Review: Togo

Togo

Trailer

t2

13/10

And so begins the era of Disney+. The latest streaming mammoth arrived on Tuesday in Ireland, and with it the chance to figuratively drown in a wave of classic/new animation, a galaxy far, far away, superhero battles, 90’s throwbacks and even some nature documentaries if you are so inclined. It really is rather crazy how much stuff is on the platform that you might not be expecting (the one that got me: Doug. Remember Doug? This show was all over my childhood and I didn’t even remember). And, of course there is also plenty of original content, with the promise of more to come. That means that, while it was first released stateside last year, Togo is getting its first airing on this side of the Atlantic this week (legally).

In a way it’s Disney taking a fairly big risk on what would be one of its opening gambits to streaming audiences (the other major original film, a live-action remake of Lady And The Tramp, was certainly safer): based on events that would have little resonance nowadays, especially outside of the non-continental United States, with a director lacking much in the way of a pedigree. And while Willem DaFoe is always going to bring something to a production – even in drek like the last film I saw him in – there was little worth writing home about in the supporting cast. On the other hand, who doesn’t like dogs? Heroic dogs to boot. So, was Togo a bit too adventurous an idea to be a bold opening statement from Disney+? Or do good boys overcome all?

In a remote part of 1925 Alaska, Norwegian emigre Leonhard Seppala (daFoe) is called upon to be part of a desperate mission: to use his skills as a musher to aid in the effort to get life-saving medicine for the children of the local town, facing death from a diphtheria outbreak. To do so, he will need to rely more than ever on Togo, the aging leader of his sled team, much to the worry of his wife Constance (Julianne Nicholson). As he and his faithful husky engage on their perilous journey across snow and ice, Leonhard remembers the rebellious pup he once knew, who may not have the strength left in him to get the job done now.

I suppose I have to keep in mind that I had lowered expectations, but I found Togo to be a fairly remarkable introduction to the world of Disney+. From earth that could easily be considered the opposite of fallow, director Ericson Core has fashioned a story that is an exciting reconstruction of a fairly thrilling, if little-known, humanitarian event. And, to boot, it also serves as a decent exploration of man’s affinity for dogs, a not unworthy thing to place at the heart of such a film.

Perhaps because of his past career as a cinematographer known for action movies – you might credit him with the initial success of one of the world’s biggest franchises currently, having been the DP on 2001’s The Fast And The Furious – Core doesn’t wait around. It takes all of five minutes for the premise of Togo to be outlined to the viewer: a town in peril, with help a very long way, away. More modern means of transportation are unavailable, leaving the job in the hands of the mushers, whose way of life is already in the early stages of being made obsolete. Tell that to Leonhard and his compatriots though, who are called upon to embark on a truly desperate trip through storms, over frozen bay’s and around mountains. It’s almost refreshing to be thrown into the experience so quickly, with Core and his team seemingly in a hurry to get to the meat-and-bones of what he wants to show us.

But even as you’re watching Leonhard deal with the first of many pitfalls in his mission, Core does make what could be a terrible mis-step, in stopping his central narrative dead to embark on a flashbacks to Togo’s earlier days and Leonhard’s stuttering efforts to deal with him, at the insistence of wife Constance. These sections could be pure sentimentality – man dislikes dog, dog proves himself, man likes dog – but are the real beating heart of Togo, where we get to see a man fall in love with a dog as easily as his wife does, not just because it is useful as a working animal, but because it exhibits character, be it heart, determination or courage. The film gets the nature of the relationship between man and dog very well, and that’s vitally important, because the whole emotional core of the film is not the dying children back in the town, it’s Leonhard’s distress at the idea that he may be working his favourite companion to death in order to save those dying children.

Leave it to someone like DaFoe to make that seeming imbalance of priorities work (one can’t help but remember the vastly over-rated War Horse, where the suffering of thousands in World War One was a dissonant backdrop to equine injury). DaFoe has to straddle the line of being a hard-ass musher, a loving husband and a dog’s best friend, but there are few actors alive today who can showcase both astonishing hardness in performance (and look: who else could bring the grit of frontier life by just showing you his face), and an affecting emotionality. DaFoe sells the relationship with Togo at every step, and really makes you buy the intense connection that the two share. Children? What children? Aside from a handful of returns to Nome and its fretting mayor (a decent Christopher Heyerdahl,  a character actor of such wide travels that he deserves a starring role at some point), that’s an almost moot avenue, as moot as the potential for a pro-immigration message – Leonhard was Norwegian, his wife Belgian, and non-Americans seem to outnumber Americans in the film) that Core largely discards as backdrop.

t1

13/10

The flashback sequences that litter the film could really ruin the momentum of Togo, but instead become very interesting insights into man and dog, with a fair dose of physical and verbal comedy mixed in (a frustrated Leonhard declares that “Saint Francis of Assisi would shoot this dog”). I can’t overstate enough how important it is that this groundwork is done, to make both the titular dog a significant character – a difficult-to-control rebel converted into an heroic leader – and Leonhard someone who is more than just an employer of huskies.

Of course it is easy to show a dog in peril and tug at the heartstrings of any audience, but Togo works hard at making itself much more than that, showing us a being that we see as a rambunctious child desperate to prove himself before it is an adult with one last great effort in him (not unlike his master, who waxes lyrical about how he was slapped by his father as a younger man, declaring his intention to immigrate in search of gold). In other words, Togo is established as a great character in his own right. Nicholson also does good work here, making sure that Constance is more than just a fretting housewife, buy also the person who gives Togo his start-up in life..

And it also works quite well as a sort of action-movie. There are a number of impressive set-pieces, wherein Leonhard and Togo (and the other dogs) tackle cliff-edges, trips over breaking ice (including an unlikely recitation of the Crispin’s Day speech, bellowed into the storm as a defiant gesture) and the gruelling reality of a miles and miles of snowy landscape to be traversed, with all of the costs in blood, sweat and spirit. The apparent controversy over who deserved the most credit for the Nome Serum Run – something that was a bitter source of dispute at the time and after, but has largely been resolved now, or so it seems – is only touched upon a little, but does add a certain something to the last act, an exploration of the worthiness of seeking credit, in the face of achieving such an important good. Not that the dog actors, all excellently handled as far as I can see, would really care all that much. Despite an imposing running time for a Disney film, Core’s willingness to defy the expected formula in terms of pacing and structure – the flashbacks help here, with Togo not strictly adhering to a classic three-act form – makes his creation something that trips along instead of grinding.

