbo state of unending, where dates and information are foggy and often left undefined. Mrs. O’Riordan can’t remember when Pádraic and Siobhán’s parents died, Pádraic doesn’t know (or at least pretends not to know) who Mozart is, and most importantly, Officer Kearney doesn’t know or care who the executions on the mainland are between, the one’s he is being paid to attend. We don’t get any clarification on that last point in the film, unless you are already familiar with the execution he is referring to, the real and significant historic event. But not here, not to Officer Kearney. The mainland encompasses fear and desire; it’s where people like Siobhán decide to journey to, just to escape the mundane unending of the island, and it’s what threatens the small community. The islanders can hear and see explosions, even gunfire, happening on the mainland, but it has no resolution. They are explosions without context or meaning, so just loud interruptions. And yet, despite not knowing what exactly is happening on the mainland, Pádraic and Colm are enacting their own civil war. A sort of abstract microcosm of the much broader historic war, the consequences of which are still alive today.

Because the island is so isolated, and again, fictional, it plays more metaphor than real, especially as Colm begins chopping off his own fingers rather than speak to his best friend. Why would he do this? Meeting such low stakes with such high violence seems insane, and while the characters acknowledge this, they also go along with it. No one tries to restrain Colm; it just goes on. Even when Colm tries to lower the stakes back down, finally admitting that he has gone far enough, Pádraic now raises them, announcing that he will burn down Colm’s house the following day at two, regardless of if Colm is in or not. But by that point, and this is crucial, there are actual stakes, as Pádraic adorable miniature pony has choked to death on one of Colm’s fingers. Now the back and forth has a definable reason, more so than just not liking another person anymore.

“We haven’t been rowing. I don’t think we’ve been rowing. Have we been rowing?”

The stakes in Banshees of Inisherin begin as informally as it’s ending. Pádraic finds, with no warning whatsoever, that his best friend Colm no longer likes him. Worse, he finds him dull, and has done for awhile. Rather than continuing their friendship, wasting time by talking about nothing, Colm decides to abandon Pádraic and focus on worthwhile things, like music to be remembered for. This decision has little to do with Pádraic, and everything to do with value and content. Remember, Irish texts of Beckett and Joyce often fixate on seemingly mundane or everyday events and people. Ulysses, for instance, is so detailed and accurate that you can go on a walking tour and see everything that Joyce describes. There are even letters between him and friends where he asks for exact details of certain spaces, like how long it took them to walk between two areas, how many steps even. The scene itself might just be a man walking from one spot to another, but within that action, and all the ‘random’ thoughts he has during that trek, is this significant effort. The mundane is also what unites the reader and subject here, as although the reader hasn’t necessarily been to these places or met these people, they think in a similar way. One thought bleeding into the next and so forth.

The same goes for these Irish Goodbye endings, where things just leave with zero announcement or meaning attached to them. Colm is essentially rejecting all of this, refusing to continue nothing conversations and instead do something that people will remember. Pádraic cannot understand this, as to him, these conversations do have meaning. Talking about his donkey’s shit, a conversation that according to Colm took 2 hours, is meaningful. I think the film bounces between these perspectives but seeing as it focuses on a broad historic event through a personal kind, I think it does lend more to Pádraic’s perspective. It claims that nothing has meaning, at least emotional meaning, the kind that a viewer will interpret and project onto. The donkey eventually dies because Pádraic wasn’t paying attention to what it was eating, implying that Pádraic’s lengthy conversation was important, then and after. He lost focus on the “dull” details of his life, like donkey care and shit, and suffers for that.

