Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or. what’s a heaven for?”
A part of our desire at The Pastor’s Workshop is to help pastors connect the stories in our culture with the stories taking place in culture. This is a somewhat fraught enterprise, as stories, particularly secular ones, often contain elements that we might be uncomfortable sharing in the pulpit or in conversation with our flocks. (There is quite a bit of graphic content in this film, though in my opinion, none of it is particularly gratuitous.)
Nevertheless, on occasion, we’d like to write about some of the stories that are shaping culture. As Scott Bullock and I began mapping out these weekly blog posts, and we came to the subject of stories in contemporary culture, a new film, The Banshees of Inisherin came to mind. I had only seen a trailer, but was quickly engrossed by a dialogue between the two main actors, Pádraic Súilleabháin (played by Colin Farell) and Colm Doherty (played by Brandon Gleason), two Irishmen living on a remote island off the mainland. Set in 1923, during the Irish Civil War, the island seems relatively safe compared to the battles the villagers can hear from the mainland.
Pádraic and Colm have long been friends, with a familiar and enjoyable mid-afternoon trip to the pub for the two of them to catch up on the day’s events over a pint of Guinness.
Only, things are about to change as Pádraic makes his daily pilgrimage to pick up Colm on the way to the pub. Pádraic finds Colm in a reflective, somber mood, and when Colm asks if his longtime friend is ready to grab a drink, he’s rebuffed. Colm isn’t interested in their daily ritual, not just for today, but for the rest of his life.
Pádraic is distraught and doesn’t know what to think. He’s both hurt and desperate to resolve the conflict. And so, the following scene takes place, awkwardly enough at the same pub Colm has bluntly stated he no longer will associate with his old pal Pádraic.
One gets the sense of a very stable, bordering on dull, world in which these characters live. The island is so small, there’s nowhere else for him to go then the same pub that the two frequent each day. Pádraic can’t merely walk to another pub down the street and chat up some new companion.
And so Pádraic hounds Colm into giving some reason for no longer wanting to be his friend, assuming he’s said or done something that offended Colm. Unfortunately, the issue is far deeper:
Colm Doherty: But you didn’t say anything to me. And you didn’t do anything to me.
Pádraic Súilleabháin: Well that’s what I was thinking, like.
Colm Doherty: I just don’t like ya no more. (emphasis mine)
Pádraic Súilleabháin: [hurt and disbelieving] You do like me.
Colm Doherty : I don’t.
What a scene! That was the hook that grabbed my attention, and while I will acknowledge that Banshees is no fast-paced thriller, the combination of all that makes a great film, the acting, the cinematography, the writing, come forcefully together as this scene sets the two old friends on two very different trajectories, with supporting characters, most notably Pádraic sister Siobhan Súilleabháin (played by the excellent Irish actress Kerry Condon) caught in the middle.
While not made explicit, it’s hard not to think that the Irish Civil War has had an impact on Colm’s sudden decision to isolate himself from his best friend.
The world around them is changing fundamentally, and on the surface, it appears as though the remoteness of the island provides a safety net from the troubles that face those on the mainland.
For most relationships, if things go south, there are other options. People generally don’t have the kind of confrontational experience that these two men have. Most relationships just drift apart, and the hurt is perhaps a bit less pronounced. But for Colm and Pádraic, their context dictates a different reality. If Colm wants to end his relationship with his best friend, he’s got to be honest about it. And so he does. The only problem is, Pádraic isn’t willing to accept this drastic change of events.
This scene (and the movie overall) asks a question about the nature of friendship. What exactly do we owe each other, in terms of relationship? Are we bound to each other in any real sense? Or are relationships like a piece of clothing that fits and is fashionable one moment, then becomes out of style the next?
In real life, not just in films, people change, and Colm has come to the conclusion that spending time with Pádraic is a waste of the little time left he has. Colm is a fiddle player and he has convinced himself that the only valuable way to live his life is to dedicate his last days to the composition of music. The movie’s title comes from his great hope for the film: a song. There’s a desperation in Colm when he finally acknowledges why he will no longer spend time with Pádraic:
Colm Doherty: I just… I just have this tremendous sense of time slipping away on me, Pádraic. And I think I need to spend the time I have left thinking and composing. Just trying not to listen to any more of the dull things you have to say for yourself. But I am sorry about it. I am, like.
If you were to ask me what this film is about, at its core it’s about dealing with change…Some fight change, some accept it. Pádraic, for example, wants things to stay the same. He likes his friend, his island, his animals, and his pub.
But it’s 1923.
Meanwhile, the industrial revolution continues to advance, transforming a primarily agrarian world into a mechanized one. Pádraic’s sister Siobhan has faithfully stood by his side throughout the film, but even she can no longer deny the changes that are taking place in the world around her.
Many of us have heard the saying, “Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.”
This seems to reflect quite accurately the place we find Pádraic Súilleabháin at the beginning of the film. He doesn’t want to hurt his friend, but he’s decided that the only path forward is to cut all ties with Colm for the sake of a better future. And this is where I’d like to land the plane with this movie review.
Pádraic’s obsession with legacy lands him on a collision course with Colm. “If only I could be rid of that dullard so I could focus on my music” he seems to think. “Then I will achieve the immortality that is afforded to great musicians.” From the film we get no clue as to whether this is a reasonable goal for the composer. It doesn’t seem to matter much. But I think it’s a question worth asking. It is natural of course for each of us to desire some sort of legacy.
To want people who come after us to remember us for our work. But as far as I can tell, it is only some tiny infinitesimal portion of people whose names will be remembered after we breathe our last breaths. For most of us, it is our families and friends who will remember us on earth. And while such a concern may seem significant now, when we are united with God in the next life, it is hard to think our earthly accomplishments will be the most important thing about us.
The truth is, as much as we would like for our legacies to be in our hands, they most certainly are not. If you spend any time reading history, you realize that fame and success are a fickle business indeed. Those who are popular in their time are often forgotten by their descendants, whereas others, like Vincent Van Gogh, never experienced success in his lifetime, but ultimately became one of the most appreciated and beloved artists in modern life.
This isn’t to say we should do as little as we can, but rather to recognize that our lives, including what one thinks of us after we die, are not in our control. The only thing that is within our control is how we think, how we act, how we treat our neighbors. Change comes to us all, and we can “climb the cross of the moment” as Auden once said, but we cannot control it.
In my opinion, Colm’s desperation to achieve some sort of legacy is more common in us than we might first suppose. It’s such a vulnerable place to even acknowledge a desire for us to make a name for ourselves beyond our close circle of relationships, but it seems something planted deep within us. In the film, Colm is a practicing Catholic who attends Mass and goes to confession. The problem is, the way Brendan Gleeson plays the role, his heart seems much more attached to his fiddle than his faith.
That’s not to say that faith is a panacea that will cure all of our desires, ordering them perfectly according to God’s will. But I do think, having an eternal perspective has the ability to help us see life through a different kind of lens. A lens in which achieving greatness, whether in the arts, or in business, or wherever we find ourselves, is not necessarily the end goal. Faithfulness, however, living into God’s will, that may help us find some satisfaction on this earth, though it will not find its consummation until we are on the other side of paradise.
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golfing, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
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