Core, also acting as cinematographer, directs a good looking production, albeit one that might have benefited from being seen on a larger screen: at times the effects look a little ropey on a TV, most noticeably backgrounds that are just a little too ill-fitting for the actors, where they look as if they are front of a green screen of some kind, a manner of shooting that the director has explicitly denied using. Sequences involving the crossing of Norton Sound get away with it, as your attention will be much more focused on the cracks appearing in ice, to a distinctive twang that sounds like cable being torn apart. When actual physical surrounds are used, they do look spectacular, the wilds of Alberta, Canada subbing in nicely for the wilds of Alaska, USA. A certain kind of softness to the edge of the frame, a deliberate and inspired choice by the director, helps to ground the audience in the idea that we are back in a period where photography and film-making was still in a nascent stage.

Between the “present” and the flashbacks, there is an excellent contrast to be found between summers that are too short and winters that are too long, exemplifying both the warm attraction of the “American” frontier at its best, and the grim difficulty of its wildness at its worst. Togo is a story where the environment is essentially the antagonist, in its snow, storms and ice: Core manages to make that feeling work, without it becoming overwrought, with a gritty colour palette that makes Togo look like anything but a modern Disney film, and more like an old-school quasi-documentary.

The most I had hoped for was for Togo to be a solid effort, but it turned out to be much more than that. It’s a strong, strong movie, bolstered by the performance from DaFoe (and Diesel as Togo) whose gravitas adds hugely to proceedings. But more than that it is a film that exhibits some rare qualities nowadays: an understanding of what it is demonstrated right from the off, that is followed through on for the rest of the running time. An exciting race against time in unique circumstances matched with a dog/master relationship, Togo hits all of the right notes and beats expectations across the board. I realise now, after watching, that this is Disney+’s pitch to an older breed of viewer, showing its willingness to, perhaps, put stuff up on online that they would never risk putting up on the big screen. More power to them: with films and ambition like this, this Disney+ thing might just have a future. Highly recommended.

t3

13/10

(All images are copyright of Disney+).

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Ireland’s Wars: 21st August 1920

Nothing truly seismic, in the history of the Irish War of Independence or the history of Ireland, actually occurred on the 21st August 1920. The basic facts are that six members of the RIC were killed or wounded fatally, with several more injured, in five separate ambushes in five different parts of the country. Each of them was a small-scale event that would not fully register on the historical consciousness on their own. But, when they are taken together, they showed how deadly the IRA was, and how, in a time when the British military was showcasing its ability to withstand attacks and ambushes, they still were more than a match for the RIC. In no particular order:

The first of that day’s attacks that we will discuss took place in the village of Inchigeela, Co Cork. The target was Sergeant Daniel Maunsell, a prominent member of the local RIC, well known for his loyalist sentiments. He had commanded Inchigeela barracks during an attack by the IRA earlier in the year, successfully holding out after coming under sustained fire for several hours. Maunsell was commended for his bravery in the aftermath of this, and the moved to the bigger barracks in nearby Macroom. The combination of Maunsell’s position, his notoriety in withstanding that barracks attack, and his knowledge of local IRA volunteers, all made him a likely target. He was apparently approached on several occasions in the lead-up to the August 21st attack, and advised to either resign, or to at least curtail his activities when it came to Irish republicans, things that Maunsell refused to consider.

The exact manner of his death is somewhat confused, with different accounts stating that he was coming from work, others that he was alone, at the time of his death. The most common is that he had just left an evening mass in Inchigeela, where he still lived with his family, when he was approached by armed Volunteers. Maunsell may have thought that, having let a religious service, and in the company of his family, he may have been in less danger than usual, but if so he was mistaken. He was hit by several shotgun blasts from close range, with some accounts claiming he was holding his daughter’s hand at the time. He was carried into the nearby RIC barracks where he passed.

His death was an example of the growing ruthlessness of the IRA, and the ineffectiveness of the RIC when it came to defending their ranks from such close-range attacks. Maunsell’s death brought a quick response: a truckload of constables arrived in the area the following day, and were the subject of an impromptu IRA ambush. The RIC got the better of this one, killing a Volunteer at the cost of two wounded, but were unable to ascertain the identity of Maunsell’s killers.

In Kilrush, Co Clare, a similar assassination took place. The target on this occasion was a Detective Constable John Hanlon, or O’Hanlon. Hanlon was another loyalist, who worked in the intelligence wing of the local RIC. His work and actions had led to the disruption of an IRA training camp in the area, and the temporary disbandment of the West Clare Brigade’s flying column. All of these things made Hanlon, a man described as being far too busy in his work to republicans’ liking, a target.

However, when he was killed it appears to have been more of an impromptu one-man operation than something more clearly planned. By some accounts, Bill Waugh, a senior officer in the West Clare IRA, just happened to see Hanlon on the streets of Kilrush that day, followed him into a pub, and shot him dead then and there. Others claim that Waugh’s action was a bit more premeditated, that the IRA man had gotten in contact with Hanlon on the grounds of having a discussion with Waugh om him emigrating to the United States. When they met in a pub to talk about it, Waugh pulled a gun out and shot Hanlon. Either way, Hanlon was killed, and Waugh escaped into the ether in the aftermath, though, identified as the perpetrator, Crown Forces burned his house down. It did little harm to Waugh in the long-run, he going on to serve as a Free State Commandant.

Not too far to the north, in Oranmore, County Galway, was the next killing. That afternoon, an RIC cycle patrol comprising five men was making its way through the town, heading in the direction of nearby Galway City carrying dispatches. While the patrol was commanded by a Sergeant Healy who had seen some action defending a local barracks in 1916, and included a Constable Brown who was well-known to the IRA, they do not appear to have been targetted on an individual basis. Having passed underneath a railway bridge near Merlin Park, they came under fire from concealed gunmen on a hill.

The ambush was quick, with Constable Martin Foley hit several times in the opening salvo, killed instantly. The IRA wounded another man and dispersed rather than engage in a firefight: another RIC man who pursued them got a bullet to the foot for his trouble and had to have a toe amputated. The IRA had been led by Joseph Howley, who would later be killed when identified in Dublin before the year was out. Oranmore suffered cruelly from reprisals in the days that followed, with civilians assaulted and buildings burned: some fled into the surrounding countryside in fear for their lives.

