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However you feel about the awards season-darling, The Banshees of Inisherin, it is an objective fact that the film’s title is…really good.
For large swaths of people, myself included, the mere mention of the word banshee evokes feelings of dread.
And then there’s Inisherin.
Where the heck is Inisherin?
Pssst. You can watch a video adaptation of this article here:
The name translates roughly to “Ireland Island,” or “Island of Ireland,” and it appears to be the quintessential bucolic island community situated somewhere off of Western Ireland’s wild Atlantic coast; it’s an island that seems almost too rugged, too beautiful to be real.
Which makes sense given that you won’t find Inisherin on any map.
The treacherous cliffs and foam-topped beaches, stomping grounds of Brendan Gleeson’s brooding Colm Doherty, were filmed on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands.
While the flatter, less geographically interesting farmland home of Colin Farrell’s happy-go-lucky Pádraic Súilleabháin and sister Siobhán Súilleabháin, played by Kerry Condon, was filmed on Achill Island off the coast of Mayo.
Now, fans of writer-director Martin McDonagh will know that 2022’s The Banshees of Inisherin was the long-awaited final entry, of sorts, of his planned Aran Islands Trilogy.
The first two entries were plays: 1996’s The Cripple of Inishmaan and 2001’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
McDonagh left the third play, then titled The Banshees of Inisheer, a reference to the smallest of the Aran Islands, to gestate for a couple of decades before reenvisioning the piece as a film.
Why the name change?
I think part of it had to do with filming locations—when it became clear McDonagh wasn’t going to be able to film on the island of Inisheer, he probably felt it’d be disingenuous to use that name.
And maybe it was partly to avoid bringing any potential negative attention to Inisheer—because there are some Irish critics out there who aren’t too keen on the film’s stereotypical portrayals of Irish history and culture.
It’s rural and dirty and there are animals indoors and all the guys are slugging back beers.
Irish author and journalist Mark O’Connell argued in Slate that such portrayals “unwittingly reassert England’s colonial hegemony by staging Ireland as an unsophisticated peasant culture.”
Where is the “defiant cosmopolitanism of Joyce’s novel [Ulysses],” O’Connell wonders, “with its urban setting, its relentless ridicule of narrow nationalism.”
But I digress.
That’s what we’re talking about here.
And of course, there’s no way we could have a discussion about the Irish mythology behind The Banshees of Inisherin without first talking about…
Banshees: The Film’s Hidden Villains
I know who the banshee is!
(Spoiler alert, and consider this a general spoiler alert for the entire plot of the film moving forward)
It’s the old woman! The one who looks like a banshee! Mrs. McCormack!
She’s the banshee of Inisherin.
And the other “banshees” referenced in the film’s title are, uh…
Look, here’s the thing about The Banshees of Inisherin:
It’s not about banshees.
McDonagh even admits as much, using Brendan Gleeson’s Colm as his mouthpiece, when he has the fiddler explain to Colin Farrell’s Pádraic why he titled his freshly composed tune “The Banshees of Inisherin.”
“I just like the double S-H sounds,” he says.
Yes, Mrs. McCormack is a not-so-subtle wink and a nod to the traditional depiction of the banshee, i.e. the bean sidhe—woman of the hills, or woman of the fairies.
And while there’s no shrieking involved, Mrs. McMcormack does warn of two impending deaths, which unfortunately come to fruition in the form of Jenny the Donkey choking on a severed finger and Barry Keoghan’s Dominic Kearney meeting a watery end.
FYI: I explored the origins of the banshee and did a deep dive into her appearance and prophetic shrieking in my three-part video series, What Is a Banshee?
So if you’re interested in learning more about banshee folklore specifically, you can go check that out.
What I’m going to focus on here is how banshees are interpreted in the film.
Because at one point Pádraic declares with certainty that “there are no banshees on Inisherin.”
Colm gently disagrees.
“Maybe there are banshees too,” he says. “I just don’t think that they scream to portend death anymore. I think that they just sit back, amused, and observe.”
Colm’s explanation of banshees aligns perfectly with his newfound dedication to the arts, to improving his life—at the expense of what he considers to be a mundane friendship.
If banshees are mute, merely spectators, then the implication is that Death will likely arrive with no warning whatsoever.
