Famine was quite deliberately employed as an instrument of national policy, as the last means of breaking the resistance of the peasantry to the new system where they are divorced from personal ownership of the land and obligated to work on the conditions which the state may demand from them… This famine may fairly be called political because it was not the result of any overwhelming natural catastrophe or such complete exhaustion of the country’s resources in foreign and civil wars
– William Henry Chamberlin
Written by: Lance Daly, P.J. Dillon, Eugene O’Brien and Pierce Ryan
Starring: Hugo Weaving, James Frecheville, Stephen Rea, Freddie Fox, Barry Keoghan, Moe Dunford, Sarah Greene and Jim Broadbent
Runtime: 1 hour 39 minutes
Despite being a huge film fanatic it’s fair to say I haven’t anticipated a film like Black ’47 since the release of the Irish War Of Independence drama The Wind That Shakes The Barley back in 2006. At that film a whole bunch of us went to the cinema sneaking in beer and crisps and cheered every time a British soldier was dispatched, much to the annoyance of the metropolitan elites watching it with us in snooty Islington. Black ’47 was going to be a whole different film. We have made no secret here that we don’t actually believe there was a famine in Ireland. Their were adequate supplies of food being grown in Ireland but these were needed to feed the British empire and so were taken at gunpoint from the country. Ireland was transformed into
“an extended grazing land to raise cattle for a hungry consumer market [in Britain]… and the British taste for beef had a devastating impact on the impoverished and disenfranchised people of Ireland” and “pushed off the best pasture land and forced to farm smaller plots of marginal land, the Irish turned to the potato, a crop that could be grown abundantly in less favourable soil.” (Rifkin, ‘Beyond Beef’ 1993)
Make no mistake it was the ethnic cleansing of the Irish Gael that was the goal here.
Set in the west of Ireland in 1847 at the very height of An Gorta Mór, the story begins with Feeney, played by James Frecheville having returned from Afghanistan after fighting with the British army. He deserts and makes his way back home only to find the potato crop has failed and disease, emigration and famine has touched many of his neighbours and also claimed the life of his devoted mother while his brother has been hanged. The film tells of Feeney and his attempt to avenge the deaths of his nearest and dearest. Lance Daly directs the film as Rambo meets Fionn MacCumhaill and the story unfolds, in a way as many people have said, like a traditional western and while it’s not the first Celtic action film, that honour belongs to Braveheart and then maybe Michael Collins, it certainly brings the chilling horror of the times to our screens very well. Unlike Braveheart’s William Wallace our hero here is strong and silent. Like Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name, from Sergio Leone’s ‘spaghetti’ westerns, Feeney is a quiet grim faced executioner who dispatches his foes with finesse.
The film begins as a history lesson about the relationship between Ireland and the British Empire. A history lesson sorely needed in these times about the horrors of the ‘famine’. Those of with the inclination will take a certain amusement from watching Feeney taking his revenge against members of the British authorities after all he kills with a style only found in feature films. One curious aspect to the film is that the Gaelic subtitles appear in the centre of the screen instead of along the bottom and their is a lot of our native language in the film. It is shot in the same style as films based in the Arctic with a sort of white glow that gives it a sense of bleak apprehension. One aspect that should ruffle feathers among the Irish establishment is the portrayal of those who ‘took the King’s shilling’ to save their skins. The ‘sleeveen’ mentality of the Royal Irish Rangers who assisted the British Army to help murder their countrymen. The sleeveens are still around. Look no further than the Dáil and the Gards facilitating the evictions of families from their homes if you wish to find them.
James Frecheville as Feeney in Black 47
At times it seems that Feeny has the entire British Army on his back but at every turn he escapes their clutches and even when he is eventually caught he escapes easily using his wiles. By now it gets more than a little far-fetched as David takes on Goliath in some fairly improbable situations. Towards the end of the film Feeney’s former comrade in the British Army, Hannah, played by Hugo Weaving, arrives in Ireland to help capture him. A much more rounded character than Feeney we see eventually a shift in the loyalties of Hannah towards sympathy for the Irish cause.
Black 47 is a great film and while its detractors (more sleeveens!) moan that it will re-open ‘famine’ wounds these are wounds that have not healed and will not heal until it is finally excepted that the potato blight did not kill the Irish or send them into exile but a callous British regime bringing ruination to the Irish people, language and culture. Feeney’s avenging angel of death struggles to have his revenge while at the same time representing the fight against the wretched British landlord system. The tension mounts throughout the film and at the climax of the film emotions will run riot at the realisation that both natural disaster and a kind of fascism butchered our people. Black 47 may be implausible in parts but it does go someway to laying the ghosts of An Gorta Mór to rest.
At this point can I point you in the direction of last years London Celtic Punks #1 album Chronicles Of The Great Irish Famine by Declan O’Rourke. Fifteen years in the making Declan has taken the best of traditional Irish music and the heart of modern song-writing for something truly special. He has taken true stories that will melt your heart and put them into something that I believe every school child would be given a copy of. It is quite simply outstanding and a more than worthy companion to the film. Read our review here which includes various places to buy or download the CD and a link to listen to the album. assisted by a wealth of Irish musicians including John Sheahan on fiddle, Dermot Byrne on accordion, Gino Lupari on bodhran and Mike McGoldrick on pipes, whistle and flute and I can honestly say that in all my 47 years I have never heard anything that evokes Án Gorta Mór in such a moving and evocative way.
Coogan, Tim Pat (2012), The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy, Palgrave MacMillan
Crowley, John (ed) (2012) Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, Cork University Press
Kinealy, Christine (1997) A Death-Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland, Pluto Press
Fogerty, Chris (2017) Ireland 1845-1850: The Perfect Holocaust And Who Kept ‘It’ Perfect, Fogarty Press. Available here.
Let Ireland Remember Remembering An Gorta Mór National Famine Memorial Day
but the most extensive resource on Facebook about this period is to be found at
The Great Hunger- Ireland 1845/1850
When Ireland Starved Part 1 Part 2 Part 3