Last Updated on October 23, 2023 by Sean Donlevy
I’m not going to recap the plot of The Banshees Of Inisherin because if you are reading this post then you should have already watched it.
If you’ve not seen it already then stop reading now because there are lots of spoilers ahead.
Banshees is a strange, bewildering film that probably left you with more questions than answers.
Here’s how I saw it.
Where Are The Banshees?
I kept asking myself, why is this film called “The Banshees of Inisherin” plural.
Well, there is at least one banshee in the movie.
The old woman, Mrs McCormick, is clearly supposed to be some sort of banshee.
And the cast even refer to her as the banshee…
But Mrs McCormick is only one individual and the film’s title promises Banshees, plural.
And I don’t think there is anything supernatural going on with Mrs McCormick. There’s nothing to suggest she is the cause of death, rather she’s a human woman who is symbolic of death.
But how did she end up the way she is? Why does Mrs McCormick seem to revel in misery? What happened to her?
In Irish folklore, banshees are said to warn of impending death by mournful keening that is heard at night when someone in the family is about to die.
Keening is an old Irish tradition and some people say that the myth of banshees came about because of the professional keeners.
Professional keeners were people hired to perform at funerals to facilitate the grieving process by elevating the melancholy.
Over time these real-life wailing grievers morphed into the myth of the banshees and banshees later came to be depicted as female spirits or supernatural beings associated with death.
I want to emphasize this next point.
The Banshee was sometimes thought to have once been a normal woman who enjoyed life, was incredibly beautiful and radiated happiness, but some great sorrow overcame her at some point in her life and she became a haggard old woman.
I think it’s this type of Banshee that Martin McDonagh is referring to in his movie. A human being who is broken by grief, despair, loneliness, and isolation.
“The Banshees of Inisherin” was of course also the name of the fiddle tune that Colm was composing.
Is it good? Your tune?
COLM nods solemnly, almost disconcertingly convinced of how good it is, a conviction that PADRAIC gets, strangely.
What’s it called?
“The Banshees Of Inisherin”, I was thinking.
But there are no banshees on Inisherin.
I know, I just like the double S.H. sounds.
Aye, there’s plenty of double S.H. on Inisherin.
And maybe there are banshees too. I just don’t think they scream to portend death any more. I think they just sit back amused, and observe.
Listen to Padraic when he says, “Aye, there’s plenty of double S.H. on Inisherin”.
What does he mean by this?
I think he’s saying there’s plenty of shit on Inisherin. Plenty to drag you down into despair, down into the lake.
The banshees are sort of like the demons in the minds of the characters. Everyone has banshees within themselves, they are metaphors for the human condition.
Colm thinks the banshees are disillusioned with screaming. And Colm’s demons manifest as disillusionment and despair.
The banshees in this film are grief, despair, disillusionment and they are born of isolation from humanity, society.
The banshees are born of ego, pride, desire for status, desire for legacy, gossip, prejudice, and hypocrisy.
Read on and I’ll explain why these emotions are isolating and what Martin McDonagh’s Banshees really has to say to us.
“There’s something insular about living on an island. What happens when there is a rupture to that pleasant, placid, everyday life?”Martin McDonagh
Banshee’s is an Irish Western and it features a lot of the themes that you typically see in western movies like conflict, civilization vs wilderness, and revenge.
The pub was custom-built to have a long bar with two ends so the two main characters could stand off against each other.
The two lone “gunmen” have a falling out. Colm even wears a western style cowboy hat.
But why set this movie on an island?
The island of Inisherin represents isolation, and the film is a study of the impact of isolation whether geographical, social, or emotional.
Think of that famous quote “No man is an Island, every man is a part of the continent, a part of the main” by John Donne.
Nobody is self-sufficient. Everyone relies on other people.
But when individuals begin to act as though they are self-sufficient, when people erect barriers between each other, there lies the road to ruin.
The film is about balancing individual interests against collective interests, the interests of the community.
Colm in a way is practicing what we’d call today “self-care”, he’s putting his own needs first over the needs of Padraic.
Siobhan also has to make the decision to put herself first and leave the island leaving Padraic behind.
So far so good…
But the island, a.k.a isolation, corrupts its inhabitants.
Too much ego or individualism leaves you detached from other people.
Remember that the root of the word isolate comes from island, to isolate is to “put something on an island detached from other”.
That’s why Dominic ended up in the lake. Because he had become an emotional island. He lost his connection to Padraic when he found out that Padraic wasn’t as nice as he had thought:
I used to think you were the nicest ofDominic
them. Turns out you’re just the same as them.
