Paul Hopkins: Banshees and boyos, and the lot of male friendship
In the multi-award nominated film The Banshees of Inisherin – the Oscars were held last night with no luck alas for the lads – the central thesis of Martin McDonagh's wonderful piece of cinema comes in the early exchange between the two main characters when Colm (Brendan Gleeson) abruptly ends his lifelong friendship with Pádraic (Colin Farrell at his finest).
"I just don’t like you no more," says Colm.
"You do like me," says Pádraic.
"I don’t," says Colm.
Male friendship is not something often talked about, nor even acknowledged among some men. For me, though, there is something odd going on here in this exchange between Gleeson and Farrell. And I speak from personal experience. First, one never ends things so openly or so suddenly as the efforts to maintain male friendship – unlike female ones – are traditionally so low that it would be more work to break off an acquaintance than to maintain it. It is easier to play that round of 18 holes or go to Croke Park than to not. And to end any such friendship would certainly involve more talking it out.
Second, a man not necessarily liking another man is, oddly, not a particular barrier to lifelong friendship. Men don't think in such terms as, Do I actually like this fellow? Does he like me? How would I even know? We spend a lot of the time we’re together – especially over pints – taking the mick out of each other.
The latter notion is subtly exposed in the poker session in the hauntingly beautiful An Cailin Ciuin, where the men, subconsciously wary of any iota of intimacy, go for the whiskey-drinking, petty gambling and back slapping instead. A veneer of sorts, less some other idea is suggested. And, remember, the movie is set in 1981 before being gay was legalised – or even thinking you might be gay or attracted to the fella opposite you with the poker face on him. Go on, ye boyo!
McDonagh's mesmerising movie is about a somewhat horrific break-up of a friendship (in a bid to escape Pádraic, Colm threatens to chop off his own fingers) that we, the audience, had never known when it was thriving. It’s a friendship between two men, so we can have a good go at what it was like: companionable, fundamentally unserious and wholly reliant on proximity or shared interests – in this case, going to the pub at 2pm every day.
The pair's friendship has been a long one. Apparently, though, the older we get, the fewer friends we have. According to a new study from Aalto University in Finland and the University of Oxford, our social network, particularly men's, shrinks after we reach our mid-20s. At this age, people start to figure out who are the most
important and valuable in their lives, and they make a greater effort to keep those friends. As we grow older, we become busier at work and, for some, at raising a family. This cuts down on the amount of time we have to go to the pub or the Six Nations game.
We will, however, says the study, invest more time with our closest friends and make time for those we'd want to meet and connect with. Losing friends is not always a bad thing, I suggest. It means we are on the path of growth and it may change our social life for the better as well. No more talking sh**e down the pub.
The pandemic lockdown gave me time to consider that some friendships were no longer worth the effort. We've all had friends who managed to persuade us to do or say things we promised we'd never do again, such as excess drinking. Even if we genuinely care for them, we recognise that being with them – with their somewhat chaotic lifestyle – is just no longer enjoyable. So, we cut back on seeing them, being too busy working or whatever being the excuse.
In the final analysis, I suggest that for men it’s hard to find true friends with the essence of what that implies, unlike women who seem so much better at such. So maybe there are just two, three or maybe four, if you are lucky – but never the entire legion of lads down the pub or on the golf course. And, if you are honest, that’s the way you like it because it takes less effort to maintain one true friend than 10 'on-and-off' lads knocking back the pints down the pub.
And it only 2pm…