There is an urgency to this philosophy, this notion that each of us has our own personal sword of Damocles dangling silently above our head.
Colm feels this pressure. He feels the amused gaze of the banshees upon him, observing him.
And, for better or worse (definitely worse), he chooses to do something about it, setting the film’s events in motion.
The Significance of the One-Handed Man in Irish Mythology
Before Star Wars took limb-chopping to new heights with its introduction of colorful, whirring, flesh-cauterizing lightsabers, Irish mythology boasted some of storytelling’s best tales of one-armed wonders.
The most famous example no doubt is that of Nuada Airgetlám, of the silver hand or silver arm.
The one-time king of the Tuatha Dé Danann (or two-time king, actually—we’ll get to it), Nuada lost his limb to the Fir Bolg champion Sreng during the first battle of Mag Tuired.
See, the Fir Bolg, or “men of bags,” were the mythological inhabitants of Ireland who preceded the Tuatha Dé Danann—the Irish gods.
As detailed in the Lebor Gabála Érenn, The Book of the Taking of Ireland, commonly called The Book of Invasions in English, Ireland’s first settlers were the Cessair.
Who were followed by the Partholónians.
Then came the Nemedians.
Then the Fir Bolg (bag men).
Next, the Tuatha Dé Danann.
And finally, the Milesians: Gaelic-speaking Celts from Spain and forerunners to Ireland’s modern human population.
But let’s get back to the butcher block, shall we?
Nuada lost an arm and as a result he was no longer eligible for the throne.
The Tuatha Dé Danann named Bres, who was half-Fomorian, their new king in an attempt to broker some peace with their arch-nemeses the Fomorians.
The goddess Brigid, whose background I explored in my video on her feast day of Imbolc, even marries the guy.
Wait, the Fomorians weren’t on your earlier list…
No, because they were raiders, not invaders.
They lived on islands off of Ireland coast and only came to main Ireland to harass the latest wave of inhabitants.
And collect tributes.
And that’s exactly the arrangement Bres sets up once he’s in power.
He effectively enslaves the Irish gods, which gets the gods thinking—hey, uh, maybe we should get the old king back?
But instead of changing their archaic rule that prevents “imperfect” beings from ruling, they decide the best course of action is to have the Irish god of medicine and physician to the Tuatha Dé Danann, Dian Cecht, build Nuada a working arm out of silver with the help of the goldsmith Credne and/or Credne’s brother, the metalworking god Goibniu (depending on the particular version of the story one is looking at).
And I’d be remiss not to mention that it is traditionally Goibniu who goes on to kill the son of Bres and Brigid, Ruadán, with Ruadán’s own spear, an event that prompts Brigid to invent a new mournful style of singing, keening, which has led some mythologists to believe that Brigid was indeed the original inspiration for the folkloric banshee.
Anyway the plan works and Nuada gets a new arm and a new nickname and his power is restored.
Nuada of the Silver Arm a.k.a. Nuada of the Silver Hand rules over the Tuatha Dé Danann for many more years after that and leads them into their final battle against the Fomorians—well, I mean, Lugh really leads them into battle because he’s sort of the new kid on the block with all of the cool super-powered weapons—but Nuada is there too, at the second battle Mag Tuired, and the silver-handed king doesn’t just give a limb to the cause this time round, but gives his life.
The Fomorian leader, Balor of the Evil Eye…cuts his head off.
Yeah, sorry, there’s no gentle way to put that.
So, you might be wondering, what does any of this have to do with The Banshees of Inisherin?
A lot, actually.
(Okay, fine a little, but still.)
Remember, the reason Colm threatens to lop off his fingers specifically is because, as a fiddler, his fingers are essential to his ability to express himself artistically.
Without them, he is powerless.
Like Nuada, once Colm loses all of his fingers, he becomes physically incapable of fulfilling what he considers to be his life’s purpose.
The difference, of course, is that Colm’s power-sapping wound is self-inflicted.
And while Colm claims that he was driven to perform the gruesome act, or acts, I should say, as a result of Pádraic’s persistent pestering, the argument can be made, and should be made, that Colm used his “dull” friend as a scapegoat.
The real reason for Colm’s self-mutilation was to unburden himself of the pressure of artistic achievement.
When he felt the watchful, judging eyes of the banshees upon him, Colm made a misguided attempt to rise to the occasion.
