Saturday 26 May 2018

Putting Pearse in the dock in TV3's 'Trial of the Century'

How different might Irish history have been if Padraig Pearse had been tried instead of executed? TV3's 'Trial of the Century' tries to answer that question

Rebel role: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as 1916 leader Padraig Pearse.
Rebel role: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as 1916 leader Padraig Pearse.
Jury l-r: back: Damien Dempsey, Patrick Geoghegan, Una Mullaly, Eleanor Tiernan, Colm O’Gorman, Lynn Ruane, Oisin McConville. L-r front: Michael Nugent, Emma Dabiri, Pat Kenny (foreman) and Justine McCarthy. Photo: Paul Sharp
Ed Power

Ed Power

It is the trial of the century that never was. Had Padraig Pearse's life been spared after the 1916 Rising he would surely have found himself in the dock, accused by Britain of bringing war to the streets of Dublin while thousands of fellow Irishmen were fighting the Germans on the Continent. The trajectory of Irish history might have been very different.

Of all of 1916's 'what if' scenarios, Pearse and his fellow revolutionaries answering to a court for their actions is among the most intriguing. Would they have grandstanded or defeatedly submitted to the process? Amid the smouldering ruins of the Rising, was a fair hearing even possible? In what way might coverage of the events have impacted on public opinion, in Ireland and abroad?

This weekend TV3 will give viewers a glimpse of how things might have played out, as Love/Hate's Tom Vaughan-Lawlor dons Pearse's iconic green uniform and is placed at the mercy of his peers.

The added twist is the "jury" standing in judgement over the revolutionary will be comprised of real-life personalities, including Amnesty International Ireland director Colm O'Gorman, singer Damien Dempsey and comedian Eleanor Tiernan, with Pat Kenny presiding as chairman.

They will be asked to decide whether taking up arms against Britain was morally and legally justified or, to echo a belief that persists within the UK establishment, the rebellion constituted a "stab in the back" as Britain stood up to German imperialism in Europe.

This may have a whiff of gimmickry and, after endless months of Rising-related commemorations and debates, many of us are coming down with 1916 fatigue. Nonetheless, those involved say they were surprised at just how gripping the tension was as they were asked to reach a verdict on Pearse, whose role in instigating the Rising is divisive to this day.

Episodes one and two of Trial of the Century, going out this Saturday and Sunday, place Pearse at the centre of a gripping courtroom drama, with the scenes filmed at Green Street Courthouse at Smithfield, Dublin. The location was not chosen at random: Green Street was the venue for the trials of revolutionaries Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet and of Fenian leader John Mitchel in 1848. It also has uncomfortable modern resonances as the seat of the non-jury Special Criminal Court at the height of the Troubles.

"There are so many documentaries about the centenary. It has been firmly implanted in the psyche at this stage. What we're asking is 'why can't we approach the sacred cows?," says director Maurice Sweeney.

"People have asked, 'why did you choose to do this with Pearse?' If something like this had gone out on the BBC, nobody would have batted an eyelid. It's almost as if we're not allowed look at Pearse as a human being."

Vaughan-Lawlor was Sweeney's first choice to play Pearse. The actor brings a simmering understatement to the screen. He is calm on the surface yet you are always aware of the volcano rumbling just beneath.

"Pearse was a fascinating guy - very unique. He was driven, idealistic, naive in a lot of ways - a great speaker also. Tom gives a lovely, understated performance, where the drama is slightly under the skin."

In the first broadcast, the British have their say. Lawyers for the prosecution will argue that, as Home Rule had already been enacted (albeit promptly suspended) in 1914, Pearse and his colleagues were guilty of treason. The insurgents will also be blamed for the deaths of the 485 civilians killed during the rebellion. On the second night, the case for the Rising is presented, with the rebels' actions presented in the context of the near extinction of Irish culture in the 19th century and the immorality of Britain's empire building.

Finally, on Monday, the jury (who watched the earlier episodes in advance but did not participate in the filming) will convene to hash out the issue and answer the central question: does Irish independence flow from a lie? Or was Pearse truly the State's founding father, worthy of the veneration shown in the United States to George Washington and in France to the leaders of the 1789 revolution.

"It is very interesting to hear what might have happened had [Pearse] gone on trial and who he might have brought in as a witness - for instance we see him call on James Connolly," says 'juror' Damien Dempsey.

Dempsey went into the process with a clear sense of where he stood. To him the Rising was justified and inevitable after the Famine - a logical outcome following centuries of Imperial exploitation. "I would have been a bit biased," nods Dempsey. "Two people of my family fought in 1916. It's a tough one, though.

"Whenever people get killed, it's hard. I would be of the opinion that British Colonialism killed tens of millions of people. There were double standards. Where was their trial? The Famine was the Irish holocaust. After that, something like the Rising was always going to happen."

The debate became quite heated, Dempsey says. Some on the jury were as trenchant in their belief that the Rising was a criminal undertaking as he was that it was a necessary stage on the road to independence.

"It was interesting to hear the different views. There were pacifists saying it was a terrible event to happen. Things got lively. Nobody was holding back."

"Being a juror was novel in so far as you were constructing an alternative reality," adds comedian Eleanor Tiernan. "You were trying to imagine what might have happened, rather than something that actually had happened. Watching the prosecution and defence elements of the trial I had to constantly remind myself this wasn't a historical re-enactment. It was a 'what might have been?' scenario. It raised a lot of questions."

Generally the jurors were not students of history and went into the process with the same fuzzy understanding of the Rising most of us have. "I was learning on my feet - we all have a vague understanding of what we think 1916 was," says Armagh footballer Oisin McConville.

"You have these myths about the event. It was illuminating to be in the company of people who knew more about it than I did."

Having grown up north of the border, McConville brought his own perspectives. "I was always going to have a different view because I would have felt the six counties are the six forgotten counties. People used the word 'oppression' as if it was a historical thing. I would have felt that oppression in a small village in south Armagh occupied by the British army."

"We are putting history in the dock," says Sweeney. "These people did what they did for a reason. We place our own constructs on it yet they were products of their generation, of a Europe that was a powder keg. It is a fascinating period to revisit."

'Trial of the Century' airs on TV3 Saturday, Sunday and Monday at 9.15pm

Irish Independent

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