Ireland’s Wars: The Rathclarin Ambush

So far in 1919 elements of the IRA had proven they were more than capable of dealing with both armed and unarmed police forces, whether it was G Division in Dublin or the RIC in rural areas. The consequences of such attacks were that the British would inevitably start to bring Army forces into operational areas more and more, and that was going to prove a different challenge for the IRA. But, contrary to the expectations of some military commanders in Ireland, it was far from an insurmountable one.

In comparison to the deaths and shootouts in Tipperary, Cork had been comparatively quiet up to the mid-summer of 1919. Which is not to say that the IRA was not active there – houses were raided for arms, cattle stocks were stolen, RIC supply depots were targetted for sabotage – but the War of Independence was yet to have a stand-out moment there, despite the obvious strength of the Volunteers in the county, enough for several Brigades to exist.

The far south and west of the county was the domain of the 3rd Brigade, arguably the most famous Brigade of the IRA in this period, owing to later events that I will get to in time. It was, like all the others, divided into regionalised battalions further divided into localised companies, one of which was the Kilbrittain Company of the 1st Battalion. Kilbrittain was (and is) a small village/townland not far west of Kinsale, near the southern coast. The activities of the IRA company there up to June 1919 had been sufficiently disruptive, that the British authorities attempted to counter them by stationing 40-50 regular troops at the local castle, not far from the increasingly beleaguered RIC barracks of the area.

The soldiers operated basic patrols during their deployment, sometimes on foot, sometimes on bikes. Day and night they could be seen marching through the surrounds always assisted by the local RIC who knew the area, its terrain and its, in their view, untrustworthy inhabitants much better than the military did. But if the British were watching the locals, then the locals were also watching them. Elements of the Kilbrittain IRA company kept close tabs on the regulars, seeing in their presence not a deterrent, but an opportunity. Crucially, they began to notice that the British did not sufficiently alternate their patrol routes day to day, allowing a pattern to emerge.

On the night of the 16th June, a group of them decided to take their chance, though, typical to operations of that year, they had gotten no go ahead from Brigade HQ to proceed. Instead, they simply identified a target of opportunity, and moved to attack it. A patrol of the Army men, usually around five accompanied by RIC, had been spotted taking a repeating route from the castle out to Burren Pier on the estuary of the nearby River Arigideen, before returning to their billet. It was a round trip that typically took them around four hours.

That night, a group of 14 Volunteers took up positions at a road junction at Rathclarin, another small townland which lay on the route between Burren Pier and Kilbrittain, awaiting the British patrol on its march back home. While the leadership situation at the time is a bit murky from accounts, the man directing things is commonly identified as Patrick Crowley, a strongly republican son of a local shopkeeper, who was joined by two brothers, one of several sets at Rathclarin that night, indicating the tight family bonds that were often common to rural IRA units.

They were pitifully armed: one carried a a shotgun that was essentially a fowling piece, another held a pistol. The rest had nothing. Appropriate for their level of apparent threat, the plan was simple: either man with a gun went to one end of the proposed ambush point, and the rest were in-between, with the intention that the Volunteers would overwhelm their enemy through the element of surprise and their numerical inferiority. On the face of it, it was a very dangerous proposition: if anything had gone wrong, if there was a moments delay in acting, they would be at the mercy of well armed and well-trained military men.

When the “Crown Forces” arrived, oblivious to the men hidden around them, they briefly paused at the junction to decide which route to take, upon which the IRA pounced. The fighting, such as it was, was over in moments: unlike Soloheadbeg or Knocklong, there was no significant bloodshed, which does appear to have been the intention of those involved on the IRA side anyway. Rushed, bamboozled and rapidly disarmed, the ambush was largely over before the British or their RIC escort probably understood fully what was happening. The only casualty was a Mick O’Neill, who got a rifle butt to the face before its owner was completely subdued, a crack to the head that needed a few weeks convalescence, but which was not fatal.

The job done, the soldiers and RIC were tied up, then relieved of their weapons and ammunition, that an element of the ambush party moved rapidly to bury for later digging up and distribution. It may only have been five rifles, but considering the limited arms the Kilbrittain company had before then it might as well have been an armoury. Unwilling to go any further with their captives, the ambush party rapidly dispersed, knowing that many of them had to be back in their homes quickly, as they would soon be the subject of raids.

The British vigorously searched for the ambushers in the days that followed, raiding the Crowley families home several times a day, searching for any sign they or anyone else had been involved at Rathclarin. They also instituted a local curfew and beefed up patrols, but it was all for naught. None of the ambushers were arrested at that time, though their freedom to undertake any operations or activities were restricted severely for a significant amount of time.

The Rathclarin ambush may not seem all that important, especially compared to other events of 1919, or to the later exploits of the 3rd Cork Brigade. But it was, to the IRA at the time, a major event, being the first example of their organisation successfully getting the better of British Army personnel. Any aura of special status that the military had was badly damaged. The morale effect of Rathclarin was major for the Cork IRA, as noted in the account of regional head honcho Liam Deasy, and the attack made waves as far as Dublin and London.

The reason for the IRA’s success at Rathclarin are obvious, with the benefit of hindsight. The British Army were not operating, at the time, with the full realisation that they were engaged in a guerilla struggle. Hence why they did not do enough to alternate their patrols, a basic precaution when the eyes and ears of the local population were ever more on the side of potential ambushers. It was a mistake that the British would replicate, but in time they would take steps to ensure it did not happen again. Beyond that, the Rathclarin patrol allowed themselves to be taken too easily in the circumstances.

We must also take note of the IRA’s own bravery and daring. The guns they had were hardly the best for the action they planned to take, even if their lack of them may have been the key reason why there was no serious bloodshed. It is no small thing for unarmed men to rush armed men in the dark, and points to the commitment that elements of the Cork IRA were going to showcase at various points of the conflict. The basics of ambush tactics were also implemented well, from the location chosen, the distribution of soldiers to various points ahead and behind of the target, and the final attack.

Actions such as that which occurred at Rathclarin would now begin to happen with much greater regularity, as the IRA gradually upped their efforts and began to put military as well as police in the cross-hairs. But the Crown Forces in Ireland were still capable of fighting back themselves: the next incident we will discuss will serve as an example of the inherent escalation of what was happening in Ireland, as we move to North Clare.

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

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Blindspotting

Blindspotting

Trailer

b1

Commander?

Here’s another that has been on my radar for a little bit, but that I only got the chance to check out now owing to its release on Irish-specific streaming options. The lead’s name would have been enough to get me interested in Blindspotting of course, since I am a Hamilton fanatic (“Fanilton”? Patent pending). Daveed Digg’s record-breaking delivery of “Guns and Ships” or his “love-to-hate-him” rendition of “Washington On Your Side” will have won him a lot of time and patience from me.

But Blindspotting has enough to recommend it outside of the chance to see Diggs in non-musical surrounds. A cursory examination of its premise offers much in the way of relevant commentary on modern-day situations, not just in the American setting, but even in my own adopted city in terms of gentrification and changing social norms. The director may be on his first outing in terms of feature films, but has the kind of background well-suited to this kind of work. And, through Diggs in particular, Blindspotting was able to present itself as almost a quasi-musical, or at least a film that enhances itself through some very notable musical influences. That was enough for me: was Blindspotting another decent addition to the canon of films on contemporary African-American life, or was my faith a bit misplaced?