To change the way he lived his life so that he might leave his mark on the world.
Dropping his best friend Pádraic, whom Colm considered a simpleton, seemed like an appropriate first step in his pursuit of greatness.
But once Colm turned inward, once he was left alone with his thoughts, left alone to wrestle with his ego (wait, am I also a simpleton and not a musical genius?) the pressure to achieve that greatness became too much, and Colm buckled.
However, a slightly more sympathetic reading of the character would say that Colm is an artist’s artist. An Irish van Gogh.
Colm feels that he must be able to create under ideal conditions—otherwise there’s no point in undertaking the endeavor at all.
So while, from the outside, Colm’s finger-chopping might look like a mix of stubbornness and psychopathy, Colm perhaps sees it as more of a mix of making the ultimate sacrifice and performance art.
I’ll let Brendan Gleeson have the final say on this interpretation of the character.
Here’s the actor in an interview with Deadline, reminiscing about something writer-director Martin McDonagh told him in regards to Colm’s disturbing disregard for his digits:
“He said it’s quite common for writers to wake up in a nightmare where they feel that their hand is no longer capable of writing. That we fear the loss of the thing that allows us to express ourselves, whatever it may be… So, I think my rationale was that Colm had made a commitment to risk everything in order to facilitate this space that he felt he needed to create properly.”
The Significance of the Severed Hand in Irish Folklore
Confession: If you’ve been following along with me on the Irish Myths YouTube channel, you know at the end I say, “my name I. E. Kneverday, editor of the short story collection Neon Druid,” and so on.
Now, this may come as a huge shock, but I. E. Kneverday is not my real name. It’s a pen name. (I know, hard to believe, isn’t it?)
My real last name is Devaney (Dev-uh-knee; or Dev-ah-knee, as they pronounce it on the West Coast of Ireland. Whatever you do, just don’t say Dev-ai-knee).
For those of you familiar with familial crests, you might be aware that the Devaney coat of arms features, quite prominently, the Red Hand of Ulster, as do the coats of arms of many Irish families, most notably the O’Neill (Uí Néill) dynasty.
When I asked my dad about the significance of the red hand—this was many moons ago, before the dawn of Google or Wikipedia—he told me this story:
Once upon a time there was a race across waves, with several Irish warriors competing for the same prize: the Ulster kingship.
According to the rules of the race, the first man to place his hand on the province of Ulster would have claim to it.
When our Devaney ancestor saw that he was on the brink of losing the race, he chopped off his hand and threw it over his competitors.
The bloody hand landed on the beach and our ancestor won the race.
You could only imagine my surprise when, years later, remembering what my dad had told me, I Googled the Red Hand of Ulster and found out this harrowing homage to hand-hacking was, in fact, a well-established Irish legend.
In other versions of the legend, of course, other warriors perform the self-mutilating feat and pull off the upset win.
Sometimes it’s an O’Neill; sometimes it’s Niall of the Nine Hostages (the quasi-historical High King and forerunner to the O’Neil dynasty); while in other versions it’s Érimón, son of Míl Espáine, leader of the aforementioned Milesians.
Precise protagonist aside, the legend offers an interesting foil to the Nuada of the Silver Hand myth.
Here, getting a hand lopped off doesn’t lose our hero the kingship, instead it is precisely what wins him the kingship.
And in the context of The Banshees of Inisherin, one has to wonder:
Has Colm actually achieved a victory by following through on his threat and chopping off his fingers?
Eh. I’m not convinced.
The whole episode feels a bit sinister, especially when one considers that it is Colm’s left hand that goes on the chopping block. (Or between the shears, as it were.)
Because here’s an interesting fact about the Red Hand of Ulster…
It comes in two flavors: The dexter, or right hand; and the sinister, or left hand.
And here we encounter an alternate theory for the origin of the Red Hand of Ulster: It’s a representation of the right hand of God, or dextera Dei, a common motif in Judeo-Christian art.
Or at least that’s what the Red Hand of Ulster represents when it is a right hand.
As researcher with the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography Patrick Maume explains:
The significance of this point is that it offers a way of distinguishing between the rival representations. If a Red Hand is left, it is likely to have been inspired by the legend; if it is a right hand, it is more likely to be the dextera Dei.source: History Ireland
Handedness aside, the Red Hand surely predates its first documented use by the earls of Ulster in the thirteenth century. (The O’Neils adopted the Red Hand in the fourteenth century, FYI.)
