It is a truly excellent piece of television. Not since Ken Burns’ The Civil War have I been so enraptured by a documentary.
What we have here, for the uninitiated, is a seven part hourly series on the signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, with each episode telling the story of the one of them, their early life, their political motivations, their involvement in the IRB and/or the republican movement and their actions on Easter week, 1916. In order of airing: Thomas Clarke, James Connolly, Joseph Plunkett, Thomas MacDonagh, Sean MacDiarmada, Eamonn Ceannt and Padraig Pearse.
The series is split between re-enactments of the events in question and the opinions of numerous experts and other affiliated people, including footage of interviews with survivors (such as Rising veteran and Irish President Sean T.O Kelly). Skillfully narrated, as Gaelige by Brendan Gleeson, the series brings the figures of the period and the events that they were involved in, to life in a way that is at once deeply fascinating to the scholar and easily accessable for the uneducated.
All of the actors do great jobs here, and I’ll be mentioning some of my favourite performances in a moment. I want to say some glowing words for the costume design, the props department and the like, who did a truly excellent job of putting early 20th century Ireland on the screen from the guns, to the uniforms to the old timey cars.
Since the Rising is such a pivotal event in Irish history, and one that has garnered a great deal of acclaim and criticism, it’s important to show a balanced view. I think Seachtar succeeds for the most part, though it does err on the positive side of things. Very little time is given to the general military incompetence of the Rising (more towards the back end of the run) and some of the episodes (see below) do seem a little bit, not a very noticeable amount, triumphilistic.
Seachtar does a great job in reducing the life story of each signatory into 45 or so minutes, and the script works wonderfully for all seven episodes. Clarke, Pearse and co, just seem…more real to me now if that makes any sense. Since the series is not solely about the Rising, but their personal lives, their families, their girlfriends, their jobs.
Speaking of the last, I must also clap TG4 on the back for a brilliant advertising campaign. Showing the signatories in the dress of their occupations was inspired, makes them out to be people, rather than epic figures of Irish history.
Pacing is great. We usually open with a brief scene of that episodes figure nearing the end of Easter Week, before skipping back to their earlier days. From there its a pleasant intermixture of reconstructions, analysis and commentary, leading up to the execution scenes which are done in a respectiful and dignified way.
In terms of the reconstructions, I find myself lacking in complaints. Some of them are clearly fictional, based off the writers best guesses, but none of them are too “out there” or unbelievable. Others are based off recorded events and in those, the actors excel, portraying a group of seven men with passion, with character. My particular favourite is a scene of the seven men meeting the day before the Rising, debating whether they should deal the attack due to the countermanding orders of Eoin McNeill.
In this scene, we get to look at each of the men in turn, their interactions with each other. Seachtar replays the scene for five of the episodes, and adds a little bit more each time, usually expanding the specific signatory of that particular episode. It’s a great scene and its well-edited and done.
And the music. Oh man, never disappoints. From that inspiring opening title (yes, it’s trying to be the Irish Band of Brothers, but I think its succeeds quite nicely) to the closing ballads over the executions, it’s all introduced seamlessly, proving a moving backdrop to the whole affair.
Those closing tracks especially, a mixture of Republican ballads sung in a low, haunting tone, make the execution scenes seem like the correct mixture of glorious sacrifice and actual death. Kudos to singer Aoife Strong and her amazing voice. More below.
I’d just like to go episode by episode and talk about some of the specific things that struck me.
Tom Clarke (Rory Mullan)
If there is one thing that Seachtar hammers home, it’s that Clarke had a hard life. From his depiction, he would appear to be, perhaps, the best of the plotters, being the one most enamoured with the cause, most dedicated to its aim and a man willing to give it up when the time came. What I also found fascinating was his relationship with Kathleen Daly, 21 years his junior.
It was also interesting to see the depiction of Clarke and the focus on his, by todays standards, terrorist activity in his youth (he planned to blow up London Bridge). Would we consider such a man a national icon today?
Of all the episodes, it’s probably this one that strays into the mood of triumph a bit, with Clarke claiming that the first day of the Rising is “the greatest day in Irish history”. I can forgive it, because it’s a rare moment, but it was a little cringe worthy.
Most Memorable Moment: In the GPO towards the end of the Rebels time there. As Pearse prepares to evacuate, Clarke is left simply staring at the ruins of the building and you get a sense, from the portrayal by Mullan, of a mans dreams crashing down around him.
