TV review 1916: I’m quite taken with Liam Neeson’s theory on the Rising

RTÉ’s documentary on the Rising has all the trappings of a landmark series: a big budget, superb archive content, and a heavyweight voiceover. And it’s not afraid to make a controversial argument

 Roger Casement and John Devoy  in 1915

Roger Casement and John Devoy in 1915


The very name of this three-part documentary is like a proclamation. By calling it 1916 (RTÉ One, 9.35pm, Wednesday), filmmaker Bríona Nic Dhiarmada appears to be declaring that while the TV schedules are cluttered with commemorative programming, all you need to know about the Rising is here.

Its landmark TV status is further burnished by Liam Neeson as voiceover and a a full-blooded, atmospheric soundtrack from Patrick Cassidy. 1916 is clearly a big budget project: locations mentioned in the credits range from Berlin to India, France to the US. While no documentary about an historical event can be viewed as definitive – not least because as an academic discipline, history studies is built on historians contradicting each other – 1916 succeeds superbly on two fronts: it is lucid, accessible storytelling that creates a vivid and vibrant image of the time; and its editorial viewpoint, that the Rising must be seen in an international context, is a convincing and appealing one.

But before we get to the GPO (where this first part ends) we’re back in 1171 with Henry II and the first of many plantations by the British crown on Irish land, which created an “elite protestant landowning class”. Although no one actually uses the phrase “800 years of oppression”, the thought hangs over the swift overview of the several attempted rebellions and uprisings against British rule in the centuries that followed.

1916 is directed by Ruán Magan and is a well constructed, thoroughly researched project with many historians on camera. Its key strength is the way it skilfully condenses historical events without leaving the viewer feeling shortchanged or confused.

The contention is that a rebellion was not inevitable on that particular day in Easter week, but it was bound to come, because of the history of oppression but also because of the mood internationally at the start of the 20th century. The fight for Irish independence, it effectively suggests, was a reaction to the spread of the British Empire, a wartime enhanced understanding of nationhood and a rising class consciousness. The film also sees echoes of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution in the Rising. Comparisons are made with the language in the Proclamation and the US constitution noting the emphasis on equal rights, opportunities, and happiness.

“In time,” intones Neeson, “the Rising would inspire freedom movements around the world.” There’s not much room in 1916 for those revisionist ideas that the Easter week rebels were a small bunch of blood-sacrifice terrorists with no popular mandate, who wreaked havoc on O’Connell Street and wasted lives on a cause that Home Rule would have eventually delivered.

This wider vision approach, of looking at events in Dublin from a global perspective, gives prominence to characters such as Roger Casement, whose experience of the devastating oppression in the Congo fuelled his anti-colonialism, and to John Devoy and other Fenians, who spent time in America. Their stories are told with the aid of terrific archive material, some footge and photography. Some of those involved in the Rising were later filmed, and these clips bring the story alive and acts as a sharp reminder that the Rising was only 100 years ago – a blip in historical terms.

I suspect some elements will play better with US viewer than others (1916 is funded by the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame and will be braodcast widely in the US on PBS). “They were going to a land they wanted Ireland to ultimately be” is an eyebrow-raising take on the mass emigration of Irish people to the US. It’s a reductive view surely, but one that might play well with descendants of those emigrants. The impression that lingers is that while the cultural revival was important for inspiring Patrick Pearse (and the poetic wing of the rebels), he simply provided an appealing mystic vision for others to follow: it was the Fenian-inspired, anti-colonial, America-fed beliefs that was the real driver.

For all that, the film – so far anyway – gives good, even-handed background on the various factions in the 1916 story including the Irish Volunteers, the Home Rule party and the IRB. It it that rare thing: a thoroughly engaging history lesson.

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