TV eye:The story of Ireland BBC/RTÉ, February/March 2011 by John Gibney

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), General, Issue 3 (May/June 2011), Medieval History (pre-1500), Pre-history / Archaeology, Pre-Norman History, Reviews, Volume 19

Presenter Fergal Keane, with Brooklyn Bridge in the background. A ‘hook’ that ran throughout the series was the suggestion that Keane was engaged on a journey of personal discovery, as he revealed the reality behind the historical ‘myths’ that Irish people apparently believe to be true. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Presenter Fergal Keane, with Brooklyn Bridge in the background. A ‘hook’ that ran throughout the series was the suggestion that Keane was engaged on a journey of personal discovery, as he revealed the reality behind the historical ‘myths’ that Irish people apparently believe to be true. (RTÉ Stills Library)

The story of Ireland arrived on British and Irish television screens with considerable fanfare, the first comprehensive TV history of Ireland since Robert Kee’s Ireland: a history in 1981. Now, 30 years later, comes a multimillion-euro co-production between the BBC and RTÉ, filmed across the world and fronted by former BBC foreign correspondent Fergal Keane (John B.’s nephew). The series sought to tell the putative ‘story of Ireland’ in five episodes, thereby segmenting Irish history into five ‘ages’: the ‘age of invasions’ (the period prior to the twelfth-century English invasion: a term recently and plausibly rehabilitated by Thomas Bartlett and implicitly confirmed here); the ‘age of conquest’ (from then until the end of the calamitous sixteenth century); the ‘age of revolution’ (from the plantations of the early seventeenth century to the Act of Union); the ‘age of union’ (the nineteenth century); and, finally, the ‘age of nations’ (the twentieth century). According to the publicity that accompanied it, The story of Ireland would eschew the narrow perspective of viewing Irish history exclusively through the prism of the Anglo-Irish relationship; it would instead examine Irish history in terms of Ireland’s role in the world at large, and in a manner that would dispel cliché and myths to reveal the true complexity of Ireland’s historical experience. This was a series that promised much.It failed to deliver, especially given both the publicity that accompanied it and the British and Irish taxpayers’ money that was obviously spent on it. Instead of the exciting and innovative analysis that one was led to expect, The story of Ireland turned out to be a ponderous and unimaginative television experience. To be fair to it, the first two episodes were decent enough, if hardly earth-shattering, but after these the quality of the series nosedived drastically, thanks to fundamental problems with both the manner in which it was presented and the substance of what was being presented.

Detail from The Battle of Ballinahinch by Thomas Robinson. The bicentenary of the United Irishmen’s rebellion generated a vast amount of scholarship, but few of the scholars who contributed to this, and who also sought to explain 1798 to the public at large, were to be found here. (OPW)

Detail from The Battle of Ballinahinch by Thomas Robinson. The bicentenary of the United Irishmen’s rebellion generated a vast amount of scholarship, but few of the scholars who contributed to this, and who also sought to explain 1798 to the public at large, were to be found here. (OPW)

Let us start with the presenter, and let us cut to the chase: Fergal Keane did a very poor job here. A ‘hook’ that ran throughout the series was the suggestion that Keane was engaged on a journey of personal discovery, as he revealed the reality behind the historical ‘myths’ that Irish people apparently believe to be true. He did so in an earnest and long-winded style, in which the story he told was cast as a succession of hitherto unnoticed revelations about the truth of Irish history. But here is the fatal flaw: little of what Keane ‘revealed’ was in any way new. The idea of locating Irish history within that of the wider world is laudable. But to imply that issues such as the arrival of the Vikings (not to mention another obvious set of visitors), emigration to the New World or even Ireland’s place within the British Empire can be cast as in any way neglected or hidden is surely to bark up the wrong tree? Much of this ‘story’ had been heard before. Indeed, more often than not the series smacked of old-fashioned ‘revisionism’, and in some cases the most striking aspect of the ‘story’ was that it declined to engage with more recent scholarship. The treatment of 1798 was a notable case in point. The bicentenary of the United Irishmen’s rebellion generated a vast amount of scholarship, but virtually all of the scholars who contributed to this and who, it must be said, also sought to explain 1798 to the public at large were not to be found here. Despite the claims made on its behalf, this Story of Ireland was remarkably old-fashioned. While the first two episodes provided a useful panorama of Irish life prior to the seventeenth century, the gradual compression of the narrative as the series wore on—the final two of the five episodes dealt with a century apiece—ensured that the ‘story’ was reduced to a dutiful (and, it must be said, élitist) political narrative, within which cultural and social life had little part to play. This was especially notable in the final episode, dealing with the twentieth century, in which discussion of Irish society was restricted to an arresting contribution by Mannix Flynn about his experience in Letterfrack, and discussion of the arts to a brief soundbite by Declan Kiberd. Indeed, throughout the series, potentially interesting contributions from various academics and interested parties were cut frustratingly short.

The gutted shell of the GPO. It was incredible that in the course of a clichéd treatment of the Easter Rising no use was made of the extraordinary pictures (moving and otherwise) of Dublin’s devastated city centre in the aftermath of the British bombardment. (National Museum of Ireland)

The gutted shell of the GPO. It was incredible that in the course of a clichéd treatment of the Easter Rising no use was made of the extraordinary pictures (moving and otherwise) of Dublin’s devastated city centre in the aftermath of the British bombardment. (National Museum of Ireland)

There were also problems of style. The images used throughout the series seemed to be there simply to accompany Keane’s narration; there was little sense that, in a visual medium, there might be ways of telling the ‘story of Ireland’ in visual terms. Take, for example, the treatment of the famine of the 1840s: surely the sheer scale of the catastrophe would be perfect subject-matter for visual illustration, one that could also be used to examine both the socio-economic conditions of nineteenth-century Ireland and, in keeping with the self-proclaimed brief of the series, the unprecedented emigration that locked Ireland into the wider world for once and for all? Yet the opportunity was squandered, as the viewer saw little more than a map of Ireland with Skibbereen on it. Nor, in the episodes dealing with the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, did the film-makers use much in the way of contemporary visual material. It was incredible that in the course of a clichéd treatment of the Easter Rising no use was made of some of the most striking images generated in Ireland during the twentieth century: the extraordinary pictures (moving and otherwise) of Dublin’s devastated city centre in the aftermath of the British bombardment. Or did the producers feel that such images might suggest that the purveyors of allegedly simplistic (and implicitly nationalistic) versions of Irish history might actually have a point?Whether or not there is a single story of Ireland is debatable—there are many stories of Ireland, and they make up a rich and complex tapestry that was absent here. On occasion Keane seemed bemused by the alleged paradox of Irishmen serving in the British military. But surely the fact that some British journalists and military figures condemned the conduct of their colleagues in Ireland during 1920–1 is a paradox equally worthy of mention? And what about so much else that was hardly mentioned in what was, ultimately, a boring, narrow and surprisingly Anglocentric ‘story of Ireland’? The whole point of ‘whataboutery’ is that it has a point—one that, sadly, Keane and his producers signally seem to have missed.  HI

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