Rebellion (Colin Teevan / RTE 2016)
2016 marks the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, a pivotal moment in Ireland’s revolutionary period, and the event from which the modern Irish state traces its inception. Rebellion is RTE’s dramatic centrepiece to mark the halfway point in what has been described as a decade of commemorations. Reaction to the five part series has been “mixed” to put it mildly. Criticism has ranged from its perceived historical inaccuracies and politically motivated revisionism, to more general flaws of execution, with a melodramatic storyline that seems to owe more to ITV’s Downton Abbey than a historical epic. John Boland (2016) felt that it failed to convince, “largely because [the writer] Teevan had come up with embodiments rather than individuals, character types that could be ticked off a checklist.” Bernice Harrison (2016) excoriated its attempts to exert its feminist credentials by placing women at the centre of the narrative, while replacing the female nurse who carried the white flag at the rebels’ surrender with a man.The public also seemed to tire as the weeks passed, with first run audiences dropping from 619,000 in the first week, to 487,000 by week four (Slattery 2016). One dissenting voice was Eoghan Harris (2016) in the Sunday Independent,who praised the drama’s apparent courage in proving that the Irish, and not “the Brits”, were the architects of their problems.
It is Harris’s evaluation of the series’ alleged strengths that points toward its greatest weakness. For a drama intended to tell the story of a rebellion against what was then the most powerful empire on earth, there is little sense of any context beyond the parochial and insular concerns of the (mostly) Dubliners involved. There is little sense, as Justine McCarthy (2016) points out, that “anti-imperialism was a growing movement around the world in the late 19th and early 20th century”. However, while Rebellion can be denounced or praised for many of its constituent elements, whether perceivedrevisionism, anachronistic dialogue, or Downton Abbey pretensions, the main problem lies in its refusal to properly commit to any of them in a way that makes for convincing and compelling drama.
Written by Colin Teevan, whose previous credits include the 2015 drama Charlie (on former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Charles Haughey), the series had a – by RTE standards – substantial reported budget of €6m (Brosnan 2016). This is small in global terms, but the production still looks relatively impressive, not least because it was able to shoot on location at many of the key buildings from the period. Arguably the most surprising aspect is the decision taken by the national broadcaster not to commission an Irish-based company to lead the production, opting instead for the Paris-headquartered Zodiak Media (albeit Element Pictures played a co-producer role). As a consequence, although most of the key creative personnel were Irish, two senior crew members – director (Aku Louhimies) and editor (Benjamin Mercer) – are Finns. That the national broadcaster subcontracted out the making of a drama about one of the foundational moments of the state to a multinational melange of production companies says a lot about the economic orthodoxy in Ireland in 2016.
Therefore Rebellion was apparently commissioned with two intentions. The producers seem to have been intent on creating something with enough period drama flourish to appeal to audiences enthralled by Downton Abbey or Poldark (BBC 2015). (This paid off even before the series was completed with Sundance TV in the US acquiring US rights to the show at MIPCOM in October 2015). In interview Teevan has spoken of his desire to create a drama that deliberately sidelined the rising’s major figures in favour of a more bottom up perspective, especially the stories of habitually marginalised female characters, a decision which promised an innovative perspective on events. Teevan has noted how unaware he was of the prominent role of women during the Rising, declaring himself “‘astonished’ by the numbers involved once he had researched the period” (McGreevy 2016). He cites Dr Kathleen Lynn as an inspiration for some of the characters, before curiously claiming that “the Irish Citizen Army was a strange alliance of middle-class women and working-class men. That really led me to the stories of the women” (ibid.). This revelation would come as news to working class women of the Irish Citizen Armylike Rosie Hackett (whose name adorns a new bridge over the river Liffey). While there is an element of truth in Teevan’s statement, it elides the far greater prominence of working class women, like Hackett and Helena Molony. It also ignores the more radical truth that the Citizen Army was the only organisation that went into action in 1916 with working class men and women fighting together. Furthermore, the equation of working class men with middle class women is an interesting illustration of their relative places in the hierarchy of marginalised voices. Working class women of course are largely voiceless. The most prominent “working class” woman in the drama is not one of the three main characters, but a prostitute-cum-pettythief-cum-looter, albeit her criminality is contextualised by her poverty.