Collin (Diggs) is a convicted felon trying to get his life back on-track, is counting down the final days of his probation. After witnessing an unjustified police shooting, he begins to suffer from vivid nightmares and hallucinations, while dealing with his best friend Miles (Rafael Casal), who reacts to the changing nature of his neighborhood by buying a handgun and becoming increasingly erratic.

Well, Diggs sure can act outside of Broadway, and he sure can (co)write too. I suppose I should not really have had any doubts. Blindspotting is a low-budget indie triumph, a wonderful portrayal of west-coast America in these turbulent times, and a forthright examination of the state of play in race relations for the same.

I think the thing that really impressed me about Blindspotting is how it manages to encompass a dual plot-line on race and identity from both a black and a white viewpoint. Diggs’ Collin is of course centre-stage, a man caught up in the cruel American legal system and now desperately trying to claw his way back out, to any kind of normalcy. His journey is one filled with heartache and dread, a gradual realisation that you can’t just go home again, not after the things that he has done and the punishment he has experienced. The film’s title describes the human tendency to focus on one aspect of an image to the detriment of seeing others: Collin is that image, and, as one character says, it hard for people to train their brains to break free of the bias.

The effects of witnessing the shooting – a very dramatically captured sequence, where Collin just happens to be the wrong place at the wrong time for too long of a moment – are obviously in the realm of PTSD, and serves as a potent reminder that for every police shooting that have become so regular they begin to seen normal, there are traumatised people left behind, be they directly connected or merely witnesses. It’s telling, and entirely fitting, that the drama of the film does not centre around Collin wrestling with the idea of reporting what he saw (he dismisses this quick, mimicking how such a phone call would go: “Yes, I’m a convicted felon, I’ll just wait here for you to put me back in jail”). If the approach of See You Tomorrow was a wish-fulfillment exercise in combating such events, then Blindspotting is more about the pain of acceptance. Instead of fighting for social justice, its focus is on the mundanity of life, which the effects of seeing the unjustified killing weighs in on.  The nightmares and the hallucinations serve as a sort of short-term dramatic cipher for Collin’s larger situation, where his attempts at getting back the life he once had, be it moving back in with his mother, wooing his pre-prison girlfriend or writing down song lyrics, are all just smoke and mirrors.

The life he had is unattainable: his mother has adopted a new kid (not dissimilar to the situation in Kin), his ex, while sympathetic, is hesitant at getting involved with him personally again and the song lyrics, well, more on that in a sec. With a vital pivoting point surrounding the nature of Collin’s conviction being revealed, Blindspotting lets us know that such experiences necessitate deep and lasting change, and no amount of healthy living or burying of feelings will alter that. And that’s before you consider the inherently racist society around him, where even before his conviction Collin is limited to blue collar job opportunities and a steady stream of micro-aggressions.

And then there is Miles. It may be my own bias to say that I found his story equally, or even more, fascinating as Collin’s. Miles is a man doubly out of his comfort zone: as a white man growing up in a predominantly black area, and now as a man with a manner and language influenced by that upbringing living in an area that is becoming increasingly gentrified and, well, white. The pressure turns into classic toxic masculinity quick, with the strain of being a provider for a young family getting to him. He begins to  to act out, culminating in a terrifically framed sequence where he confronts a claim that he is guilty of “cultural appropriation” owing to his manner of speaking. Miles is oft portrayed as an asshole, and a user, retaining an infuriating ignorance of how his race means he will be treated differently to Collin for the same actions. By all rights he should be the villain of the story.

b2

Diggs is mesmerising.

But he can also garner some sympathy, as Blindspotting insures the audience understands that Collin and Miles are not just friends for the hell of it: Miles is there for Collin in ways that plenty of other people are not, even if he is, as Raylan Givens would say “born to lose”. A man who successfully sells off old hair dryers and boats on the street using the power of rap and his iffy-understanding of urban street lingo isn’t someone you can put neatly into a box: Blindspotting deserves praise for its treatment of such a storyline, that could easily have become tone-deaf in an instant.

Diggs and Casal play off really with each other, showcasing an easy camaraderie, based in their real-life friendship, in early stages before more breathlessly intense scenes later on. Between the two of them we get a really interesting examination of what it is to be black, what it is to be white in a predominantly black environment, and what it is to be friends in such a situation. Individually, the two actors knock it out of the park, Diggs especially, really capturing the essence of of latent and raw trauma for the Collin character, and Miles the terrible war between his desire to be the masculine ideal and the negative parts of that same idea. The scrip co-written between Casal and Diggs, is a fantastic effort, incorporating plenty of easy-going humour between the two leads, and easily merging that with dramatic requirements when appropriate. Suspense builds and builds, as the depiction of Collin’s improving life falls to shreds. Extended conversational moments risk falling into a late-era Tarantino trap, but more often than not fit into an early-era Tarantino mold instead: nuanced, full of character and real.

Blindspotting builds to what I would consider to be one of its only real weak-points, in a finale that straddles the line between reality and fantasy. Without wanting to give away one of the film’s more unique scenes, the sight of Diggs utilising rap verses in a very unlikely confrontation seems fundamentally off to me in a film that is otherwise painfully real: perhaps the team behind the film were going for a sort of wish-fulfillment allegory, in a stroy that does play with the idea of not being able to trust what you are seeing with your eyes. Even if so, it didn’t work for me, seeming like too convenient of an ending in a narrative sense. Blindspotting wasn’t a film that seemed like it was heading for such an easy answer and such an easy resolution. Better I thought a late scene where Collin confronts Miles’ young son over some roughhousing, only to be stunned silent when the response to his “Stop!” “is for the kid to put his hands above his head and cry “Don’t shoot!”.

Which is not to say that Diggs’ performance in that moment, and the power behind his lyrics and his delivery, isn’t incredible. Blindspotting revolves around rap, with Diggs amusing himself at different moments by rapping on what he sees around him, like he is preparing a concept album for better days. What starts out as a notable quirk turns into something decidedly more emotional and important as things go on, such as in a back-and-forth with Miles in a nightmare court scene, or in the finale, where Diggs almost breaks the fourth wall when deriding white cops who “have never felt the pressure of a n****r” even while he has “never felt the pressure of a trigger”, despite what they may think of him. The power of the poetry is not in question, even if I may question other things.

Lopez has plenty of experience with smaller projects but has never directed anything of this length or, I would wager, this intensity, but you wouldn’t know it if not told beforehand. He shoots Oakland, California with skill, style and reverence, with an eye for the little details and an appreciation for how to frame a scene. Something as simple as a panning shot while Diggs ad-libs raps on a house he and Miles are gutting can be quite affecting, and that’s before you go into the really stand-out set-pieces. For the shooting, Lopez builds tension wonderfully by just having Collin stopped at a red-light for a little too long, and holds brilliantly on the eye-contact between Diggs and the shooter; in nightmares, Collin is bathed in hellish reds as he confronts warped courtrooms with juries filled by dead black men; an antiquated but effective split-screen is suddenly used for a vital third act phone call between Collin and the ex (an excellent Janina Gavankar) who can no longer treat him the way she used to; and even if I didn’t care for the nature of the finale, that final rap is shot with verve and intensity in its use of close-ups and dead-on angles.

