‘Resistance’: Let the arguments about historical truths begin

Follow-up to ‘Rebellion’ is based on the War of Independence, and is keen to emphasise overlooked female stories

Simone Kirby, who plays   a code-breaker in Dublin Castle, and Brian Gleeson as Jimmy Mahon, a Dubliner who survives the Rising to become an intelligence officer in the succeeding mayhem

Simone Kirby, who plays a code-breaker in Dublin Castle, and Brian Gleeson as Jimmy Mahon, a Dubliner who survives the Rising to become an intelligence officer in the succeeding mayhem

 

Heaven help the dramatist who embarks on an interpretation of Irish history. Colin Teevan remembers that after every episode of Rebellion, his recent series on the 1916 Rising, the airwaves would surge with complaints about supposed inaccuracies.

“Every Monday I would be contacted by RTÉ. One of the episode shows them singing The Soldiers Song in English, and there were complaints that Patrick Pearse would never have sung the song in English. We took days of abuse before it was muttered that the song wasn’t translated into Irish until 1923.”

Teevan will be bracing himself for further fusillades when Resistance, the follow-up to Rebellion, comes to RTÉ on January 6th.

It hardly needs to be said that the action is now set in the War of Independence. Some characters have faded away. Some are dead. But a few hang around to lead us through the violence and confusion.

Brian Gleeson is back as Jimmy Mahon, a Dubliner who survives the Rising to become an intelligence officer in the succeeding mayhem. Teevan weaves such fictional characters in with historical figures throughout the first episode. Andrew Bennett is a stern Arthur Griffith. Gavin Drea is a charismatic, spirited Michael Collins.

Shot in pretty, woody shades – with the inevitable scenes of men eating cheese on big tables in weathered pubs – Resistance casts out an impressive number of promising narrative strands. Simone Kirby is strong as a code-breaker in Dublin Castle who gets tempted towards espionage. Familiar themes do show through, but, as he did in Rebellion, Teevan is keen to emphasise overlooked female stories.

Oppression

“I wanted to explore the increasing oppression of women. We have three main female characters who are all professional women. That was actually far more common in the 1910s than it was in the 1930s or 1940s.”

This counts as one of those inconvenient truths that was tidied away in the years following independence. Liberty was qualified.

“I had two great aunts who became doctors in that period,” Teevan continues. “Twenty years later they probably wouldn’t have been. All three of our characters get sidelined by the end of the series. I don’t want to give more away. But it explores how society allows this to happen. They are the invisible victims of war.”

He points out that women in the movement were far more likely to vote against the treaty than men. “To accept the treaty was jobs for the boys. There were no jobs for the girls in there.”

There have always been revisionists. There have always been those who spoke uncomfortable truths about hitherto untouchable heroes. But these conversations seem (despite the odd silly online spat about The Soldier’s Song in English) to have become a degree more acceptable in the current millennium. The recent 1916 commemoration kicked up a few awkward conversations, but was still carried off relatively harmoniously. Something seems to have changed.

“Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins makes it a very black and white, heroic struggle,” Teevan says. “I am interested in the murkiness of it. I am interested in the complexity. That film came from a time when Ireland was just discovering the confidence to present its version of itself. Ireland is a much more confident place now. We can face truths. There were Irish people working for the British state. There were Irish people who thought the Rising a disaster.”

Angry debate

Born in Dublin, educated at Belvedere College, Teevan has made a career of teasing awkward ideas from historical truths. After graduating in English from the University of Edinburgh, he went on to write plays for BBC Radio, the Royal National Theatre and the Abbey Theatre. In 2015, Charlie, his series on Charles J Haughey, triggered all kinds of angry debate. He’s clearly not afraid of starting a fight.

You would be a very naïve fellow indeed to believe the arguments that began during the War of Independence are all over. In the opening scenes we hear whispers of Éamon de Valera’s contemporaneous jaunts in the United States. Collins is at the heart of the battle. Even now Irish people whose grandparents were then not born take sides on the later disputes between those two men.

“Well, yeah. What can you do?” Teevan sighs. “Actually de Valera doesn’t appear in this series. He is in America. He sat out most of the War of Independence. Gavin Drea as Collins is very good looking and has a perfect Cork accent. So I hope his fans won’t be offended. Ha ha! If we go on to do the third season then – with the Civil War – that will become the really difficult one.”

The series also looks to be tugging away at the rebels’ complex accommodation with the Catholic Church and the way that relationship coloured the eventual Republic. We see a single mother struggling to wrestle her child away from a nun. One activist explains how hard the “National Movement” worked to get the backing of the church. More than a few historians have argued that we ended up with a very conservative class of revolution.

Right-wing elements

“There’s a brilliant quote in Roy Foster’s book Vivid Faces,” says Teevan. “A Russian writer, talking about the Russian Revolution, describes how they ‘flayed the skin off the revolution’. The right-wing elements dressed themselves in that skin. De Valera was hand-in-glove with the church. He described himself as a ‘Tory Bishop’.”

We talk as the country next door is tearing itself up over a very different kind of international divorce. The contrast and the comparisons are notable.

“Oh, it’s very interesting watching the British go through Brexit. They have a very similar relationship to Europe as Ireland once had to Britain.”

You could start a fight in a few pubs with that line alone.

Resistance begins on RTÉ 1 at 9.30pm on January 6th

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