Land hunger, land anger

"Sloping Fields" by Liam Daly ( Reproduced with permission

Land hunger, land anger

The Field (1990)


The Field opens in dramatic style. The setting is the rural west of Ireland, in 1965. A father and son are seen silhouetted at the top of a cliff, having dragged there a strange and heavy load – a dead donkey stallion – which they then precipitate over the cliff into the bay below. The two men are Thady “The Bull” McCabe (Richard Harris) and his son Tadhg (Sean Bean). It transpires that the latter has killed the animal for having entered his father’s fiercely treasured field, a highly fertile holding of just under four acres created over years of unremitting toil by McCabes, carting kelp up and down hill to lay down as manure (1), until it has become an almost acrylically verdant oasis amidst the adjoining dun bogland.

As his nickname suggests, “The Bull” has an angry tunnel vision about this holding, fuelled by over-developed historical resentments about the Famine and even older and bitterer history – centuries of lands expropriated by foreigners, corrupt authorities and a Church uninterested in the plight of the poor. The field is his one bulwark against the hostile world, a kind of insurance policy for his family against poverty and the surrounding waste, and he has melded almost metaphysically with the handmade soil.  His extreme practicality has become a sort of poetry. This is from John Keane’s original text –

I know every rib of grass and every thistle and every whitethorn bush that bounds it. There’s shamrock in the south-west corner. Shamrock, imagine! The north part is bound by forty sloe bushes. Some fool planted them once but they’re a good hedge. This is a sweet little field, this is an independent little field that wants eatin’

His moral claim to these acres is fully accepted by the locals, among whom he occupies a respected-feared position, as a man of great physical prowess, who is, moreover, related to many of them.

The problem is that he is not the actual owner of the field, and Maggie Butler, the widow (Frances Tomelty) who owns it, decides to sell by public auction. She will not sell directly to Bull because she blames him for years of harassment at the hands of Tadhg and a local drunk and camp-follower, “The Bird” O’Donnell (John Hurt). In fact, Bull had been unaware of the harassment, and when he finds out about it he is wrathful. In the ensuing auction, although no local will contest with him, he finds himself pitted against the much greater financial resources of an American (Tom Berenger) with roots in the region, who wishes to pave over the precious field to allow access to a projected limestone quarry. In the original text –

A total stranger has come and he wants to bury my sweat and blood in concrete

The American is backed by the Gardaí and the local priest, and this feeds the Bull’s paranoia and feeling of powerlessness, giving rise to memorable orations – in which the aggrieved pride of the working man combines with a kind of ultra-nationalism and fear of the future. Disastrous events follow almost inevitably – a violent confrontation with the American which leads to his accidental death, the gradual disintegration of what remains of Bull’s patrimony and ideals, ending in the death of Tagdhg on the cliffs on which we met him, and the Bull’s descent into full-blown insanity, lashing the sea with his ashplant.

Although The Field is now regarded as a minor cinematic classic, it was not a commercial success. According to IMDB it earned just over US$1.4m in what should have been the highly lucrative US market (it had cost approximately IR£5m to make). This was notwithstanding that it was adapted from a 1965 play by the best-selling  John Brendan Keane (2) and that it was directed by Jim Sheridan, who had already directed My Left Foot, and would go on to direct In the Name of the Father and In America. Reviewers generally disliked the film, although they agreed that Harris was outstanding (his part earned him his second Academy Award nomination). Harris’s passionate commitment to the part must have been fuelled by his Irish nationalist sympathies (3). The film is admittedly melodramatic – but it is also possible that many reviewers simply could not relate to McCabe’s bullying persona, his distrust of ‘progress’, his contempt for the rule of law, and his premodern obsession with family and land.

McCabe’s exaggerated emotions are however driven partly by insecurity – knowledge of his own powerlessness in this new rationalist scheme of things where money means more than moral right, and the knowledge that Tadhg simply does not share his monocular commitment. In the film there is an enticing Traveller girl who has set her cap at Tadhg – for Bull, she symbolizes irresponsibility and impermanence.