We go next across the country. Kildare, home of the British Army’s headquarters and one of the flattest places in Ireland – not exactly conducive to guerilla warfare – was one of the quietest counties during the war, to the point that a local newspaper claimed in August that Kildare’s population could congratulate themselves for being above the violence engulfing the rest of the country. Kildare’s IRA contingent was small enough, containing just two battalions and around 100 active men.

On the night of the 21st, a group of these, under Commandant Tom Harris, decided to get involved with the war proper. The local IRA had observed the routine of a cycle patrol, that every second night left the barracks at Kill near the border with Dublin to travel to Naas. Sticking too rigidly to the same route every time, they were easy prey, even for an ambushing force armed only with shotguns. Other RIC units in the rest of the country had learned that lesson, but the quiet in Kildare evidently led to a degree of complacency. Half a mile out from Kill, at a place called Greenhills, the ambush was enacted, with the IRA covering both sides of the road and setting men to guard the approach from either direction.

There is the typical dispute as to whether the IRA attempted to hold-up their targets first, or if they just opened fire: either way, a Constable Patrick Haverty was shot dead and a Sergeant James O’Neill, only a few weeks away from retirement, was wounded badly enough that he expired before the end of the month. The remaining police were subdued, and all arms and ammunition lifted. Just as in Oranmore, there were reprisals on nearby homes and businesses in the aftermath, with civilians terrorised by the gunfire of Black and Tans, though it was, perhaps not as brutal as similar villages and towns were experiencing in Munster.

The last attack to discuss took place in Dundalk, Co Louth. On the afternoon of the 21st (admittedly, some sources say the 22nd), a group of four RIC were tasked with performing crowd control duties at a football match occurring locally. While walking down Joelyn Street, they came under attack from a number of young men, identified as members of Fianna Eireann in some sources. The fighting was quick with one RIC man, a Constable Thomas Brennan, shot dead.

The exact nature of this ambush is a little bit elusive: the local RIC would come to think it was carried out by people from outside the town, but it appears to have been an impromptu, and botched, attempt by local republicans to hold-up the RIC for their guns that turned deadly. However it came about, Brennan was killed, and two of his colleagues, identified as “Tans” in some sources, wounded. A Sinn Fein hall and republican-sympathetic pub were wrecked by British forces in the aftermath. Interestingly, one of the ambushers claimed that he was recognised by a surviving RIC man, but that even when he was arrested later this was not brought to light officially. A sign, perhaps, of the fear factor that republican attacks were creating.

I want to use the 21st of August as an example of how far-reaching the war had become in terms of these small-scale attacks. The number of attacks on that day was exceptional and a harbinger for more to come: in the ten days that followed between the 21st and the end of the month, seven more RIC, and one member of the British military, would die in further attacks and ambushes. The war was very much a daily event now, as was an increase in the death toll.

I also want to use the 21st of August as yet another example of how poor the position of the RIC was at that time. In the space of a day they had lost five more members of their force, with others injured. In return they inflicted no casualties. They could try and fight back through reprisals, but in truth this only weakened their position more in the long-run.

The War of Independence was no longer a conflict where the regular RIC could be considered a prime player. Their role as the main enemy of the IRA had been superseded by the British military, by the Black and Tans and by the Auxiliaries. They were a force multiplier in many ways, and would play a supporting role in everything that took place in the rest of the war. They would suffer many more losses. But between the losses already taken, the resignations, the abandonment of so many of their barracks, and their general relegation in importance, it is fair to say that, by the end of the summer of 1920, the IRA had essentially defeated the RIC.

The change of focus in terms of opposing the IRA, from constabulary to military, is at the core of the next entry. So far, we have seen much that portrays the IRA as the active side of the war, constantly choosing when and where it was fought, usually engaging the enemy on their own terms. In the next entry, we will look at the exact opposite: a moment when the Brtish, through their military, set a trap for the IRA, one that had deadly consequences.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review: The Last Thing He Wanted

The Last Thing He Wanted

Trailer

TLTHW1

Can you be an 80’s investigative journalist without those sunglasses?

COVID-19 has upset my usual film-watching schedule fairly significantly, with cinemas closed and plenty of major films delayed anyway. That leaves streaming options, but even that is slim-picking at the moment, with Netflix Ireland not overflowing with notable original features and Disney+ still a few days away when this goes live. But I am a creature of habit, pandemic or no, so I had to take in something.

I almost, almost, went with Go Karts, obviously a Netflix kids movie, but one that at least looked fun, and with some decent review scores to boot. But, in the end, I strayed away to instead take-in Dee Rees’ The Last Thing He Wanted, an adaptation of the book of the same name by Joan Didion. Why did I do this, despite seeing the ghastly review scores? Maybe it’s the well-regarded director. Maybe it’s the frankly stellar cast, between Hathaway, Affleck, DaFoe and others. And maybe there are times when I feel like watching and reviewing kids films on my own is just not the way to go, so I should take in something darker, broodier and more grown-up instead. Was that the right call? Or do I owe the makers of Go Karts a huge apology?

1984: Elena McMahon (Anne Hathaway) is a journalist known for reporting on the civil war in Nicaragua, now relegated to more basic work on the US Presidential election. When her estranged father (Willem DaFoe) becomes ill, McMahon is forced to care for him, and is drawn in to one of his shady schemes, selling arms to Central American militias with tacit approval from the administration. Seeking to both make the deal and report on the story, McMahon embarks on a risky journey, tailed by political instigator Treat William (Ben Affleck).

If COVID-19 is going to be responsible for a great many hardships, then I have a small one to add to the pile: how it caused me to end up watching this film. This badly-edited, poorly acted, occasionally incomprehensible film. How did this happen?

The Last Thing He Wanted is one of the most confusing pieces of media I have seen in my life. The plot description I have offered above should only be considered a basic understanding of what occurs, as characters frequently make strange, hard-to-understand decisions on the spur of the moment that take the plot off in a radically different direction to where it was going before. To wit: the spine of the film is about a hard-hitting no-nonsense journalist, who decides to become an arms dealer on the side. Or she’s only doing that to forward an investigation into the Iran-Contra Affair. Or something. This is one film where spelling a little bit out to the audience might actually have helped the experience, though going by the script maybe they should have been limiting the wordplay, not expanding it.

