by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD
In 1963, when I moved from the University of Michigan to the Neuropsychiatric Institute of the University of Illinois, I met one of the last giants of Psychology, Ernest A. Haggard, who held a professorship there and a prestigious career investigator’s award from the National Institute of Mental Health. In contrast to the contemporary trend of increasing specialization in psychology, Haggard’s research was wide ranging. It included studies of fleeting changes in facial expression, details of responses to Rorschach’s test, and the effects of confinement on submariners and of social isolation on inhabitants of farms on the fjords of Norway.
This last study was much on my mind as I watched The Banshees of Inisherin because of its letting, a fictional isolated island off the coast of Ireland. I was also drawn to the film, which has been characterized as a black tragicomedy, because of its reception. Released by Searchlight Pictures in 2022, it won multiple awards at the 79th Venice International Film Festival and, more remarkably, a 15-minute standing ovation.
It was written and directed by Martin McDonagh. It stars Colin Farrell as Padriac, Brendon Gleeson as Colm, and Kerry Condon as Siobhan, Padriac’s sister. Each of them is stunningly effective in leading the audience through the tale.
The story centers on a rupture of the previously close relationship between the two men. Heretofore, they have met regularly to drink and talk at the isolated island’s pub. With no warning, Colm tells Padriac that he wants nothing more to do with him. Padriac is devasted, and unable to account for the change, seeks fruitlessly somehow to restore it. Colm ultimately tells his former companion that, if Padriac persists in attempting to relate to him, Colm will amputate one of his own fingers. When he does so, the unspeakably horrid event shocks Padriac, but doesn’t forestall his efforts. The horror ratchets up with Colm’s hacking off four more fingers and flinging them at Padriac’s door.
Padriac’s pet burro dies as a result of ingesting one of the digits. Grief-stricken and enraged, Padriac tells Colm that he will burn down the latter’s cottage while Colm is in it, warning Colm to make sure his former friend’s dog is outside. Padriac carries out his threat, rescuing the dog, only to learn that Colm escaped the inferno.
Colm suggests to Padriac, that, with the burning of his cottage, their feud might end. Padriac eesponds that would have been the case only if Colm had died in the fire. In a cryptic ending, as Padriac turns to leave, Colm thanks him for looking after his dog, and Padriac responds. “Any time.”