1916: The Irish Rebellion

Broadcaster:  BBC Four

Year: 2016

Genre: Documentary


Reviewer: Phillippa Mapes

To mark the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in Ireland, the BBC  showed a series of documentaries covering this event from different perspectives.  Two of these programmes were broadcast on BBC Northern Ireland only, however a key contextual account of the events, and told from the Irish peoples’ perspective, was shown on the more accessible channel BBC Four.  This programme, entitled  1916: The Irish Rebellion, describes  the growth of the Irish peoples’ fight for freedom from centuries of rule by the British government and which led at this point to the Easter Rising in Dublin in April 1916.  The short lived  Rebellion lasted only six days before being suppressed by the British forces, but it marked a significant turning point in Anglo-Irish relations and in the move toward Irish self government.

Initially the viewer approaches the programme with some apprehension:  Previous film coverage of this subject made for general audiences has often been overtly emotive, sentimental and subjective, depicting a romanticised view of the Irish heroes fighting a one dimensional British enemy against a background of wistful folk-pipe music.  Furthermore the programme is narrated by actor Liam Neeson, chosen for his depiction of Irish revolutionary Michael Collins in the 1996 film of the same name, about which its creators openly admit to some fictional interpretation of events.  Not so with 1916: The Irish Rebellion however, and the viewer is immediately re-assured by the presence of no less than 18 academics (we meet three in the programme’s first short introductory overview), who provide informative commentary as the chronological narrative of events leading up to the 1916 Rebellion and its aftermath is compellingly told.

One wonders whether it is necessary to include quite so many individual historians for the ‘piece to camera’ commentaries, particularly as the narrative mainly covers the standard accepted historical account of the events as they happened.  Yet, in a sense this almost serves to reflect and re-enforce the many different protagonists that were involved in this struggle.  The programme provides a good sense of the complicated political situation at the time and an understanding of the internal divisions amongst the Irish themselves, not least between those with purely republican separatist aims and those more moderate nationalists led by John Redmond, who pressed for constitutional reform and a devolved government through negotiation with Westminster.  Added to these conflicting strands was the aggressive stance of the Unionists in the northern province of Ulster who saw a break with Westminster as a betrayal of their loyalties and interests, and a divided British parliament with both Conservative and Liberal parties seeking to increase their votes through tentative support of the Unionist and Irish Home Rule causes respectively.

The programme also effectively explains the further complications arising from the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.  Whilst the British Government was diverted by this, Unionists signed up to fight for Britain and Redmond’s Home Rule party also pledged the allegiance of hundreds of Irishmen to fight for Britain in the hope of a reward of Home Rule at the end of the war.  Leaders of the Republican cause refused to fight, remaining in Ireland to plan their strategies but even here they were divided between the Irish Volunteer supporters of Padraig Pearse and Tom Clarke, and supporters of the Irish Citizen Army lead by radical socialist James Connolly.  Throughout the programme the narrative moves on at a gripping pace, leading the viewer forward to the catharsis of the Easter week Rebellion.   Throughout the documentary, the commentary is accompanied by a continuous rolling series of relevant, well chosen and often beautiful images comprised of contemporary land/cityscape shots juxtaposed with archive photographs, portraits, prints, newspaper cuttings and archive film footage drawn from an impressive trawl of archive sources.  Most effective is the use of archive film interviews with those involved, explaining in detail the actions and conflicting views on timing, approach and strategy of the Republican leaders on the eve of the Revolt.  In the following clip Bulmer Hudson of the Irish Republican Brotherhood describes the conflicting strategies that ultimately contributed to the failure of the revolt:

Mapes 1

The use of archive footage of the Republicans involved relaying accounts of the events provides an fresh personal touch for viewers who remember news reports of the Irish ‘Troubles’ in the sensitive political climate before the 1990s Peace Process.  Here television stations were instructed to dub the voice of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams with that of an actor’s, because of his associations with the terrorist group the Irish Republican Army.  Perhaps in the light of the Peace Process, this archive footage becomes more generally acceptable, notwithstanding the palpable belief of the protagonists that their cause was justified and honourable.  Balanced opinion is key to this programme.  The viewer is left with an understanding of the motivations  of those involved on all sides and factions.  The viewer can understand how an Irish republican rebel came to shoot dead an elderly Dublin resident as the latter tried to retrieve his own cart from a barricaded street, whilst at the same time comprehend the heavy handed suppression of the Rising by the British government which was already caught up in a protracted and bloody war in Europe.

Mapes 2

The programme reflects on how this severe repression served ultimately to galvanise further  support for the republican cause both within Ireland and amongst the Irish diaspora in America and contributing to the Rising’s legacy.  If there are any criticisms of this watchable programme it is that the decades of struggle for social and political reform on behalf of the moderate Irish Home Rule Party before the Rising is under-represented, yet this helps explain mainstream public opinion’s initial negative reaction to the rebels’ extreme actions.   The programme ends with a brief nod at the global implications of the Rising, suggesting that it was a “catalyst” for the fight for freedom from the British Empire in India, Africa and the Middle East.  This is argued superficially and appears added as an unsubstantiated and therefore unnecessary afterthought.   The impact of the Easter Rising on twentieth century Anglo-Irish relations is subject matter enough in this otherwise detailed and informative documentary.

Phillippa Mapes is an AHRC funded PhD candidate in the School of History at the University of Leicester studying the English Wallpaper Trade in the Eighteenth Century.

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