But I want to take the time to talk about Blindspotting’s best constructed scene, near the end of the second act, when Collin is confronted by two men who witnessed the crime that made him a felon. Seemingly ribbing on similar scenes used for humorous effect in 2015’s Ant-Man, the story is told in clipped flashback form with the two men substituting their own voices for Collin and Miles, carrying the unreal quality of someone else memories. What starts comedic rapidly turns tragic.

The beauty of the scene is how Collin, having had his requests for the two to not re-tell the tale ignored (another subtle but important example of a black man being disenfranchised in the film), is left silent, frozen, humiliated and furious, wordlessly expressing his regret and realising that everything he has been trying to do to improve himself is for naught, at least in terms of improving his image to others: for them, he will always be the angry black man who beat up a white guy outside of a bar, whether they think the event was hysterical (again, disenfranchising Collin by treating the worst moment of his life like a joke), bad-ass (just as terrible, since it treats it like something worthy of praise) or horrible (as it is seen in the eyes of the Val character, who finds her desire to no longer be involved with Collin romantically enunciated by other people when she isn’t capable of doing so herself). It’s one of the very best directed, written and performed scenes of the year.

I was very impressed by Blindspotting, coming from a director with little experience of features and a central actor who has never had to carry a production of this type. Diggs is wonderful, as is Casal. The film tells two very important individual stories and its commentary on police shootings, the struggles of ex-cons, masculinity in the modern world and mental trauma is thought-provoking at all times. As much as all that, it is simply timely: the film captivates with its sparkling script, replete with a heady mix of drama and comedy. Entertaining and engaging, the people behind Blindspotting are ones to look out for again in the future. Highly recommended.

b3

Check this one out while you can.

(All images are copyright of Lionsgate).

Posted in Reviews, TV/Movies | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ireland’s Wars: The Revolutionary State

As previously stated, war is politics by other means. The IRA was fighting a war in 1919, against the RIC, the DMP and soon enough British Army regulars, but they were not doing so just for the sheer sake of it. They were fighting in defence of their idea of an independent Irish state, that was usually described as “the Irish Republic”. This Republic had its legislative representation in the form of Dail Eireann, and its executive leader in the form of Eamon de Valera, but it was more than just a secretive debating entity and a figurehead. The Irish Republic, as I will also call it for this specific period, was a state, one within another, and in this entry I want to take some time to discuss a few different aspects of it. The following may come across as a bit scatterbrained, but I feel now is the appropriate time to cover some of these topics, before we go back to the relative minutia of ambush and reprisal.

While Dail Eireann existed, and declared Ireland’s independence, making itself anathema to the British authority by that sheer existence, it never formally declared war on Britain. It perhaps tried to circumvent this by claiming an already existing state of war between Ireland and “England” in its early statements, but a declaration by one sovereign power on another never came, and never would. To some minds, this has called into question the legitimacy of the IRA during this period.

The Dail did not approve of the early attacks on RIC or DMP personnel. Many of its deputies would never reconcile themselves with the tactics of the IRA, even after August, when the Dail passed a motion calling for all TD’s and Volunteers to take an oath of allegiance to the Irish Republic and Dail Eireann. In this, they were essentially endorsing the IRA as the armed force of the government. This oath, as others would later, proved controversial, especially to IRB members, but was accepted. The Dail would still have only a limited influence on the practical direction of the war, but there was now a formal joining of the civil with the military.

In April, at its third sitting, the Dail formally endorsed the policy of ostracisation of British police, in the form of the RIC. It was an attempt to undermine the British administration by ignoring it, and proved remarkably successful. Across Ireland, people were encouraged to isolate police and make their position within communities untenable, by refusing to speak to them, sell to them or to assist them in their day to day work. Many were happy to do so, being firm believers in the cause, and others went along with such practice out of fear of being lumped in with the RIC. RIC personnel found themselves placed in impossible situations in the areas they were based, forced at times to obtain basic necessities at gunpoint.

This boycotting, a continuation of such practices in previous centuries, soon escalated into a more concerted campaign of intimidation, violence, barrack burning and, as we have seen and will see again, death. Some TD’s flinched at the killings, preferring a bloodless campaign of civic resistance, but the results were unquestionable. In the face of such public pressure and imminent danger, the RIC, an organisation that was ill-suited to the current environment owing to age and general malaise over the previous decades, was forced to vacate hundreds of local stations, while thousands of RIC men quit their jobs or took early retirement. In so doing, they essentially ceded large parts of rural Ireland to the IRA and the republic, and crippled the British administration’s ability to operate in those same areas.

The Dail would eventually respond by establishing their own ad-hoc police force, made up mostly of Volunteers, to become the new civic authority. The effectiveness of this “Irish Republican Police” force was in question throughout the conflict, but they were undoubtedly a very clear and visible sign that the the Irish Republic was more than just an idea on paper. The Police would uphold law and order, ensure those required to would attend the proper courts (see below) and even engaged in more hostile actions, such as in sections of the country where they smashed up illegal poteen stills as part of a campaign against alcohol consumption.

They also sometimes went further, such as in the vase of the Millstreet bank robbery in North Cork. There, in Noember 1919, an amount that would be roughly €5000’000 today was stolen by a group of armed men. Local Volunteer commander Liam Lynch took it upon himself to investigate, utilising over 50 members of the Republican Police to do so over the course of several months. He eventually arrested the culprits, and saw most of them deported after a series of trials. He was also able to recover part of the stolen money to boot. Such actions were a great boon to an Irish Republic trying to establish its authority and credentials as the arbiter of law and order, and Lynch received much praise for his work, already marked out as a man to keep an eye on.

More than the establishment of a republican police force, the Dail made inroads for the legitimacy of their state through the “Dail courts”, their effort to supplant the British legal system in favour of an entity of their own. These had been initially set up as “Arbitration Courts” in the summer of 1919. Run by a mixture of IRA officials, Sinn Fein notables and even clergy, they aimed to fill the vacuum provided by the withdrawing apparatus of the British state, with its lower level courts dependent on the RIC, who were not now present. The Dail courts lacked the regalia of the British legal system, and did not disqualify women from sitting as judges. The courts, which morphed into a more formalised system in 1920, initially dealt primarily with property disputes, then later with criminal prosecutions and were eventually established on parish, district, circuit and supreme levels. There were numerous irregularities in this, and at no point can it be said that the Dail court system worked exactly as intended, but in significant parts of the country they supplanted the British system.

There were no prisons for the Irish Republic to put convicts in, and the courts often resorted to enforced deportation as a punishment. More serious crimes, like treason or spying, rarely made it to the Dail courts, being dealt with by the IRA in their own manner, typically a short court-martial and a bullet. Elements of the IRA and the Dail – most notably Cathal Brugha, who thought every ounce of energy and every resource should be put into the military side of the conflict – felt the courts an unnecessary hindrance to their own operations, and sometimes contravened their decisions, or refused to enforce them: this occurred often in regards dispute with larger landlords, that the IRA were seen by some as being overly-protective of, as long as they were nationalists. Such things are an example of the divide between the conservative and radical elements of the movement, that continued to work in tandem, but only for the moment. The larger agrarian unrest, a follow-on from the unrest of previous decades and centuries, was something that the IRA and the Dail were loath to get involved in, to the point that Volunteers were sometimes called upon to stop land seizures.

None of this – the Dail sittings, the police, the courts – could be done for free. The early state survived largely on private donations and a literal volunteer spirit, but this was only makeshift. It was the task of Michael Collins, in his position as Minister of Finance after de Valera’s return, to rectify this, in line with his other duties. He did this by overseeing the establishment of a “National Loan”, in other words a bond issue, and campaigning tirelessly for subscriptions both within and outside Ireland. It was a dicey affair, with promises of repayment once an independent Ireland was established. In essence, Collins was asking people to bet their money that the republicans would win the war.

