In Defence Of RTE’s Rebellion

I waited until the series was concluded to write the following, which is spurred on by the intense criticism that RTE’s efforts to dramatise the 1916 rising has gotten, from a wide variety of sources. I don’t speak so much of TV pundits and the like, but rather the vitriol I have encountered on social media, decrying the depictions of the Pearse, the Irish Volunteers and the events in question. Rebellion is far from the only piece of entertainment that I have unfortunately witnessed mass pile-on style criticism of, and it won’t be the last. Sometimes I am able to simply click X and go about my business.

But other times it well and truly bugs me, and this is one of those times, when I am compelled to write something in response. This will not be an attempt to praise the writing, acting or direction of Rebellion. It is not a review of the show. It is, instead, a defence, based on what I feel Rebellion represents, through its chosen character focus, tone and main themes, and in what it attempts to do with the Easter Rising.

Firstly, it behoves me to say that they are plenty of legitimate criticisms to make. Rebellion carries a healthy dosage of so called “melodrama” throughout its five episodes, and claims that it is, essentially, Downton Abbey in Dublin are not all that unfounded. Many will dislike such an approach, but I feel that is simply a matter of personal taste. If I was to mention more specific criticism, it might be that named antagonist characters, like Michael Ford-FitzGerald’s Harry, are rather poorly-written and presented, a step too far away from the central event: every other sub-plot is intimately connected to it in a very important way, one of Rebellion’s better aspects. And there are the inevitable historical inaccuracies, though in truth I rate Rebellion quite highly on that score: indeed, the worst I saw was the lack of detail on the forgery surrounding the so called “Castle Document”, a missed detail that actually paints the rebels in a positive light (the Twitterati didn’t get quite so annoyed about that I noticed). If you don’t like Rebellion for stuff like this, all well and good.

That being said, I’ll take a few moments to veer from my main point and discuss one of those perceived flaws. Defending melodrama – or, to put it more fairly, the decision to frame the Rising through the experiences of several fictional characters, their relationships with each other and their reactions to the events in question – is tricky. Many presumably feel that a show of this type should be focusing on historical personalities, the signatories and others, throughout Easter week.

My problem with that is threefold. First, everyone knows about the signatories to some extent, and focusing exclusively on them would simply be a re-tread of things done before, a potentially tired examination of characters well sifted through already. Any storyteller tasked with such a mission as dramatizing the Easter Rising will naturally look to their own creations, though they be mirrors of existing architypes and demographics of the period, rather than confining themselves only to those that existed in reality, limited in the dramatic possibilities that can be created from them. The road travelled also allowed for the extraordinarily welcome focus on female characters, something Rebellion should receive more praise for than it has got.

There are plenty of minor personalities from the event that might have deserved further attention – Michael Malone’s cameo could have been extended perhaps, and Elizabeth O’Farrell’s absence was strange for the surrender – but creative freedom necessitates fiction. Indeed, it is when Rebellion kowtows to reality, through needless nods to Michael Collins’ non-importance at the time, or similarly needless wading into De Valera’s disputed actions at Boland’s Mills, that I feel it is at its weakest as an historical drama. I suppose there is some irony in that, but these kind of programs shouldn’t be a Bingo game of historical personalities. When they do appear, it should mean something. Tom Clarke’s humiliation at the hands of a British officer told us something both about his quiet dignity and the British military’s recklessly punitive approach to the post-Rising situation. Michael Collins’ presence amounted to “He was there as well”, and should have been avoided.

Secondly, my own personal pet theory is that TG4’s rather excellent documentaries on the subject of the Easter Rising, most notably Seachtar Na Casca and its sequel-series Seachtar Dearmadta, may have influenced the creators of Rebellion. TG4, through the lens of docudrama, has very recently told the stories of the central historical figures in 1916, and told them very well. I doubt that writer Colin Teevan or director Aku Louimies would have relished the possibility of treading on that ground again, nor of drawing direct contrasts. TG4 may have cornered the market on docudrama, but regular drama is still there to be claimed.

