Why do friendships break down – and once a conflict starts, can it ever really be over? The Banshees of Inisherin takes on these questions on both the personal and the political level. Martin McDonagh’s Oscar nominated tale of two men falling out can be read equally as a parable for the Irish Civil War and as an unflinching, accurate exploration of a friendship breakup. Here’s our take on the hidden significance behind Banshees’ historical parallels, how folklore plays a role in the film’s tragic ending, and what those fingers really mean.
Why do friendships break down – and once a conflict starts, can it ever really be over? With its multiple severed fingers and dead pet donkey, The Banshees of Inisherin takes on these questions on both the personal and the political level. Martin McDonagh’s Oscar nominated and award-winning tale of two men falling out can be read equally as a parable for the Irish Civil War and as an unflinching, accurate exploration of a friendship breakup.
Pádraic: “You used to be nice. Or did you never used to be? Oh, God. Maybe you never used to be.” – The Banshees of Inisherin
After Colm decides suddenly that he doesn’t want to be friends with Pádraic, by the film’s end, events have snowballed until Pádraic has traded his signature niceness to live purely for spite, while Colm’s depressive search for meaning drives him to some very permanent acts. Like Ireland during its Civil War in the early 20s and in the island’s lasting conflicts to follow, the two men become stuck in an endless cycle of wrongdoings that lead them down a path of no return.
Here’s our take on the hidden significance behind Banshees’ historical parallels, how folklore plays a role in the film’s tragic ending, and what those fingers really mean.
Beginning in 1922, the Irish Civil War arose after the country won independence from Britain in 1921. However, divisions began to arise regarding the terms of the war-ending treaty. Irish revolutionaries who once fought on the same side were now fighting against each other. Sound familiar? This theme is clearly reflected in the film, as Colm and Pádraic’s once strong brotherly bond devolves into hatred for seemingly no reason.
While most of the film centers on their conflict with each other, there is one thing the men do agree on: their hatred of the local cop, Peadar Kearney. Viewed through the lens of Ireland’s history, Peadar serves as a symbolic stand-in for British forces. The former friends still quietly come together in solidarity when threatened by Peadar.
But as the two get locked in a sequence of escalating opposition, like the people of Ireland, they’ve become two brothers senselessly pitted against each other, causing irreversible damage. Like a war, Pádraic and Colm’s conflict leads to each party trying to one-up each other, even when they have numerous chances to just choose peace. When Pádraic drunkenly stands up for himself at the pub, Colm is impressed by his honesty.
Colm: “That’s the most interesting he’s ever been. I think I like him again now.” – The Banshees of Inisherin
But when Pádraic hears this and goes to make amends, Colm still stubbornly follows through on his threat to cut his finger off. Later, when Colm gives in to meeting Pádraic at the pub, Pádraic reveals he drove Colm’s fellow fiddler away, which spurs Colm to change course and cut off his remaining four fingers. These moments prove that the initial cause for conflict actually doesn’t always matter as much as what comes after.
The film is set away on a fictional island which closely resembles the real Aran Islands (and was partially filmed on one of them). But directly translated, Inish erin means ‘island of Ireland.” So, we can read Inisherin as a metaphorical space, meant to speak more generally and spiritually about the country’s history and its people’s experiences.
The film’s Irish allegory extends further as each main character represents an archetype of the Irish identity. Pádraic the “nice” guy with strong attachment to his local community, Colm the tortured artistic soul, Dominic the tragedy of youth suicide in Ireland, and Siobhan the island’s long history of talented individuals fleeing, whether due to sectarian conflict or greater opportunities elsewhere. Banshees explores these recognizable identities thoroughly to ask what truly underlies them.
Siobhan: “You can’t just all of a sudden stop being friends with a fella!”
Colm: “Why can’t I?”
Siobhan: “Why can’t ya? Because it isn’t nice.” – The Banshees of Inisherin
Pádraic’s whole idea of himself and his people centers around their “niceness”, but this value is questioned throughout the film. Once Pádraic is pushed by others not conforming to his rules of niceness, it doesn’t actually take much for Pádraic to feel justified in acting pretty mean. Soon his life is completely consumed by bitterness, and after he loses his donkey Jenny and his sister Siobhan, with no positive reason to stay on the island, he still stays to feed his spite.Through this arc, the film dismantles the typical ‘Irish nice guy’, indicating that purely living for niceness can actually be a negative thing, leading people to deeply resent those who betray their kindness or don’t live up to that framework.
