Legacy of the Black and Tans: Ballyvourney... Where the wind really shakes the barley

In the small towns of west Cork, the setting for Ken Loach's award-winning film, the evidence of British oppression and republican resistance is still everywhere
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A soft rain is falling on a fading grey plaque in the centre of Ballyvourney, water trickling over its letters and dripping into the gutter below. But through the mist its words read clearly, a stark reminder that this little town has a history it finds hard to forget.

"In memory of the civilians murdered by British forces," it says, with a quiet simplicity. There is no need for fine words; the past here is as powerful now as it ever was before.

Standing beside the memorial in the Cork Gaeltacht where the Irish language still survives in many households, a local teacher slowly shakes his head. "Such a waste of lives. Everyone knows the stories of these men, but it is not something one likes to talk about. They are just sad memories of a terrible, terrible time."

Reciting a litany of names "Miceal O'Loingrig, Seamus O'Liacain, Sean O'Ceilleacain", Padraig O'Suilleabhain remembers the victims of a dirty war and a long-forgotten conflict, when in popular memory an army of farmhands and idealists gave the run to the might of the British Army.

The plaque is one just one of many along the roads of west Cork. The tourist guide books highlight the rolling hills and deep lush valleys edging down to a wild coastline warmed by the Gulf stream. What the guide books do not do, however, is mention the commemoration of the violence from a recent past. Along with the plaques there are charred, blackened ruins of burned and shattered buildings, kept as reminders of a time of anger and grief that is rarely spoken of with outsiders.

Cork was the most militant centre of Irish nationalist resistance to British rule in the 1920s, the setting of a brutal war of independence and the subsequent civil war which pitted brother against brother. In Beal na Blath (the Mouth of the Flowers) Michael Collins, a son of Cork and national hero, was assassinated by his former comrades for his "treachery" in his signing the peace treaty with Lloyd George's government.

The murders, tortures and burnings of the colonial conflict, the hated Black and Tans and the bitter internecine strife are, for many, still too raw even after all these years. But hidden memories have been stirred by Ken Loach's film The Wind That Shakes the Barley, the winner of Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year.

Loach's film was shot in west Cork, in and around the villages of Ballyvourney and Coolea where The Top of the Coom, "the highest pub in Ireland", was a well-known vantage point changing hands between the opposing sides. Frayed sepia photographs of IRA flying columns still line the walls of the snug bar along with new pictures of the film being made. Sitting with glasses of Guinness at the Mills Inn, in Ballyvourney, Fiontan O'Meaghair and Padraig O'Suilleabhain, teachers, reflected on the film and the events it portrayed.

Mr O'Meaghair, whose eight-year-old son, Diarmuid, was picked for a part in the film, said: "I honestly don't think an Irishman could have made this film. It took an Englishman to do it ... The civil war is something people don't really want to talk about. In fact a lot of it is not really taught in the history curriculum at schools.

"The war against the British also led to some very painful experiences, some terrible things were done at the time."

Walking down to the memorial to the three men, Mr O'Suilleabhain continued: "Seamus O'Liacain was killed in a Black and Tan raid. He was mistaken for an IRA man with a similar name. An officer took him out of his home and shot him dead.

"Miceal O'Loingsig had come out of his home with his daughter and he was standing over there, on that corner, when he was shot and killed for no apparent reason. Sean O'Ceilleacain was killed on a day when there was a raid by thousands of troops in this town."

The main characters in The Wind That Shakes the Barley are Damian and Teddy, brothers who join the independence struggle and then take opposing sides in the civil war, with fatal consequences. Mr O'Suilleabhain's father, Michael, and uncle Eamonn fought against the British. There was, however, no family split, both the men siding with the republicans against the Irish Free State. Michael, having survived the war against the British, was shot in the mouth during a firefight with Free State troops during the civil war at the age of 20. At one stage a grave was dug for him, but he confounded his doctors by recovering. He later married his nurse.

In one of the most harrowing scenes in the film, Teddy has his fingernails pulled out by Black and Tan interrogators in jail. "That is what happened to my uncle Eamonn," said Mr O'Suilleabhain. "But in his case they did this at his home, in front of his crying mother, Minnie. She never really recovered from what she saw." Eamonn Mac Suibhine was subsequently imprisoned in Northern Ireland. He contracted TB in jail and went to Australia after being freed in an attempt to recover. The recovery never came and he came home to die in Cork. He was 29.

Loach's film has excited strong sentiments in Britain. Right-wing critics, most of whom have not seen the film, have described it as, variously, "poisonously anti-British", " legitimising the actions of gangsters", "repulsive" and "a hard-line Marxist distortion of history". Sinn Fein has been accused of cashing in on the film by producing and selling T-shirts saying The Wind that Shakes the Barley. The party insisted that the title was a line from an old song which no one could exclusive right to.

Loach, 70, insists the film does not romanticise the IRA and points out that the brutality of the British forces, especially the Black and Tans and the Auxilliaries, former soldiers hired to fight the insurgency, is a matter of historic record: 1920, when the Black and Tans came to Ireland, has become known as "the year of terror". The troops made the castle at Macroom, a small town on the edge of farmland to the west of Cork City, their headquarters. It became a target for the IRA and was attacked a number of times before being burned down by republican forces during the civil war led by Erskine Childers, the author and IRA leader.

Today just a few blackened walls and an arched gateway remain of the 13th century castle, which was once owned by the family of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania.

Bridget Orla Ryan, 47, who used to live in Macroom, said: "What happened left a lot of very, very bitter memories. There were dreadful stories of what the Black and Tans did. We grew up with these tales ... Almost every family suffered, my grandfather and my uncle were both imprisoned." The places which now feature so prominently on the tourist trail were scenes of deaths and retribution during the wars.

Thomas MacCurtain, the Mayor of Cork City, was killed by the Black and Tans who also burned down much of the city centre. Kinsale, now a highly fashionable sailing centre, had its chief landmark, Charles Fort, destroyed in 1921. The winding country road to Ballymaloe, an internationally famous cookery school and one of Ireland's most famous country houses, was the setting of bloody ambushes of British forces by IRA flying columns. Yet, at the height of the fighting in Cork there were 8,800 British troops augmented by 1,150 Black and Tans and 540 Auxiliaries, while the IRA strength never much exceeded 350.

Some of the British officers there were to achieve fame and notoriety in their future military careers. Major Bernard Montgomery, later Field Marshal Lord Montgomery of Alamein, wrote of his experience: "My whole attention was given to defeating the rebels. It never bothered me a bit how many houses were burnt."

The IRA commander Tom Barry wrote: "British terror was met by not less effective IRA counter terror. We were now hard, cold and ruthless as our enemy has been since hostilities began."

Loach has said that The Wind That Shakes the Barley has an analogy with another "imperialist war", the invasion of Iraq. There are, in fact, certain historical links between the two conflicts. Some members of the Black and Tans and Auxilliaries, former British soldiers sent to carry out counter-insurgency operations in Ireland, had taken part not just in the Great War but the Mesopotomia campaign.

But does the experience of foreign occupation give the Irish any special empathy with other people who were oppressed? "Yes it does, it is what has shaped us," said Donal O'Suilleabhain, Padraig's brother. "I went to the Iraq war marches in London and I was proud to see banners in Gaelic there. This is not an anti-British thing. It was the politicians, the ones who wanted to cling on to an empire and sent other peoples sons to their deaths, who are to blame."