Let’s rewind a little. Hathaway is OK as McMahon, an under-the-kosh reporter who wants to be doing more with her profession than following Reagan on his way to a landslide victory in 1984, preferring the rebel-filled forests of Central America to sycophantic Republican fundraisers. Of all the cast, she’s trying the hardest at least. And that’s saying something: Affleck looks positively bored in a role that has the potential, on paper at least, be akin to his star-turn in Argo, while DaFoe is just chewing the scenery in a haphazard manner. Hathaway, with priors in doing great work with a small amount of worthwhile material, gets across a bit of what she needs to get across, but she can’t really carry the weight of this film, not when everything is chopped up in the manner that it is.

Maybe this is a result of the source material, that I am not familiar with, being a bit obtuse – I get a certain “gonzo” feel going by the narration – but the visual medium does not need obtuse for a taut political thriller, it needs clarity. McMahon gets a few lines to talk about the bad hands she has been dealt in life, a few phone-calls to her daughter stuck in boarding school, a few hops off of her crazed father, but the essence of a character never comes into view. Instead, she is shown as the kind of person that will happily jump in a car with an arms dealer she’s known for five minutes and then act surprised when he threatens to rape her (I think: another hard to parse scene). Despite Hathaway’s best efforts, she’s a strange blank canvass to follow around for two excruciating hours, waiting for some kind of revelation that will answer the central questions surrounding her, one that isn’t the character vomiting out her backstory. But the revelation never comes, perhaps thanks to the nature of the cut.

TLTHW2

Who would have thought Triple Frontier would be Affleck’s best Netflix movie?

The editing here is frankly bizarre, as every other sequence seems to be missing a scene where the characters actually make clear what is happening: is Willem DaFoe’s father figure usually an arms dealer? McMahon seems both surprised and not surprised to find out that he is involved in trying to arm the Contras. Why does his daughter decide to become an arms dealer? She seems to hate her father, but is also strangely willing to commit the most terrible kind of crime at his request. Why is Anne Hathaway on the run in Costa Rica suddenly? She arrives and just starts wandering around the country with little in the way of rhyme or reason. Why is Ben Affleck following her around? Rees wants to seemingly show him as at the heart of Iran-Contra shenanigans, but also as just a hatchet man for higher-ups. Why are the two sleeping together? The film in no way needed that as a barely touched upon sub-plot. Why is McMahon posing as a maid in an off-the-map resort hotel in the last act? It’s a safehouse, only it isn’t, or something. Is she about the blow the Iran-Contra story wide open, or is this about something else? In all these instances, you are left genuinely left wondering is you accidentally skipped over something, with the film taking on the appearance of being just a random selection of scenes.

To take one example and expand on it, just over halfway through the film the McMahon and Williams characters meet up in a Costa Rican hotel, and have what appears to be a fairly tense exchange: McMahon thinks Williams is trying to stop her from reporting a story, Williams thinks McMahon is interfering journalist is way over her head. Their conversation happens from what seems like twenty different angles. Then cut to the two of them casually strolling outside the hotel, having an intense looking heart-to-heart about the problems in McMahon’s life. Cut to the two of them in bed together, discussing McMahon’s brush with breast cancer. Cut to McMahon being moved to some safe-house. I feel like we went from 1, to 3, to 7, to 98, without stopping in-between. And the entire film is like this.

Things especially fall apart in the last act, when any semblance of structure seems to completely fall apart. Things are set-up for what I presume is meant to be a shocking twist involving Ben Affleck’s character, that I think won’t really come off as that surprising (although, given how lost a viewer is likely to be, I suppose anything would be surprising). New, seemingly pivotal, characters are introduced in a remarkably blase fashion, and former enemies turn into allies at the drop of a hat. The final denouement is very hard to wrap your head around, and certainly leaves the viewer with more questions than answers: perhaps this was Rees’ intent, but if so it was a badly misjudged one.

The film looks OK at least? Leaving aside the issue of its visual story-telling, which is awful, it is shot and choreographed well enough, though one wonders why DaFoe is being kept in a permanent close-up whenever he is on-screen. As a look at the smoky world of 1980’s journalism, and the shadowy world of 19809’s American politics, it has some hooks. That being said, while the film’s use of a frenetic montage style is to its benefit in the early scene-setting stages, it becomes a serious fault by the conclusion.

That might also be because of the script, especially Hathaway’s confusing and largely superfluous narration, that I assume is quoting the novel in large stretches. When her difficult to parse prose recitations are matched with the awkward cuts and confusing visualisations, it just manages to muddle the proceedings even more than they were, even if the cinematography is actually of an acceptable level of quality. Take the following as a good example of the nonsense being depicted: “Somewhere in the nod we were losing infrastructure, losing redundant systems, losing specific gravity. Weightlessness seemed at the time the safer mode.” What? Then, the real kicker: repeating of dialogue in unnecessary flashbacks, the kind of hack technique a director of this apparent level should not need.

There is a very good story to be told, with this cast, about the Iran-Contra affair, about how it occurred, who was effected, and how it all came out in the end. But The Last Thing He Wanted is very much not that film. It’s a disaster in just about every sense of the term. The cast are at sea. The editing is all over the place. The script is a woeful mess. Save perhaps elements of Hathaway’s performance – proof that she is worthy of the many accolades sent her way in the last ten years – The Last Thing He Wanted is an astonishing flop. Netflix’ penchant for throwing money at anything going has proven itself a poor strategy for in this case, but I suppose it is also the perfect place for something this terrible to vanish into the ether. I’m sorry Go Karts. Get bent COVID-19. Not recommended.

tlthw3

Obvious joke is obvious.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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Ireland’s Wars: The Aeroplane Ambush

The use of airpower in the Irish War of Independence, something to be discussed entirely from the British side of the conflict, is a fairly niche part of the history of this time. The Royal Air Force, constituted from what had been the Royal Flying Corps towards the end of the First World War, had only a sometimes useful, but frequently constrained, impact on the military situation in Ireland, used primarily as a means of transporting mail, dropping propaganda leaflets and, on occasion, reconnaissance. Based out of Dublin, Castlebar and Fermoy, RAF wings were distributed evenly enough around the country. Many IRA volunteers were terrified of aircraft, something that was completely beyond their experience and impossible to deal with, the machines still carrying a semi-mythical reputation in the early 1920’s.