The film is interested in civil war in multiple senses, the most obvious being as a microcosm of the broader Irish civil war happening on the mainland. War between neighbours, friends and family even, and the absolute devastation in that. But that is not the only civil war, as the film itself represents multiple simultaneous dichotomies, or animosity that come from the same place. Pádraic and Colm live on the same island, among the same space, but how they define meaning differs. Meaningful vs meaningless, valuable vs invaluable time, the list goes on. Colm and Pádraic’s hostility is a literal civil war, as through it all, the two remain civil, outlining exactly what they are going to do, in advance, and still taking care of one another. Colm helps Pádraic home after being attacked by Officer Kearney, and later punches Officer Kearney after Pádraic’s donkey dies, while Pádraic takes care of Colm’s dog after burning down his house, and possibly killing him. The end of the film continues this, as although we don’t know how this war will end, or if it will end, we do know that Pádraic is always willing to take care of Colm’s dog. Even Colm admits that the donkey dying was too much, as this is a fight between the two of them, no one else. Pádraic promising to care for the dog is one of the final moments in the film, along with his smile, and there is this warmth between the two. The war will continue, but so will civility, as the film is complicating the term ‘civil war’ by mourning what could be between these figures. Not the violence, that happens off-camera, or what was, which we never see, but what remains within war.

“I do not avoid her.”
“You hide behind walls if she’s coming up the road.”

A banshee is a mythic spirit in Irish lore, a harbinger of death. Seeing her inevitably leads to death, usually of a relative, but that leads to a troubling question. Did the person die because their relative saw the spirit, or did the spirit arrive to warn of the incoming death? Does it matter? Witnessing is a crucial element to Banshee myths, as she is seen screaming and crying, as though prophesying your own grief. She can be old, young, short, tall; the specifics vary. They are also not reserved to Ireland; the Scottish have a bean-nighe type which is often found washing the bloody clothes of the doomed. If you see multiple banshees in one place, it means than more than one death or a significant death is to occur, which is why I find McDonagh’s title so interesting. It comes from Colm’s music, a piece he has titled The Banshees of Inisherin solely because he likes the plural ‘banshees’ word more than the singular ‘banshee’. There is a very obvious banshee in the film; it’s Mrs. O’Riordan, the old woman who seems to know all and traces the land in a black widow’s shroud, scaring everyone. She follows the definition Colm gives to banshees, arguing that they are no longer these crying women, instead just watching events happen. It’s as though the witnessing component of the banshee has been inversed, so now the banshee watches terrible events, knowing that they are going to happen, but not officially warning anyone. Even the viewer is subject to that, as we see Mrs. O’Riordan wandering around with the long hook, then the old woman, but the meaning of that object is only revealed in the last few scenes. Dominic kills himself by jumping into the lake, and is fished out by the old woman, who has been wandering with the hook for multiple scenes. Mrs. O’Riordan, the banshee, knew a death was going to happen, hence her wandering around with that object, but whose death, and when, are unclear to us and the characters, perhaps even to her.

When Pádraic passes Mrs. O’Riordan while marching to Colm’s house, she warns him not to kill Colm’s dog, to which he replies, “stop putting ideas in my head that weren’t there to begin with” (I believe, I couldn’t find the quote online yet). Yet, as he arrives at the house, he considers it, at least for a moment. So, which came first? Her words or the thought? Would he have killed the dog if she had not spoken and thus subtly confronted him? I suppose that relates to the Banshee herself, as again we are asking whether she announces the inevitable or causes it. She is technically warning someone in this scene, but not about death. It also connects the viewer with the banshee, as both are witnessing these events, and she is simply echoing that general anxiety. Pádraic has just lost his donkey, wouldn’t it fit for him to kill Colm’s dog? Rather than prophesying a death here, Mrs. O’Riordan is preventing the wrong being from dying, even though the characters seem to believe that animals have no souls, given Colm’s conversation with the Priest. Then there’s that plural, banshees. Is there another banshee is this film? If we take this witness role into account, then nearly everyone on the island acts like a banshee. There are some awful things happening on this island, largely to Dominic, who is sexually and physically abused by his father, a corrupt police officer. Everyone knows it, so much so that it’s not news according to Mrs. McCormick, who argues that if she had a son as dull as Dominic, she would beat him with a kettle as well. Everyone knows this abuse is happening and yet do nothing, they continue their routine of work (although we see very little) and pub. There are only two people who ‘escape’ this silent witness system, as Dominic kills himself while Siobhán heads for a new job on the mainland, which considering there is an ongoing civil war, sounds dangerous. The island, however, just continues under the Banshee’s watchful eye.