And Dominic lost hope of a deeper connection to the mainland of humanity when Siobhan rejected him.
After that he was completely cut off and there was nothing left for him to live for.
Padraic’s parents also ended up in the lake although that isn’t too clear from watching the movie.
But Kerry Condon explained why Siobhan was down at the lake before she left the island.
She was saying goodbye to her parents who had died at the lake.
Remember, Inisherin represents isolation, and isolation leads to death and destruction.
I want to take a moment to talk about Carter Burwell’s wonderful mysterious fairytale-esque
score with its childlike elementary school instruments like gongs and the celeste which is like a fancy xylophone.
The music suggests something lurking, it’s unsettling. Padraic’s theme switches between the major key and the minor key so you never quite know where you stand with it. You never know if it’s happy or if it’s sad.
Like Padraic the music is untethered, Padraic is in limbo, at a loss.
Carter Burwell was under strict instruction from Martin McDonagh to avoid traditional Irish music, instead McDonagh wanted something a little more mythical.
The opening music is a Bulgarian folk song Polegnala e Todora. Director Martin McDonagh had been planning to use this musical piece in the film for a long time.
To my ears this song sounds other-worldly. McDonagh doesn’t want to be parochial or twee. He wants the events that transpire in Inisherin to tell a broader story.
And while you can congratulate yourself if you figured out that the war between Colm and Padraic is a microcosm of the Irish civil war, if you’ve stopped zooming out there then you’ve missed the point of the movie because Banshee’s is more than a story a breakup between two friends, and it’s more than an allegory of any war, it’s more universal than all that.
It’s about the human condition…
It’s about our conflicting desires to be both individuals and to feel love, connection, and a oneness with each other.
No doubt at one point McDonagh checked out the translation of those Bulgarian lyrics.
Todora is sleeping under a tree, she is dreaming of her first love, the wind blows and breaks a branch from the tree and wakes her up.
There goes that dream.
What happens when we lose hold of our hopes, dreams, and desires?
You see, as humans most of our hopes, dreams, and desires, are ultimately about connection with other people. You might desire money or status, or to be more beautiful, but you have these dreams because these are the things that help you to get along in the human social environment. They lead to love, to sex, to companionship, to connection and oneness.
There are two types of grief. Grief over losing something we once had, and grief over losing a future we dreamed we would have.
In the Bulgarian folk song the result of Todora’s broken dream is anger, anger at the wind.
And in Banshees we see how social disconnection leads to grief, anger, depression, and violence.
So the essence of the movie is actually found in those brief Bulgarian folk lyrics.
Martin McDonagh didn’t want to set this story in the modern day because it’s an age old story with a universal meaning.
“I just didn’t want to set a story like this in the modern day, there is almost certain allegorical aspects to the vision between these two men and the vision between both sides in the Irish civil war” “It’s a story where a tiny little war is raging between to fellows at the same time as a bigger one is happening over there”Martin McDonagh
That’s why McDonagh included the little clip of the two little birds fighting.
The little bird on the left chases off the bird on the right.
Animals and humans are individuals that are also part of a species, a larger group.
We are forever fighting for territory, for resources, for status, to elevate ourselves on the social hierarchy.
And why do they want to elevate themselves on the social hierarchy?
Any biologist will tell you the social hierarchy is about survival. It’s about sex and reproduction.
Connection to others means sex, love, life and survival, whereas isolation or disconnection means death.
And Colm in particular is worried about death…
So Colm basically ghosted Padraic, to use a modern phrase.
Early in the film Colm has been listening to “Christ Went Up Into The Hills Alone” sung by John McCormack.
Christ went up into the hills alone
Walking slowly the winding way,
Far from the city’s dust and stone,
Up to the lonely hills to pray.
There was no one to go with Him
On His lonely walk in the silent night.
Only the hush of the starshine dim,
Only the shadowed hill-road white,
Only the lambs calling each to each,
And the tender goodnight of dreaming birds.
Only a love too pure for speech,
And a grief too deep for words.
Padraic then sees Colm through the telescope walking up the hill alone.
So Colm stops talking to Padriac because of “a love too pure for speech” and “a grief too deep for words”.
Colm has stopped talking because of grief, but what kind of grief?
He is faced with his own demise, and the loss of ‘what could have been’ an imagined greatness.
There is a theory going around that Colm actually committed suicide early in the movie and Padraic discovered his body.
