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.