Thirdly, and here’s something folks might not like to acknowledge, but the Easter Rising was kind of unexciting as a military event. I think people calling for a drama about Pearse, Connolly and Clarke alone are picturing some kind of Enemy At The Gates production, all gunfire, flying masonry, explosions and daring do, Walter Paget’s paintings come to life. But the truth is that, with a few notable exceptions like the initial building seizures, the Mount Street Bridge ambush, the oft-ignored South Dublin Union and the closing moments on Moore Street (three of which Rebellion covered), the Easter Rising mostly involved sporadic exchanges of gunfire, hunkering behind barricades, putting up with shelling and monotonous waiting for something to happen.

Take a look at the BMH statements, like those collated by Feargal McGarry in his Voices From The Easter Rising: every other one will mention nervous boredom being experienced by Irish Volunteers during long periods of nothing happening, with no one to actually shoot at, or be shot by. Michael Collins lied (or rather, dramatised): the GPO was never subject to a direct close-quarters bombardment, and some garrisons, like that of Jacob’s Biscuit Factory under Thomas McDonagh, saw next to no action at all. How would you maintain dramatic tension in a five-episode mini-series with such an approach? I suppose you could shorten it up, but at that point you might as well just make a feature film and be done with it. The story of the signatories would be much better suited to such a medium (more on that in a bit).

Ultimately, if the production team felt they had more room for commentary on the Ireland of 1916 through their fictional characters than they would have had with just reality, with the added possibility for inter-personal drama to make things interesting from an entertainment standpoint, then that’s an easy choice to make. Seachtar Na Casca is there if you want the opposite.

But, getting back to my main point, I don’t think that’s what some people really have a problem with. By “some”, I mean a significant portion of the Irish population who have a fixed picture of 1916 in their heads, and who revolt at any depiction that deviates from that. I mean the people who have an obsession with a positive portrayal of the Easter Risers and their leaders that borders on the unhealthy, as it leads to verbally violent denunciations of anyone who dares to claim differently. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be long used to the screeching cries of “revisionism!” from these people.

And God knows they will find precious little in Rebellion to be happy with, because this mini-series is grim all over. If I was asked to name a single thing to sum up its various strands and plots, it would be simply “disillusionment”. With violent action as a force of social change. With the role of women in the Irish nationalist movement. With the role of women in society in general. With the British army, both officers and enlisted. With the Church’s hypocritical approach to the poor. With traditional military tactics. With marriage as an expected social obligation, for men and women. With romantic love as an idealistic vision. With the Protestant upper class and their latent sectarianism. With law. With government. With blood sacrifice. Everyone in Rebellion has something to believe in as it begins, and gets shorn of it through the course of its narrative. It’s a remarkably downbeat story, and that’s a welcome interpretation in my eyes.

Nobody in Rebellion comes out of things happy. There are no unabashed heroes or heroines. And some can’t stand that, because for too long in this country we have put the Easter Rising and its participants on a pedestal from which no criticism can be tolerated. And even in more recent times, those who dare to challenge this conventional view must do so with the knowledge that they will be accused of shamefully denigrating national icons. The tide is changing, but the old guard remains.

Something like Rebellion drives them crazy. They don’t want to see unarmed police shot down. They don’t want to see civilian looters being killed. They want, indeed almost gleefully anticipate, British atrocities being shown onscreen, but dare to add a shade of grey to proceedings – like, say, a child being shot by a British sniper, but only because the Volunteers sent him out into harm’s way – and watch the hackles rise again. They want Pearse the hero, not Pearse the sexist commander or Pearse the deluded militant. Forget that so much of the atrocities and personal depictions in Rebellion are based off first-hand sources: if there’s one thing that Rebellion has made clear to me, it’s how little many people actually know about 1916, and how unashamed they are of this ignorance.

Yes, Pearse wanted women in the kitchens. Yes, looters were shot down by both sides. Yes, there’s a question mark over De Valera’s behaviour that week (it was needless to include, but not a fabrication). Yes, Pearse mentioned the German’s in letters, forgoing the (slim) possibility of a death sentence reprieve. Yes, some British authorities allowed rebels to escape. Yes, the British stripped Clarke to humiliate him (fun fact: Collins had the British officer responsible shot in 1920). I’ve seen people describe the visual representation of each of these things in Rebellion as “a disgrace” “untrue” or “RTE bias”, all with lashings of scorn ladled on top. And they all happened.