There was that doll hanging from the ceiling…
The rest of the film being symbolic of Padraic coming to terms with losing his friend.
It’s an interesting idea and Colm certainly had being having suicidal thoughts.
But I don’t think he literally committed suicide. Colm interacts with too many character to be a ghost.
But in a metaphorical sense his decision to cut himself off from his best friend was a form of suicide.
He has become self-obsessed. The banshees are wailing in his own mind, he is grieving his own passing before it has happened. He is grieving the loss of the future man he thought he might one day become.
Back in the pub Colm is singing “I’m a man you don’t meet every day”. A traditional Irish song, boastful in nature.
So here he is, a man you don’t meet every day, comparing himself to Jesus, attempting to create some lasting art that will somehow redeem himself and redeem humanity.
Colm has some big ideas about his own status and importance. That’s why he has the grief about his own impending death because of his inflated sense of ego.
Perversely, Colm wants to create a legacy, and that legacy represents a connection to other people.
He desires that 2 or 3 century’s hence he will be remembered. He’s afraid to be forgotten.
Being remembered in musical history is a social connection, but he is destroying a perfectly good social connection, a friendship with Padraic, in order to try to create a more enduring social connection through history.
Human beings are complicated creatures.
There is another theory that Colm is actually being fatherly in a way, trying to teach Padraic an important lesson in life. Sort of like throwing him into the deep-end so that he’ll learn to swim, by cutting him off he’ll learn to stand independently.
Colm might like to control or shepherd other people, he’s a teacher, and he has puppeteering as a hobby and a sheep dog as a pet.
So he might be trying to teach Padraic a lesson.
Colm does have some love for Padriac. It’s why he picked him up off the street and helped him home, it’s why he imagines playing his fiddle tune at Padraic’s funeral.
So that might have been part of Colm’s self-justification for his cruelty towards Padraic. It’s for his own good.
But I think it’s mainly an existential dread that’s causing Colm to act the way he does.
Colm himself was unsure of his motives.
I do worry sometimes! That I’m just entertaining meself while I stave off the inevitable.Colm
To cheat death and become immortal through the creation of a lasting musical legacy is a pretty big ask of oneself.
Or to create art that somehow justifies the existence of humanity, with all its pain and suffering, it’s a tall order.
So naturally, whether consciously or subconsciously, Colm is afraid of failing.
Fear of failure is a common reason for self-sabotage, and what better way to sabotage your career as an artist than manipulating another person into “making” you cut off your own fingers.
It’s a relief to Colm after he’s cut off his fingers and he doesn’t need to carry the burden of being an artist anymore.
I don’t need your apologies. Alright? It’s a relief to me. So let’s just call it quits and agree to go our separate ways, shall we? For good this time.
When Colm fails as a fiddler he can blame it on Padraic rather than face up to his own limitations.
He was already blaming Padraic for his lack of time for fiddle playing. But let’s face it, Colm could have easily had a quick pint with Padraic and still left plenty of time for playing his fiddle.
He still had time to chat with the other dull islanders.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Colm’s motivations should always be logical and coherent. He’s a flawed human being like the rest of us.
On the one hand Colm loves Padraic, but on the other hand Colm hates the reflection of himself that he sees in Padraic. He sees a simple man, and Colm is deeply afraid that he himself is just a simple man. He doesn’t want to look at that reflection.
So Colm doesn’t ghost Padraic because Padraic is dull. He ghosts Padriac because he himself is dull and seeing Padraic is a reminder of that.
In relationship’s we often need to balance the love for other with love for self.
All the characters in Banshees face this problem.
But listen to Colm’s fiddle tune…
It degrades. It starts off more sophisticated and then it becomes more angry and messy.
Colms ego, his aspirations to greatness, his rejection of the value of a simple life and of just being nice, is a form of cutting himself off from the community.
Briefly Colm believes he has found a way to cheat death.
And when he first ghosts Padraic he feels like a weight has been lifted from his shoulders, because he will write this fiddle tune and through its legacy he won’t be alone in the world, he will be forever connected with his fellow humans through music.
But isolation was a never a road to connection, how could it be.
And Colm begins to realize it.
At the end of the day the fiddle tune is just a fiddle tune.
And in the end he cuts a lonely figure, humming his fiddle tune to the vast ocean, with nobody listening.
Just a fat ginger man.
Despite supposedly being the most dim person on the island, Dominic often has the most acute observations.
I believe that Dominic always speaks the truth in this script so pay close attention to his words.
