Leabharlann na Meán


Memory and Imagination mediated for a ‘mass’ audience - Lelia Doolan

17th November, 2022

Over fifty years ago, we used to do the politics programme, 7 Days, every Monday night on RTÉ. With proper ructions on occasion. We were off the air for the summer and I was on a holiday in Camp, Co. Kerry when on August 20th, 1968, the Warsaw Pact countries, led by the Soviet Union, (now Russia), rolled tanks and troops into Czechoslovakia, into Prague, to put a stop to the gentle rebirth of freedoms and an end to Dubćek’s reforms. I remember lying out to get a signal in those starlit nights listening to news on shortwave radio from New York, to the meetings of the United Nations. The Czech plenipotentiary came to plead with his global compatriots to come to their aid. On that crackly radio, his voice was urgent and emotional and his words were most affecting. I was riveted. I could see those tanks, the horror of the people, the suddenness. It is still an unforgettable moment to me -- the shock of war. We’re all too familiar with it today, with the sounds and the images from the heart-rending scenes in Ukraine.

What would it have been like more than fifty years earlier, to hear on radio when the gunboat Helga came up the Liffey to put an end to our declaration of a free and independent republic? There was no United Nations to appeal to, then; few enough to hear, except by word of mouth, that fearful, poetic and resolute, strangely elated moment. Most people were unaware. There were no moving cameras to follow every awesome moment. James Stephens walked the streets to and from his office, writing about what he saw in his simple, graphic, calm way. Maire Comerford circled the cut-off city, enchanted and frustrated.

The Rising. The risen people. It is an emotional image. I would have been as riveted by the dream of those passionate poets and unexpected soldiers -- and as caught up in those later moments of ghastly retribution - the executions. They changed everything. And then the War of Independence, the Treaty and its debates. What would it have been like to see the the Four Courts under siege, the tragedy of comrade against comrade. And our emerging slightly Free State. The amputated North of Ireland. A League of Nations reject until 1923. Few phones, little radio but morse code; photographers, yes; and contending headlines and propaganda.

Michael Collins, then eighteen years old, sat in the London offices of the British Civil Service, opposite my father, two years his junior in 1908. Michael was already a member of the IRB, the secret Fenian army who rose from the Famine and became the brotherhood that finally created what Nuala O’Faolain called “our damp little shambles of a democracy”.

But there was no public medium to help us know the dreams and hopes of all those Irish language and literary enthusiasts, the trades unionists and suffragettes, those young military and sportspeople - - what did they have in common? How were we to know?  Were all their aims compatible? Did they meet everyone's aspirations?

Was it freedom to run their own affairs? Of course. A more equal society? Less poverty? A fair-minded country that gave everyone a chance to flourish?

Or was it about a bit more land for me? A decent job? A bigger farm? A bigger shop? My son the priest? A new life of respectablity? Bernadette McAliskey used to say: it’s always about land

The women of Citizen Army and Volunteers, the Suffrage movement and the majority of Cumann na mBan members had the bad manners to believe in the rhetoric and ideas of the Proclamation of the Republic in 1916 and in the Democratic Programme. They believed that the republic would be built on new, Irish-structured organisations and systems to suit the innate creativity and eccentric idealism of the Irish, different from English bureaucracy, maybe, with a more open spirituality based on an earlier, less mysogonistic catholicism and the centuries-old generosity of broad swathes of Irish citizens. But those men who had survived the Rising and terms in prison, described these womanly bad manners as shrill and unbending. Would the existence of a contemporary media have offered a different view?

Maybe I’m foolish to believe that the inclusion of a woman among the plenipotentiaries could have led to a more generally acceptable outcome. What about the involvement of figures like Mary MacSwiney in the Treaty negotiations? Her intellect and force of character, or the down-to-earth imperiousness of the Countess could have resisted the bullying of Churchill and Birkenhead and the wiliness of Lloyd George. But it was left to young Irish women’s shorthand excellence, not to their arguments. Maybe this was the beginning of the exclusion of women from public life, after a British civil service model? Mary MacSwiney’s grand nephew, Cathal MacSwiney Brugha, spoke about his aunt in a recent documentary by the Cork film collective, Frameworks and local historians called Ordinary Women in Extraordinary Times. He revealed that she had wanted to go to London for the negotiations – but people like Collins and Griffiths rejected her. Too argumentative…