Meanwhile, Colm’s ‘artistic soul’ is also an attractive aspect of Irish identity, as we see him meditating on the nature of life and playing tunes with fellow musicians in the pub. But this self-image based on artistic creation is challenged in the film, too, through an examination of Colm’s ego. His desire to make meaningful art is in part a desire for his name to be remembered.
This mindset is self-aggrandizing, grandiose and overgeneralizing . And his condescension toward Pádraic’s dullness makes him so determined to prove he’s different that he chops off his own fingers, which in turn destroys his artistic ability, providing a unique take on the stereotyped image of an Irish fiddle player.
On the other hand, Dominic is initially presented as a ‘village idiot’ stereotype. But we eventually learn that Dominic’s been abused by his father and actually possesses a lot more insight, depth and heart than people give him credit for.
Dominic: “You probably wouldn’t ever want to, I don’t know…to fall in love with a boy like me, would ya?” – The Banshees of Inisherin
So Dominic’s death pays tribute to just how much hidden potential is lost when young people in Ireland’s history haven’t truly been given a chance by their circumstances. Siobhan is consistently painted in the film as smart, well-read, reasonable and kind – the perfect combination of both Pádraic’s niceness and Colm’s artistic brain.
So it’s significant that this valuable person ends up abandoning the island – representing how many great individuals have been lost to Ireland over the years as individuals made the difficult choice to flee the conflicts or find better economic opportunity. Both Dominic’s and Siobhan’s fates give insight into the true potentials of countless Irish folk that’s been limited by the country’s conflicts.
Despite ending in 1923, the ripples of the Irish Civil War eventually led to The Troubles, a bloody conflict that rocked Ireland from the 60s through the 90s, with lasting effects still felt today in sectarian conflicts. The film’s final scene parallels this enduring conflict with the promise that tensions between Colm and Pádraic will resume sooner or later.The two men can never forget what they put each other through, like Ireland will never forget the tremendous conflicts between its own people.
So why does Colm cut off his own fingers, instead of attacking the person he’s seemingly mad at, Pádraic? To hurt his former friend, Colm destroys himself, and even the most cherished part of himself that he needs to play his instrument. So that’s a big clue that – while Colm’s stated motivation for ending his relationship with Pádraic is his desire to leave a lasting legacy, what’s really driving him to these extremes is his self-destructive depression. Referred to as ‘despair’ by the priest he confesses to. Colm’s inner sadness drives him to dedicate himself to things that matter.
Colm: “I just have this tremendous sense of time slippin’ away on me Padraic. And I think I need to spend the time I have left thinking and composing.” – The Banshees of Inisherin
And while he attempts to channel his passions into music, by the film’s end, he confesses that his despair hasn’t left – it even sounds like losing his friendship with Pádraic has made it worse, though Colm still isn’t going to fix that. In a way, he does achieve his goal. He did finish the musical piece. So was all this actually necessary to get there? In an interview with IndieWire, director Martin McDonagh notes that “I thought it was interesting that an artist would threaten the thing that allows him to make art. Does that thing make him the artist?”.
Maybe Colm did have to make this sacrifice to push himself mentally to finish – he only cuts off his final fingers after his song is completed. And while music can last forever, Colm is aware that the body does not. There’s likely some level of legacy he’s bought himself, too – who will forget the legend of a man who cut off five of his fingers just to spite his ex-best friend?
But in his final moments in the film, we see him wondering whether this was worth the cost. As Pádraic leaves him on the beach, Colm hums his tune to a roaring ocean that doesn’t care . At this point, humming is the only way he can ‘play’ his song, since he’s unable to play an instrument anymore.
And it’s an image of deep loneliness – he’s driven away his one true flesh-and-blood friend to serve some tenuous, abstract idea of eternal impact after he’s gone. So he might as well be dead already because he’s ended what was actually vibrant in his life. The song he thought would fulfill his despair hasn’t, leaving him feeling just as empty as he started. The song he thought would get him remembered will haunt him, reminding him of what he’s lost.
