Harbingers Of Doom: Exploring What The Banshees Of Inisherin Is Actually About

This post contains spoilers for "The Banshees of Inisherin," which is in theaters now.

In a small, quiet Irish farming community, death is inescapable. Not just physical death, mind you, but that of family, relationships, culture, an entire way of life. At first glance, "The Banshees of Inisherin" seems a simple enough story about a dull but well-intentioned man (Colin Farrell) who learns to his utter surprise that his best friend (Brendan Gleeson) no longer has any interest in maintaining their relationship. More than that, he wants to cut ties entirely. Life is short, he believes, and he doesn't want to waste any more time with someone who he perceives as contributing nothing of value. 

But there's a shadow that hangs over the proceedings of "The Banshees of Inisherin" far beyond their petty relationship drama, a harbinger of doom that threatens everything that this sleepy island community stands for. Writer/director Martin McDonagh's latest production has all of the dark, razor sharp comedy that we've come to expect from the writer and director, but it also has an unusually plaintive melancholy in its exploration of a uniquely Irish sense of loss.

The legend of the banshee

We know that death is going to play a huge role in "The Banshees of Inisherin" right from the very beginning, thanks to the film's title. A banshee is a key figure in Irish mythology, a female creature whose wailing presence is a dark omen. Where she appears, death is sure to follow. In some interpretations of the legend, she is associated with a particular family (each old Irish family might have their own banshee), but she is always tied to the land, linked to an ancestral community, like the one that we see (sort of) in "The Banshees of Inisherin." 

The banshee physically manifests in the film as the shrunken old Mrs. McCormick, who appears ominously time and again, casting a shadow over the proceedings. She is a guest in the home of Pádraic (Farrell) and his sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon), but she is an unwelcome presence at best, existing on the margins of the community and causing an indescribable sense of unease wherever she goes.

And she has quite a bit to mourn in "The Banshees of Inisherin." She presides over many different kinds of death over the course of the film, from the mysterious drowning of Dominic (Barry Keoghan) in a nearby lake, to the loss of Pádraic's beloved donkey Jenny, both of whom represent his last remaining friendships in the sleepy town.

Different kinds of deaths

But literal death is far from the only sense of loss that pervades "The Banshees of Inisherin." We are witness to the death of relationships, as well. Pádraic's life follows a simple but apparently fulfilling pattern of walking from his quiet cottage to the local pub, where he spends hours with his dearest friend, Colm. But all that changes when Colm wakes up one morning and decides suddenly, inexplicably, that Pádraic's presence is intolerable to him.

Colm resents every interaction they have so much that, perhaps blaming Pádraic for the unremarkable life that Colm squandered, he makes a vow to cut off a finger each time that Pádraic dares to bother him by trying to strike up a conversation. Pádraic's life is sent adrift by this pronouncement, stung by the loss of the friendship and the uncertainty of what exactly he's done wrong to merit such treatment. This is not the only relationship of his that is torn asunder in "The Banshees of Inisherin," however. His sister Siobhan, easily one of the smartest people on the small, sleepy island of Inisherin, feels trapped in a life that has never quite gotten started. 

She longs for something more than this farming community can offer her, and although she loves her brother dearly, she's wasting away for lack of intellectual stimulation. So when she gets an offer to run a library on the mainland, a chance at a real life and a future, it's too tempting to pass up. She and Pádraic write letters to one another, of course, but the intimacy and sense of camaraderie they had when they shared a home together is gone forever. When Pádraic's life becomes unbearably lonely, he lies in his letter to her, pretending everything is fine — they are no longer each other's confidants.

Death of a way of life

Siobhan's leaving Inisherin ties into a much larger death that encompasses not just the little lives of the characters in the film, but all of Ireland. Her choice to start a new life on the mainland represents the slow but inevitable demolition of a unique culture that eventually gives way to something more modern and homogenized. "The Banshees of Inisherin" takes place in the 1920s, but by the look of the characters and they way that they live their lives, it could easily be 200 years earlier and no one would be any the wiser. These are the dying embers of a way of life that remained unchanged for generations, but will be drastically different in mere decades after the events of the film. This quiet island community, the entire world for someone like Pádraic, will exist only in memory.

The death of individuals, the death of relationships, the death of culture — it's difficult to ignore the fact that throughout all of this, we're also talking about the death of a unified Ireland as well. "The Banshees of Inisherin" takes place amidst the Irish Civil War, although the fighting is relegated to the background, with gunfire only heard distantly from the mainland. In many ways, the breakdown of the relationship between Pádraic and Colm represents the schism between unionists and republicans. Once like brothers, their friendship begins to deteriorate on largely hypothetical grounds, but accelerates into a breach that is seemingly unmendable after violence has been committed on both sides. The origins of the conflict are insignificant, from a practical standpoint — it's their perspective of the damage done that keeps their relationship an open wound.

The banshees of Inisherin have much to mourn, then. The film is filled with a sense of loss that, despite its dark sense of humor and occasionally absurdist turns in the plot, feel deep and resonant. There's a feeling of an entire world being stripped away, seen through the eyes of the kind-hearted, simple Pádraic, who would be content to take walks with his donkey and drink beer with Colm at the local bar until the day he died. His utter confusion at how quickly things can change and be taken away from him is heartbreaking, reinforcing the emotional significance of the many losses in "The Banshees of Inisherin," deaths both literal and metaphorical.