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Through the Coaching Lens: The Banshees of Inisherin

(Spoiler alert)

How do we manage the tension between how we see ourselves, and how others see us?

The Banshees of Inisherin is a fable about friendship taking place on a remote little (fictitious) island off the coast of Ireland in 1923. Pádraic is a dairy farmer, living with his sister in a modest cottage with a selection of animals he looks after. Pádraic is a sweetly unambitious man, happy with the simple pleasures of the company of his miniature donkey Jenny, and his daily visits to the pub with his best friend Colm. Colm on the other hand, is a gloomy fiddler, suffering with existential despair, who is dreading the loss of time and the impact of his isolated existence on the legacy he may leave, or indeed fail to leave, behind him.

The film raises a debate about friendship and relationships, and our tendency to look for a reflection of ourselves in people around us, as a defence mechanism, when finding or expressing our inner sense of self can be daunting.

As the film starts, and Pádraic is shunned by his best friend, he struggles to come to terms with his friend's rebuttal. Having done or said nothing wrong, he learns that Colm doesn’t want to spend time with him because he is “dull.” Aware of the progression of time, Colm is suddenly concerned that spending time with Pádraic will stop him from composing his music and leaving a mark on history. He argues that no one remembers Mozart for his niceness, and that being nice does not make one memorable throughout history.

In a way, being rejected in this way is worse than being rejected for something we have done or said. In a hurtful action, and then the following reaction, there is an exchange and an opportunity to learn something new about ourselves as well as our friend. We then have a choice to rectify it with an apology. Colm is oblivious to his own evolving needs, and therefore does nothing to reassure Pádraic. Instead, he blames his shift in affection on Pádraic, as a person, being not good enough for him anymore. Pádraic just loses his friend ‘for nothing’, which is why, naturally, he takes it as a criticism of himself as a person. This is understandably very painful to handle especially if, as a person, he doesn’t have a clear sense of himself, which is independent from the feedback he gets from his immediate environment.

As Pádraic’s sense of self is overly reliant on external signals, the implication of such a rebuttal is huge. Colm’s criticism being about his personality as opposed to a behaviour or an action, means that when Pádraic loses his friend, he loses a piece of his identity. When he then loses his sister who leaves the island, and his beloved donkey Jenny, he is left broken, without external reflections of who he knows himself to be. Because he lacks an inner sense of self, and has relied on reflections from the external world, these losses are a game changer for him.

Cinematically, we then have one shot of him punching an actual mirror in his cottage and his image in it is broken into many pieces. This moment in the film is pivotal, because it is then that he is losing any sight of himself, and then stops seeing Colm too. This leads to the deterioration of their friendship, where Pádraic is suddenly sabotaging it as well, ultimately when he finally burns Colm’s house.

It is natural that our values are informed by the people surrounding us, our family, teachers, friends and community. However it is the extent to which we allow this external input to shape us that we are looking at here. While we are in constant interaction with our environment, I work with my clients to cultivate a strong enough inner sense of self that helps them be truly autonomous: confident people with integrity. We are lovers of animals or not, we subscribe to one ideology or another, love a certain band or not. We are affiliated with groups based on religion, education, profession, living area etc. However, within those groups we want to be able to find our unique expression, and live it well. So this is a delicate balance, of maintaining an equilibrium between our inner sense of self, and the information we keep getting about ourselves from outside.

If we lack that inner sense of self, we are ‘held together’ by those narratives from outside with which we end up identifying. This can be detrimental if those narratives suddenly change as we see in the film.

Many critics of the film drew analogies between Pádraic’s and Colm’s friendship to the Irish Civil War, which has somehow spared this little island, although its audible manifestations are present from across the water and add an ominous and even mysterious tone to the film. It is when we lose sight of ourselves, that we lose sight of others, and are then capable of actions which are impossible to imagine otherwise. And maybe losing, or letting go of this sense of self, is a condition of war, so that we are able to not see our opponent and commit the atrocities of war.

Colm’s behaviour towards Pádraic externalises his feelings by blaming the ‘mirror’ for his failure to see, and indeed prop up, his own self. While he is supposedly going inwards to pursue his music, his overall aim there is to be recognised and leave a legacy. So this is not driven by his internal motivation and interest, but rather by the fear of being forgotten by his external environment. What may seem like an attempt at inner self realisation, is actually yet again (and just like Pádraic) an exaggerated reliance on the input of his community. With a greater awareness perhaps he could have realised that he can change himself within their friendship, alongside it, by maintaining better boundaries and seeing himself as a musician as well as a friend. However, this is something he cannot articulate to his friend, or indeed to himself.

For Colm, success and legacy are things that take place in isolation from the society around them. He thinks that Mozart became Mozart through his talent alone. He is overlooking the fact that the context in which Mozart composed and performed, and that which canonised his work for centuries, is made up of people, and the stories they live. Nothing happens in isolation and everything is connected.

And if the saying ‘how we do anything, is how we do everything’ is anything to go by, Colm’s self mutilation further isolates him from the music world he is trying to leave his mark on. So severing his friendship with Pádraic is likened to severing his own fiddle-playing fingers. Both ultimately lead to the inability to regain an independent and internal sense of self.

Inarticulate and infantile, he is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

This inability to hold an internal, independent sense of self, is reminiscent of children who are learning to separate themselves from their parents, and their environment. While this is a tendency which weakens with age, experience and confidence, most of us still deal with it to a certain extent in adulthood. Having the guts to pursue something we believe in against others’ opinions, holding on to our ideology, trusting ourselves, is a constant practice for which coaching gives a platform.

Colm’s and Pádraic’s juvenile behaviour is stood in contrast to that displayed by Dominic, who like in a Shakespeare play is the truthsayer. He is the blind who sees better than anyone, the disabled, who is much more able than those who believe themselves ‘able’. He is the one who chooses to follow his heart, to be love, and say it. His death bears very little consequences on Colm, Pádraic and the rest of the community on the island. It is hard to say if this is a purposeful failure of the community intended by the writer, or an unintentional failure of the filmmaker, but this lack of consequences suggests pessimistically, that juvenile, infantile behaviour is endemic and is unchangeable on that little remote island. As one of the few people in this fable who does have a strong inner compass, his quiet, nearly unacknowledged disappearance from the story doesn’t bode well for the community of this island, or for us as a society as the allegory in this fable.

Cultivating this sense of self requires allowing ourselves to be interested and engaged in what we do, and seeing our own interest as a value to aspire to. We want to be curious and open, stable and playful, so that we can learn new things, and keep our ground while at it.

While Pádraic feels buoyant by the ocean of his community, Colm feels suffocated by it, like he is drowning in it. The poet Rumi said:

“You are not a drop in the ocean,

you are the entire ocean in a drop.”

This suggests that we each hold our entire community within us, even if sometimes we feel isolated and small. The question we are faced with becomes: how can we truly be the ocean? To me, this means both weaving ourselves within the fabric of our community, and also trying to show ourselves uniquely within it. In other words, we want to make sure that the perceived sense of self we get from outside, doesn’t obfuscate our own inner sense of self. We want to be both composing our tunes, while maintaining healthy relationships within our society. Ultimately both inform each other, contribute to us in different ways, and make us whole.

Through the Coaching Lens posts are my own commentaries of film and TV a coaching perspective. What movies or TV do you suggest I look at with my lens? Comment , and please share if it is of value to you.

Illustration by Evie Fridel


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