From the Editor…

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2008), Letters, Letters, Volume 16

‘Let’s hear him deny it’

RTÉ is to be congratulated for its recent Hidden History series. In general these were a model of how to present sometimes complex (and controversial) subjects to a wider public. Thus William Martin Murphy, while not quite shaking off his well-deserved image as the ‘villain’ of the 1913 Dublin Lockout, was also presented as the remarkable international entrepreneur that he was. (See ‘TV Eye’, pp 50–1, in this issue.) Readers of Owen McGee’s two ‘sources’ articles in the last two issues (HI 15.5, Sept./Oct. 2007, pp 44–9; HI 15.6, Nov./Dec. 2007, pp 36–41) on recently released British secret service papers will have profited greatly from the programme on the alleged Fenian plot to assassinate Queen Victoria, one of several labyrinthine provocateur plots hatched by elements within the British secret service itself.
The concluding documentary in particular, ‘Making History’, which summed up the debate over the past generation on ‘revisionism’ and developments in Irish historiography, did great public service. While many in the profession, and possibly some long-standing readers of History Ireland (we have tracked this debate closely over the years), may have found the programme ‘old hat’, there is no doubting its appeal for the wider viewing public.
Inevitably, where the programmes were commissioned from independent production companies, there was a certain unevenness. The one on the Catalpa managed to make an inherently exciting topic (the rescue of Fenian prisoners from Freemantle, Western Australia, in 1876) seem a bit dull (in stark contrast, for example, to Donal O’Kelly’s amazing one-man theatrical treatment of the incident, first staged in 1995). Such a criticism, however, may simply be a matter of personal taste.
‘The Killings at Coolacrease’ is a different matter entirely. (See ‘Platform’ opposite.) On the face of it this was an excellent topic, a truly ‘hidden history’. What we got instead was a textbook (and brilliant) exercise in media spin, where the ‘line’ of the programme—that this was an incidence of ethnic cleansing carried out for sectarian and/or land-grabbing motives in a deliberately sadistic manner involving sexual mutilation—was taken up by other branches of the media and a predictably ill-informed and emotive ‘debate’ ensued. This is like the apocryphal story of the politician who, when asked to comment on an allegation that he had made against an opponent, agreed that it was untrue but added: ‘Let’s hear him deny it’. Such was the nature of the limited opportunities afforded to those critical of the documentary’s general line. The programme-makers can congratulate themselves on conjuring up a media will-o’-the-wisp but it is doubtful whether they have made any long-term contribution to scholarship on this sensitive issue.

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