It did not take long for women’s roles in the Revolution as messengers, combatants, spies and intelligence officers, despatch riders, jailbirds, organisers of rallies and protests, hunger strikers, writers, educators and full-time providers of safe houses, to be scrubbed from the record until a new generation of scholars and historians led by the likes of Margaret MacCurtain, Margaret Ward and others, began to set the record straight. No mass media at work there to balance that record - until after the events. For instance, it was last May when we had an opportunity to see and taste the dreams and heartbreak of the seven women survivors of the leaders in the documetary on RTÉ – Forgotten: Widows of The Irish Revolution. Sé Merry Doyle’s The Rebel Doctor has kept alive for us the life’s work of Kathleen Lynn, great saviour of poor children and their penniless mothers.

So how, in earlier times, were those days and aspirations conveyed to every citizen?

Four years after the end of the Civil War, the independent Irish radio station 2RN went on air – situated high up in the shoulder of the GPO. It became Radio Éireann, within the Department of Posts and Telegraphs – beloved of farmers for weather forecasts, and saving the dry battery for Mícheál Ó hEithir and the great pictures he made of hurling matches; dear to those who loved the radio play on Sunday nights, and the Kilfenora Céilí Band…the poultry instructor, the Making and Mending man.

Later, in the early fifties until 1964, Gael Linn, the inventive Irish language promoters, produced a fortnightly newsreel of Irish life, Amharc Éireann, by Colm Ó Laoghaire, with Jim Mulkerns. They were so popular that the Rank film organisation agreed to show the newsreels in all their cinemas. Gael Linn was one of those who offered their services to run an Irish television service but was unsuccessful…

The State’s belief in the efficacy of the advance factory idea led to the establishment of Ardmore Film Studios in 1958, to welcome American films and promote the Abbey Theatre and Irish actors. It was the brainchild of Emmet Dalton, recovered veteran of the Civil War, Michael Collins’ friend. It was less welcome to Irish film-makers and activists like Louis Marcus and Tiernan MacBride who thought supporting Ireland’s own film-makers should be our first priority. One of the early films there, in 1959 was Shake Hands With The Devil, a big action film, from a 1933 novel by Rearden Conner. It was set in the War of Independence at the start of the Black and Tan era and ended with the Truce. It starred James Cagney as a slightly believable IRA commandant and Trinity College medical professor, with Michael Redgrave as Michael Collins – the General. It had a huge cast of great Irish actors. Cyril Cusack as a philosopher and Irish language poet on the run is a lovely mystical thread in the tweedy mix! It was an undeniably pro-Treaty document, showing that the anti-Treaty argument was far too unrealistic, far too extreme. Not a word about any socialist dimension to those days, however…

In a sense, that was left to Saoirse? - with a question mark - George Morrison’s monumental, tragic sequel in 1961 to the more hopeful Mise Éire, a hymn to patriotic romanticism with Seán Ó Riada’s majestic score.

And then, that same year, Irish television. Understandably, as with the earlier thinking of Collins and Griffith – and then De Valera and John Charles McQuaid - in 1959, Michael Hilliard was able to declare in the Dáil “This television service will not be run by Beelzebub but by nine responsible people" – no irony that the nine responsible people were eight men and one woman – at least better than the Council of State where there was not a single woman in 1966.

Nevertheless, as in literature, there were enough creative souls to draw attention to the anomalies and corruptions as well as to the marvels of the State. Nowadays, many tell their stories through independent television and film companies and collectives outside rather than within RTÉ. But starting back then, the absolutist position of the religious, political and cultural male elites who looked after censorship of films and books, the policing and imprisoning of young pregnant women in loveless institutions and the villainy of corrupt businessmen became slowly more obvious to the watching public… Mary Raftery on TV, Marian Finucane and Katie Hannon on radio, among others, have told the hard truths about our democracy.

