Revolutionary Remembrance: An Léigear 1922

Yeah, this is a bit late, but I feel that every effort to try and offer educational programming on the Irish revolutionary period during this centenary decade deserves some kind of mention.

TG4 is way ahead of its fellow Irish brethren when it comes to documentaries of course, with lots of once-offs supplementing the likes of Seactar Na Casca, Seachtar Dearmadta and more recently Bású. Compare that to some (not all) of the limp offerings that RTE has had so far, and the dire stuff that TV3 has deigned to give screentime.

An Léigear 1922 (“The Siege 1922”) is another fine addition to that Irish language canon, telling the story of the Battle of Dublin, the first clash of the Irish Civil War, a conflict that really could use a bit more attention from modern media sources. An Léigear is, in fact, the sequel to 2011’s An Conradh (The Treaty), which had much the same format and excellence.

This is a Ken Burns’ style documentary that this TG4 team has come up, one that uses nothing but archival footage, contemporary photographs, and VA work to make the characters of the event come to life. That’s all there really is to the visual side of things, and just like when Ken Burns does it, not least in his amazing The Civil War, it’s very, very effective here. No (attempted) flashy recreations, no litany of experts jutting in to offer their own opinions. Just grainy black and white, panning shots of still frames and a very well-presented sense of watching history being re-told in front of you.

A simple narration accompanies the VA work, offering the required details of the battle without ever really going into the serious specifics. You can’t expect a single hour of television to capture all of the ebbs and flows, all of the subtle nuances and minutia of this conflict and its desperate beginnings, and An Léigear does not try. But it also does not over-simplify, something that is so common in the documentarian movement of the Irish Civil War. The facts are laid out, a mere accompaniment to the voices of the people who actually fought in the battle, or led forces during it.

They are the main voices, and founts of information, in An Léigear. A nice variation is found, to balance the abundance of “great men” style history – the leaders, military and political – and the lower levels, the soldiers of all three sides (pro-Treaty, anti-Treaty and British), the women who were involved. It’s important to achieve that balance, because civil wars are often so replete with bias and selective memory when it comes to their primary sources. An Léigear allows these people to speak for themselves, offering very little commentary, and nothing approaching judgement, which is very welcome. Viewers can hear the words of Collins, O’Malley, Churchill et all, and are, indirectly, invited to make up their own minds, a change of pace from TG4’s (and others) usual modus operandi of having modern academics framing the production with their own knowledge and opinions, something that is far from inherently bad, but is good to get away from occasionally.

Certain personalities get a bit more time than others of course, and the dual views of Michael Collins and Ernie O’Malley, so pivotal to the fortunes of the both sides along the Treaty divide, get the lion’s share of the voiceovers. No problem with that, as they often had the most eloquent words on the topic, whether it was Collins justifying his support for the Treaty or O’Malley talking about his hopes for the anti-Treaty side before the fighting actually started. They contrast with each other well, providing the right kind of voice for each viewpoint.

The voice work is generally of quite a good standard, with my only complaint being that the VA for one Winston Churchill strays into satirical territory. You don’t need any bombastic impressions, or even dead on replications really – I doubt that Sam Waterston sounded exactly like Abraham Lincoln after all – you just need to make their words sound real, like they are the kind of things that are not just being read out from a piece of paper. I think that An Léigear achieves that, very successfully. The likes of Mario Rosenstock, Dara Devaney and Peter Coonan do the material great service.

In terms of thoughts that the documentary gave to me, there are a few things that I would like to mention:

– I found Ernie O’Malley’s preoccupation with his surroundings, going into detail about how delighted he was to be based in such a grand, spacious building as the Four Courts complex, to be rather fascinating. Was this a response to the more meagre way that the IRA had to conduct itself before this? Was it part of the anti-Treaty’s side own internal self-justification for their actions, to state how much they enjoyed (and deserved) to have such a fine HQ?

-In any study of the early days of the Irish Civil War, one is bound to be struck by the sense of normalcy that abounds through certain accounts, and An Léigear does a good job of making that clear. Armed men taking over building in the middle of Dublin sounds strange and vaguely terrifying to us today, but the tone of the people involved then was often one of either resignation or carried a total lack of surprise, just something that had to be done. The anti-Treaty side, perhaps, underestimated the war exhaustion element of their proposed fight.