James Connolly (Lorcon Cranitch)
This episode did a great job in explaining the motivations of Connolly, from his time in the British Army, to his emigration and death of his daughter. The series as a whole succeeds in making him out to be one great true believer in the socialist cause. He is depicted, fairly accurately, as an odd man out, willing to take up arms in the future against the Irish Volunteers if they fail to implement socialist reforms.
Moreover, he is given a strong portrayal as the main military figure of the Rising, though the re-enactments tend to stray from this line somewhat, with Connolly unable to control his troops. This also has the caveat of being unable to explain how the man, if he was so militarily component , thought the Rising could actually succeed. The writers try to explain this away by saying he actually didn’t, but this seems to be based on supposition then hard fact.
Most Memorable Moment: Two this time. Firstly, in bed during the Rising, joking with a comrade while suffering a gunshot wound and the second, earlier on as he paces around in New York waiting for his family to arrive. That scene re-inforced his foreign loneliness and the gignatic effect that it had on him.
Joseph Plunkett (Frank Bourke)
In the mainstream, fairly little is known about the man, so this is definitely one to watch. Seachtar portrays him as a sickly individual somewhat obsessed with glory and war. From the opening scene , where he waxes poetical about the capital burning to images of him arriving at the GPO brandishing a rapier, he’s shown as someone not quite in touch with the reality of the situation, though not in an overly negative way.
Two of his relationships are given due time and consideration. Firstly, his lover Grace Gifford, whom he married hours before his execution. She is his inspiration in many ways, a stabilising figure, though that entire situation seems to have fed into his glorious sacrifice mindset. The second, is with his adjutant, a young Cork born Irish Volunteer named Michael Collins. The future Commander-In-Chief doesn’t get a huge amount of screentime here, but we are left with a sense that his time spent with Plunkett had a strong impact on Collins, a positive one, reinforcing his independent beliefs.
This episode does have one moment that seems a little farcical, where they suggest that Plunkett gained most of his military expertise playing table-top war games at home, before casually mentioning he also read extensively on the subject. Seemed to be put in more as a weird quirk then anything, and I don’t buy it.
Plunkett is ultimately painted as a tragic figure, who wrote beautiful poetry, suffered from sickness, and was probably weeks away from death when the Rising happened. I would worry that this episode also strasy too much into overly positive representation. Certainly, they do little to dispel many of the romantic notions that sprang up about Plunkett and his brief marriage.
Most Memorable Moment: Two again. Firstly, his marriage ceremony is well presented as both a romantic and sorrowful occasion. Secondly, his initial meeting with Collins, which is done well as one of those scenes played as normal but with huge historical consequences.
And briefly, I’d like to mention that this episode opened my eyes to Plunkett’s poetry, some of which is absolutely astounding. Some words from “The Dark Way” spoken over his execution scene, strike me especially:
Now I have chosen in the dark
The desolate way to walk alone
Yet strive to keep alive one spark
Of your known grace and grace unknown.-
And when I leave you lest my love
Should seal your spirit’s ark with clay.
Spread your bright wings, O shining dove,
But my way is the darkest way.
Thomas MacDonagh (Stephen D’ Arcey)
The impression that this episode gives is very much of a conflicted man who is, by and large, an outsider to much of what was happening with the Rising. MacDonagh was a family man, devoted to his wife and children, though one could argue not totally devoted, given his suicidal actions. The episode places great emphasis in MacDonagh’s friendship with Plunkett (they married sisters) and with Eoin McNeill. McNeill, another polarizing figure, gets most of his screen time in this episode, and gets a neutral portrayal, a man dedicated to achieving an Irish nation, but reluctant to bow to the pressures of others.
MacDonagh seems to have gone through life never really being sure of what he wanted to be. He was a priest in training, then a poet, then a teacher, then a revolutionary. Brought in with the other six men only weeks before the Rising took place, we are shown a strange double-edged approach to MacDonagh’s military experience: On the one hand, he successfully turned Jacobs Biscuit Factory into a fortress that the British forces did not want to go near. On the other, he is portrayed as having little grasp of the actual military situation on the ground, being isolated during Easter Week.
Of special note in this episode is the rendition of “The Minstrel Boy”, the tune of which is repeated throughout the episode, by Aoife Scott during the execution scene. A very haunting version of the ballad.
