A terrible beauty: RTÉ and 1916
The task of covering the complex legacy of the Rising has fallen to RTÉ One's controller Adrian Lynch. He discusses his plans with us
In a few short months the 1916 centenary will be upon us, and the battle for control of it will truly begin. Politicians left and right, cultural commentators, historians, artists and writers will fight to ensure they're centre stage for the big event, and the burgeoning national debate over who owns 1916 and exactly what it means promises to become unseemly.
Nowhere, perhaps, is this brewing storm more acutely felt than in the offices of the national broadcaster, where views of all persuasions on the Rising must somehow find reflection. Back in 1966, for the 50th anniversary, RTÉ's task was simpler: with no war in the North as yet, 1916 was still a safely historical event central to the state's identity and unsullied by the activities of a modern, thriving IRA. So we got the drama Insurrection, a straight, heroic retelling of the Rising as national creation myth.
It was well made, too, but that kind of nuance-free approach would not be fit for purpose today. When Adrian Lynch took over as RTÉ One's channel controller last year, the daunting task of doing justice to the centenary must have loomed largest on his horizon. "It's a very significant moment," he tells me. "A hundred years of the state is a big deal, and as the national broadcaster we need to mark it in the right way - it's a huge priority for us.
"But representing multiple viewpoints on an event that, even a hundred years on, remains controversial, was never going to be easy. I suppose in terms of 1916," he says, "we know that something big happened, and that's when agreement ends and contested history begins, in terms of what was its significance, what did people who partook in the Rising believe they were doing, how has it been interpreted, and who owns it. Given all that, our key objective was to provide lots of different flavours in terms of the programming that we commissioned, and not tell the same story again and again but actually look at it in different ways. That's our primary job I think. "
Lynch and his programme makers were keen to tell smaller stories around 1916, as well as the larger historical ones. "We have a programme coming up later this year called Ireland's Rising," he tells me, "and in it Ryan Tubridy and three other household names will travel back to the parts of the country they call home to find out how 1916 is being commemorated at a grass-roots level.
"And after Christmas, in a show called Children of the Revolution, Joe Duffy will tell the tragic stories of 40 Dublin children who were killed during the Easter Rising. These are smaller stories sure, but important ones, and you wonder were some of those kids out foraging for food for their families when they died. I think one or two of them weren't identified, so on the programme they try to work who these children actually were, and I think it's a way of writing back into history the individuals that have been forgotten. "
But there will, of course, also be the big stuff, dramas and documentaries that provide sweeping overviews of the Rising and its participants. Rebellion is bound to catch most of the headlines: a five-part drama set mainly during the three weeks of the Rising, it stars among others Brian Gleeson, Ruth Bradley, Charlie Murphy and Sarah Greene.
"Rebellion begins in 1914," Lynch explains, "just at the cusp of the outbreak of World War One, and it follows a cast of characters in their 20s and 30s, many of them female, all from different parts of Irish society. So it's really looking at the choices people make in extraordinary times, when there were these seismic shifts going on, and as we know, even within families, people made very different choices.
"In a way it concentrates on the foot-soldiers: all those bigger figures out of the 1916 narrative are secondary characters here, and we're focusing on these fictional characters and the human drama they're in. Rebellion goes right up to the executions, and we're expecting to get good public engagement around it. It will be shown around the time of the anniversary."
Also due to be unveiled in the spring is 1916, a landmark three-part documentary narrated by Liam Neeson. "It's a great series from Coco Television, and what's interesting about it is that it really focuses on the events, it looks at the actual days, you know, beginning with the bigger view of 1916 within an international context, and then very specifically gets into what was happening hour by hour, how people were reacting and so on.
"It's a very simple documentary series in that you have visual archive of the actual participants themselves telling their stories in their own words, a tight script that brings you into it, you then have really rare and unseen photographs of Dublin at the time, with a big score by Patrick Cassidy mixing in Sean Nós singers and so on. It's very powerful."
But RTÉ One's coverage of the centenary will also include other perspectives - even the enemy's. "From a programming point of view we were determined to bring in as many different perspectives as we can, and The Enemy Files will hopefully provide a British viewpoint on it all." In that documentary, broadcaster and former Conservative minister Michael Portillo will examine how London reacted to 1916.
"He looks at British government papers, internal communications and cables, literally day by day, and finds out what the British government were saying about the Rising, how it was being dealt with. He goes into great detail in terms of piecing that historical narrative together, so it's going to bring something very fresh, and I think it'll feel different."
Other documentaries will include WB Yeats by Bob Geldof, an assessment by the singer of the poet's life, work and role within the Rising.
"In addition we'll be doing a series of in-house documentaries called Writing the Republic, a season of programmes about the arts and 1916, and how the writers, artists and playwrights played a huge role in the political sphere.
"We're also building a 1916 hub online, so you'll be able to access all the documentaries, the drama, the radio shows and archive stuff as well, it should be a really interesting menu."
More details on these and other programmes in RTÉ's 1916 schedules will be announced next month, but I have heard that on RTÉ2, the Rubber Bandits will be offering their own salty and irreverent take on the Rising.
Talk about different perspectives.