(Note: The two hyperlinks in this article will expire a few weeks after publication).
Over the last few weeks, RTE has aired two documentaries about the Irish Civil War.
The first was My Civil War, a look at the descendents of three of the conflicts participants, looking into their activities and fates of their ancestors.
This was an overly-emotional viewing experience. This was not good history or good entertainment for me personally. This was a documentary where the primary focus seemed to be decidedly on the reactions and opinions of the modern day people reading up on their forebears, rather than a method of telling the story of those men in 1922/23. What this was, was a multi-person episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?”
I understand that successful historical programming cannot be a dry, emotionless experience. No one wants to watch a lecture on a Tuesday night in front of the telly. But this is too far. This was an hour long look at a group of people looking shocked at the fact that a Civil War happened while Eddie Hobbs narrated the actual subject. The American woman especially seemed to dominate proceedings, as the creators choose to spend a very large amount of time on her and her reaction to the fate of her ancestor, shot dead by the pro-Treaty side, and how this was all terrible.
I suppose I’m just too much of a cynic for that kind of television to get me interested. I’m also too much of an historian to appreciate the judging tone of most of the programme, which had turned decidedly anti-war, and maybe a little anti-Treaty, by the end. I take a dim view of people who get outraged by events that happened 90 years ago to this extent, especially when they openly admit to not even knowing that Ireland had a Civil War before the program was filmed. Much of the last few minutes was taken up by this kind of thing, with irritating music playing over it. I didn’t like it.
History is not about judgement and remembrance of our revolutionary past should leave the wigs and the gavels at home. It isn’t helpful to have the main players in one of the first Civil War documentaries on RTE in ages spend their time decrying everything that happened back then as a terrible wrong and trying to sound insightful by asking if it was all worth it. That kind of thing has its place, but it’s not good history.
Then there is Hobbs himself, who is a droning and poor choice as a narrator, with laughably dramatic shots of him in focus, walking around the streets of Dublin and Glasnevin Cemetery. It really could have been anyone, and the Cork man just doesn’t have the chops to pull it off. I hadn’t the slightest interest in the way he tried to give us an idiots guide to the Civil War in-between the sentimental “Ah sure wasn’t it terrible” moments. That included some pig-ignorant stuff of the most simplistic bent, like implications that Eamon de Valera was a leader of the anti-Treaty side or that Michael Collins was the only pro-Treaty leader worth talking about, the kind of misinformation and “dumbing down” that RTE should be tackling, not allowing.
My Civil War was also dragged out interminably, with numerous incidents of repeated information, pointless scenes of people travelling around the place and everything just having that bit of filler to get the show closer to the hour mark. This is honestly a 30 minute production that has somehow managed to stretch itself into twice that, and the end product is somewhat boring because of it.
That’s a shame because there are actually some interesting stories to tell here, RTE has just buried them in a mire of modern day nonsense, of amateur historical investigators who look incredibly awkward on camera and sometimes struggle to even look interested. Of all the people on the program I was most impressed with author Padraig Og O’Ruairc, a well established expert on the Civil War, who added a much needed bit of professionalism to proceedings. More of him on such programming please.
Eddie Hobbs’ final point, about how the Civil War is our forgotten war – “a blind spot…the dark days we tried to forget” – that no one liked to talk about, is a fair one, but RTE is doing the effort to alter that reality no favours with this sort of dross.
What it did a lot better with was the documentary it aired the following week, A Lost Son, detailing former Irish politician Michael McDowell’s research into the life and death of his uncle Brian MacNeill, a younger son of Eoin MacNeill.
Now this was an interesting and compelling story, one that goes to the very main point of Civil War remembrance. A Lost Son shares My Civil War’s general scope and aim, but accomplishes it in a far more effective way. McDowell is looking at a very specific part of the Civil War in a comprehensive manner, mostly leaving aside simplistic narrative about the larger war (not entirely) in favour of a more personal story, one that has not been largely made public before.