Most Memorable Moment: MacDonagh, alone, frustrated and nearing the breaking point, refusing the order to surrender from Pearse and the others in the GPO.
Sean MacDiarmada (Sean T. O Meallaigh)
The picture here is of an energetic passionate sporting man, whose unfortunate illness meant he put his enthusiasm into a different endeavour. Seachtar changes its own format for MacDiarmada starting off with a hurling match rather than the Rising itself. We definitely get a sense that MacDiarmada is somewhat out-of-place with the other leaders. He’s a former barman, a hurler, he wears a suit and carries a cane. MacDiarmada never looks comfortable in his role as a rebel leader, stumbling over a speech early on and with nothing much to do in the GPO.
I admit, I was ignorant of MacDiarmada’s polio affliction and it is clear that it had a huge effect on his thinking. One wonders if he would have been in the GPO if he had remained healthy. Of all the Rising leaders, MacDiarmada is the only one that seems truly afraid at his execution, which I suppose is a fitting representation as he might have been the least militant of the seven.
Most Memorable Moment: Being taken to the firing squad. Hands tied behind his back, MacDiarmida is forced to limp slowly towards the sandbags, every step making a powerful clunk. A searing image, one that has a bigger impact, in my opinion, then that of Connolly being tied to a chair before his execution.
Eamonn Ceannt (Marcus Lamb)
The best military man? Seachtar certainly aims to portray him as such. Ceannt is portrayed as an everyman, an office worker, who longs to do something more with his life. In that, this episode might connect with a larger amount of people than many of the others. In terms of his military skills, Ceannt is shown as a commander who changes his plans when necessary, rallies his troops, and effects a defence of the South Dublin Union, a position of extreme importance due to its locality to the train station, very effectively.
While others, like Plunkett and Pearse seem to realise how pointless the whole struggle is, Ceannt is depicted as a genuine believer in victory. Not sure how accurate that is, but it might help explain some of the more hockey moments in this episode, stuff like the Union defenders singing as they fight as so on.
Ceannt is shown as being put in an awkward spot, constantly preaching victory and national uprising to his troops during the week, only to ask them to surrender. This is something that the series (and I’ve noticed a lot of media and writing on the Rising) tends to ignore, the wholesale deception and lies forced upon the Irish Volunteers about events outside the capital.
One thing that I think this episode didn’t take advantage of is the opportunity to explore two of the men that served under Ceannt: Cathal Brugha, who would be the first Chairman of Dail Eireann in three years and W.T. Cosgrave, the first leader of post civil war Ireland. The two men would end up fighting each other within six years of the Rising, so it would have been interesting to feature them more. Maybe the source material didn’t exist.
As it was, Brugha got more attention, his stand in one of the buildings stairwells being a crucial moment, one of the rare times that Irish troops forced the British to retreat.
Overall, Ceannt, like MacDonagh, is given a somewhat tragic portrayal, leaving a wife and son behind, despite his best efforts during Easter Week. Lamb gives a quiet, reserved performance and turns Ceannt into a more heroic figure as a result.
Most Memorable Moment: Giving a rousing speech to his troops at the very start of the episode. Lacking the hyperbole of Pearse and Plunkett, it sets the tone of the episode by showing Ceannt as a more competent military figure who knew when to tone it down. Also a good scene is Ceannt receiving the order to surrender from a crestfallen MacDonagh.
Padraig Pearse (Tadhg Murphy)
It should no surprise that Pearse, probably the most divisive figure from the most divisive event in Irish history, gets most of the attention. I was very interested to see how the writers were going to approach a man who was beatified for 50 years and slowly denigrated ever after.
In the end, we are given what I feel is a neutral enough portrayal, that highlights both negative and positive aspects of Pearse’s life. Firstly, he was a glory-seeker, someone with a very obvious Jesus complex, obsessed with death in battle and resurrection. This, the series shows honestly and without much commentary.
But we also see other aspects of Pearse’s life. His seeming lack of a love life is discussed briefly, one of the only Rising leaders in such a position. Seachtar, wisely in my opinion, steers away from the poorly sourced idea that Pearse was a closet homosexual, an idea without much to back it up. Also of interest is the idea that Pearse was somewhat haunted by some English ancestry in his bloodline, which seemed to cause an inner conflict within himself. In the episode, Pearse is quoted as being almost torn into two, between two aspects of himself. The happy, fun loving Irish patriot and a morose, depressed loner.
