In today's Ireland, north and south, Catholics and Protestants co-exist peacefully, more or less, despite the centuries of deep and bitter animosity between them. But hatreds harbored for so long and felt so deeply do not just disappear overnight, so in some pockets of Ireland--and in some Irish people--the ancient bitterness continues to fester.

This is the timely and chilling message of A Love Divided, which tells the true story of how a small Irish village was irrevocably torn apart by a sudden eruption of long-buried prejudices arising out of differences in religion, politics and social class. The specific events depicted in this strongly polemic film took place in the Ireland of 1957, and although it's unlikely they could happen again in the same way, this is nevertheless a cautionary tale.

A Love Divided is also a love story, which begins in 1949 when Sean Cloney (Liam Cunningham), who is Catholic, and Sheila Kelly (Orla Brady), a Protestant, get married--three times! Once in a London registry office, once in a Protestant church, and finally, in the Catholic church of their village in County Wexford. As a condition of this final ceremony, Sheila signs a formal pledge to raise her children as Catholics. "Those were the rules," she recalls later. "It seemed a simple price to pay."

Making this traditional Church pledge, however, proves not nearly as meaningful to Sheila as the fateful promise she extracts from her new husband. Declaring, "It's got to be you and me, Sean, against the world," she asks him to swear he will never, ever, let anything come between them. At first, the couple lead an idyllic life, tending to their farm, raising two daughters, becoming upstanding members of their community. Each Sunday, Sean takes his girls to Catholic mass, while Sheila joins her sister and father (Tom McGrath) at the local Presbyterian church.

When the Catholic pastor, Father Stafford (Tom Doyle), suggests to Sheila it's time for her oldest daughter to enroll at St. Bridget's, she replies simply that only she and her husband will decide where their girls go to school--and it may not be St. Bridget's. The despotic Father Stafford immediately begins to pressure Sean, reminding him of his duty--and of his wife's matrimonial pledge. Forgetting the promise he made to his wife, Sean sides with the priest--leaving Sheila feeling totally betrayed. Her continued defiance sets up a chain of events which, she finally realizes, could result in losing custody of her own children. In panic, she takes them and runs--escaping in the middle of the night aboard a train to Belfast.

Confronted with the scope of the situation she has created, Sheila illogically concludes that her only course of action is to go deeper into hiding. Meanwhile, Father Stafford's Sunday sermons begin urging parishioners to boycott the businesses run by their Protestant neighbors--who, he's convinced, have assisted in "kidnapping" two innocent Catholic children. Thus it happens: The boycott begets resentment, which begets further repression, which eventually begets violence. Reports of the unexpected, violent rage unleashed upon this small village in County Wexford soon cause a worldwide uproar.

Sheila, however, knows none of this. Aided by an international civil-rights group, she and her girls have found a safe haven in Scotland's Orkney Isles. The menial work she takes on cannot help her forget what she's doing to herself, her husband and her children. But, stubbornly, she perseveres. It's only through the intervention of an intrepid Scotswoman (Eileen Pollock) that Sheila and Sean are at last reunited and begin to work out a way to mend their private relationship and heal the very public wounds they have inadvertently caused.

Depending on one's point of view, the moral force of this film is either strengthened or weakened by its point of view--pointing the finger of blame directly at the Catholic Church. (In June 1998, incidentally, the Catholic Church in Ireland apologized for its role in the "events of 1957.") Personal views aside, this small, well-crafted Irish production achieves importance by saying what it intends to say with both strength and conviction. A Love Divided is not just about one couple's problems, nor is it merely a microcosm of the Irish "troubles." It's about the kind of self-protective fear and madness we're all capable of, under the wrong circumstances.

--Shirley Sealy