Much deeper even than these motivations is guilt about his first son, Seamie, who killed himself (a mortal sin for Catholics) after the Bull had told him the field could only ever support one of the sons. (Since the suicide, some eighteen years before the story begins, the Bull and his wife – played by Brenda Fricker – had not spoken to each other.) So if he is an unsympathetic figure, he at least has some cause – and as he lurches inevitably from one cataclysmic error to another he accrues pathos, as if the viewer is watching some figure from legend, a Polyphemus blinded by passion and limited by his lack of imagination. Many seeing the film will also have a sneaking feeling that the Bull was right to try to thwart ‘progress’, at least when that progress involves the erasure of the earth in favour of concrete and quarries.

The film diverges from the play in many particulars, although many of the changes are understandable from a film-maker’s perspective. The most important change is that in the play the story ends unresolved, with the community united in a conspiracy of silence. In the play, there are no Travellers. There was no harassment of the widow. The story about Seamie was also wholly made up by screenwriters; the real cause of the eighteen year silence between the Bull and his wife was that he had shot a tinker’s pony. The notion that the Bull’s mother died while making hay in the field likewise has no textual basis. The would-be purchaser has come from England rather than America. The auctioneer Mick Flanagan, his wife Maimie and their son Leamy are all much more important in the original, with the auctioneer comical as well as corrupt, and a broad hint at the end that Leamy will tell the authorities what everybody knows. The Bull and Tadhg are even less admirable than in the film, the Bull readily threatening death to potential informants, even obliquely to the widow, Tadhg quite as fanatical as his father. (In an alienating aside, we learn that it took the two of them an hour to beat the donkey to death.) And it is the Bishop rather than the parish priest who lectures the complicit community and threatens them with interdiction –

This is a parish in which you understand hunger. But there are many hungers…There is a hunger for food – a natural hunger. There is the hunger of the flesh – a natural understandable hunger. There is a hunger for home, for love, for children.. These things are good…but there is also the hunger for land…how far are you prepared to go to satisfy this hunger?

Although the screenwriters managed to transmit some sense of Keane’s lyricism, little of his whimsy was translated to the screen, such as the surreal conversation between the Bull and his son while they are lying in wait for the stranger, in which they wonder whether crows think like men, and Tadhg avers with a superstitious shiver that “if the seed of man fails, the rats will take over the world”.

All this having been noted, The Field is nevertheless an engrossing and at times entrancing film, which casts a rare and unsentimental light on the pinched and precarious lives of tenant farmers, and one of mankind’s oldest and strongest emotions.


  1. Seaweed contains salt, but in small and easily soluble quantities, and it also contains such essential improvers as nitrogen, potassium, phosphate and magnesium. In the play, the field has been manured more conventionally, by the McCabes’ heifers
  2. Born in Listowel, County Kerry, in 1928, Keane lived in England from 1951 to 1953 and then returned to Listowel, where he ran a pub. In his spare time, he was a prolific playwright, short story writer and poet, although he may be best remembered for his humorous series Letters of…, supposed letters from a T.D., a priest, a Garda officer, etc. His work was popular but was long disregarded by critics, perhaps because of its perceived provincialism. In A Biographical Dictionary of Irish Writers (1985), Anne M. Brady and Brian Cleeve surmise, “A possible cause of critical unenthusiasm has been the excitement and poetry of his writing, presently unfashionable”. Keane died in 2002. His nephew is the well-known author and journalist Fergal Keane
  3. The Limerick-born actor was a notorious supporter of the IRA, although he recanted somewhat following the Harrods bombing of December 1983. Naturally, these views did not deter him from living in the enemy environs of Holland Park, or accepting starring roles in many British-made films – including, most ironically, Cromwell (1970)


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