Rebellion’s depiction of conflict is very much in the “war is hell” vein. The idea of “blood sacrifice”, and glorious struggle against faceless evil enemies is practically mocked. Instead there is random and pointless death, British soldiers as Irish as any in the GPO, deep horror-filled reactions to the taking of life and moves towards the colder, more brutal tactics of targeted assassination. The conclusion of the third episode, as Pearse gives one of his meant to be stirring but not exactly useful speeches while the GPO is rocked by shell fire and Jimmy mourns his dead nephew upstairs, does not paint a bright, shining vision of the Easter Rising as the defining moment of Irish history. The narrative of plucky heroes fighting an evil empire is nowhere to be seen. Instead, Rebellion embraces tricky, troubling complexity. And if there’s one thing those who mistake commemoration for veneration don’t like, it’s complexity.

It is in the creating of this that Louimies, Teegan and all others involved should be praised, because it is so different, radical almost, unafraid of depicting morally dubious things happening and asking the hard questions: Why did this happen? Was it justified? What and who was the Rising for? With a foreign director lacking the same inherent biases as an Irish equivalent, something worth talking about was crafted, and a pointed challenge was made to the audience. RTE could have financed a dour unimaginative portrayal of events where recognisable rebels go up against the villainous British and lose gloriously before dying happily, and it would have been acceptable to most, along with being unremarkable and easily forgotten.

But I don’t think people are going to forget Rebellion quite as easily. It decided to shine a harder light on the Irish Volunteers than many were expecting. The trick is to understand that Irish independence can still be a praise-worthy objective even if horrible things were committed to attain it, and men and women like those who defended the Easter Republic in 1916 could do questionable things and still be deemed courageous and heroic. Indeed, their depiction in Rebellion successfully paints them as that which they are so rarely acknowledged as being: simply human.

The state broadcaster can’t actually win though, and I say that as someone who has levied his fair share of complaints towards it (for example, Teegan’s last production, Charlie, is something I thought was absolute drek, giving up halfway through). The “Is this what my TV license pays for”? brigade, I completely believe, wrote off Rebellion before watching a minute of it, not that it stopped many from watching its entirety just so they could complain, an activity I utterly despise. If you don’t like it, don’t watch five episodes of it.

In the end, it seems likely that Rebellion will be the only visual dramatisation of the Easter Rising, aside from short films of course, to be released this year. The only other that I am aware of is Kevin McCann’s The Rising, an Independent film project that, if you read between the lines of press releases and other comments by the director, is likely to ascribe to the more, shall we say, traditional view of the Easter Rising and the signatories. But, like many independent productions, it’s run into financial difficulties and may not ever see the light of day. A pity if that transpires, as, aside from a more suitable format for the signatories’ story, it would surely provide a suitable contrast to Rebellion’s interpretation of the same events, and I would welcome that debate. Rebellion closes with hints that more could follow, and I hope that it will.

When Jimmy shouts “Up the rebellion!” at the conclusion of the mini-series, he may as well be talking about the fightback against the blinkered sentimental view of the Rising that for too long has been allowed to dominate. Dislike Rebellion for its melodrama, some of its characters, some of its writing. I have no annoyance over that, how could I? But if you dislike it because it portrays the Easter Rising in terms you are uncomfortable with, despite its adherence to historical record, then I suspect that such criticism says more about our unwholesome relationship with a comfortably idealised vision of the Irish past than anything else.

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4 Responses to In Defence Of RTE’s Rebellion

  1. Pingback: Review: After ’16 | Never Felt Better

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  3. Kelly Shannon says:

    Wow, thank you for this well-informed and persuasively written essay. As an Irish-American, I grew up in a strongly republican environment and hence naturally saw the Rising in romanticized ways when I was younger. As a historian, I now know the story is more complicated than that, and I appreciate seeing your take on things. I also really appreciate the show’s focus on women’s role in the Rising (although I was disappointed that it reduced two of the three (Lizzie and May) to their romantic stories in the end). It wasn’t a perfect series, but I enjoyed it and hope there will be a second season.

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