He and others must have proved quite convincing because, despite extensive efforts by the British to disrupt and stop it, the bond proved very successful. Over 340’000 pounds was raised internally before the subscriptions were halted and money from the United States dwarfed this number, helped by the tour de Valera made there (a story, perhaps, for another time). These millions made the nascent Republic some friends, and Harry Boland famously organised a loan to Communist Russia, with some of that nations crown jewels put up as collateral, that proved a topic of some controversy when it came to light decades later. As with the other aspects of the Republic, the collection of this money helped to further legitimise the new state, with most of it diverted into the Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs. Guns were bought, explosives were imported and diplomats abroad were kept up as a result.

For a time in 1919 the British administration did not left a finger to curtail or stop the actions of the Dail. As we have noted, its first few meetings were held in public and with with great publicity attached. It was wise, in a way, to not move against the Dail, and thus provoke further outrage. But the situation could not hold forever. Even with many in the British cabinet, the Dublin administration and in high military office having reservations, the overly-confident Lloyd George and bullish French would have their way eventually.

On the 10th September, partially as a result of killings in the previous days, and with the RIC in full retreat from large parts of the countryside, the British administrations officials proscribed Dail Eireann, later including Sinn Fein, the Volunteers, the Gaelic League and Cumann na mBan, making them illegal organisations, membership of which was adjudged to be a crime. The immediate effect was simply to force these institutions underground, and the Dail would continue to meet, albeit now much more secretly, and less often. Its deputies would now be the subject of arrests, and raids against Dail offices became more frequent. However, the very fact that the British now felt the need to do this was proof of the impact the Dail was having, and how dangerous it was viewed as being. The decision to lump in entities like the Gaelic League with the proscription would prove staggeringly unwise, as it enabled republicans to frame the conflict as one of cultural, as well as political, significance.

On the military side, the assassination of Daniel Hoey, two days after the proscription, is often seen as an official response. The government of the Republic was now more willing than ever to back the military side of things, and the British would be cornered into an continuing cycle of escalation. But for now they were able to at least put on a show of response.

Such things had very limited success though. In January 1920 the political side of the movement had another opportunity to garner the peoples opinion, when urban councils and mayoral seats went for election. Sinn Fein approved candidates ran with a pledge to to align themselves with the Republic: the result was another lop-sided republican victory, with Sinn Fein, Labour and other nationalists winning control of 172 out of 206 boroughs/councils, and ten out of 11 mayoral seats. They would be followed up by similar victories in the rural votes six months later, with huge amounts of seats taken unopposed.

These were not merely symbolic victories: local government in broad swathes of Ireland were now in the hands of parties that did not recognise British authority in any way. Control of local government, with the councils bowing to the authority of W.T Cosgrave’s Ministry (Cosgrave, for reasons of illness or arrest was frequently absent, with the work largely carried out by Carlow MP Kevin O’Higgins), allowed Sinn Fein to divert “rates” money towards the cause, to further freeze out traditional British structures and to greater control the process of government throughout Ireland. The British responded by cutting off grants and tax rebates, and the quality of local services in this period was on a downward trend owing to a chronic lack of funds. But the councils, openly declaring their loyalty to Dail Eireann, largely refused to budge. Similar to the policy of ostracisation against the RIC that resulted in republican policing, the British were cut out of local government by just being ignored.

All of the above strands of the republican movement were vital to establishing the legitimacy of the new state, which in turn was vital to garnering international support and sympathy. Both of those things fed into the military aspect, which was growing and growing as 1919 went on, ahead of an explosion of activity the following year. The more Dail Eireann was able to present the Irish Republic as a living entity, the more likely it became that they could actually find a means of getting to the final stated goal: the withdrawal of Britain from Ireland and recognition as an independent state.

But this is all the big picture. For the next entry, we must go back to the smaller one, to discuss another of the notable ambushes in 1919, when a group of Cork-based Volunteers escalated things themselves.

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

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: The Red Sea Diving Resort

The Red Sea Diving Resort

Trailer

trsdr2

Not pictured: Ethiopians

Hey, it’s the height of the cold war, and a bunch of spies have to orchestrate a large-scale fabrication in a hostile country in order to rescue a bunch of stranded people in need, who risk death if they stay where they are. The guy in charge of the operation has some family issues back home, and his government might pull the plug on the whole scheme any second. The hostages are panicking and the evil security forces are closing in. Sound familiar? If you think I’m here to talk about Ben Affleck’s excellent 2012 film Argo, then buckle up, because there is a bumpy road ahead.

Maybe I shouldn’t skew this review too much before we get into it, after all, The Red Sea Diving Resort has plenty in the positive ledger before the title comes up. The cast is excellent, director Gideon Raff has some established background in espionage stories and the basis for the film is a genuinely interesting tale of undercover skullduggery in aid of humanitarian objectives, and from a very unlikely source. But the whiff of replication was strong off it all the same, so the director at least had the benefit of lowered expectations in my case.

Sudan in the 1980’s: when thousands of Jewish Ethiopians, led by Kebede (Michael K. Williams), flee their native state because of the ongoing civil war, Israeli Mossad agents, headed by Ari (Chris Evans), are tasked with getting them out of another atrocity-laden country. The plan involves fabricating a diving resort on the coast of the Red Sea as a cover for their clandestine extractions, but the depredations of local militia, and internal stresses in their team, may lead to disaster.

Watching The Red Sea Diving Resort, I was thinking about the time myself and my girlfriend were watching trailers before some film way back when, and on came the preview for J. A. Bayona’s The Impossible, about a western family caught up in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. While watching Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and a young Tom Holland struggling against the water and the chaos she said, with the driest deadpan delivery possible, “Oh, those poor white people caught in the flood”. In so doing, she captured one of the common repeating problems of western approaches to third world disasters.

Honestly, The Red Sea Diving Resort shocked me, and not just because it is trying to be Argo in so many ways. Turns out I was looking at the wrong thing when seeking any pre-viewing thoughts. A look at the cast with a more critical eye would have brought to my attention that they are mostly white in a story where the victims are African, and that the Israeli director may have priors in making his spy stories all about one particular race. As fast as you can say “White Savior” and “Social Darwinism”, The Red Sea Diving Resort outs itself as a film that is really concerned only with the white side of the “Arous Holiday Village” story, with the African portion that should be at the core of the story shunted unapologetically to the side. We’re crying out to see the lives of the Ethiopian Jews, but instead we’re getting Captain Israel.

I mean, the actual story that deserves to be told is screaming out in this picture. It even has the brilliant Michael K. Williams (unfortunately, last seen by me in the regrettable Assassin’s Creed) as a potential lynchpin. A marginalised group inside the balkanising mess that was 1980’s Ethiopia, that has to travel from one humanitarian catastrophe there to another in Sudan. There they are forced to live in dilapidated refugee shanty towns, preyed upon by militaristic despots, all the while dreaming of making it to the literal promised land…are you kidding me? Who wouldn’t want to watch that film? It’s a modern-day Exodus, with a brilliant actor in the middle. That’s all the drama that the story needs.