With the parts of medical student Elizabeth Butler played by Charlie Murphy, Cumann na mBan member Frances O’Flaherty by Ruth Bradley, and Brian Gleeson playing Citizen Army soldier Jimmy Mahon, there are obvious intertextual associations with RTE’s Love/Hate. In one sense that crime drama is the nearest analogue to Rebellion in terms of approach to its subject. Both tell stories that cry out for contextualisation, while settling for a frustrating preoccupation with minute and individual motivations that fail to resonate with wider themes. In both cases the depiction of working class life seems largely composed of violence and criminality.
The lack of context means that there is also little sense of why the rebellion actually happened. As Tom Stokes observes in a recent review:
There has been no attempt so far to explain the motivations behind the revolution apart from the need to break the link with the coloniser. Without those motivations being referred to the revolution is just an amateurish enterprise inspired by nationalistic grievance (Stokes 2016a).
Some curious dramatic choices are made, particularly in the need to create some kind of immediate cause for the Rising itself. The “Castle document” is included, an apparent plan by the British administration to arrest prominent nationalists, but which is still subject to debate as to whether or not it was genuine (Townsend 2005: 131-3). Regardless of its actual provenance, in the drama it is smuggled out of the castle, not in an act of nationalist rebellion, but in a fit of pique by the jilted May Lacey (Sarah Green). Similarly, a second episode scene depicts the cold-blooded shooting of a woman by a member of the Irish volunteers. Although although the Volunteers may in fact have shot at those looting shops near Rising hotspots, in this case this woman is not depcited as a looter leaving her murder unexplained. Even more curious, is the inclusion without context or explanation of a summaryexecution by the British Army. Tom Stokes (2016b) asks the question, “Why might it be important to know that he [the executed man] was Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a journalist, an advanced-feminist, a pacifist who had played no part in the revolution itself?” That only those with previous knowledge of the period will make this connection further raises questions about the utility of the drama in terms of recounting the story of 1916.
Similarly, while it is one thing to tell the story of the Rising from a number of perspectives, it is another to treat its organisers as both incidental and one dimensional. Michael Collins, a minor figure at this time, is accorded nearly as much screen time and dialogue as James Connolly. Indeed, Connolly, who has left a collection of readily available writing from which to fashion some dialogue, is largely silent throughout. When, in an entirely speculative fourth episode encounter with British civil servant George Hammond, he does expound at some length, he speaks in nationalist clichés, his socialist beliefs left unreferenced.
With its nods to period costume drama, Rebellion recalls earlier co-productions of Irish historical drama. In 1982 The Year of the French retold the United Irishman rebellion of 1798, and was produced, appropriately, with French channel FR3 and Channel 4 in Britain. Commercial logic suggested that the subject matter should prove appealing to a French and an Irish audience. This proved not to be the case, with the finished product containing lots of decontextualized battle scenes, superficial political engagement and interpersonal intrigue (Sheehan 1987). Similarly in Rebellion, heavily telegraphed allegorical domestic troubles are included at the expense of any attempt to contextualise what was happening. The story of 1916 is swamped “in a drama largely about the comings and goings of establishment families and characters” (Stokes 2016c).
Responses to the drama on social media focussed on perceived historical inaccuracies, from the inclusion of the “Castle document”, to the caricatured representation of Constance Markiewicz, who appears only once and comes across as both unhinged and in possession of an unfeasible Dublin accent. Eamon deValera is represented as cowardly, incompetent and devious. By contrast, the appearances of Michael Collins underline his confident presence, and bluff amiability, counterposing the pragmatism of the most famous treaty signatory against a collection of semi-delusional romantics. The contrast is underlined particularly forcefully in episode three, which sees a speech by Padraig Pearse intercut against Jimmy Mahon and Elizabeth Butler grieving the death of the former’s nephew. Pearse is raving, amid the götterdämmerung of the GPO, about how their children will reap the fruits of their sacrifice.