But the nature of a guerilla war, combined with the limited amount of aircraft that British had to employ, and the fact that a large amount of them were unarmed, meant that their effectiveness was limited. Despite Winston Churchill’s desires, they were only rarely more directly involved in the war, such as when planes were used to “buzz” protesting crowds during the hunger strikes. In the dying weeks of the conflict, pilots would be given permission to engage with targets on the ground, but such opportunities were rare, and then extinguished. The British would use some of the lessons learned in Ireland to better tailor the use of airpower in other, similar, conflicts that they would soon be forced to fight in other parts of their Empire, but it is fair to say that the RAF’s role in Ireland is one of little note. However, in mid-August 1920, British air power was at the centre of a significant incident in the War of Independence, but not from on high.

On the 13th (or 14th, depending on who you believe) a Bristol F.2 bi-plane, a standard machine of the RAF at the time, hit the ground near the townland of Clonbanin, in North-West Cork. On a mail transportation mission, it is unclear just why the plane was forced to land, but it was not unusual for them to develop mechanical difficulties and require immediate grounding, whether that was in the form of an outright crash or rough land. The two occupants escaped significant injury, indicating that the landing was not terrible. The plane was certainly considered to be in a good enough condition that it could be repaired, and contained machinery,  and perhaps weapons, that would have been tempting for any enemy force (especially given the IRA had no ability to use the aircraft for its intended purpose) and so the authorities sent a guard to watch it, 15-20 soldiers from the garrison based at nearby Kanturk. Among them were men of the Machine Gun Corps, a unit, as the name indicates, detailed specifically to operate machine guns.

The local IRA could not but find out about what had happened though, with the landing of an airplane in the vicinity the kind of event that would attract all sorts of attention. It was a target twice over: first the plane, which might contain guns and other material of war that was valuable, and secondly the men sent to guard it, isolated, sedentary and carrying valuable guns themselves. The battalion centered around Kanturk, backed up by rapidly assembled men from the nearby Millstreet battalion, assembled a force of somewhere in the region of 40, to be commanded by Kanturk’s Jack O’Connell.

The exact nature of what occurred next is somewhat in dispute. Early on the morning of the 14th, the IRA closed in on the site of the downed plane, which was in the corner of a field. The men on guard, much like at Holywell, were assembled around campfires with arms stacked, perhaps not giving the situation the serious attention that it deserved.

If you follow the British accounts, the IRA opened fire, and a two-hour fight was the result, one that was contested hotly by both sides. The British suffered one man dead, a member of the aforementioned Machine Gun Corps, and several wounded, and claimed to have killed several of their assailants. The IRA were driven off after the two hours, and the plane secured.

The IRA accounts tell a somewhat different story. They claim that they intended to launch a broadside on the British from concealed positions before rushing the plane, taking advantage of the element of surprise: while unstated, such a plan was also probably conceived owing to a lack of ammunition for a sustained fight. The plan went awry when a Volunteer fired too early – the shot that inflicted the sole fatality of the affair – alerting the British to what was happening. The IRA further claim the resulting firefight lasted only 15 minutes before they withdrew, and that they suffered only a few slightly wounded in the course of the engagement, and no fatalities.

The IRA account is certainly more believable. It fits with their general lack of ammunition, and the desire to avoid a larger firefight. The idea that the guard could somehow hold off an attack with two hours from their exposed position, without any reinforcements from Kanturk appearing, is also hard to swallow. Finally, their claim at inflicting larger casualties than what the IRA claimed is difficult to accept: the IRA, considering how they felt the entire affair a defeat, would have been more than willing to list their fatalities if they had occurred, to explain the nature of the task they were up against. Much like the Holywell ambush, this attempted attack showcased many of the IRA’s limitations, especially when presented with unanticipated targets of opportunity, and the under-appreciated strength of military regulars, better able to deal with IRA ambushes than the RIC.

The remains of the plane were removed from the site the following day, but the death of the soldier was something that the British felt must be answered. Though the Kanturk IRA remained on the look-out for any reprisals, it turned out to be a more personal response. A few nights after the ambush two members of the local IRA, Paddy Clancy (a senior figure in the Cork No. 2 Brigade) and the aforementioned Jack O’Connell, were caught up in a raid of O’Connell’s home. A combined force of military and RIC, having gotten a tip-off that the two were inside, surrounded the house. The two men, warned by a sister of O’Connell’s, attempted to flee, but were both shot down before they could get too far. Somewhat ironically, Clancy had not taken any part in the attempted ambush, having been in Limerick at the time. Their funerals were large affairs, where British military and RIC were careful to largely remain in barracks, but their deaths undoubtedly had a negative effect on the area’s effectiveness for a time.

The War of Independence, if it was possible, was entering an even scrappier, deadlier phase, with operations like Holywell and the “Aeroplane Ambush” showing how the British could hold their ground even as the IRA became a little bit more daring. In our next entry, we will look at another singular date: the 21st August. On that day, in five different locations around the country, the IRA would strike at the RIC foe. By the end of it, several of them would be dead. Despite individual setbacks, this series of operations would show just how deadly the IRA still was.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review – Miss Americana, Street Leagues, Heroic Losers, Mewtwo Strikes Back: Evolution

Didn’t get a chance to see anything big this week, though if Irish cinemas stay open long enough I’ll be checking out Pixar’s Onward soon enough. In the meantime, a return to a round-up of a few films I have seen this year but have not otherwise been able to comment on:

Miss Americana

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Shake it off.

Taylor Swift has gone from being a contestant in regional country music sing-offs to one of the most famous names in the entertainment industry, and the journey has not been without its controversies. In this frank documentary, Swift opens up about her successes, how she deals with the pressures of fame, the intense hatred she seems to engender from some quarters and her entry into the world of political commentary.

I have no compunction is declaring my appreciation for Taylor Swift, a woman whose constant reinvention, in my opinion, only masks her incredible singing talent, which has run the range from country to future-pop. And yet, she is surprisingly, also in my opinion again, detested by a whole load of people. Both these aspects of her life are at the core of Miss Americana, an otherwise by-the-numbers musician documentary.

Swift is at the heart of sexism in her industry. As is adroitly pointed out here, male musicians are not required to reinvent themselves as constantly as female ones, and don’t have the same expiry date either. She was the focus of incredibly misogynistic behavior from Kanye West (several times), and ended up being made the bad guy by numerous people. And, worst of all, she was the subject of sexual assault herself, and had to go through the pathetically limited court system to get justice. Miss Americana is a full recounting of all of this, showcasing Swift as a conscientious and tough woman.