But instead of making that his story, Raff only wants to talk about the Israeli side of things, the Mossad side, the boring side. So The Red Sea Diving Resort becomes a story about a bunch of white guys and girls, their associated bullshit, and everyone else is just there to be rescued. It’s a remarkably one-sided way of looking at things, that betrays, and I am not afraid to say it, racist thinking. This film has a blatant narrative of white superheroes here to save the natives from themselves, where said natives are just here to be rescued by their betters, and like it. Only a handful of them even get to have lines!

trsdr3

“It should have been you Michael”

For a film in 2019 to treat this topic in this manner is simply abhorrent: anyone with even a basic understanding of western interference in Africa will roll their eyes at the sight of Chris Evans literally carrying Ethiopians to Israeli civilisation on his back, or wiping away the tears of African children, while spouting action-movie cliches like “You leave no one behind”. It’s like a 19th century propaganda story. Excepting Williams (the only named Ethiopian), the Ethiopians are just huddled masses treated like cinematic cattle, herded around by one actual character to the next, when not being butchered out of hand, with little in the way of actual agency.

And that is before we talk about the film’s failure to adequately tackle the fate and treatment of Ethiopian Jews once they made it to Israel. You could argue that this is outside the scope of Raff’s film, but I feel it is a cop-out to present every Israeli as various shades of hero when Ethiopian Jews who made it to Jerusalem, and their descendants, have suffered from systematic discrimination to this day. But Raff isn’t interested in that, he just wants his white Israeli heroes to be paragons, and nothing more complicated. Good intentions are all that are apparently required here, even if every frame of The Red Sea Diving Resort comes across as some level of exploitative. You can’t make a film about a topic like this and limit yourself to gleeful Africans arriving in Israel. It is my firm belief that Israel is one of the last countries that should be trying to portray itself as colour-blind.

Moving beyond the film’s central flaw though, it’s guilty of something just as criminal, which is taking what is an intriguing tale on paper, and making it regrettably dull on-screen. The genius of Argo was in how it made historical events breathlessly exciting and its central character interesting, but The Red Sea Diving Resort falls badly short on both counts. It’s far, far too long for the amount of material is has, resorting to portraying the operation as a sort of Ocean’s 11-esque caper, replete with Evans recruiting the others one by one and lengthy montage sequences at the midpoint to showcase the fake hotel in operation. Worse, its characters are too moodily heroic to be considered as anything but caricatures. Thinly written with a lot of the special forces tropes you will have seen in many other places, they’re just moving props around the lead.

Chris Evans is at an important point in his career, now that his time in the MCU has come to a conclusion. He will be hoping for better roles than this, with his Ari being just a more dour Steve Rodgers, breezily heroic, physically handsome (he likes to do pull-ups whenever he can) while occasionally frowning about the difficult marriage back home, just so we get that he’s got problems. But Ben Affleck he ain’t, and Evans can only do so much with this cumbersome script (“I can’t do this without you”, “If we don’t do something, no one will”, “What we do is dangerous” etc).

He’s surrounded by some great talent, but all of them are phoning it in, with even Williams struggling with the accent he is landed with. Ben Kingsley is around for a few scenes as the requisite heavy hitter, here to pace around a control room; Greg Kinnear looks disinterested as a US diplomat who starts meddling in the Israeli operations for some reason; Alessandro Nivola is Ari’s argumentative colleague that he needs to bounce off of for the sake of some drama; and Haley Bennett is the girl (and that is all she is). Chris Chalk as a murderous Sudanese militia leader adds some bite, but never gets enough room in this bloated company to really stand out, and, indeed, is enough of a cliche himself (right down to firing his gun in the air when angry).

Raff gives his film the appropriately grainy look, and I can’t seriously fault the effort to re-create Sudan in locations throughout Namibia and South Africa. But it never really comes off as anything other than an effort to ape Affleck, and The Red Sea Diving Resort lacks any true stand-out moments of cinematography worth talking about. There is little in the way of tense set-ups or set-pieces, not even when the Sudanese militia are closing in. Instead, there is only stuff we have seen before, in Argo and a hundred other Cold War espionage films, from restive waits in passport queues to arriving on a dark coastline in a rubber dinghy.

The Red Sea Diving Resort is a regrettably lacking effort at bringing to life one of the Cold War periods more interesting stories. In framing it almost entirely around the Israeli team trying to get the Ethiopians out of Sudan it takes on the look of a blinkered propaganda exercise, that does not want to adequately explore the experience of those Ethiopians before, during or after their salvation from Sudanese refugee camps and civil war. The cast are disinterested in the material, and it isn’t anything special to look at. You would expect better from the man who was the progenitor of Homeland, an altogether better drama, albeit in a different medium. Netflix surely has better properties to acquire. Not recommended.

trsdr1

A dive.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

Posted in Reviews, TV/Movies | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ireland’s Wars: The Squad

The popular remembrance of the Irish War of Independence is wrapped up tight around the conflict that was waged on the streets of Dublin, perceived as a cloak and dagger fight between two competing intelligence services, more akin to a film noir story than a military contest. Assassinations, raids in the dead of night, infiltration of secure archives, double-agents, the war in Dublin had them all, but the truth of what occurred in the capital between 1919 and 1921 is a bit more complex than the shadow war Neil Jordan depicted in 1996. But one thing is certainly true, and that is that the Dublin theatre revolved around Michael Collins.

When the war broke out, Collins was already fulfilling several roles. He was TD for Cork South, Minister of Home Affairs (soon to be moved to Finance), and would also been appointed to be the Director of Organisation for the Volunteers, not to mention his assumption of the IRB’s Presidency in the summer of 1919. But it was as the Volunteer Director of Intelligence, a position he was appointed to in mid-1919 (though it was merely a formal title for a job he had been doing for a while), that Collins would find his greatest use for the cause.

As was recognised, the intelligence war was a vital component to any effort to unseat British power in Ireland. The history of Irish rebellions against British rule, especially from 1798 onwards, was one dominated by the thorny issue of “informers”, and the administrations ability to infiltrate various nationalist organisations at will. Collins and others were determined to reverse this trend, embarking on a counter-intelligence struggle from the early days of the war, one that had two broad aims: to disrupt, neutralise and otherwise eliminate the British government’s intelligence service, and to acquire information themselves to the point that it would be of practical use when planning their own operations. In this, Collins and his confederates would practically be starting from scratch. The Volunteers of 1916 had no real intelligence service, but the IRA would be fighting a very different type of war, one that required trained, experienced intelligence officers who could analyse and interpret information, and people “in the field” who would gather that intelligence often at great personal risk to themselves.

Collins was faced with an enormous task but, as has already been outlined, he had a tremendous skill in creating networks, with friends in many places and fingers in a great many pies. More than one account of the period claims Collins seemed to be good at everything, or at least he was able to create such an aura. He was personable, energetic, endowed with an excellent memory and, by most accounts, was very charismatic. These were all vital traits for a chief spy, and it didn’t take long for Collins to put them to good use. He was also the correct blend of daring and cautious, openly walking around Dublin and often meeting contacts in public places, hiding in plain sight, but also never visiting certain IRA safehouses or offices, often using his assistant/bodyguard Joe O’Reilly, a 1916 and Frongach veteran, as an intermediary. He built a loyal, competent team of men around him, not least his deputy, Liam Tobin, while also having productive relationships with Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy and Dick McKee, now the head of Dublin Brigade.