While the Irish Citizen Army is represented more sympathetically, at least in terms of motivation, aspects of their depiction also raise questions. In the second episode Jimmy, sitting in Liberty Hall, quotes from a pamphlet by Lenin. That English translations of Lenin pamphlets were available in Dublin in 1916 seems implausible at best. Regardless, Jimmy is sitting in Liberty Hall, where Ireland’s first socialist newspaper is written and printed and where the works of the socialist James Connolly (not to mention the author himself) would have been far more accessible. The effect, through ignorance or design, underlines the idea of socialist thought and class conflict as a foreign import, and not something that emerged naturally from the social conditions in Dublin at the time.
These social conditions are paid lip service, but seem barely visible, in a city with the worst slums in Europe, barely three years after a protracted labour lockout. The depiction of urban squalor seems lifted from a stage production of Les Miserables. There is also little sense of the slums, or of people living on top of each other. The Mahon’s room compares favourably with some flats available for rent in Dublin in 2016, resembling nothing so much as an unimaginative staging of O’Casey. In this regard, the series compares badly with Strumpet City (RTE 1980), which successfully evoked the sense of claustrophobic damp and darkness of people living in close proximity, and where access to space was a clear marker of class privilege.
The most noteworthy aspect remains the inclusion of three prominent female characters, in a television landscape where a single female lead remains unusual. Unfortunately, as the earlier cited comment by Bernice Harrison suggests, they are ill-served by the script. Niamh Horan (2016) suggests that this female representation partly consists of a prostitute “asking soldiers if they ‘fancy a f*ck?’ and a scene where the two main female leads tear shreds from each other over the men in their life”, while “afterwards, social media was alight with praise simply because the storyline ‘revolved around women’”. In fact, all three women are defined by the men in their lives. Elizabeth’s decision to throw in her lot with the Rising on her wedding days seems at least partly motivated by her attraction to Jimmy. She runs from one man to another. Frances Flaherty is platonically en thrall to Pearse, and having spent most of the series dressed as a man, Frances reveals that she has romantic feelings for May at the very end. The inclusion is tokenistic and ill-judged, particularly as it seems to conflate Frances’s sexuality and gender identity with her emerging ruthlessness. The final scene shows Frances shooting a police detective in the back of the head, on a Dublin street.
It also points up a central problematic with the drama’s approach to marginalised voices. There were a number of gay women active during the Rising one of whom, Kathleen Lynn, appears in Rebellion as Elizabeth’s superior in the Citizen Army. Lynn was a doctor, who fought alongside her partner Madeleine ffrench-Mullen during Easter week, living with her for decades afterwards (Sheehan 2016). Elizabeth O’Farrell, who carried the white flag at the surrender, and who is replaced by a man in Rebellion is buried in the same grave as her partner in Glasnevin cemetery (ibid). If the intention was to tell the story from the point of view of those whose narratives have been suppressed, there is no shortage of those on whom to base narratives of radical politics and life experience, to help contextualise the roots of the rebellion.
As Robert Rosenstone has argued in his numerous engagements with the genre of the historical film, “it is precisely at the level of argument and metaphor, particularly as these engage the larger discourse of history”, that its contribution lies (2006: 39). Insofar as the drama expresses a coherent political perspective on the events, it is that the Rising was a reckless, ill-thought out, and naïve piece of adventurism, launched with a callous disregard for the inhabitants of Dublin, and made immeasurably worse by the stupidity of the British response. Furthermore, while there were undoubtedly many Irish men in the British Army at the time, the extent to which they are foregrounded in Dublin during the early days of the Rising seems to reconfigure the conflict more as a civil war, than an anti-colonial rebellion. The perspective could perhaps best be characterised as one that manages to blame both the Irish and British simultaneously. While this might seem to place it in a rather ecumenical position with regard to debates around 1916, it also suggests a dramatic point of view strangely detached from history. However, the subtext of the conclusion potentially makes a different argument. This seems to suggest that the rebellion and its aftermath were irruptions into a relatively stable social order, where progress was being made, especially in the shape of its feminist protagonists. It closes with Elizabeth’s drunken wastrel brother, who has inherited the family fortune, declaiming his “plans for this new hibernian world” in the company of his working class prostitute companion. What are we to make of this? Are these the people who will inherit the country?