“Good luck to you, whatever it is you’re fighting about.”

Siobhán sees something troubling as she leaves the island, while waving to her brother. We see it in the background, blurred slightly, just as Siobhán’s face falls in shock or fear. Has she seen a banshee, and if so, who for? Herself, her brother, or Dominic, who is dead the next time we see him. It’s hard to tell exactly who is in this background shot, as it could also be Colm waving to her, or even Dominic, before he jumps to his death in the lake. I would argue that Siobhán is a banshee of sorts in the film, as she is a witness figure, either in her reading or defending her brother. She watches things happen but realizes that not much ever happens to her. As mentioned, everyone acts under Colm’s definition of the banshee, she is just one of the few to recognize it. Perhaps the film is asking its audience to examine it in themselves; what it means to witness, in life or story. Do we cry or are we as numb as the banshees in Inisherin? Is anything in this abstract place inevitable? Is that why the Banshees have stopped crying?

Then again, as Colm explains, he only titles his piece Banshees because he likes the sound of it and seeing multiple would make the death more significant. In other words, it would give his music more meaning, which is his whole intention in the film. His music isn’t just the screaming of a single banshee, it’s a beautiful choir of them, heralding a significant event but also a significant achievement in music. Perhaps that explains why Pádraic is so often trying to isolate Colm, going so far as to lie to his new student about a family tragedy, just so the student will leave the island. Multiple people, whether human or banshee, are powerful, and the film is interested in what that breakdown means. What that isolation could incite. Colm fails to make meaning, as he creates this spectacular music, but is unable to perform it having cut off his fingers. Whatever students and musicians he had are missing, so it’s just the two of them feuding. The stakes might have been raised, but the inciting reason, that need to stop talking about nothing to focus on something, is gone.

“Let’s just call it quits.”
“We won’t call it quits. We’ll call it the start.”

By the end of the film, Colm and Pádraic are united in their mutual destruction and there is no formal resolution. I overheard some disappointment at this while at the movie theatre, as a couple nearby were complaining about the ending. I heard them whisper, “what was the point?”, and that’s exactly it. The story should stop, but it doesn’t. It’s that Beckett quote again: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”, which isolated from Beckett here, feels oddly encouraging. I’ve always found this quote helpful in grief. For the days where you can’t possibly go on, and everything is just painful and sad. You go on, even though you can’t. It seems impossible, feels it even, but that’s how it goes. With or without the person presuming the story confines.

When I was little, hearing stories about banshees, I found it funny because the Irish family I knew were big on grieving, but not on details. When a person died it became a forbidden subject, because talking about it too long made you think about things. It was easier to burry the thoughts with the person, and any talk after constituted graverobbing. It seemed to me that the banshee was grief, that wordless cry that ushered death but never named it. Fixated on, yes, sung about even, but rarely named directly, just around. The people who did want to talk about things, they were the problem. As though their suffering made them better than the rest. Now, that’s just my experience, I would presume no more than that bias. Yet, Banshees of Inisherin ends with a similar note, as things will go on, even if they can’t. Friendship amid war, even from it. Pádraic and Colm seem to have more in common since starting their war than before, so perhaps reconciliation is an option. Or just more chaos, it’s hard to say. Except now, there is meaning in the seemingly meaningless, of a friend dumping another, or choosing to cut off a finger to stop a conversation. The film’s ending might feel unceremonious, but those reasonable stakes have been restored, making the dichotomy between nothing and something a little less severe. Colm cut of his fingers which killed Pádraic’s donkey. Pádraic burned down his house in retaliation. This is an extreme yet logical equation, more than just Colm deciding to cut off his fingers because he finds Pádraic dull. Colm is ultimately unable to end his relationship with Pádraic, no matter how extreme things get. While he might find Pádraic dull, their rivalry isn’t, and will continue beyond the confides of the film. Their friendship evolved instead of ending, or simply put, it goes on.