GHQ’s intelligence section worked out of an office in Crow Street, only a short distance from Dublin Castle. There, they coordinated surveillance of British intelligence operatives, deciphered intercepted telegrams and dealt with an ever increasing list of operatives, contacts and informers, that came from all walks of life: typists, railway workers, hotel porters, journalists, anyone who was willing, or could be coerced, into giving useful information on the Dublin IRA’s opposite numbers. But the most useful contacts were those already enmeshed in the British administration, now proving sympathetic to the cause of republicanism.

In the early days of the war, the Dublin IRA’s chief enemy was the Dublin Metropolitan Police, or more specifically that body’s “G Division”, also known as the Special Branch. These was a plainclothes section of the police force, concerned with detective work, often of a political bent: one of its main tasks was to report on and infiltrate bodies like the IRB. It comprised less than twenty detectives and was based primarily in Dublin Castle. In 1919, it was the most direct threat to the organisation that Collins was trying to build, with its detectives in position to directly identify numerous IRA members, and being some of the most public representation of the state the IRA was ever more dedicated to fighting. Many of its leading figures were men hated by Irish republicans, for their role in identifying Volunteer leaders in the aftermath of the Easter Rising.

But not all of its staff were loyal to the British. One of the most important sources of information for the IRA in the War of Independence was DMP clerk Eamon “Ned” Broy, assigned to the G Division. Growing sympathetic to the Irish nationalist thinking after 1916, and to the IRA later, Broy made contact with republican operatives, and later maintained a direct relationship with Collins: through Broy, Collins gained invaluable knowledge of G Division’s membership, methods of operating, and its files, even gaining personal access to DMP headquarters in Dublin. With such a mole on the inside, the opportunities for action quickly became manifest

McKee has already assigned men to follow G Division detectives, and the impetus for what came next may have come from him, though others maintain the original inception was from Collins. Either way it was proposed, and approved by GHQ, that a “special duty” unit be created whose task would be direct counter-intelligence: in plainer words, the assassination of G Division detectives, and anyone else engaged in intelligence work for the British. This was the genesis of what was later dubbed “the Squad”.

The Squad is a shadowy entity. The exact date of its founding, the extent of its duties, and even the identity of its members, is still a matter of debate, at least in regards who exactly should be considered part of the assassin portion, and if supporting staff should also be considered in the same breath. Initially, it was a small band of carefully selected young men from the Dublin Brigade that McKee brought together: the first dozen are sometimes dubbed “the Twelve Apostles”. They included among their number 19 year old Vincent “Vinny” Byrne, last mentioned here escaping from the Jacob’s garrison in 1916. They were to be a full-time unit, that would maintain the facade of being tradesmen, with many based in daytime hours at a carpentry business.

Many balked at the reality of what they were being asked to do, which was far from the regular operations of 1916, or even the operations being carried out by IRA units across the country. While assassination was to be considered a last resort – G Division staff were sent written warnings to stop their activities before being targeted – it was the purpose of “the Squad”. This was to be close-quarter, intimate killing, often to be done in broad daylight, in an environment packed with civilians.The selected assassins would scope out their target, determine the best time and place to attack and strike without hesitation, in civilian clothes, before disappearing into side streets and crowds.

The first assassination, sanctioned by GHQ, was carried out on the 30th July 1919. The target was a detective sergeant named Patrick Smyth, nicknamed “the Dog”. He was a disliked man, whose prosecutions and testimony in trials had greatly angered many in the Dublin Brigade. Smyth himself noted that he was being observed by mysterious persons in the days leading up to the attack. He was shot several times not far from his family home in Drumcondra, after stepping off a tram: the five man team of assassins almost bungled the job through lack of experience with the .38 revolvers they were given. Smyth would die in hospital a few weeks later: like the Soloheadbeg and Knocklong attacks, they shooting was widely condemned.

The Squad and their commanders paid such criticism no mind, more concerned with getting the assassinations done better: the amount of men employed on such “jobs” was reduced to two, and they were given .45 guns to do them. The next hit took place on 12 September, with the target being Detective Daniel Hoey, who was well known for his part in raids on IRA offices and safehouses. He was shot dead while returning to DMP headquarters from a dairy shop. This assassination was both an attack on the DMP, but also served as a response to the recent proscription of Sinn Fein and Dail Eireann (more in a later entry). The Squad was made an official unit a week later.

On October 19th, the Squad struck for a third time, targeting Detective Michael Downing. Caught entirely by surprise, he was shot in Dublin’s High Street. He survived long enough to reach a hospital and received a blood transfusion from a DMP colleague: such a procedure was highly unusual at the time, but proved insufficient to save him.

The fourth fatality inflicted on the DMP in 1919 was Detective John Barton, targeted on November 29th on Brunswick Street, again not far from a DMP station. It is claimed that Barton was the man who identified Sean Mac Diarmada among the prisoners of the Easter Rising. For this, and his allegedly gloating attitude towards the same and other prisoners, he was a hated man. This assassination is notable for the involvement of Sean Treacy, of the Mid Tipperary Brigade, who had been hiding in Dublin: Collins found ample use for his already lengthy experience on such matters. Treacy is described as firing the shots that killed Barton, inflicted at range so close the detective had scorch marks on his clothes. Unlike many others, Barton was armed when he was attacked, and managed to fire off one ineffectual shot before collapsing.

By the end of 1919 G Division has been essentially destroyed. Most of its detectives were either dead, wounded in other incidents or suitably warned off pursuing their duties to any kind of effective level. The real death knell was the assassination of District Inspector William Redmond on January 21st 1920, shot in the head on Harcourt Street. Redmond had just been moved from Belfast with the express mission of finding Collins and fighting back against the IRA activities: Collins had, through contacts in the Ulster-based RIC, obtained a picture of him, quickly passed to the Squad. Now, days, after his arrival, Redmond was dead. Two more G Division detectives would be killed in 1920, but the damage was already done by that time.

Such a turnaround is indicative of how efficient the IRA in Dublin was becoming. G Division had been shown up as outdated, vulnerable and weak, its detectives easily accounted for, and unable to adapt properly to the new reality. At the same time, Collins and the IRA looked ever more dangerous and capable. Escalation was inevitable: the killings obligated figures as high as John French to acknowledge a war was now being fought, and as such military intelligence would now have to take precedence. That escalation will be the focus of many further entries to come.

It is only fair to take the time to note that the war in Dublin was not limited to the actions of the Squad. In other ways the Dublin based Volunteers were starting to make a contribution to the national struggle. The first four battalions, based around the city, would at some points comprise over a thousand fighting men, and would engage in many of the same activities as their more rural brethren, in terms of hold-ups, ambushes and general interference with the British administration. They maintained numerous offices, arms dumps and safehouses that were often the target of British raids, but were never shut down completely. Dublin’s Fifth Battalion was dedicated to engineering and signals: run by the Volunteer Director of Engineering Rory O’Connor, it helped to create and maintain a bomb-making production line that provided explosives for many units across the country, and issued training courses for the same. 

Outside of the capital however, it was a different story. There was only so much that GHQ and Collins could do for IRA units based in west Cork or Longford where individual battalions were often responsible for their own intelligence work. GHQ staff would help where they could, like with the aforementioned training courses, but to a large degree the war in Dublin and the war in the provinces were often viewed as entirely separate affairs.