In Irish folklore, a banshee, aka woman of the fairies, is defined as a “...being whose mournful “keening,” or wailing screaming or lamentation, at night was believed to foretell the death of a member of the family of the person who heard the spirit.” (Brittanica.com) Throughout the film, Mrs. McCormick is clearly depicted as the town’s banshee. She’s always wearing a black hooded cloak, seen carrying a hooked cane, and the first time we meet her, she’s talking about death.
Mrs. McCormick: “Is it six years since your mammy and daddy died, Siobhan, or is it seven years since they died?” – The Banshees of Inisherin
Her presence brings a foreboding energy, and she gives Pádraic a warning of death on Inisherin. One of the deaths is Dominic’s, which was hinted at numerous times throughout the film through Mrs McCormick. The first time we meet him, he’s cluelessly questioning the staff that Mrs. McCormick later uses to fish his lifeless body out of the water, setting up a distinct, and sad, irony. She also appears to the three people who have isolated Dominic in one way or another leading up to his death.
While Dominic had grown used to the abuse from his father, he still had hope in Inisherin, particularly in Siobhan and Pádraic. But the film utilizes two back-to-back scenes that shatter his hope: Pádraic revealing how he cruelly lied to the fiddler, and Siobhan’s rejection. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, actor Barry Keoghan describes his character Dominic as someone who is “...always trying to cover and not show too much of himself.”
But when Dominic does show himself to Siobhan, he gets rejected. And in the wake of Pádraic shedding his niceness, Dominic’s doubts in human nature are confirmed - there’s no hope for nice guys on Inisherin. Mrs. McCormick’s presence in each of these pivotal scenes points to the inevitability of Dominic’s untimely death. But rather than delivering a piercing howl, her dejected amusement is Banshee’s true mark of death.
Many believe the second predicted death to be Jenny, Pádraic’s donkey – and this is a truly significant loss which utterly transforms Pádraic. But through Mrs.McCormick’s presence, the film could also indicate that the second death is a metaphorical one: the death of the men Colm and Pádraic once were.
We see Mrs McCormick watch from afar as Colm helps Pádraic onto his carriage after being punched by Peadar, an ominous indicator that this brief moment of friendship is doomed –and moments later Colm ditches Pádraic on the road once he breaks down in tears. In the film’s final scene, we see Mrs. McCormick take a seat in the smoking wreckage of Colm’s house to watch the two men’s final conversation.
Colm: “Suppose me house makes us quits.”
Pádraic: “If you’d stayed in your house, that would’ve made us quits.” – The Banshees of Inisherin
In one of the final shots, she watches Pádraic walk away from Colm, and the banshee’s presence prefigures death on the horizon in Ireland’s future as a result of this permanent schism. Pádraic’s words in the scene confirm both that he’s never going to put this behind him and that he no longer has any desire to be nice again.
Colm’s final lines pay tribute to what has been between them - an imprint of civility that still lingers – but Mrs McCormick’s body between the two reinforces the finality of their friendship’s death. And in the loss of this bond, both men’s previous selves have also died. Pádraic, the man known for his niceness, has transformed into a man who lives only for malice. And like a soldier in a war, Colm is irreversibly scarred and has lost almost everything for his “cause.”
Even without any of the film’s metaphorical aspects or commentary on the Irish identity, its emotional power lies in capturing that friendship breakups are deeply heartbreaking, and the harsh truth is that sometimes, these relationships meet their downfall due to almost no rational issue at all. So we should think carefully before we sever our relationships; we should take care with the people in our lives.
Ultimately, Banshees warns us of the dangers of becoming stuck in an endless cycle of spite and vengeance, and the irreparable damage these conflicts can do on the intimate and the global scale.
Jacobs, Matthew. “‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ Star Barry Keoghan on Playing a Simple Man With Soul.” 4, Dec. 2022. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-features/barry-keoghan-interview-the-banshees-of-inisherin-1235271513/
Kohn, Eric. “‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ Confronts the One Subject Martin McDonagh Doesn’t Want to Discuss.” 19, Oct. 2022. https://www.indiewire.com/2022/10/martin-mcdonagh-interview-the-banshees-of-inisherin-1234774137/