It has been suggested that this is merely the first part of a trilogy of dramas to chart the revolutionary period in Ireland, with further instalments about the War of Independence and Civil War (Blake Knox 2015). In this respect, the ending of Rebellion may come to make some kind of retrospective sense. However, these are periods which have already received significant attention from more politically motivated film-makers, albeit of differing ideological leanings; Neil Jordan’s pro-Treaty Michael Collins (1996) biopic, and Ken Loach’s socialist revisionism of the same period, The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006). To build on the achievements of each, RTE will need to produce something more substantial than a drama that pursues international sales by gutting the period of its radical underpinnings.
Blake Knox, Kirsty. 2016. “Women central to drama that makes history feel new”. Irish Independent, January 5 .2-3.
_______. 2015. “RTE plans second series of ‘Rebellion’”. Irish Independent, December 22. 20.
Boland, John. 2016. “RTE’s 1916 history lesson lacks a touch of real drama”. Irish Independent, January 9. 18.
Brosnan, Sean. 2016. “Rebellion’s Ruth Bradley talks improv and empowering female characters” IFTN.IE. Accessed 22 February 2016. http://iftn.ie/?act1=record&aid=73&rid=4288885&sr=1&only=1&hl=Rebellion&tpl=archnews.
Harris, Eoghan. 2016. “Blame the Irish dogs that did not bark in the night-time”. Sunday Independent [online], January 31st. Available from: http://www.independent.ie/opinion/columnists/eoghan-harris/blame-the-irish-dogs-that-did-not-bark-in-the-nighttime-34410186.html[Accessed 14 February 2016]
Harrison, Bernice. 2016. “Truth of rebellion more dramatic than this fiction”. The Irish Times, February 1. 4.
Horan, Niamh. 2016. “Brave rebels turned into doe-eyed girls. Sunday Independent, January 10. 14.
McGreevy, Ronan. 2016. “TV writer amazed at women’s 1916 role”. The Irish Times, January 11. 3.
Sheehan, Maeve. 2016a. “Lesbians of 1916 are the Rising’s ‘hidden history’”. Sunday Independent, January 24. 28.
_______. 2016b. They gave everything for their country and were then overlooked. Sunday Independent, January 10. 14.
Scally, Aisling. 2015. “The (euro) 6m haul”. Irish Daily Mail, December 22. 3.
Slattery, Laura. 2016. “‘Rebellion’ surrenders its hold on viewers”. The Irish Times, January 26. 4.
Stokes, Tom. 2016a. “The deliberate disaster that is RTE’s ‘Rebellion’”. The Irish Republic, January 11. Available from: https://theirishrepublic.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/the-deliberate-disaster-that-is-rtes-rebellion/ [Accessed 14 February 2016]
_______. 2016b. “RTE’s ‘Rebellion’ series, and its propaganda value”. The Irish Republic. January 18. Available from: https://theirishrepublic.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/rtes-rebellion-series-and-its-propaganda-value/ [Accessed 14 February 2016]
_______. 2016c. “RTE’s ‘Rebellion’ – slandering heroes while creating dross”. The Irish Republic, January 25. Available from: https://theirishrepublic.wordpress.com/2016/01/25/rtes-rebellion-slandering-heroes-while-creating-dross/ [Accessed 14 February 2016]
Tipton, Gemma. 2016. “Great Irish homes with added drama”. The Irish Times, January 28. 13.