At dinner in Padraic and Siobhan’s house Dominic is dropping some truth bombs.
What’s this mope so mopey for? Eh?! * He’s just a fecking man, lads! A fat
Dominic sees it. Colm has ideas above his station and Colm is naive.
What is he 12?
And Dominic also sees that Padraic’s niceness can be a negative.
Then maybe this whole thing has just
been about getting you to stand up for yourself a bit.
Do you think?
Yeah, and be less of a, y’know… a whiny little dull-arse?
But there is a difference between standing up for yourself and being nasty.
When Padraic reveals that he lied to Colm’s student that his father had died it’s a step too far for Dominic.
Oh. That sounds like the meanest thing I ever heard.
I used to think you were the nicest of
them. Turns out you’re just the same as them.
Like I said before, Dominic became fully isolated, when Padraic turned nasty and when Siobhan rejected him.
A leaf, once fallen from the tree, will wither and die.
As the movie progresses we see how the consequences of what started out as a banal feud spiral out of control and the lack of togetherness, compassion, and empathy spreads like a sickness through the community.
Dominic is an innocent victim in all this, as is the Jenny the donkey, who represents Padraic’s innocence.
Dominic was already a victim of sexual abuse from his father.
And he’s a victim of the social hierarchy.
To thrive humans must balance being individuals, and climbing the social hierarchy, while still being part of a collective community.
It’s how nature works.
The collective, the species or the community, thrives by individualizing.
But it can be pretty brutal for the individual especially if you’re at the bottom of the social ladder.
Padraic is very afraid of the social hierarchy. He’s afraid to be judged. He’s not so much afraid to be dim, rather he’s afraid of being judged by his peers. He’s afraid to lose his social standing.
That’s partly why so much of Padriac’s identity was invested in his friendship with Colm.
Padraic felt his friendship with Colm elevated him and lifted his status.
That’s why he couldn’t let him go.
Here’s the thing to understand about Padraic.
Padraic’s niceness is something of a facade or a mask. It’s a coping mechanism.
Padraic’s niceness is a form of isolation too. Because he doesn’t want to confront negative emotions he withdraws, he segregates himself from others by always playing the happy role and not expressing his feelings.
This is what makes him boring or as Dominic says “A whiny little dull-arse”.
Central to the film is Padriac’s metamorphosis from a childlike, innocent, happy-go-lucky guy into a nasty, angry, and embittered individual, mirroring the harsh realities of life’s challenges and disappointments.
Padriac becomes increasingly insensitive to Dominic’s problems.
He doesn’t listen when Dominic wants to talk about his father.
He’s also insensitive to Siobhan’s problems. Siobhan is reading her sad book. Padriac explains his philosophy:
You should read a not sad one Siobhan or else you might get sad
Do you never get lonely Padriac?
Padriac pretends to not understand the question.
Padraic believes sad feelings are to be suppressed.
It’s him, Padraic. Maybe he’s just depressed.
That’s what I was thinking, that he’s depressed.
Well if he is, he could at least keep it to himself, like. Push it down, like. Like the rest of us.
There’s a kind of dishonesty in a super-nice person. If someone is putting on a brave face, they are wearing a mask, they are emotionally distant. They are not revealing their true self.
Padraic shutting down his feelings and refusing to talk to Siobhan about feelings is a way of isolating himself.
Padriac is obsessed with status too. He can’t bear the thought of being the most dim person on the island.
All his eggs are in the one basket, his relationship with Colm.
When Padiac decides to fight back he becomes more interesting to Colm, because Colm is trying to fight back too, he’s trying to fight against his existential crisis to find meaning in his life.
But Padraic seemingly doesn’t have this fight in him… at least when he is sober.
Or he suppresses this fight because he is afraid of these feelings.
That said… I did think the two of ye always made a funny pairing, like.
Colm was always more of a thinker.
You’re more one of life’s good guys.
You’re more one of life’s good guys, aye. Apart from when you’re drunk.
Apart from when you’re drunk, aye.
When Padraic decides to fight back his vocabulary improves too:
Nine fingers! And nine fingers is the epitome of mental!
COLM gives him a look of surprise at the word.
That’s right, the epitome!
As in individual some degree of fight, some amount of standing up for yourself, is desirable.
Think of Dylan Thomas….
“Do not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Colm wants to rage against the dying of the light. Through his music. He’s fighting back against death.
Padraic’s character is elevated to an extent when he gets some fight into him.
But getting the balance right is a very fine line.