-One thing that I found An Léigear did really well was lay out the successive straws that eventually broke the camels’ back when it came to the Battle of Dublin. It was far more than the occupation of a few buildings and refusals to leave them. It was political wrangling, pressure from Westminster, mysterious assassinations and broad daylight kidnappings. The decision to open fire on the Four Courts was far from one taken lightly, and came at the culmination of several weeks worth of vital events.

-So much of the records we have left, from Collins, O’Malley, O’Connor and others, are about self-justification, and go into the larger opinion battle that was being fought, as each side vied for the support of the Irish people in their fight, trying to paint the other in as negative a way as possible. Like the best propaganda, every attack had an inner core of truth – the pro-Treaty side were taking instructions from London, the anti-Treaty side were operating against the will of the Irish people – but became surrounded by hyperbole and exaggeration. The pro-Treaty side would eventually win that battle, decisively, but in the early stages it was still being fought with passion from both sides.

-Some gorgeous footage from the time abounds throughout An Léigear, grainy black and white camera footage, much of it damaged over the years. Every frame is a national treasure.

-I found Ernie O’Malley’s words on the anti-Treaty’s sides motivations and inspirations to be very interesting, especially his quote that he and his men were “dedicating our weapons as well as our lives” to the cause. Tying in with the previous feel of complete normalcy, I was struck by the emphasis on weapons with religious language and the glorification of violence as a political tool inherent in such things – it is not just glorious that they will die for the republic, but that they will kill their former comrades for it too. Both sides did this, but O’Malley’s words were the most eloquent in my opinion.

-An interesting personal account from General Dermot MacManus, who believed that he had fired the first shot of the battle, with a rifle and without explicit orders, just because he thought “it was time we should do something”. Echoes of the words of Dan Breen and those behind the Soloheadbeg ambush in 1919, generally considered to have started the War of Independence, who similarly acted without orders from higher up in the hopes of provoking a wider conflict. MacManus was also firing from the Four Courts side of the river, something worth noting, as popular perception of this battle has the pro-Treaty side only firing from positions across the Liffey. Of course, MacManus’ account differs from O’Malley, who thought the firing on the Four Courts began with machine gun fire from across the Liffey.

-Always interesting to hear the thoughts of the British higher ups in Ireland at the time, like General Nevil Macready, whose scornful remarks on the capabilities of the pro-Treaty side really underline how ill-prepared Collins’ men truly were.

-There are obvious comparisons, in the words of the personalities in An Léigear and in the history books, between the Battle of Dublin and the Easter Rising, inescapable contrasts. The Civil War really was the ultimate perversion of the movement that the Easter Rising really began, a grim mirror of the “glorious” stand of Pearse and company. It was a tragic event, something that, while an emotional appraisal, is difficult to ignore, for even the most cold-hearted historian. The failure of the anti-Treaty side in the Battle of Dublin was a bitter reprise of 1916 for many, the start of a collapse in republican morale that would be a very important aspect of the rest of the war.

-In that, O’Malley’s last offering is important. Michael Collins famously moulded his War of Independence strategy after experiencing the failure of the conventional in 1916, something he saw the other side of in 1922. In 1922, O’Malley (who had an extremely limited role in 1916) comes up with almost the same sentiment, rejecting the talk of “heroism” when it came with military failure, something he would go on to write about at some length in his war memoirs.

-The finals words of the documentary, from O’Malley to Collins, are telling in other ways. O’Malley talks about the desire of some of the anti-Treaty side to replicate the long-term effect of 1916, and inspire the people with a glorious defeat, sounding very unsure about the prospect. Collins, almost as if he is replying directly, talks about his belief that the Irish people will reject the gunman and the anarchist after viewing the destruction in Dublin for a second time in six years. One of the two men would be far more correct than the other.

Overall, An Léigear is a fine offering to the visualised remembrance in this centenary decade, simple, but effective documentary television, which others would do well to replicate. It’s cheap, it’s easy to make and it’s a fine way to help educate and start debate. RTE and TV3 could do far worse.

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