I vividly remember, back when I was in my early days of college, a conversation with a supervising lecturer, when I was rambling on about an essay I wanted to write, what it would find and how I was going to frame it. He actually put a hand up to stop me talking.
“You’re starting with your conclusions. That’s not good.”
Such a basic academic process is ingrained on every student (I would hope).
This review comes a little late, and I did only watch the first part. But, that’s OK, because I wouldn’t actually want anyone to watch the subject of this review anyway.
In The Name Of The Republic, a two part documentary from TV3 presented by Trinity College lecturer Eunan O’Halpin, is an exploration of the murkier side of the IRA campaigns during the War of Independence, with a specific focus on those wrongfully killed and those buried in unmarked graves.
Now, I’m going to go into this, but it’s only fair that I disassociate myself from the more radically republican outrage you might find over this series, the kind of critique that stems from a blind inability to see that, yes, the IRA did do many questionable things during the revolutionary period. In a decade of centenaries and remembrance, all aspects of the period should be looked, all sides considered. The subject at hand here is actually an interesting one, and more than worthy of discussion. The problem is that it’s not a very good discussion.
I suppose I’ll start with the non-history stuff. This documentary is presented very poorly. O’Halpin is not a good presenter or a good narrator, with an uptight voice and a droning narrative. He moves his hands around a lot on screen which is distracting and somewhat comical at times. The documentary falls into a common pitfall of presenting pointless scenes of the narrator doing things and visiting locations that aren’t really required.
Trying, perhaps, to channel the success of TG4s Seachtar Na Casca, In The Name Of The Republic includes numerous re-creation scenes. The ones featuring IRA flying columns, depicting them as middle aged bully boys and out of control killers at best, were over the top and sensational which only denigrated the main point the series was trying to make. Don Wycherley as P.S O’Hegarty was more tolerable, but even that inclusion has its flaws. These kinds of re-creation scenes can illuminate and entertain, but here they’re rather pointless.
The O’Hegarty thing is telling of deeper flaws. The focus on him and his works, mostly critical of Sinn Fein and the IRA campaign, to the detriment of any kind of counter-point, makes for a deeply flawed historical method. Don Wycherley in the form of O’Hegarty becomes little more than a cipher for the thoughts of O’Halpin, as if he doesn’t trust himself to be able to make the points himself. O’Hegarty’s writings are so critical as to contain obvious bias, and while they are certainly eloquent words, they won’t hide the fact that, for a series trying to present a side of the revolutionary period that has not gotten much discussion, it’s blanketing out any kind of rebuttal. It’s very, very selective sourcing, and that isn’t good history.
Then there is just the overall pace and set-up that exposes horrific flaws. The episode I actually watched featured O’Halpin going to some isolated rural farm where victims of extra-judicial killing during the civil war are said to have been buried in unmarked graves. The entire episode is based around this, with modern scanning equipment employed, re-creations, interviews. Part of the farm is dug-up, excavations take place.
Nothing is found. Not only is nothing found, but O’Halpin discovers that the men he thought might have been buried there were never killed at all, due to the sealing of records that O’Halpin only applied to view after commencing his digging project (though that didn’t stop a re-creation of their apparent deaths being filmed and inserted).
I was baffled as to how this ever made it on to television. Not only is the presentation all wrong for the goal of creating any kind of engaging, informative atmosphere (I mean, talk about anti-climactic), but it makes O’Halpin look like a fool, jumping to conclusions and relying too much on faulty second hand evidence in the form of unverifiable oral histories. What was the point, not only of digging up this farm, but of presenting it to us in the form of a documentary?
(That follows on in the second part of the series, much of which, I have read, was based around the oral record of Martin Corry. While he does outline some horrific and morally questionable activity, I noted that little was said about some other utterances of Corry, which included narrative of an encounter with some sort of supernatural “beast”. Corry is regarded by most as a chronic exaggerator.)
The main point there is that local history, especially based upon word of mouth and unrecorded oral statements, is one of the worst and unreliable sources imaginable, and treating it like it must be hard fact is asking for trouble. The actual hard facts, the written records, win out. There is certainly a case for the older records, now, to be unsealed and made publically viewable, but that does not change the fact that O’Halpin not only botched basic historical research processes, but then decided it would be a good idea to film it, put in on television and pretend it doesn’t destroy his credibility. The most credible part of his whole thesis is when he quotes official state documents after all.
There are other things. O’Halpin references and defends the very questionable record of historian Peter Hart for example. Invoking that man as a source is never a good idea in modern Irish historical writings, and Hart has no one to blame but himself in that. He does the same for Gerard Murphy, author of the critically derided The Year of Disappearances. Archive footage of refugees is used without explanation for the context. O’Halpin claims a certain number of people constitute the disappeared, but by documentaries end he has completely failed to prove that such a number is accurate. Overuse of the word “forgotten”, as if O’Halpin is the first person to ever discuss or investigate this issue, also abounds.
This is a one-sided program. O’Halpin, as part of a recent research project, is on record as stating that crown forces killed more civilians than the IRA did, but you would be hard-pressed to come to this conclusion if you only watched In The Name Of The Republic, which does absolutely nothing to try and balance the issue. Balance isn’t something that has to be an inherent part of historical research or programming, the crowns activities wouldn’t alter the IRA’s. But it bears mentioning, in order to deflect assertions that the program has a very obvious agenda right from the get go.
O’Halpin seems to have started out with the intention of showing the IRA in a worse light than it is currently seen in, and then fitted facts and sources around that aim. That’s why he started digging in a field in Laois too early. That’s why he cherry picks from Martin Corry’s account. That’s why he ignores written sources to focus on oral records. And that’s why he uses PJ O’Hegarty’s writings so liberally.
The opinions of my former lecturer are as true as they ever have been.
“You’re starting with your conclusions. That’s not good.”