But tell that to “the haters”. Whether it is people on the street, other musicians, the media or Twitter, “Tay Tay” just can’t catch much of a break. The film offers an excellent summary of the cavalcade of bile that is often thrown in the singers direction, usually for no more reason than manufactured drama or the need to concoct some sort of asinine narrative. This subject alone could have made a feature-length documentary, and Miss Americana is at pains to showcase not so much Swift’s suffering, but outlining how she deals with such negativity mentally (and with the very human desire of just wanting to be liked). That’s an encouraging aspect to focus on, and one that is bound to ring a chord with a lot of different people.

Other than that, this is largely the same as Gaga: Five Foot Two, and to a slightly lesser extent Beyonce’s Homecoming, all from the same streaming home. The subject will always be portrayed positively, and will attempt the same kind of narrative-setting that the film nominally decries. In this case, the spine of the film is Swift’s attempt to influence the outcome of the Tennessee senatorial election, and here things fall apart a little, as director Lana Wilson struggles to really inject verve into proceedings: the inclusion of this little bit of drama seems forced, when there is so much of more interest to talk about elsewhere. Miss Americana has its insights to make, but perhaps does not linger enough on the main ones, preferring instead to make the whole experience a mite too palatable. It’s recommended, but don’t expect it to make any lasting impression.

Street Leagues

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Colin Farrell is not part of the team.

In the midst of Ireland’s ever-worsening homelessness crisis, activist Sean Kavanagh decided to try and use football as a recovery device, setting up programmes and leagues dedicated to helping those without a home tackle their fitness, addictions and other issues in a positive manner. A few years on, and the programme has grown large enough that both male and, for the first time, women’s teams can be sent to play in the Homeless World Cup in Oslo, where they will put their footballing skills to the test. I caught a screening of Street Leagues at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.

I’m cheating a little bit here, as Street Leagues isn’t a feature, coming in at a lean 60 minutes, more of a TV documentary than really something for the cinema. But the subject matter is worthy of attention, so here we are. Anyone living in an urban area of Ireland, but especially Dublin, will know that the homelessness problem is a crisis that seems only to grow: official responses have been lacking in practicality, compassion or, most importantly, results. More notable has been more private responses, and the football programme initiated by Kavanagh is one of the more eye-catching.

So, for fans of helping the needy, and for fans of dramatised football, Street Leagues brings the goods. The benefits of physical activity for physical health (well duh) and mental health are obvious, but it refreshing to see such a prime example: men and women who have suffered abuse, substance addiction, serious psychological problems, all being helped to recover by the basics of a ball, two goals and two teams. Boiling sport down to those elements is a welcome distraction from the bluster and sensationalism at the highest levels of football: here, it is as simple as a father wanting to build a better life for him and his daughter, and needing the esteem boost that football brings to get there.

And then, to the World Cup. Perhaps not quite as dramatic as Italia ’90, but the depiction of the events in Oslo is entertaining, a rollicking ride through a feel-good tournament with a friendly, but competitive, air. Both genders acquit themselves well, with some going far into the knock-out stages: a nation holds its breath, etc. The framing here is basic enough, just a succession of highlights from the tournament, but some kinetic cinematography and behind-the-scenes glimpses of the two teams’ preparations give you a sense of the excitement and exhilaration.

In the end, the healing qualities of sport are on full display: addictions are managed, self-confidence is restored, people are getting second chances at establishing normal lives for themselves. In the screening, the filmmakers, players and Kavanagh were all present: the latter outlined the huge cost that running the leagues across the country entails, with the venture not exactly generating a huge amount of revenue. We would do worse than to support such movements, as our caretaker government continues to ignore the issue in favour of shadowboxing with each other. Recommended.

Heroic Losers (La Odisea De Los Giles)

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Not a bad looking movie either.

In rural Argentina, Fermin (Ricardo Darin) and Lidia (Veronica Llinas) dream of buying a disused granary and creating a co-operative that will enliven their struggling community, but their plan turns into a nightmare following the 2001 financial crash. When money they had put into a bank goes missing in dodgy circumstances, Fermin teams up with others in the local community to enact their own form of revenge. I caught a screening of Heroic Losers at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.

Always good to take in a comedy from the other side of the globe, and Heroic Losers was a good one, losing little in translation and telling an enjoyable, albeit occasionally maudlin, tale of corruption, deceit and vigilante vengeance. While heavily grounded in the world of rural Argentina and the 2001 “corallito” scandal, an Irish audience is bound to find something worth resonating with here, in the story of a plucky community whose lives were ruined by greedy bankers, looking to get their money, and their own, back.

On the comedy side of things, Heroic Losers is an enjoyable ride, a film that is part Ocean’s 11, part Tower Heist. Fermin must get an eclectic group of characters together in order to enact the madcap scheme of doing over the villainous banker who is holding their money is a secret safe in the middle of a literal corral: they include his own son, ineffectively disguising himself as an office gardener to spy on the banker; the local mechanic, who keeps a bat handy in the incredibly unlikely event that the banker just turns up, the guy who happily chooses to live in a floodplain because the Army will always come to rescue him; and the two brothers who buy the village’s first cellphones that, of course, can only call each other. Despite having to experience the laughs through the written word, Heroic Losers gets it right, delivering a caper-comedy that is sure to bring a smile or two to most faces, provided you aren’t completely without joy.

Things escalate nicely, as Heroic Losers verges between a few different comedic set-pieces, but can never quite get away from the seriousness that it also wants to imbue into affairs. Of course the financial crash of 2001 was no joke for a number of people, but I do feel that a film of wacky rural village-dwellers basically attempting a ramshackle heist could do without spouse death, survivor guilt and other deadly serious sub-plots, that all combine to change the mood just a bit too much.

Without meaning to diminish the film’s attempt to be a cipher for the experience of Argentinians too much, it’s the kind of premise where you have to be a comedy or a drama, and not this kind of quasi-melding. If you can look beyond this slight failing, then Heroic Losers is a perfectly acceptable comedy film that is just the kind of foreign cinema that more people should take in on this side of the Atlantic. Recommended.

Mewtwo Strikes Back: Evolution

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Oh Dan Green, is there anything you won’t voice?