One thing that Seachtar does magnificently is showing Pearse as the effective and engaging orator that he was from his writings to the O’ Donavon-Rossa speech, to the Rising itself. Pearse is shown as a man with a way of words that capture the imagination and inspire.
This has its negatives as well, as Tim Pat Coogan of all people points out. Pearse, in the GPO, spends much of his time writing and orating inspiring speeches rather than focus on military matters. This leads in to one of the most powerful moments in the series as Pearse gives his last speech before the Volunteers pull out of the building, a flowing, loud exportation of their courage, bravery and service to Ireland, a speech that is tempered for the audience by the commentary on its inappropriateness in the surroundings. Certainly, I found it odd that the British gunfire and artillery stops firing for this one scene.
On a last note, the suggestion is made that Pearse, with his skill for oratory, was the deliberately picked frontman for the Rising. I find this plausible considering that at many points, Pearse is influenced by others like Clarke, Plunkett and such. Looking back, Clarke seems like a more plausible choice to lead the Provisional Government and Connolly to lead its armed forces, but Pearse was pushed into that role. From there he has become the face of the the Rising ever more.
And, as is fitting considering his obsessions with glorious death, Pearse is shown bravely facing the firing squad, a smile almost about to form on his face. Of all the Irish patriots and revolutionaries who have been executed by the British over the centuries, Pearse is the only one for which such a depiction seems more realistic then fantastical.
Most Memorable Moment: Practicing the O’ Donavan-Rossa Oration over and over again, especially that one line “they think they have pacified Ireland…” as well as his last speech in the GPO, an abbreviated version of one of the last manifestos to emerge from the building during Easter Week:
We stay for one more hour! One final stand!
I desire now, lest I may not have the opportunity later, to pay homage to the gallantry to the soldiers of Irish freedom who have, during the past four days, been writing, with fire and steel, the most glorious chapter in the later history of Ireland.
Justice can never be done to your heroism, to your discipline, to your unconquerable spirit. In the midst of peril and death, for four days, you have fought and toiled almost without cessation! Almost without sleep! And in the intervals of fighting you have sung songs of freedom for Ireland.
No man has complained! No man has asked “Why?”! Each individual has spent himself, happy to pour out his strength for Ireland and for freedom.
If we do not win this fight we will at least deserved to win it, but win it, we will!
Although we may win in death, already we have won a great thing. We have redeemed Dublin from many shames.
I am satisfied that we have saved Ireland’s honor!”
Lastly, just to cover something that the series choose to talk about more in the final two episodes – the legacy of the Rising, especially in the context of todays political and economic climate. It was my only major nitpick, in that the series, especially in Ceannt’s episode, presents a view that the Rising leaders have been somehow betrayed by the current situation in Ireland. I disagree with this for several reasons. Briefly:
-We must remember that the Rising was, democratically speaking, a illegitimite move without wide scale popular support. Michael Fox argues this point in the last episode, and he makes a good case, but the fact remains that the Rising was not done in conjunction with the expressed will of the people. My point is, we can’t place too much emphasis on what those seven men would think of us today. They didn’t seem to care what the people thought then.
-Ireland is not a left-wing nation. It is not socialist as election results have always confirmed. People like Connolly would not be popular today, anymore then Joe Higgins is. And as Ireland has become a nation bound up in peace and neutrality, men like Pearse, Plunkett and Ceannt would suffer the same fate if they lived today. They would be irrelvant. Ireland has changed.
-It’s easy to say the Rising and its leaders have been betrayed. But, then again, Pearse and the others never had to handle an economy, diplomatic relations, banks, finances, hell even representative government. How can we possibly know how they would have gotten on as political leaders?
The series ends with a Pearse quotation from his work “Ghosts”:
“The ghosts of a nation sometimes ask many big things…”
but they leave out the rest of the quote, a typically brash aggressive statement from Pearse:
“…and they must be appeased, whatever the cost.”
Should we be basing anything we do off the opinions of such a man? A man who seems to be willing to incite revolution and uprising at the mere mention of a nations dead martyrs?
I’ve gone off the point a little. Seachtar is a great series, minus that one bit of historical point making, though it is always good to face those issues and get debate going. It asks good questions and brings the Rising to life. Pick it up if you can, as it will be available on DVD for Christmas.
Whole episodes can be found on TG4 Beo Player though the earlier ones have slipped off the radar. This link will take you to the first part of the MacDonagh episode. Give it a look.