The Irish Revolution: Few cared if the 1916 rebels lived or died – until they died

Review: RTÉ’s War of Independence documentary tells us who we are, and who we were

Revolutions aren’t so much about changing rule or systems as they are about changing minds.

That ought to have struck Irish rebels most forcibly, in 1916, when a series of events outside quite their own planning saw their reputations dramatically re-evaluated.

At the time of the seizing of the GPO, they were widely considered dangerous extremists: fringe nationalists, lusty for violence, with insufficient patience for the political process of Home Rule, whose symbolic stunt ended with the levelling of much of O’Connell Street. “Serves them right,” recalls one British soldier. “They started it, so they got what they asked for.”

Opinion was not much different among civilians. One piquant irony, remembered by Ruán Magan's lavish documentary, The Irish Revolution (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm), is that the beaten rebels had to be protected from angry Dublin mobs by the same British soldiers who had brutally subdued them.


Few enough people cared whether they lived or died – until, of course, they died.

The British execution of 15 rebel leaders, the arrests and imprisonment of thousands more, and the canny activities of Cumann na mBan stoked outrage and reshaped public opinion. “When they go off to fight in 1916, some of them are nobodies,” sums up Fearghal McGarry, Queens University. “They return home as heroes.”

Little of this will come as new information to the viewer, particularly following Magan's previous landmark documentary, 1916. So saturated have we been with documentaries, pageantry and historical drama over the past few years that much of the first episode of this three-part programme will feel like a brisk recap of a breathless series: "Previously on modern Irish history…"

That the narrator of the exercise is Cillian Murphy, succeeding Liam Neeson's voiceover on 1916, thickens the sense of status around the project, a co-production between RTÉ and University College Cork, based on the surprise bestseller Atlas of the Revolution.

Yet the impression given is not the lacquer of celebrity, but an intermingling of history and legacy. Magan favours a ceaseless motion of images from the archives, grainy reels and evocative stills, often flitting by without context, and a steady supply of elegant aerial shots of contemporary cities.

This makes for some pleasing time hopping, as when Britain bans public gatherings in Ireland during the 1918 conscription crisis, and Ireland’s defiance is represented with a shot of present-day picnickers in Stephen’s Green. Soon after a shot of the London Eye accompanies the announcement of Britain’s capitulation.

The effect is to not to distract you but to somehow involve you deeper: to imagine, alongside the hopeful tilts and sombre descents of Pól Brennan’s soundtrack, all the desperate throws and lucky bounces of history as vivid action.

There is a politics in that, as surely as there is an awareness of the admirable reach of Irish intellectuals today among contributions from such academics as Roy Foster to Heather Jones, speaking from universities across Ireland, Britain and the US.

“Very many in the movement looked to a past,” Michael Laffan says of the cultural nationalists, “not the real past, but an image of the future that they projected back on to the past.”

The documentary does something slightly similar, projecting images of the Irish nation that would emerge, shot in sinuous slow motion, into this supple account of its history. We don’t often see ourselves in our forebears, but, guided with enough verve, it happens now and then.