Pokemon trainers Ash (Sarah Natochenny), Misty (Michele Knotz) and Brock (Bill Rodgers) receive a mysterious invitation to travel to an isolated island. There, they will come face-to-face with someone claiming to be the world’s most powerful trainer: the genetically engineered Pokemon Mewtwo (Dan Green), out for revenge on the world that created him.

The year was 1998. France shocked us all by beating Brazil and original Ronaldo in the World Cup Final. Bill Clinton was impeached after engaging in an extra-marital relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Titanic became the first film to ever gross a billion American dollars. And a ten-year-old NFB clamoured to get into the cinema to take in Pokemon: The First Movie, after a whirlwind few months of cards, Game Boy addiction and basic anime enjoyment.

My impressions of that movie were uniformly positive, a year before I would have the same impression of The Phantom Menace. Re-watching it years later on a whim, I realised just how monumentally dull and ill-stitched together it all was, an elongated episode of the TV show that got just about everything wrong with its pacing. That, and it exhibited a frankly bizarre approach to Pokemon fighting each other: a completely normal state of affairs for the universe otherwise, in the movie it was something terrible to behold, apparently.

So when it was announced that said film was getting a 3D makeover, I did roll my eyes, and I did guffaw audibly, but I also did give it a look, out of sheer curiosity and nostalgia. And what I found was not all that great. A fairly straightforward remake of the original with some, ahem, “fancy” new graphics installed, Evolution makes a mockery of its title. This is not an evolution, but sheer running in place, with all of the same flaws that I listed above, with some new ones to boot.

To wit: the film’s second and third acts are exercises in drawn-out conversations and boring “realistic” Pokemon battles; the titular villain is written in an underwhelming fashion; the three main characters are just sort of there in a lot of ways; and the resolution, a real exercise in “A wizard did it”, is far more insulting to an adult audience than a children’s one. All Evolution really has going for it is the animation style, and while it certainly looks more modern, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it looks good. As static as the original anime was – legendarily so – this isn’t all that better: basic, cheap, uninspiring 3D animation, where movement is not fluid and where faces just look as dead and incapable of emoting as possible.

This is essentially a cash-grab, one that grabbed at my cash through Netflix. More power to them I suppose: the Pokemon franchise has always proven adept at slight alterations to keep the franchise going just that little bit longer, and will be doing so for some time to come yet. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Leave the memories alone. Not recommended.

(All images are copyright of Netflix, Bankhouse Productions and Warner Bros Pictures).

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Who I’m Voting For In The 2020 Seanad Election

19 candidates to choose from, so this should be an easier task than last time. Let’s work through it, by eliminating various:

-Candidates I’m inherently opposed to (Ronan Mullen).

-Candidates I’m opposed to in terms of some aspect of their political or economic ideology (Karen Devine).

-Candidates whose campaign/message just didn’t impress me at all (Peter Finnegan).

-Candidates that basically ran non-existent campaigns (Garbhan Downey, Marcus Matthews, Brendan Price, Anne Barrett).

So, we’re down to 12. From here it gets harder, as the rest all begin to look a bit more indistinguishable from each other, all of them backing Seanad reform, homelessness measures, mental health funding, pro-environmental policies and a generally progressive, liberal ideology.

You have to get really cutthroat here, and look at levels of experience, effectiveness of message and suitability for office, so Ali Abbas O’Shea, Jennifer Butler, Eoin Delahunty, Eva Dowling, Mick Finn, Michelle Healy and Keith Scanlon are all dismissed. With that done, I’m happy to narrow my choices to five: Ruth Coppinger, Laura Harmon, Rory Hearne, Alice-Mary Higgins and Michael McDowell.

All of these are good candidates in their own way. Rory Hearne, by a very bare margin, is who I would put down as a #5.  Laura Harmon does not have public representative experience, but has improved her profile a lot over the last three years, so she’s #4. McDowell got my #3 last time, and I’m happy to stick with that for him. Alice-Mary Higgins has done as much in office as I could reasonably have expected, so she’ll get my #2.

When it came to #1, it had to be Ruth Coppinger, and not just because she was my #1 a few weeks ago in the general election (though obviously that has an impact). We need voices like Coppinger’s in the Oireachtas. Voices that will be a substitute for the truly vulnerable in society, be they the working class, the unemployed, the homeless or the immigrant. We need someone like her who refuses to be bullied in debates, and who gives outstanding performances in committees, asking hard questions and not backing down in the face of FG/FF stonewalling. We need someone like her who were the loudest in their support for repeal of the 8th amendment, and for the rights and equality of women generally. We need someone of obvious principal and genuineness. We, simply put, need someone like Coppinger, a voice for socialist progression in a government that has come to be so dominated by the centre that any move away from there seems radical. The Seanad is not the best place for her talents, but it is what’s on offer.

As for who will get elected, well I haven’t changed my opinion too much from my initial offering a few weeks. Mullen is a cert, McDowell only slightly less-so. The only question is whether Coppinger has the name recognition to get beyond Higgins and Harmon, and while I think it will be tight, I suspect that she does have that.

When the count is done in a few weeks, I’ll do a quick review of where everyone ended up.

 

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Ireland’s Wars: The Holywell Ambush

The War of Independence saw its most active areas in Munster and Dublin, not counting the bloodshed in Belfast. Of course there was military activity throughout the rest of the country, but nearly always to a much smaller scale, with the IRA being smaller, and the loyalist forces opposing them being of a lesser stature also. One of the more traditionally quiet areas of the war was the western side of the River Shannon in the province of Connacht, where the population was smaller, and Crown Forces targets in relatively short supply. But there were still some incidents worthy of greater consideration, and today’s entry is one of those.

The East Mayo Brigade of the IRA took in, as the name would imply, the eastern portion of Mayo, but also parts of Roscommon: by the summer of 1920 it had grown in size enough that it was able to claim the existence of four battalions, further sub-divided into numerous companies. For these units, it was largely to be a mundane war: even in the case of members of the local population being not firmly on the side of the IRA and the Republic, they also had no great attachment to the British administration either, and were generally happen to respect whatever authority was in control of their area. The IRA here disrupted communications, stole supplies, enforced the rule of the Republic as best they could and supported the activities of units outside of their brigade area: flashier operations were hard to conjure up, once the most isolated RIC barracks had been abandoned. In the early part of 1920 the brigade commandant, a man named Patrick Cassidy, had gone as far as firing indiscriminately at a post office to try and attract the attention of the RIC from a nearby barracks, sending a man to report their activities, only to get no takers. The situation was influenced by schisms within the IRA structure, that dated back to recriminations over action, or lack of action, during the Easter Rising.