He does this without clouding the issue with an overly-emotional approach, by using primary sources that are to hand and not offering much stated judgement on any of the players involved to the same scope as was seen in the previous weeks documentary. More than the four people who went traipsing around after relatives they might not have cared about a few weeks beforehand in My Civil War, McDowell succeeds because he seems in control of his emotional connection, is genuinely interested and wants to present to the public a story that is compelling without being too flagrantly condemning of those involved. He does not favour the anti-Treaty side in general, he makes that clear, but I did not find his reasoning to be simplistic or overly influenced by internal biases. At least that moment passes quickly and he is sympathetic enough to the anti-Treaty fighter that is the titular character.
This was the fascinating tale of the MacNeill family, one of the most important in the formation of the Irish state. A Lost Son takes its time in laying the scene of a family unit divided between Eoin, a conservative, pragmatic father and Brian, a more idealistic, committed republican. The narrative moves seamlessly between focusing on Eoin and then onto Brian, detailing the younger mans motivations, his aims, his activities and his tragic – and controversial -death. Brian MacNeill is one of Eddie Hobbs’ “blind spots” in a sense, as his death was barely mentioned by McDowell’s family afterwards and has remained a largely under-studied part of an under-studied conflict.
I especially enjoyed the letters and pictures that McDowell has been able to include. The first, from Brian to his mother at the height of the Civil War, is a refreshingly positive message from an anti-Treaty fighter of that era, vividly creating the image of a young man who firmly believed he was fighting for freedom and would be home soon. The second, from Eoin MacNeill to an anti-Treaty commander after his sons death, is a powerful piece of prose, one that lays out a devastating argument to the recipient in the most limited of wording. There are images of IRA soldiers being trained and actually looking like they enjoyed the experience, the kind of snapshots that give us more information about that sort of thing than dozens of written accounts. These are exceptional sources, and are the kind of thing that RTE should showcase more of. If they are seeking an emotional reaction from an audience, herein lies some that are of far greater merit than that of My Civil War.
More than that though, A Lost Son was a brief, but fascinating, look at one small theatre of the Civil War. North Sligo rarely gets much attention for its part in the conflict, but there is plenty to see here: initial raids and ambushes, the arrival of an armoured car, the targeting, capture and use of the same by anti-Treaty forces, the response of Sean Mac Eoin, sea landings and sweeps to neutralise the threat of the flying columns and the final end. Of particular interest to me, for it’s illustrating of early military/government relations, is the pressure put on Mac Eoin from Dublin to find a solution to the difficulties that Brian MacNeill was causing.
That final solution is the crux of the issue, as McDowell surveys the evidence and comes to a logical and well thought out conclusion on his uncles death. Brian O’Neill was most likely shot dead with his companions in a surprise attack, with plenty of questions over the proportionality, legality and morality of this act. This goes just as much for the actions of pro-Treaty soldiers afterward.
The Civil War is often portrayed a war of “brother against brother”, and it was. But that simple description belies some truths. It was vicious little conflict, but there was no hate between the older MacNeill and his son (“gentle, kind and fearless” he wrote as a sort of eulogy), no contempt between Brian and the pro-Treaty brothers who brought his body home and helped lay it to rest. This is the kind of historical record, which challenges some of our pre-conceptions about the Civil War, that remembrance of the next decade should be based around.
The story of Eoin and Brian MacNeill, their distant but still affectionate relationship, and the devastation that their final parting caused is the perfect example of what we can find in the Civil War to entertain and educate. Through this story, McDowell and the producers of A Lost Son gave us emotion, a compelling yarn, details about a small part of the conflict and did so without melodramatic recourses or bleating judgements. The final shots are of wreath laying ceremonies near the site of Brian’s death, which show the focus of the documentary doing so silently and without outrage for the way he was shot down. I’ve harped on that point a lot here, but it is important to me. It’s too easy for discussion of revolutionary Ireland to devolve into a game of “My atrocity is worse than yours”. I can tolerate some emotion in a documentary but the core of the matter should be seen as dispassionately as possible. Which is what A Lost Son accomplishes.
That’s decent history and decent documentary programming. More of this kind of thing please.