It’s fair to say that the claim that the 1916 Easter Rising was the “seminal event of modern Irish history” is a massive overstatement. As the Cauldron of European Nationalism the 1914-18 war was as integral to the formation of modern Ireland as was the Famine, the Land League, and the 1913 Lockout. In April 1916 violence was categorically not the only route to national self-determination open to Ireland. Be that as it may the events of Easter week 1916 in Dublin are important and an essential element of the telling of Ireland’s story.
Owing to the particular nature of Ireland’s path to independence; one bourgeois state replacing another, the present Irish government – a reproduction in miniature of British colonial administration – has done everything possible to distance itself from the radicalism of the forces which led to the violence of 1916. The Rising’s memory has been kept alive this past hundred years by the ongoing Republican struggle for a united Ireland, and in more recent times its antinomianism has been taken up by the swelling protest movement responding to increasing economic austerity. While 1916 remains a thorn in the side of Ireland’s social and political establishment, it is well understood that in this centennial year it can be completely ignored only at great peril.
Our state broadcaster RTÉ, as an afterthought of the most embarrassing kind, has cobbled together a dramatisation to at least be seen to be doing something. Having watched now three of the four instalments the whole country seems to be of the opinion that perhaps it would have been better had the broadcaster done nothing. Plenty of people on the Irish blogosphere have already torn it a new one with regard to the appalling acting and its complete disregard for the basics of drama such as character development and historical research. Let’s not recreate that here. All that can be said on that score is that it’s right down there with Fair City (‘Fairly Shitty) and TV3’s Red Rock.
Rebellion is a symptom of something else that’s going on. As spectacle it is working hard to replicate the icon of Irish revolutionary memory, and the poor dialogue is not without its genius. Few of the conversations in the programme are geared towards deepening the viewer’s understanding of the persons involved, but it is retelling (or revising) the history. RTÉ, as the monopoly holder on the education of the television watching public, is knee deep in a process of euthanising what was never really a rebellion or a rising, but a revolution – and one which is still incomplete. What we are seeing on our screens of a Sunday night is a sophisticated effort to put this genie back in the bottle.