Isolation, or prioritizing oneself, can bring some temporary relief.
But ultimately, too much rage, too much self-interest will have negative consequences.
If you big yourself up, inflate your own ego, for a moment you can feel like you are winning the game, but ultimately isolating yourself from your fellow humans can never lead to genuine and lasting fulfillment or true connection with others.
The message of Banshees is that emotional support, validation, understanding, human connection, and togetherness are how we stave off the haunting loneliness that can consume us in the darkest moments of our lives.
Which brings us to Siobhán…
The name “Siobhán” supposedly comes from “sidh” meaning fairy, + “bean” or “bán” meaning woman or white, respectively.
So, Siobhán can also mean “fairy woman” or “white fairy”.
So Siobhan is the white banshee…
Siobhan doesn’t respect Colm, she doesn’t object of Dominic’s calling Colm “just a fecking man, lads! A fat ginger man!”
Siobhan is smarter than Colm. That’s established with the Mozart scene where Siobhan brings Colm down a peg over getting the century wrong.
The problem with Inisherin, according to Siobhan, is too many silent men with petty grievances.
What do you need from him, Colm? To end all this?
Silence, Siobhan. Just silence.
One more silent man on Inisherin, good-oh! Silence it is, so.
This isn’t about Inisherin. This is about one boring man leaving another man alone, that’s all.
‘One boring man”! Ye’re all fecking boring! With your piddling grievances over nothing! Ye’re all fecking boring!
I’ll see he doesn’t talk to you no more.
Do. Else it’ll be all four of them the next time…
(indicating his left hand)
…not just the one.
You’re not serious.
Well that won’t help your fecking music.
Aye. We’re getting somewhere now.
I think you might be ill, Colm.
I do worry sometimes! That I’m just entertaining meself while I stave off the inevitable.
(pause) Don’t you?
No, I don’t.
She gets up to go…
She finds it boring. The stifled, suppressed, emotion. The people are bitter and mental.
It leads her to a dark place…
Did you spot Siobhan has her shoes off at the lonely lake. The old woman is beckoning to her. This is symbolizing the threat to Siobhan’s life.
The island is threatening to take her. The isolation is threatening to take her.
Dominic and Siobhan symbolically almost fall into the lake together. The same fate that beset Dominic almost befalls Siobhan.
Ultimately, Siobhan rejects isolation.
Ending Explained & Why Comedy?
Some people really don’t like this movie. It’s incredibly bleak, and if you don’t understand why it’s so bleak it could come across as just an incredibly depressing movie.
It’s a real downer to see these people, these banshees, self-destruct.
But like Mrs McCormick Martin McDonagh isn’t trying to be nice, he’s trying to be accurate.
We live in a world where we’re all going to die and we’re all struggling to find meaning and purpose.
Once you start to think of your own self identity as a completely separate disconnected individual then in a way you’ve taken a step closer to death. As a mere individual you are like a leaf, that’s fallen from the tree, detached from all the tree’s energy and nourishment.
If your sense of self only includes you in a very narrow sense, and if you’re getting older, and if your body is frail, and if you let petty grievances dominate your thoughts, then the banshees are wailing in your mind, announcing your own separateness and portending your own death.
But if your self identity is broader and you see your friends, family, and community as part of YOU then there is a part of you that will survive after your death.
And humor is a way to reconnect with other people. It’s a way for humans to be brave in the face of death and suffering.
We laugh at the absurdity of the human condition to reconnect with each other and to be brave together.
So be like Siobhan, rejoin the mainland of humanity, have a bit of fight in you, stand up for yourself, but don’t isolate yourself too much through narrow self-interest and egotism.
Your own demise, as it approaches, will not be so scary.
And if you found this movie baffling…
The battle between Colm and Padraic is inexplicable. You’re meant to be bewildered. War is inexplicable. It’s unjustifiable because the human condition is inexplicable, because existence is inexplicable.
Existence just is.
People complain about the ending to Banshees, but I think it’s perfect. The two men have been overcome by sorrow, grief, grievances, and broken dreams. They’ve become banshees.
There are no winners in isolation and conflict, everyone loses, and it is an age-old never ending cycle.
The only thing we can do to transcend our predicament is nurture our relationships with other people and our connection to nature.
And in that way we can hope to quieten down and placate the wailing banshees in our own minds.
And so I know, dear reader, that as a human being YOU TOO have to face the same type of problems that we see represented in the Banshee Of Inisherin.
So I only have one last thing to say to you…
Good luck to you, whatever you are fighting about.