This paucity of activity may explain why the local IRA responded as rapidly as they did to events that took place in late July/early August that year, arguably the one moment in the war when they attempted to make a major impact. The instigating incident was something as humdrum as car trouble. On the 31st July, a British military convoy was travelling between the villages of Claremorris and Ballyhaunis, not far from the latterly famous area of Knock. While passing through the townland of Holywell, a lorry carrying a sizable supply of petrol  lost control and crashed off the road, landing in bogland. Though no-one was seriously hurt, the truck was mired, and the men in the convoy did not have the means to retrieve it. Those in command were unwilling to abandon the lorry – an expensive piece of equipment – or its cargo, and were similarly unwilling to delay the rest of the convoy.

Somewhere between 12 and 20 soldiers, men of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, were ordered to stay with the lorry while the rest of the convoy moved on, with the expectation that they would be able to guard it long enough for more suitable help to be sent. The guarding detachment set up camp in an abandoned house nearby. A local IRA volunteer happened upon the scene, and quickly informed his commanding officer, the O/C of the Ballyhaunis company of the 4th battalion, a man named Patrick Kenny.

Kenny already had plenty on his mind. The same night that the truck had careened off the road, a force of 25 or so IRA men of a different company had ambushed a train just outside of Ballyhaunis, bringing it to a halt and taking control of it after firing only a few shots. The train’s cargo – steel shutters that had been destined for the Westport RIC, to improve the defences of their barracks – was taken and buried. As soon as this not inconsiderable operation was finished, many of the men and their officers answered Kenny’s call to meet so they could discuss the target of opportunity that had just fallen into their laps at Holywell. The truck and its petrol was one thing, but there was also a sizable enough force of British regulars, isolated, sedentary and in numbers small enough that the IRA could count on having the advantage. Rapidly, Kenny and others formulated a plan, to surround the British and overpower them, non-lethally if possible.

Arriving at the location on the night of the 1st of August, the IRA remained unsure as to just how many men they were facing. A volunteer was sent to beg a light off of a sentry, using the opportunity to survey the camp and count the rifles stacked up around campfires: 18 were noticed. The IRA was twice as strong as this, and were prepared to enact an attack, but while Kenny was ordering his men into position they were spooked by a line of British vehicles that passed-by, sending the men scrambling back before they were spotted. Lacking enough darkness to enact his plan, Kenny decided to pull back entirely, and to try again the following day.

The delay was a blessing in disguise, as it allowed the larger 4th battalion to be called in to assist. Neatly 200 men from the 4th would be employed that day, the vast majority in an unarmed fashion, building roadblocks, guarding approaches and operating as sentries, all working to further isolate the Holywell position and make it impossible for a similar surprise as had happened the previous night to interrupt Kenny’s work again. On the night of the 1st/2nd, he was ready to give it another go.

Kenny was more daring on this occasion, deciding to take advantage of a perceived lack of watchfulness in the British to try and tip the odds even more in the favour of the IRA without actually firing a shot. He himself led a small group of volunteers into the camp in the early hours of the 2nd, avoiding the sentries, for the purpose of taking the Highlanders’ rifles before they had a chance to use them. Kenny was able to grab five or six rifles before heading back the way he had come, but was unable to make a clean getaway: having avoided being spotted on the way out, the alarm was raised as he retreated. The IRA men dove for cover as the British opened fire and the IRA surrounding their camp responded. Before Kenny could get to cover, he was hit in the arm and face by a shotgun blast, an incident of friendly fire which took him out of the subsequent engagement. Three British soldiers were wounded in the first exchanges.

For the next hour and a half the two sides exchanged fire, the British from their camp and the abandoned house, the IRA from behind fences. In the pitch blackness, targets would have been hard to find. Those on the republican side who left accounts state the belief that the British must have been near surrendering after those 90 minutes, but it’s unclear to be how they would have realistically believed that: if it was an issue of ammo, the IRA always tended to run out first. Regardless, it was a superfluous question: around that time British military reinforcements arrived, in the form two lorries speeding from the direction of Claremorris (the British used the small town as a garrison for the area). The surrounding support were unable to stop them. These soldiers went as far as firing out of their moving vehicles int he direction of the IRA. Now badly outnumbered, and with dawn approaching, the IRA retreated and dispersed again.

The number of casualties was somewhat disputed. The British insisted that they had inflicted several wounded and one death on the ambushers, while members of the IRA claimed they had wounded between five and ten of their opponents. Unless a masterful job was done by both in covering up these casualties, it seems more likely that both claims are exaggerated. Kenny was shuffled between several medical resources and a disused wing of a local hospital, but recovered. The British authorities instituted a round of house raids, looking for anything incriminating that could point to the identity of the ambushers, but found nothing.

The Holywell Ambush was a tremendous opportunity for the IRA. An otherwise “quiet” district suddenly found itself with a prime target of opportunity, in the form of an extremely isolated group of enemy soldiers, whose ability to manouvre was painfully limited. The local IRA largely failed to take advantage of that opportunity: excepting some wounded regulars and a few stolen rifles, the British were able to survive the encounter, while the IRA suffered a badly wounded officer and the necessity of having to retreat from the same area two days in a row. The operation that waylaid the train was a more impressive result in terms of the final outcome.

The question is why. Well, the East Mayo IRA were under-experienced with such operations: direct combat with trained military, many of whom would have been veterans of the First World War, was a hard task to accomplish when up to then your war mostly consisted of raiding farms for shotguns and digging trenches across roads. The IRA lacked the right kind of armament to be going up against such regulars, with shotguns being an especially difficult weapon to use in night-time fighting. And they were outnumbered when the larger situation in the area, with reinforcements not too far away, were considered, that the larger East Mayo IRA was unable to prevent joining the scene of fighting.

Holywell was not the best way to begin, but there would be bigger fights in the county of Mayo before the War of Independence came to a close. For now we must go back down south, to discuss a similar situation – British authorities being forced to guard a broken-down vehicle in a hostile area – but one that had much more deadly results for many that were involved.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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