Televising the Rising Rebellion Ar son na poblachta Ireland before the Rising

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2016), Reviews, Volume 24

RTÉ1, January 2016

By John Gibney

Patrick Pearse (Marcus Lamb) reads the Proclamation outside the GPO in Rebellion. (RTÉ/Pat Redmond)

Patrick Pearse (Marcus Lamb) reads the Proclamation outside the GPO in Rebellion. (RTÉ/Pat Redmond)

RTÉ is naturally investing a great deal of capital in the centenary of the Easter Rising across all of its platforms: TV, radio, archives, on-line and even the Century Ireland collaboration with Boston College, which has just launched a new guide to the Rising on its website.* But the first RTÉ project off the blocks, within days of the New Year, was the flagship production Rebellion, a five-part drama based around the Easter Rising and following a number of characters through the events of Easter Week 1916. Its premise was indeed interesting: that it would focus on those on the margins rather than on the well-worn stories of those who led the Rising. Directed by the Finn Aku Louhimies and created by Colin Teeven, the writer of Charlie (reviewed in our March/April 2015 issue), and with an unprecedented (for Irish TV) €6m budget, Rebellion seemed to suggest that RTÉ was starting its 2016 programming off with a bang (for want of a better term). It began with a promising, if low-key, first episode, the measured tone of which made up for somewhat thin characterisation. Alas, the subsequent four episodes will surely condemn Rebellion to TV infamy as one of the most boring and tedious pieces of TV to make its presence felt on Irish screens.

Rebellion has, by this stage, been savaged in print and on social media, and with good reason. Inevitably, it has been criticised on the grounds of historical accuracy, with a plethora of increasingly irksome and anachronistic glitches throughout. In fairness, it does attempt a more rounded view of the Rising. As the US historian L. Perry Curtis once noted, revisionism in Ireland is like cholesterol; there are good and bad versions of it, and Rebellion displayed both. The ‘good’ revisionism lay in integrating other voices and stories into the narrative of 1916: unionists, tenement dwellers, Home Rulers and Irish soldiers in the British army. This is in keeping with the current state of scholarship, and accords with a laudable public interest in and appetite for a more nuanced view of the Rising. The bad revisionism lay in other things. Figures such as Patrick Pearse and Éamon de Valera, even as marginal characters, are little more than caricatures; neither are above criticism but both deserve accuracy. More importantly, a structural decision to focus on the experience of women and the Irish Citizen Army paints a picture of the Rising that is as misleading as any apologia; both of these dimensions of experience are vital parts of the story, but they were undoubtedly minority concerns. The majority of those who fought in the Rising were neither women nor socialists. This could be forgiven on the grounds of dramatic licence if there was indeed any drama to be had, but Rebellion displayed all the problems evident in Teevan’s previous treatment of Charlie Haughey: poor characterisation (some characters here seem to have wandered in from other productions, such as Strumpet city and The wind that shakes the barley) and a sure-fire ability to render dramatic reality into dull, uninteresting fiction. The whole point of the Easter Rising is that, like it or not, it was dramatic, yet both script and direction managed to leach any drama from its subject-matter with a parade of uninteresting characters (good actors such as Charlie Murphy were wasted) and a clunky script devoid of subtlety, all expressed in a miserablist and morose directorial style and presented in a manner that looked cheaper than it should. Sometimes the truth is more interesting than fiction. RTÉ’s landmark 1966 series Insurrection is still name-checked (if not watched) 50 years after it was broadcast. It is hard to envisage Rebellion being viewed in the same way, literally or metaphorically. It was a lousy drama and a wasted opportunity.

Arthur Shields (right)—with his brother William, a.k.a. Barry Fitzgerald, in the USA—who featured in the first episode of Ar son na poblachta. (RTÉ)

Arthur Shields (right)—with his brother William, a.k.a. Barry Fitzgerald, in the USA—who featured in the first episode of Ar son na poblachta. (RTÉ)

Ireland before the Rising presenter Catriona Crowe in the Tenement Museum, Henrietta Street. (RTÉ

Ireland before the Rising presenter Catriona Crowe in the Tenement Museum, Henrietta Street. (RTÉ

RTÉ atoned for this sin with a number of lower-profile productions. Ar son na poblachta seems to have wandered onto the RTÉ1 schedule from TG4—no bad thing, as TG4 has long cornered the market in Irish history documentaries. This was a brisk, well-made three-part series as Gaeilge that took the story of the Rising and told it, rather cleverly, from three distinct angles. The first episode dealt with Arthur Shields, thus painting a picture of a more complex Ireland than might be assumed to have existed. Shields came from a Church of Ireland family, the son of a German mother and a socialist father. His life points towards how, for some, the reality of independence did not measure up to the ideal: he became deeply disillusion-ed with the Catholic and Gaelic ethos of the independent Ireland for which he had fought in the GPO and, like his better-known brother William (a.k.a. Barry Fitzgerald), became an actor in Hollywood (often, ironically, playing a priest). Speaking of men of the cloth, the second episode dealt with the Capuchin friars (such as Fathers Albert and Augustine) who ministered to the executed leaders of the Rising. Having been based in the midst of heavy fighting in and around Church Street, their experience of the last hours of those executed, and how they each prepared for their execution, was crucial in mediating a view of the men of 1916 as devout Catholics who gave their lives for faith and fatherland, a trope that came to define the Rising in official terms. The final and most striking of the three episodes dealt with the 1966 commemorations. It was interesting to note that the perennial issue of what the Rising meant, and whether or not its ideals had been betrayed, was alive and well in 1966 (Fianna Fáil, in government, nakedly sought to exploit its legacy in a partisan manner). The Rising was also marked publicly and proudly by Irish communities in Britain, in a manner that had changed utterly by 1976.
Finally came Ireland before the Rising, a one-off documentary presented by Catriona Crowe of the National Archives that could be classed as ‘history from below’. Rather than concentrating on militarism and the revolutionary élite, this measured and engaging documentary explored the world of early twentieth-century Dublin. Crowe and her various interviewees looked at diet, hotels, tenements, entertainment, food, drink, crime and punishment in a city that was at war long before Easter 1916—a very useful reminder that while a relatively small number of men and women participated in the Easter Rising, many more witnessed it and were affected by it. If Rebellion fell flat on its face, both Ar son na poblachta and Ireland before the Rising gave a taste of what can be achieved when allegedly scarce production resources are given to people who actually know what they are talking about.

John Gibney is currently Glasnevin Trust Professor of Public History at Trinity College Dublin.

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