Sunday 18 February 2018

1916... making a TV drama out of a crisis

O'Connell Street after the 1916 Rising
O'Connell Street after the 1916 Rising
Eamon Delaney

Eamon Delaney

With the centenary of the 1916 Rising coming up, it is worth asking what the 50th anniversary was like in 1966? The answer is a complex one and getting more complex by the day as we approach the anniversay in a year's time.

In 1966, a modernising Irish state was anxious to show off its new found prosperity and relative liberalism. But in a way that didn't rouse strong feelings.

The government was anxious not to do too much to reinvigorate the ghosts of militant Republicanism - and it is debatable as to whether it succeeded.

Many feel that the triumphalism of 1966 swelled nationalist emotions which contributed three years later to the North erupting in violence. But, of course, the government's precise aim then and now was for the State to claim '1916' as its legacy and not allow it be hijacked by militant Republicans. There was thus a nervous quality around all of the commemorative events.

The common feature to both then and now was a TV drama, and RTÉ has commissioned a major new five-part drama on the Rising. The big budget series will tell the story of the rebellion through the eyes of a family living on the outskirts of Dublin. According to casting director Maureen Hughes, who recently worked on Love/ Hate and Charlie, "the series will focus on people who live just outside the city. It is told through their optics and their perspective."

This is a major departure from Insurrection, the drama done for 1966, which depicted the Rising in an uncritical and reverential way, focusing almost entirely on the events themselves rather than their wider consequences and the impact on the greater population. It was a major TV event which viewers of an older generation still talk about - a big budget project, involving a huge cast, and re-enacting the Rising scenes with burning buildings, gun battles and executions.

Basically, Insurrection was a dramatic, news-style reconstruction of the Rising as it might have been seen by Irish television at the time. Ray McAnally acted as the presenter of a news programme which presented daily coverage of the insurrection as it unfolded, with reporters giving outside updates and McAnally, back in the studio, using models and street maps to explain events to viewers.

Insurrection was a huge undertaking for RTÉ, which was only four years old in 1966. The production involved eight months of work and over 300 scenes. The large cast of over 80 speaking roles was drawn mainly from the ranks of the Radio Éireann Players and the Abbey Theatre. Hugh Leonard, who wrote the script, described the task facing the film-makers as 'a near-as-dammit, full scale reconstruction of the Rising, involving months of filming and weeks of studio work. At the beginning, the entire project seemed as gallant and as doomed as the Rising itself.'

Ironically, the waspish Leonard would go on to become an arch revisionist about 1916 and armed Republicanism. The historical adviser on the project was Professor Kevin B Nowlan, the conservation activist, who died only two years ago.

The series was produced and directed by Louis Lentin, and over three months, three different film units were used. The Irish Army provided 300 members for the battle scenes and a further 200 extras were used for the series. The production also placed a huge demand on RTÉ's Art and Costume Departments, with an elaborate set built to recreate the interior of the GPO.

True to the way 1916 dominated the national narrative from Independence on, the events of Easter Week were depicted as a glorious sacrificial drama, as if all of Irish history had led to this moment and there was no need to focus on other elements, such as the huge numbers of Irishmen fighting and dying that week on the Western Front in Europe, many of them supporters of the then dominant Home Rule cause. One would assume that the new drama will focus on this, and on the human consequences of such a violent and unexpected event.

It is impossible to look at 1916, and not think of subsequent nationalist mythology and the continuing potency of the event. In commissioning the series, RTÉ's head of drama, Jane Gogan, has said that they are looking for drama that tells 'the truth of its time - going back to the past to tell a story about the present is something we always look out for.' Hauntingly, the final episode of Insurrection in 1966 depicted James Connolly being shot, after which McAnally, the narrator, finished his report by saying, 'The insurrection is over, or is it?'

It is the question that many us have long been wondering about.

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