Sunday 26 May 2019

1916 Rebellion: Six days that shook the world

As far afield as Africa and India, 1916 made the headlines, the producer of a new documentary tells our reporter

'Pride': Professor Bríona Nic Dhiarmada, chair of Irish Language and Literature at the University of Notre Dame, whose documentary series '1916' begins tonight.
'Pride': Professor Bríona Nic Dhiarmada, chair of Irish Language and Literature at the University of Notre Dame, whose documentary series '1916' begins tonight.

Celine Naughton

For such a pivotal episode in modern Irish history, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the 1916 Easter Rising also had a major impact on world history, the reverberations of which could be felt long after the guns had fallen silent in Dublin's shattered city centre.

According to the producer and writer of 1916, a major new three-part documentary airing for the first time tonight, the doomed rebellion was likewise subject to influences from far beyond Ireland's shores at a time when seismic events were beginning to undermine the established global order.

The brainchild of Professor Bríona Nic Dhiarmada, chair of Irish Language and Literature at the University of Notre Dame, the documentary casts new light on this iconic 100-year-old story by placing it within the context of what was happening in the wider world at that time.

Narrated by Liam Neeson, she says the inspiration for the documentary came from Ken Burns's highly acclaimed series about the American Civil War.

"I wanted to put the Easter Rising in its international context, and try and do for Irish history what Ken Burns achieved in his excellent documentary," she says.

"The Rising coincided with the rise of socialism, women's suffrage and revolutionary fervour that swept across Europe.

"The number of people who died during the Rising paled into insignificance compared with those killed in the Somme. Yet, from the archives of the New York Times, we discovered the Rising made front page headlines in the New York Times for 14 consecutive days, pushing stories about WW1 into second place.

"And they weren't sympathetic, at least not in the early days, but after the executions, 20,000 people lined the streets of New York in protest. At the same time, India was also looking to Ireland, as it identified with the idea of self-determination and rising up against a common enemy. But while Ghandi and Nehru didn't like the Sinn Féin example, the radical Subhal Chandra Bose in Bengal was directly influenced by the Irish experience.

"On Good Friday 1930, a group of revolutionaries known as the Indian Republican Army took over the post office in Chittagong (now in Bangladesh) and staged their own Easter Rising. The leaders were later arrested and hanged.

"Other nations under British rule reasoned if this little country could stand up to Britain, then so could they. During a rally for independence in British East Africa (now Tanzania), civilians held a banner which read, 'Africa will be free, by Hook or by Crook.'

"This was significant, because that phrase originated in Oliver Cromwell's famous claim, 'I will take Ireland by Hook or by Crook,' referring to Hook Head in Co Wexford and Crook, Co Waterford."

The series combines archive footage, photos and drawings with contributions from Irish and international historians who show the Rising in the context of the time in which it was set.

"It's easy to be cynical of the Proclamation of Independence in the light of today, but Ireland was not a liberal democracy when it was drawn up. Only 60pc of people could vote. No woman could vote. People had difficult choices to make.

"History is far from black and white, it's full of nuance, so demonising the Rising leaders as a bunch of lunatics serves as little purpose as making them holier-than-thou heroes. It's the complications and contradictions of it all that I find most interesting.

"We've put back parts of history that were taken out, whether through accident or design. This is as much a part of British history as it is Irish. The British soldiers were so young and inexperienced, many who arrived in Kingstown, now Dun Laoghaire, thought they were in France. Most had never fired a gun before and within hours, hundreds were dead.

"I hope the series goes some way to restore a little pride in ourselves as a nation. We do far too much self-flagellation, and we have much to be proud of. The Irish army is one of the few never to have gone to war in the last century, we've been peacekeepers and exemplars for other countries who have not been a colonial power.

"For our size, we've had a ripple effect across the world."

Costing close to €3 million to make, the documentary was largely funded by the University of Notre Dame and its sponsors, with 20pc of the budget coming from RTE and Section 481 funding.

"Chris Fox, director of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at Notre Dame and I, worked hand in glove," says Bríona. "We were very fortunate that Liam Neeson came on board at an early stage, we had researchers digging into archives worldwide, and all the shooting and pre and post-production were done in Ireland.

"Together with my co-producer Jackie Larkin, we were able to put together a really experienced, creative team, including Ruán Magan who co-wrote the script, designer Annie Atkins who won an Oscar for best production design for the film The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Linda Cullen and Stuart Switzer of Irish production company, CoCo Television.

"When we took it to a distributor for public service broadcasting in the States, it was immediately taken up by 120 stations coast to coast, which is phenomenal."

'1916' is on RTE1 tonight, 9.35pm. A companion book 'The 1916 Irish Rebellion' will be published by Cork University Press on February 18

Irish Independent

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