Kinsale: the Motion Picture

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 2001), News, Volume 9

RTÉ has made a documentary, The Battle of Kinsale, as its contribution of this year’s 400th commemoration of that event. History Ireland solicited the views of the programme makers.

Peter Mulryan, producer/director

Of course I’d heard of the battle of Kinsale, but exactly what happened at Kinsale was a mystery to me. Seventeenth-century Irish history isn’t something most people talk about over a couple of pints, and it certainly doesn’t make prime time viewing on the tele’. But that was the challenge, for RTÉ were anxious that this film wasn’t tucked away in the graveyard slot. They wanted the Kinsale film to air in prime time.
So how would Hugh O’Neill stand up to Martin Kemp in Eastenders? Hiram Morgan and I filled the whiteboard over and over again as we boiled the storyline down. Before long we had a script. But this isn’t radio. TV needs pictures and this is where my problems as director began. How do you tell a story when you’ve no idea what your hero Hugh O’Neill looked like and when there are precious few contemporary buildings standing?
I decided to dramatise key elements from the story to help breathe life into our characters. I had worked with Christopher Mellows years previously and he had the kind of presence I imagine O’Neill must have had. Chris was brilliant and like all good actors threw up a bundle of fresh problems. What accent did Hugh O’Neill have? How would he have greeted Essex? I did what any good director would do—I gave him Hiram’s phone number and got on with squeezing blood from my budget.

Hiram Morgan, historical adviser

Making this programme has been a challenge—at times daunting, at others frustrating and always time-consuming. It has been a learning experience. I had no idea how expensive quality television is or the financial constraints under which RTÉ operates. The final product will be a mix of interviews, location shots, dramatisations and photographs of contemporary maps and documents. The first three elements were shot under trying conditions —the weather and problems of access to agricultural land and historic buildings caused by the foot and mouth crisis. What is remarkable is how the programme makers managed to give buildings of a later date the ambience of the earlier period.
This came up in the case of the dramatisations. As an historian I was particularly wary of this aspect, what to dramatise and how. Contemporary documents have been used to create these scenes. Peter Mulryan introduced an element of humour by highlighting Lord Deputy Mountjoy’s dress sense. This was drawn from Fynes Moryson’s famous pen-portrait of his master—ironically the direction of Moryson’s spin has been reversed and made into caricature. It wasn’t always possible to ensure historical accuracy—because of the foot and mouth crisis O’Neill’s famous meeting with Essex was filmed on a bridge rather than in a river!
There is no doubt that the dramatisations were essential to give a sense of movement. Lynne Williams of Irish Arms Historical Reproductions, the costumiers and armourers, did a magnificent job in creating the clothes and weapons. All these aspects of documentary production were novel to me but what probably surprised me the most was the rostrum camera work of Nico Vermeulen. He made pretty awful photocopies of contemporary documents look authentic and got enormous mileage out of what appeared to me small and difficult illustrations.
As regards the storyline, as an historian I worried that it was too simplified. My version of history, especially a history I know well, is inevitably complicated. I suppose I’m thinking what the public ought to know about the subject rather than what they might like. Peter Mulryan wanted on the other hand a straightforward story. This involved the main points and broad brushstrokes. I wanted to mention every hole in the hedge and a large cast of characters; he wanted severed heads! I hope that a balance has been struck which is informative, dramatic and memorable.

Lynne Williams, costumier

Providing clothing, weapons, armour, horse harness and sundry artefacts presented some special challenges not normally encountered when reproducing ‘living history’ items. First, the date is very exact, not a vague sixteenth/seventeenth-century-ish span. Second, the principal characters were all real people, some with contemporary portraits and written descriptions of what they wore and how they dressed, so the luxury of ‘theatrical licence’ had to be kept to a minimum and historical accuracy striven for at all times.
Perhaps the biggest challenge was to represent the three separate cultures involved in the battle; English, Spanish and Gaelic Irish, all with their own styles and nuances of dress. At the time distinct Irish dress was gradually being worn less, especially amongst the Gaelic nobility, with native versions of English styles starting to replace the unique and often startlingly flamboyant Irish forms. A particular problem attaches to the Irish representation in that there are few contemporary illustrations, and even fewer primary finds on which to base an accurate model. The most detailed artistic sources are the well known sketches by Albrecht Dürer and Dutch artist Lucas de Heere—both early sixteenth century—and the woodcuts of Sir Henry Sydney’s campaign in John Derricke’s Image of Irelande (1581). Thus we were working with portrayals that were at least twenty years adrift of our date. The higher status ‘foreigners’ were easier to portray as there is a larger range of references, and a wider palette of colour and texture in the form of rich brocades to help achieve the period feel.
To make the clothes hang and move as the originals, we used only fabrics that were appropriate to the time period, in this case wool, linen and some silks and silk velvet. The majority of the Spanish and English clothing was cut using original patterns taken either from period tailors’ books or original garments, and then sized-up to fit our very modern sized-and-shaped actors.
Did we achieve our goal of showing how Hugh O’Neill, Red Hugh O’Donnell, Lord Deputy Mountjoy, Don Juan del Áquila, soldiers, kern and the common people of 1601 would have looked? We certainly hope the viewers can get a flavour of the times.

The Battle of Kinsale will be screened on RTÉ 1 on Saturday 22 September 2001.

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