Television: Crime and punishment, wrapped up in tweed or hidden behind bars

It’s all very well being tweedy, but elements of ‘Endeavour’ jar with the likeable aspects of ‘Morse’

Sat, Apr 5, 2014, 01:00

More than two decades of Irish history in an hour is a big ask – even Endeavour has two hours – so there is a sense of trying to push a very big story into a very small package in A Sovereign People (RTÉ One, Thursday). But Seán Ó Mórdha’s documentary does tell an evocative story with the help of some lively contributors. Its starting point is 1900, with reference back to Robert Emmet and the 1890s, when in Ireland “sovereign” meant the queen’s head on letter boxes, royal portraits everywhere and direct rule from London. Twenty years later, sovereignty meant something different to a newly confident people who were now aware of their nationality and were buoyed by the power and influence of organisations such the Gaelic League and the GAA, as well as their emerging political and military muscle.

The documentary goes some way to explaining why Home Rule was never going to be enough, why Edward Carson in the North feared it, and why John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, was so out of touch with a people who had come to believe that sovereignty was their right and not a gift that could be bestowed on them

Caitríona Crowe of the National Archives neatly shorthands the Gaelic revival in the first decade of the last century, pointing out that in the 1911 census many signed their names with a flourish as Gaeilge when, just 10 years before, they had been happy to use the English version. The playwright Sean O’Casey is just one example: by 1911 he was Seaghan Ó Cathasaigh.

Incidentally, the only female contributor is Crowe, and just her name is given, not her credentials; the same goes for the writer and scholar Declan Kiberd, PJ Mathews of UCD, the former National Museum of Ireland director Pat Wallace, and the other contributors. This seems a parochial decision, as if RTÉ viewers should know these people – or maybe it assumes the only people interested in watching a history documentary would know them.

With the centenary of 1916 looming, I suspect documentary makers are already poring over archive footage and looking for new angles, but I hope they find a more creative way to tell the story. Irish-made documentaries about Irish history so often follow the same formula as A Sovereign People : archive footage, historians or other academics talking to a point in the middle distance, a sombre voiceover, and a classy piece of Irish music swelling in the background. It’s all the more noticeable because the same archive footage and photographs seem to crop up in every documentary.

The educational importance of documentaries such as A Sovereign People is undeniable, but there is also the potential to explore television’s capacity to tell a story. And if a historical documentary about the period were to be shown, shouldn’t it be about Cumann na mBan, which celebrates its centenary this week?

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