One only need look at the many red-handed heroes from the Irish myths and legends—Gleoir the red-handed, red hand Labraid, Lugaid red hand, Cathal the Red-Handed O’Conor—to recognize the importance of this symbol.
The red in these cases represents blood—but specifically the blood of one’s enemies.
Which means these red hands are not severed hands, but hands that have been doing a lot of fighting. And a lot of winning at fighting. Hence, all the blood.
Granted, Nuada was occasionally given the alias Nuada Derg Lamh, the red-handed, so maybe sometimes it can mean both.
In one mythical account of the Red Hand’s origin story, the Red Branch warrior Conall Cernach avenges the death of his brother-in-arms (Cú Chulainn, arguably the greatest hero in all of Irish mythology) and places his hand, dripping with blood, on a white banner.
Sort of like finger painting. Only…grosser.
At this point, you might be wondering to yourself:
Would The Banshees of Inisherin’s British-Irish writer/director, Martin McDonagh (who grew up in London but whose parents were Irish) even know these stories?
Considering McDonagh also wrote the 2010 play A Behanding in Spokane, which is about a guy who’s searching for his severed left hand (which went missing twenty-seven years ago), I think it’s safe to say McDonagh is well-versed in Irish hand lore.
That being said, there’s also his play The Lonesome West in which, spoiler alert, a kid cuts a dog’s ears off and saves them—for two years!—in a paper bag.
Clearly, McDonagh has a fascination with amputation and all of the symbolism that comes with it.
The Banshees of Inisherin: A Modern Folktale
By bringing such a violent act front and center in The Banshees of Inisherin, McDonagh is carrying on in a long folkloric tradition of introducing protagonists to horrors that had previously been unimaginable.
And that’s what Banshees is, after all: a folktale.
A story that entertains us, with a simple, linear narrative that’s easy to follow and themes and lessons that could apply to anyone and everyone.
And yes, you could easily change the story’s setting, both spatial and temporal, without losing any of its meaning.
“But wait,” I can hear you shouting, “The Banshees of Inisherin is set in 1923, during the closing days of the Irish Civil War, surely that is a significant plot point?”
Eh, not really.
The war is used as set dressing, essentially. It is a background “hum” that is alluded to and brought to the forefront of our attention (via the sound of distant gunshots and explosions) only briefly.
In fact, in an earlier version of the script, Irish soldiers come ashore on Inisherin, but McDonagh felt their presence was too distracting to the core story.
Really, the Civil War is included for one reason and one reason only: to draw a parallel between the macro battle raging between the two factions of a once-united front and the micro battle raging between the two men who’ve fallen out of friendship.
Set Banshees during the American Civil War—or any Civil War—instead, and you can draw that same parallel.
And knowing how Hollywood works, there probably will be a remake one day.
So stay tuned for The Banshees of Roanoke Island, starring Nick Offerman in Brendan Gleeson’s role and, oh, I don’t know, Adam Scott in the Colin Farrell role.
And come to think of it, Amy Poehler would be great in Kerry Condon’s role as Siobhán.
And let’s face it, Chris Pratt is already a modern American version of Barry Keoghan’s Dominic.
Alright, you see where this is going…
Wait! And Aubrey Plaza as a young Mrs. McCormack. Then you do the Mrs. McCormack origin story as a spinoff.
Okay, okay, I’m leaving. Bye everyone.
Want to meet more monsters from Irish mythology? Check out…
Irish Monsters in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 3)
In the Ireland of myth and legend, spirits roam the countryside, hovering above the bogs. Werewolves lope through forests under full moons. Dragons lurk beneath the waves. Prepare yourself for (educational) encounters with Irish cryptids, demons, ghouls, goblins, and other supernatural beings. Learn more…
Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy
“A thrilling romp through pubs, mythology, and alleyways. NEON DRUID is such a fun, pulpy anthology of stories that embody Celtic fantasy and myth,” (Pyles of Books). Cross over into a world where the mischievous gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes of Celtic mythology live among us, intermingling with unsuspecting mortals and stirring up mayhem in cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, from Limerick and Edinburgh to Montreal and Boston. Learn more…
More the listenin’ type?
I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.