One unifying aspect of both the urban and rural experience was the state they, in whatever way they wished to acknowledge it, were fighting to protect. The Irish Republic was more than just flying columns, Squad hitmen or the TD’s of the Dail. In the next entry, I will take a condensed look at the Irish revolutionary state in being, and how its existence and expansion was proving a key element to the overall military struggle.

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

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Review: The Dead Don’t Die

The Dead Don’t Die

Trailer

TDDD4

The dead may not die, but this film sure might.

 

Jim Jarmusch is a director I have, with some conscious intention, avoided in the past. There has been little about the promotion of his notable efforts like Stranger Than Paradise, Only Lovers Left Alive or the more recent Paterson that has entranced me, before you get into Jarmusch’s reputation as a minimalist director, who prioritises mood over narrative at every turn. For some this is enough, but for me it isn’t. I have had my dalliances with so-called “No Wave” cinema, but I usually end up underwhelmed.

Why The Dead Don’t Die then? I’ll admit it may have been a case of “Best Worst Option” on an empty Monday evening, combined with my appreciation for the cast that Jarmusch had managed to assemble. And the genre in question abounds with the possibilities of satire, if the director is good enough to craft something unique (ie, Shaun Of The Dead). The promotion promised something primarily comedic, perhaps in the general area of Ed Wright’s horror send-up classic. Is that what Jarmusch set out to deliver, or is his attempt at zombie parody obtuse to the point of inanity?

Odd things are happening in the quiet town of Centreville, when “polar fracking” sets the Earth off its axis: animals act strangely, the day/night cycle becomes unpredictable and the moon glows an ominous purple. The phenomenon is observed by the town’s various residents, including Police chief Cliff (Bill Murray), his deputies Ronnie (Adam Driver) and Mindy (Chloe Sevigny), bizarre mortician Zelda (Tilda Swinton) and cult film expert Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones): when the dead start to leave their graves and feed on the living, all of them must fight to survive.

I need to make a note for the future: “Best Worst Option” is not the best way of deciding to go and see a film. The Dead Don’t Die is, at the very least, an interesting film more than worthy of discussion for what it tries to say and do. But that does not mean that it is any good: unfortunately obtuseness and inanity are, indeed, the order of the day, in what I would describe as the sub-sub-genre of “mumblecore zombie”.

The Dead Don’t Die is a very weird movie, something even the cast members will say, over and over again, including in scenes where characters break the fourth wall and talk about the director. It isn’t really a comedy movie, it isn’t really a drama. Hell, it isn’t even really a zombie horror movie either. It is, instead, an odd mix of episodic narrative and blunt allegory, that simply doesn’t work.

As a film, The Dead Don’t Die really does struggle with its narrative, which is a cut-up and fitful thing. It feels to me like Jarmusch wasn’t really sure which of the various threads he introduces to focus on, and so characters and sub-plots enter into the story that do not appear to have much in the way of point, terminating in several cases in the middle of the film. I think of the “hipsters” (including one Selena Gomez in a wasted role) or the teenagers from a juvenile detention facility, who appear initially important but then just, well, aren’t.

Perhaps Jarmusch thinks it is bold and daring to play with his characters in this way, or maybe he just bit off more than he could chew with the ensemble. Either way, the end result is a disjointed production that feels more like a fever dream in its presentation, something that not even breaking the fourth wall a few times can fix (when Bill Murray asks why a song on the radio sounds so familiar, Driver responds “Because it’s the theme tune”). Jarmusch doesn’t do drama as you will be familiar with it, and he certainly doesn’t do suspense. So what does he do?

Jim Jarmusch has a strange sense of humour, if this is his idea of comedy. It isn’t that the film has no instances of humour, but they are few and far between, and all of them fall into the general realm of absurdist observation or deadpan reactions to really awful events. The best is easily Cliff casually inquiring if Ronnie ever played any minor league baseball after witnessing him decapitate a zombie with a machete; the comedy is in how nonchalant and straight the exchange is played. But when every exchange, be it meant comedically or dramatically, is played in such a fashion, the intended effect tends to be diluted. In essence, The Dead Don’t Die dies a death because its cast have presumably been entrusted to keep things as flat as possible.

THE DEAD DON'T DIE

Tilda Swinton is too good for this.

I’m not really sure why Jarmusch choose to do this. He has the supreme comedic talent of Bill Murray on his hands, one of the best in the business in Tilda Swinton, and a host of excellent actors aside from them. But none of them are given the opportunity to really rise to the material. Everyone delivers their dialogue in flat, clipped sentences, as if nothing that is happening around them is really all that notable. The intention of this is beyond me, other than it maybe being a commentary on the lackadaisical modern reaction to critical events (it’s not hard to see the Trump illusions, with one character wearing a “Make America White Again” cap, or the nods to profit-driven environmental catastrophe). Is Jarmusch saying that we are too blase about the metaphorical zombies in our existence? Did he have to neuter Bill Murray to make that point?

Connected to the performances is the nature of the characters, and here at least I do think that Jarmusch is on surer ground. Just about everyone, save Tom Waits as reclusive wood-dweller and a handful of teenagers, could be characterised in negative terms. Cliff is ineffective, Ronnie is uncaring, Mindy seems oddly ill-disposed to actual police work, Zelda is a socially strange person, Steve Buscemi’s farmer is a rascist, etc etc. At one point the three cops leave a besieged building to its fate and at other points Cliff goes out of his way to leave those he considers morally inferior to their fate.

Jarmusch is supposed to have a reputation for getting to the heart of humanity in his films, but if so then fans of his must have a very negative, doom-laden view of their species. Basically everyone is nearly entirely looking out for themselves, and that appears to be Jarmusch’s point: that society is too introverted in its priorities, and that such a state of affairs will invariably end in catastrophe. But in depicting his characters as such, combined with their annoyingly uncaring attitude to the end of the world, the director, intentionally or otherwise, detaches the audience from what is happening, because we don’t really have anyone worth rooting for or being interested in. If Adam Driver doesn’t care about the zombie apocalypse, why should I? Even Shaun Of The Dead had stakes and characters you wanted to see survive, with commentary on the zombie-like nature of modern life that wasn’t delivered like an avalanche.

If George A. Romero really mastered the subtle blending of consumerism critique with the zombie genre in his Dawn Of The Dead in 1978, then Jarmusch in 2019 takes the two ingredients and smashes them together. His zombies gravitate to the things they were obsessed with in life, which tends to be coffee, pills, alcohol and, shock horror, mobile phones. Yes, a film with a cast this good decides to make a point that young people on mobile phones are like zombies, and even outlines this incredibly unnecessary idea in a closing monologue that is little less than a bully pulpit sermon, as bad as I have heard since Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland. In so doing, Jarmusch betrays himself as an old crank who thinks things were better for small town American back in his day. I can hear Adam West in every frame of this unoriginal, uninspired drivel: “And why doesn’t Batman dance anymore?”

Perhaps it is just the nature of the production, but in terms of cinematography I couldn’t help but feel like I was looking at a film from a man who so desperately wants to be seen as a Wes Anderson-type, but who really isn’t in that league. The Dead Don’t Die favours static shots of building exteriors and stage-like framing of the principals, with direct contrasts and symmetry: on those occasions when Jarmusch is a bit more inspired, we see Tilda Swinton engaged in kendo meditation or Tom Waits wondering the woods commenting on everything he sees. Those moments are exceptional: The Dead Don’t Die is a by the numbers visual piece otherwise, an attempt to recreate the stereotype of rural Americana, right down to Centerville’s welcoming sign (Population: 738, with a motto of “A Real Nice Place”).

