Black ’47 sold out
at Cine Gael opening

Montreal Irish Film Series starts off with an impressive tale of the great famine

By Byron Toben

What a powerful film the Montreal Irish Film Series (largest in world outside Ireland itself) has chosen to open its 27th year.

The Irish famine of the late 1840s was devastating and the worst year of all was 1847, a year acquiring the designation of Black ’47.

In this film, Feeney, an Irish ranger fighting for the British in Afghanistan, deserts to return home to find his family destroyed and the countryside crammed with starving or dead peasantry due to the great potato blight of that decade.

(The potato had become the inexpensive staple of the peasantry’s diet. As described by Cecil Woodham-Smith in her book The Great Hunger there was other food – grain, live stock, etc. – but this was sent to England for profit while masses were starving outside the landlords’ palatial gates. Hence “hunger” was more accurately descriptive than famine, but famine has caught on so it will be so described below).

The Irish famine of the late 1840s was devastating and the worst year of all was 1847, a year acquiring the designation of Black ’47.

Feeney, who had been denounced by his own family for taking the British shilling, shocked by the happenings, turns into a one-man wrecking crew taking revenge on both English occupiers and Irish collaborators. Comparisons with Western films and even the Die Hard series have been made. Revenge as a theme is nothing new in great art… witness Hamlet, for example.

Black ’47 film -

In addition to fine acting here, the cinematography is stunning.

In one scene, a bloated landlord tearfully states to a poor tenant he tolerates as a translator, “I Iove this country” and adds to the query “What about it in particular do you love?”… “The scenery”, begetting the response… “You can’t eat the scenery”.

The same landlord envisages the day when the Celtic peasantry will be as rare as the red man in Manhattan.

Although the terms “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” did not come into vogue until a century later, they certainly apply to the Great Famine.

Thoughts that flitted through my mind on viewing this film were that the English were accepting a low-tech version of a holocaust whereas the Nazis, more “efficient”, industrialized the process in the 1940s.

Black ’47 film -

I also remembered G. Bernard Shaw’s apt, though humorous one act play, O’Flaherty, V.C. (banned in Ireland for some time, as was his other full length Irish drama, John Bull’s Other Island).

I myself had sponsored two dramatic readings of O’Flaherty V.C. in the 1990s (one at the Cinema de Seve) and am tempted to add a third after seeing this film.

‘Although the terms “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” did not come into vogue until a century later, they certainly apply to the Great Famine.’

Of late, the Cine Gael team had arranged Skype conversations with the directors of previous showings for interactions with the audience. Lance Daly, the director of Black ’47, declined as he was too busy working on his next film and exhausted after three years filming and publicising the present one. He added, in an email, that a ten-minute Skype session may seem to be quick enough, but as he was a self described “extreme detail oriented lunatic”, it would take him a whole day to organize the lighting, likely questions, etc., but hoped to attend in person sometime in the future.

Lynn Doyle, Tim Hine and Laura Finlay -

Lynn Doyle, Tim Hine and Laura Finlay
Image: courtesy of Cine Gael

At other pre-showing announcements, Fergus Keyes, active in the project to create a memorial to the Irish deceased from their arrival in “coffin ships” and the Montrealers of the day including many non Catholic, who succumbed to disease while attempting to aid them, reported that discussions with both Hydro Quebec and the province were proceeding well with full cooperation.

Paul Loftus reiterated that organizers of the annual St-Patrick’s day parade in March were still seeking candidates for the Queen, lasses with some Irish ancestry between 18 and 25 years old.

Finally, Laura Finlay, second secretary of the Irish Embassy in Ottawa, came in to present a cheque to Cine Gael to help subsidise its work.

Cine Gael continues its series next on January 25 with No Stone Unturned.

Consult its complete program, expertly designed by Antoine Maloney, which includes several trailers or clips of selections.

Images: courtesy Element Pictures (unless indicated otherwise)
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Read also: Presenting the Byron Toben archives
More articles from Byron HERE

Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since terminated web sites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.

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