RTE’s ‘Rebellion’ series, and its propaganda value

There are occasions in life when time that can never be retrieved is expended on something that is worthless. So far, three valuable hours of my life has been wasted on what RTE describes as a ‘commemorative drama’ to herald the beginning of the Centenary year of the 1916 revolution. Wasted, other than in terms of understanding the propaganda value to the political class even of badly constructed ‘historical’ costume drama – although describing ‘Rebellion’ as coherent drama is stretching it.

I quibbled after the first episode about the use of the term ‘Rebellion’ instead of the more accurate term ‘Revolution’, but it finally dawned on me with Episode 3 that what the writer, director and producers really mean is that this is about rebelliousness within the featured families, to which the 1916 Revolution is just a backdrop.

It would be a useful exercise after the series comes to an end to put a stopwatch to good use to work out the proportion of the five hours of screen-time that is devoted to an exceedingly poor and skewed telling of the story of the 1916 Revolution, and what proportion was used to tell the confusing, intertwined, and fairly inconsequential stories of domestic disagreement. There is of course a market for the latter, and for its setting in a sort of ‘upstairs-downstairs’ genre, but this series, more soap than serious drama, should not be its vehicle.

The 1916 Revolution – what was it really about, who made up the rank-and-file – essential to the creation of a revolution, what scale of operation was in play, what impediments to success existed? Nobody can be any the wiser by relying on this series.

The leaders – who were they, what were they like, what did they believe in, was there a plan, had they some endgame, some vision? Nobody can be any the wiser by relying on this series.

Where is Tom Clarke, or Seán MacDiarmada, or Joe Plunkett, three iconic signatories of the Proclamation, all present in the GPO – but not so far in this sorry series? No clue as to their characters, and precious little of James Connolly’s – relegated to a bit part, or of Patrick Pearse’s – other than his addiction to prayer, his deference to the clergy, his obsession with blood sacrifice, and a capacity for rhetorical exaggeration – as RTE would have us believe.

Where is the evidence of strong public support particularly in the impoverished inner city tenements, without which the revolution could not have lasted almost a week? We know it was there, we who have bothered to acquaint ourselves with the true narrative. Instead, that hoary old myth of widespread public disaffection with the revolution is hammered home at every opportunity.

Episode 3 begins with some bearded chap being put up against a wall and shot by firing squad. Who was he? We are none the wiser by the end of Episode 3. Why might it be important to know that he was Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a journalist, an advanced-feminist, a pacifist who had played no part in the revolution itself? Because, perhaps, that it is true, and that he was murdered on the command of a crazed, out-of-control British army officer – an essential detail of the 1916 narrative – but not as the masses are supposed to know it since it would upset the entirely revisionist slant of this television disaster, a revisionism that is deliberately applied. And so it goes on.

Against fleeting scenes of chaos, created as we are led to believe by violent anti-democratic nutcases hell-bent on creating a Catholic state, we are encouraged to note the stabilising influence and the manners and the etiquette of both the Irish ‘Castle Catholics’ and their British masters in Dublin Castle. Fast-forward by 100 years and we see the same spurious choice being presented to the people by the political class – ‘stability’ or ‘chaos’, white or black, good or bad. No need to tease out what each side really stood for back then, or what each side stands for now.

There are those who ask ‘what matter – it is only TV drama?’. Propaganda is at its most effective when it is inserted subtly into the thought-processes of its target audience, and repeated through various forms from news and current affairs, commentary, and yes, entertainment. That works, as Joseph Goebbels knew all too well.

RTE claims an audience of 600,000 for its first episode of ‘Rebellion’. A large proportion of these will vote in the upcoming general election in which the main choice will be between, the political class tells us, stability or chaos. And that audience is also entering into the centenary year of the 1916 revolution with its competing interpretations, one of which champions the Redmondite parliamentarian Home Rule option over the other – the right of a people to self-determination and self-government, to be established through revolution where no other viable option was available. Presenting a partisan and therefore skewed version of the 1916 revolution primes at least a part of that audience to adopt a negative view of the legitimacy of that revolution and of its leaders, and that represents a highly political intervention in the popular history of 1916 on the part of the State broadcaster, RTE. It is not, presented in that way, just TV drama.

‘Rebellion’ looks like a cheap production, but cost as much as Ken Loach spent making The Wind That Shakes The Barley – an excellent production for the big screen, which grossed three times its production costs at the international box-office. Why wasn’t Loach asked to make this series? It is not as if he lacks experience. But then, he could be relied on to create a credible narrative around the main story of revolution and to consign the less consequential sub-plots to their rightful places. That would not suit the political class, including its RTE functionaries.

The 1916 revolution is an intriguing, exciting and rich human story, as rich in dramatic potential – characters, incidents and plot-lines – as was the highly successful and accurate 1913 Lockout TV drama ‘Strumpet City’, produced by RTE in 1980. ‘Rebellion’ on the other hand is dross. Some people, their names figuring prominently on the credits of each episode, opted for dross, and each received a considerable reward tor taking that option.

The foundational narrative of modern Ireland – in which the 1916 Revolution is the inciting incident – deserves to be treated with a modicum of respect. That is entirely absent in this spurious version.

There are times when we remark that ‘you couldn’t make it up’. The series writer did, with input from others.

And there are times when we remark that ‘it couldn’t get any worse’. Oh yes it can, and it will.

Of that I am certain.

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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

6 responses to “RTE’s ‘Rebellion’ series, and its propaganda value

  • Jim Doherty

    Excellent article Tom and one that should be printed and covered in the mainstream media…but I won’t hold my breath! You make many of the points I’ve been thinking about myself. We’re going to be hammered over the head relentlessly during the upcoming election campaign about the choice of ‘chaos’ or ‘stability’ and this series subliminally feeds that narrative.

  • RTE’s ‘Rebellion’ series, and its propaganda value | rebelbreeze

    […] Source: RTE’s ‘Rebellion’ series, and its propaganda value […]

  • rebelbreeze

    I tried sharing it in the Rebel Breeze blog but was not sure that it would post as a reblog from you so cut and pasted it. Hope that;s ok.

    I have yet to view the series to make up my own mind but thought your article well worth publishing without comment.

    Diarmuid Breatnach

  • Fools Crow

    All the main characters are peripheral to this series. Their story, and that of the Rising, is not told in this substandard offering. It’s like telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood from the Point Of View of the woodcutter…

    Nice article, Tom…

  • Liam kelly

    Why is everyone so surprised about rtes making of this rebellion programme, when they have always had a pro British/unionist agenda when it comes to affairs in Ireland and historical events being rewritten by people who couldn’t portray an unbiased opinion even if it was staring them in the face. It’s an anti republican agenda with these people and it always will be.

    • Tom Stokes

      It is not a question of being surprised, Liam, it is about challenging RTE’s right to propagandise against a fact of history based on a false presentation of it. RTE is, after all, owned by the people, although that never seems evident in the way it is run.

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