If this is the kind of filmmaker that Jim Jarmusch is, you can colour me unimpressed. Here, he has attempted to make a satire of the zombie genre mixed with an allegory of modern obsessions: on both levels the film is a failure. It isn’t funny enough despite the potential of its premise and cast (who are shockingly wasted) and its observations on modern life are far too basic for the manner in which they are delivered. I don’t want to discount that the film was mis-sold, Ruby Sparks-like, by those responsible for its marketing, but even strictly on its own merits, there is little to redeem The Dead Don’t Die. Considering the elements that Jarmusch had to play with, it must be seen as little more than a missed opportunity. Not recommended.

TDDD3

And the song was nothing special too.

(All images are copyright of Focus Features).

Posted in Reviews, TV/Movies | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ireland’s Wars: Rescue At Knocklong

A section of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade had instigated the military side of the War of Independence with the Soloheadbeg ambush. There would be other incidents, and deaths, in the weeks and months that followed, but the next spectacular moment of the conflict was once again with the Tipperary IRA, and many of the same men who had been involved at Soloheadbeg.

The main figures of Soloheadbeg – Seamus Robinson, Sean Treacy, Dan Breen and Sean Hogan – had been on the run since the 21st January, evading British attempts to bring them to heel through the institution of a “Special Military Area” edict in Tipperary. For three months, the four moved from safehouse to safehouse, sometimes sleeping out in the open, in a variety of locations across rural Tipperary and neighboring Limerick.

They maintained communication with their units and Brigade, and even visited Dublin in this time to hold a brief meeting with Michael Collins; Robinson claims Collins gave a subtle, but unstated, approval to their actions, and to their refusal to leave the country, intent instead as they were on maintaining the armed struggle. Indeed, their living “on the run” as their own unit and with the support of the units in places they visited, can be seen as a progenitor of the flying columns that would come soon enough, though Robinson himself disapproved of the columns, thinking them too close to a regular force.

On the 12th May, the four men had based themselves near Clonoulty, roughly half way between Tipperary Town and Thurles. That night, the four of them elected to attend a dance in nearby Ballagh, held as part of a fundraising effort for the local IRA, which was badly in need of money to buy arms. Hogan would end up attending another dance in the area, with “a pretty girl” as Robinson put it; in his account, the O/C rather gleefully takes the time to quote Hogan’s own thoughts on such matters, that “Ireland will never be free until she can produce a Robert Emmet who doesn’t give a damn about women”. Treacy would be furious when he heard that Hogan had given a minder the slip, but it must be remembered that he was only 18, and enjoyed a reputation as something of a playboy. The other three went back to their chosen safehouse.

Hogan would eventually spend the night sleeping on a sofa in the home of said “pretty girl”, a Cumann na mBan member named Bridie O’Keefe. In the early hours of the morning, the house was the subject of an RIC raid. Hogan went out the back, gun in hand, and scaled the rear wall of the property, only to stumble into a different group of RIC. He was subdued, arrested and taken to the nearest RIC barracks, before being transferred to more secure environs in Thurles.

The other three men, upon being informed of Hogan’s arrest, knew that they had limited options. Abandoning their comrade was apparently not thought of. An immediate attack on the Thurles barracks was considered, but would have been extraordinarily difficult, and once Hogan was transferred to one of the larger prisons, rescue would became almost impossible. But, the authorities would have to move Hogan, and therein lied an opportunity. Having learned from operatives in Thurles that Hogan was to be moved to Cork by train the very next day, the three men determined to rescue their comrade while he was in transit.

Knowing the route that the train would have to take, the three initially fixed on Emly station, non-existent today, as the place where they would board the train. This was later changed to the next station on the line, Knocklong (also no longer existing), just inside the Limerick border. Robinson, Breen and Treacy sent messages out to nearby units asking for volunteers to help them in their endeavour, and got a few from the Galtee Battalion of the East Limerick Brigade. These men were to board the train at Emly, and meet with another volunteer who had been on-board since Thurles, with the job of identifying the carriage Hogan was being kept in. When the train stopped at Knocklong, the waiting Robinson, Treacy and Breen would enact their attack and rescue.

Up to the launch of the attack, everything went to plan. Hogan was identified as being held, under guard by four members of the RIC, in the train’s first carriage, and the Limerick men boarded at Emly without impediment. When the train pulled into Knocklong, the waiting men received the signal as to what carriage Hogan was in. The group of IRA moved into the carriage.

From there, things break down a little. Robinson claims Treacy disobeyed orders to wait for he and Breen, at the platform still, to also board. In the carriage, a gunfight ensued. Two RIC, a Constable Michael Enright and Sergeant Peter Wallace, were shot dead, Wallace after a hand-to-hand scuffle with Treacy, that resulted in Treacy receiving a bullet wound to the neck. Another RIC constable, Jeremiah Ring, was thrown through a carriage window while another, John O’Reilly, dazed from an attack, stumbled onto the platform and proceeded to fire wildly on the train and on Dan Breen, who engaged him in a brief gunfight on the platform. Breen took a bullet to the chest that pierced his lung, but drove O’Reilly off.

With the RIC accounted for, Hogan was moved to a local butcher to cut his handcuffs with a meat cleaver, before the wounded were spirited away to a doctor for their wounds to be treated. Treacy and Breen both survived, and the “Big Four” soon fled to the relative safety of West Limerick, avoiding the response of the British authorities, which rounded up many in the area of Knocklong in the immediate aftermath of the rescue, but none of the actual rescue party. The killings were condemned by many, not least local clergy, but the heavy-handed response of the authorities, who again resorted to the collective punishment of the community instead of focusing on the actual attackers, ensured that the IRA’s actions would be perceived in a different light as time went on.

One member would be captured eventually however. Ed Foley, of the Galtee Battalion, would be arrested in September 1919, alongside another IRA member, who had had nothing to do with the Knocklong rescue, named Patrick Maher. The two were tried twice in civilian courts, which failed to reach a verdict, before being found guilty of the murder of the two RIC men by a military court. Sentenced to death, they were hung in June 1921.

The “Rescue at Knocklong” was another incident, like that at Soloheadbeg, which galvanised the movement and accelerated the militant nature of what was now occurring in Ireland. Having already carried out a successful ambush with lots of pre-planning, units of the IRA had now carried out a successful ad-hoc attack on the spur of the moment, fulfilling the objective of rescuing Hogan, inflicting two casualties on the enemy, with no fatalities to themselves. They were thus marking themselves out as a serious threat, and providing plenty of inspiration to other IRA units throughout the country. It must be remembered that, at this point, their actions were not being condoned by any of those in GHQ, Sinn Fein or the Dail. 1919 would actually be rather quiet in comparison to the next year in terms of ambushes and attacks. Though plenty took place elsewhere, none had the same notoriety or impact as the Soloheadbeg and Knocklong incidents. As the Dail continued to talk and GHQ dithered, the Tipperary IRA were making the War of Independence a reality.

After a period recuperating in Limerick, the Tipperary men took another trip to Dublin, there to meet again with the higher-ups in GHQ like Collins and Richard Mulcahy. Those men had a mind to start their own “Active Service Unit” in the capital, and sought the assistance and participation of Robinson, Breen, Hogan and Treacy. The subject of that unit, better known to us today as “the Squad”, will be the topic of the next entry.

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

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments