The deliberate disaster that is RTE’s ‘Rebellion’

The flagship TV programme offered by State broadcaster RTE to mark the centenary of the 1916 revolution is a five-part series, ‘Rebellion’. Better that RTE had decided to do nothing. Here are my reactions to the first two episodes, formed immediately after each episode was broadcast.

January 3rd – Episode 1

Yes, I am a quibbler, but only when I think something is important enough to warrant quibbling about. A significant series by the State broadcaster about the seminal event of modern Irish history in its centenary is important enough since for many Irish people it may provide the main information they have, in a country which teaches modern Irish history so poorly (not by accident!).

First – The title of the series. Words are very important since they carry meaning. 1916 was not about a simple ‘rebellion’ – a refusal of obedience or order – but was about much more; a profound change in government, constitution and social order which should be described as ‘revolution’. Using terms such as ‘rebellion’, ‘rising’ or ‘insurrection’ downplays the event, which is why the British used those terms, and later, the counter-revolutionaries who took power. The series should be called ‘Revolution’, but maybe that is a bridge too far for the reactionaries in RTE.

Second – whoever cast Camille O’Sullivan as Constance Markeivicz was surely taking the piss. Leaving aside her talent as an actress, casting her in that part is like casting Oliver Hardy as Stan Laurel. Appearances do matter, particularly in an historical costume drama. Markievicz’s physical appearance bears no resemblance whatever to O’Sullivan’s.

Third – whoever wrote Markievicz’s introductory scene, and the lines and actions she was given, was taking the double-piss. Markievicz was anything but unhinged, but that is what various revisionists – Eoghan Harris, Ruth Dudley-Edwards, Ann Matthews and others would have us believe. That scene traduced the character of Markievicz and is simply unbelievable to anyone who has researched Markievicz, which is what the scriptwriter should have done.

Apart from that, for the most part the set-up, which is what the first episode of a drama series is, was reasonably good. Of course there is another quibble – Dublin in 1916 had the worst slums in Europe, and why the director didn’t make sure to show it as a filthy tip in those slum areas, with emaciated adults and children, is beyond me. Given the social conditions the poor find themselves living in today it is not as if it would be difficult to find both emaciated adults and children as a backdrop. Why is that important? Because it gives context to the revolution in terms of extreme social conditions. It gives the revolution meaning and legitimacy.

Last quibble. I know costume drama series are expensive to make, but this is RTE’s big contribution to the centenary year in terms of drama. I understand that there have to be ad-breaks, and I can live with that. But why the hell does a series about such an important part of our history have to be commercialised to the extent that it is sponsored by Kia, to promote their Sportage model? It seems unnecessarily crass to me. It should be sponsored by us, through the licence we pay, and the excessive taxes that the poorer among us pay which bolster the wealth of the political class.

But then I am a quibbler.

When it is important to be.

January 10th – Episode 2

More than a quibble this week about RTE’s revisionist offering for the 1916 Centenary.

Did the writer, Colin Teevan, set out to write ahistorical shite, or was it accidental ignorance? Virtually nothing in this second episode bears any resemblance to the facts of the opening day of the revolution, nor do the characterisations of key individuals such as Pearse, Connolly or Kathleen Lynn have any grounding in known and indisputable fact.

Connolly is virtually mute, a mere spectator, despite the fact that he commanded the revolutionary forces in Dublin and was never in his life a passive bystander.

Pearse was a Catholic, but here he is portrayed as an altar-muncher, hurling himself to his knees at any opportunity. Nowhere is there a hint of his intellect, of his advanced ideas on education which was what his school was about. Instead it is a training ground for young ‘rebels’, with a bomb factory in the basement. Pearse was anything but one-dimensional, but that is how he is portrayed.

Lynn, a medical doctor, was the one who attended Sean Connolly, the Commandant of the City Hall Garrison, on the roof of City Hall when he was shot within a couple of minutes of the buildings occupation by the Citizen Army. He died virtually instantly. He certainly didn’t have any conversations before doing so.

The revolution was, according to Teevan, a Catholic enterprise, complete with the Archbishop’s representative in the GPO doling out absolutions and leading rosaries. Let’s lump Kathleen Lynn in there, and Constance Markievicz, both Protestants – and they were not by a long shot the only Protestant revolutionaries. Let’s forget about the explicitly anti-sectarian ideal contained in the Proclamation, or the guarantee of religious liberty.

Teevan has a Volunteer and a Cumann na mBan woman roaming the streets shooting at looters. That is a lie, plain and simple.

There has been no attempt so far to explain the motivations behind the revolution apart from the need to break the link with the coloniser. Without those motivations being referred to the revolution is just an amateurish enterprise inspired by nationalistic grievance. A brief conversation between Connolly and Tom Clarke (absent) or Sean MacDiarmada (absent), or even Pearse, who is at least present if only as a caricature, would in a couple of minutes of dramatic screen-time inform the audience as to why those with the most to lose – workers and their families and the lower middle class – would be prepared to wager their lives for a revolution, for what was at stake.

The Dublin Castle man fucks a young Irish woman and makes her pregnant, and she loves him – what a crass metaphor to use for the relationship between the British administration in the Castle and the colonised nation.

Does any of this matter? Did the works of the various revisionist historians, most of them politically motivated, matter? Of course, since skewing the narrative to fit a political imperative as the political class sees it creates an ahistorical account, the story of what didn’t happen, or of the motivations that weren’t present, or of the character defects that weren’t there. Portray the revolutionaries as blood-lust Catholics engaged in a crazy enterprise, and that is all the public need to know. Portray the Castle Catholics as refined Downton Abbey types, show the children of the tenements as chubby-faced shoe-wearing healthy kids, and who in their right mind would want a revolution?

Move on to next item on the agenda, in this great little country in which to do business.

This is dreadful stuff, which will be watched by several hundred thousand citizens, many of whom, due to our poxy education system with history relegated to the margins, know so little about the true story as to be easily influenced into believing this shite.

So, I am past quibbling. I am now in the business of ousting this rotten political class which manipulates public opinion in order to maintain power.

And have no doubt about it – this series from RTE is not about representing 1916 fairly, it is about manipulating public opinion.

Eoghan Harris lives on in RTE.


About Tom Stokes

Tom Stokes is a writer and journalist, and has taught media and journalism at foundation and under-grad levels. He holds a BA in Communications and Cultural Studies and an MA in Journalism from Dublin City University. He is a grandson of John Stokes, a striking tram driver in the 1913 Lockout and a Volunteer in Boland’s Mill in the 1916 revolution. He is an organiser of the Citizens’ Initiative to establish a new national day in Ireland on April 24th, to be known as Republic Day, and is co-organiser with Marie Mulholland of the campaign to have Ireland's new children's hospital dedicated to the memory of Dr Kathleen Lynn, to be named The Kathleen Lynn National Children's Hospital. View all posts by Tom Stokes

15 responses to “The deliberate disaster that is RTE’s ‘Rebellion’

  • Anne Mc Closkey

    I agree. Unadulterated revisionist muck.

  • Marianne

    Agree totally about the characterisation of the Countess. She is one of my historical heroines and I know for a fact she would not have spoken with a Dublin accent. She never lost the cut-glass aristo accent she was brought up with. She came across as a dumpy Dublin housewife, and she was anything but.

  • Stephen Lamvert

    Tom, excellent piece. I haven’t seen the programme but it is as I expected from the revisionists in RTE unfortunately. I really hoped those brown-nosing apologists would have moved over or begun to read that which they prevented everybody else from reading during 20 years of censorship.

  • Sheila McCarthy

    I agree with everything you said. It’s pure shite I stopped watching half way through the second episode.

  • Clo

    Interesting piece. I was a child in Dublin during the 50th anniversary. It sounds like this contribution falls well short of the programming we saw. What a wasted opportunity! Back then there were enough survivors of 1916 around that we all had a truer picture. My grandfather was a Castle Catholic but I still remember the slums around Mountjoy Square; the barefoot children playing in the gutters in mid-winter. That was in the sixties! Ireland is a very different place now but I think she has lost her soul.

  • Eamonn Sheridan

    Couldn’t agree more Tom. As the son of a hero who played an active role in the War of Independence and the Civil War, I cringe at the muck dished up by the revisionist crew. Us ‘Croppies’ will never lie down.
    Eamonn Sheridan.

  • K. Leonard.

    Fair play to you mate.
    I have just finished watching episode 2 of this, the establishment’s attempt to rewrite history.
    I fully admit that my own knowledge of this time is limited to what I can remember from school. But I cannot ever recall being told about looters being shot by members of the revolutionary forces. It’s a sad fact that even my own wife (a Kerry woman) has in the past said that the people of Dublin raided the sweet shops while the events were unfolding.
    I hate to bring sectarianism into this but unfortunately it was there. It’s little surprise that the group who made up 5% of the population of Ireland correlates with the 5% of people who voted to remain in the union around the time of the partition of Ireland. It should also be noted that these same 5% were the employers, landlords and cultural heavyweights for a long time afterwards and their descendants remain here to this day.
    I consider the only element of rebellion the show that has even a scintilla of fact is that yes a large number of Dublin men did join the British army as my own great-grandfather was a soldier in the Royal Irish Hussars. I bear no ill will towards the memory of him however despite being a little ashamed of the fact. I am sure he had many mouths to feed, and the promise of the king’s shilling would have been a realistic option at the time. Shame on RTE and this current traitorous government.

  • Odhran

    Can i also add in… is it physically possible to shoot from trinity college and hit the GPO without crossing the Liffey and with you gun set to 200 yards. Thats a distance of almost a mile i would have thought.

  • Rick Wayman

    The ‘rebellion’ in Dublin in 1916 was a pretty minor event given the context of what was happening in Europe at the time. It was also actively supported by only about 1000 people – a small minority. In fact the rabble pretty much blew the best chance Ireland had of becoming an independent country by stabbing Britain and Irish people helping Britain in the war in Europe in the back.

    • Tom Stokes

      Each of your sentences demonstrates your ignorance and prejudice. The minor event was the first blow against the empire – inspiring India and African colonies to follow suit. 1000 revolutionaries turned out on the first day joined by several thousands as the week progressed and led to the resounding success for Sinn Féin in 1918 – no support? the british generals didn’t describe the revolutionaries as ‘rabble’ – on the contrary – check your history. And I take it you are a Castle Catholic or a descendant of someone sent to die in the Great Slaughter. The revolutionaries stabbed the coloniser in the front, and in the open. And the revolutionaries knew and understood the social conditions that drove working men to take the King’s shilling in the aftermath of the 1913 Lockout. Don’t waste any more of your time until you have educated yourself and have got past your blind prejudice.

  • Eamonn

    The version of history presented here is one that says the British Empire was basically a benign force that was about teaching the natives table manners and double entry bookkeeping.It glossed over the reasons why Britain declared war on the central powers in 1914, never analysing or examining why but instead insisting on militarised commemorations to the bravery etc of those who fought and died. Once this is accepted then there can be no justification for the IRB/ ICA revolution.
    Another reading of history and one which there is far more evidence for would suggest that the British empire was a destructive and malign force whose primary purpose was the enrichment of the English/British ruling class and that the reasons why they entered the first world war was consistent with this i.e. to put a check on a trade rival. It is unfortunate that we do not teach in our schools about the many famines primarily in India but also Ireland caused by the empires economic policy; or analyse the detail and motivations behind the Indian mutiny, the opium wars, the Arab ‘revolt’, he Mau Mau uprising, the Malay ’emergency’, the topping of the democratic Mossadegh government of Iran in 1953, the Suez ‘crisis’. The story of the British empire is one of economic colonialism and savage retaliation when this is challenged. Any commentator who believes that Ireland would have had any meaningful home rule needs to study their post war record closer. What is indisputably masterful is their ability to control the popular narrative. For various reasons they are happily assisted in this by various indigenous historians and media personalities.

    I suppose it would be an academic thing if this were entirely history and if the British had not revived the same liberal economics of the 19th century, now repackages as neo-conservatism, and were still about dominating the middle east by force and we (or at least Fine Gael) were not buying into this lock, stock and (smoking) barrel.

  • acarson1

    Great review. Watched it myself. Thought the first episode was too slow and gave the second another chance. Annoyed to find it doesn’t reflect what’s written in the history books.

  • Ailbhe Costello

    I agree, it’s not great for anyone new watching, not knowing totally
    about what’s true or not. Pity it could have been a super one!!! Acting not the best, sorry to say!!!

  • Onlyasking

    The state broadcaster defends the establishment polity endlessly, and is defended by the polity in return via the RTE Tax of €160 pa, regardless of whether or not the RTE Tax payer actually watches any real-time TV. One can evade prison for bringing this society to its knees via the banking sector, but just you try to evade paying the RTE Tax of €160 pa. It’ll be the Joy for you, while the billion-busting bwankers tee off in the sunshine.

    A classic symbiotic relationship. Look at the many journeys by FG, FF and Labour politicians into the field of journalism (I use the word advisedly) and vice versa, in this sorry state at least. In this relationship the state media and the political establishment feed off each other voraciously.

    That has worked well for both, but not quite so well for the ordinary citizens of the state. We’ve had the perpetuation of a near-unique parliamentary system, in which every government is led by conservative elements, and is ‘opposed’ by an ‘opposition’ led by conservative elements. Great for the wealthier sectors of society. On the other hand we’ve had mediocre Irish broadcasters like Marian Finucane and Joe Duffy earning perhaps ten times the amount earned by an experienced nurse, via an exorbitant tax enforced by the threat of imprisonment.

    RTE’s “Rebellion” could more aptly be called “The Hijacking”, as it is a naked attempt by conservative state-ist elements to seize the centenary from Republicans and deliver it to the people via a counter-revolutionary filter.

    Thankfully, the word on the ground is that it’s transparently so. Many informed people smell the rat.

    Thanks for an illuminating and amusing pair of reviews. A new one was torn, twice.

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