In general, though, as with the foundation of the State and many matters Irish, television was that strange child of ambiguous creativity, pinioned between national intelligence and national pragmatism – political and commercial forces. Too dangerous to leave broadcasting to the broadcasters…

And then came the commemorations. Like Yeats’s question “did that play of mine send out certain men the English shot?” we might ask the same of RTÉ’s 1966 anniversary programming: John Bowman, here present, records it as somewhat alarming that RTÉ’s Authority and senior editorial team had decided that the commemoration was to be shown “as a nationalist rather than a socialist” event and that the approach in programming would be ‘idealistic and emotional’ rather than ‘interpretive and analytical’. There were eight “newsreels” transmitted every night, reports and reconstructions of what would have happened each day of the conflict, called Insurrection! written by Hugh Leonard. They were stirring reminders of the nation’s aspirations. There is good reason to reflect on the perceived influence these high octane dramas had on the subsequent civil rights movements and then on the openly armed hostilities in Northern Ireland – the ‘unfinished’ business - meaning unfinished military business…

However, these newsreels were balanced by thoughtful interviews with descendants and relations of the executed signatories and combatants. Most memorable and affecting among these was the remembrance of Nora Connolly O’Brien, James Connolly’s daughter. She recalled the night before her father was executed. Her mother and she, as eldest daughter, were called to see him in Dublin Castle. He greeted them and said ‘Well Lily, I suppose you know what this means’ and she said ‘but your life, James, your beautiful life’ and he replied: ‘but wasn’t it a full life and isn’t this a good end!’. It was a moment of real feeling. Without media, those moments and their insights would have been lost to our imaginations. It made broadcasting a valuable addition to Irish conversation.

And, still later,  RTÉ’s great production by Tony Barry of James Plunkett Kelly’s Strumpet City did remind people that there had been a Larkin and a Connolly and Irish women and men socialists at war with Church and commerce associated with nationalist pretenders. The many strands of Irish life and class were not forever with O’Leary in the grave.

So how well have our public media worked in informing, educating and entertaining the mass about the Decade of Centenaries?

I incline to the theory that there is no such thing as the mass – rather there are overlapping families of interest and attention, some with a similar intentionality – like all those varied, complicated parties, striving for Irish liberty. What is undeniable is certain people’s propensity to manipulation by elites…

Nowadays, the mass, in effect, is a carefully delineated order of groups and sub-groups -- to whom to sell things: ideas, wants, aspirations. In the old days, it was the Church who generally held the cards of totalitarian cultural power; the national illusion is that these cards are held by government and opposition. The reality nowadays is that corporations and their electronic voices and technologically uniform structures rule everything.

The last of the State’s public media supports, TG4, opened in 1996, a lively and innovative addition to our media. Like every Irish broadcaster, it has engaged with the decade of commemorations. TG4 have broadcast programmes about Tom Barry, Dan Breen, Ernie O’Malley, films on women’s role and, directly on the Civil War – an independent film by Jerry O’Callaghan is to be shown in December - Marú in Íarthar Chorcaí – Cogadh Saoirse no Cogadh Seicteach? (Massacre in West Cork – Civil War or Sectarian War?).

RTÉ TV’s Nationwide has done almost thirty short pieces since 2016 – historical reconstructions and remembrances, mostly by the redoubtable Donal Byrne. All  commemorative events have been covered live and online by RTÉ.

As for the Civil War itself -- Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins is concerned in large part with the Civil War and the roles of Collins and de Valera within it. He recently said that he believes his treatment of Dev was not fair. For me it was the playing of de Valera by the overly nasal, sadly departed, actor, Alan Rickman that did a lot of the damage. Independent documentaries like The Limits of Liberty take on the State’s conduct of the ideals of the Rising and examine the extent to which we have carried them out – concluding that we have not yet realised those dreams. In Keepers of the Flame, a full length feature documentary, there is poignant evidence from some of the descendants of those thousands overlooked and impoverished for following the republican vision of their ancestors.

But chief among Civil War film work and challenges to our national sensitivities, must be Ken Loach’s unapologetically socialist The Wind that Shakes the Barley. In one scene at Mass, the priest thunders the bishops’ belief in the virtues of the Treaty and its promise of peace - against the leftwing obduracy of the anti-Treaty attitude – “I suppose next ye’ll want to nationalise the twelve apostles!”

It is good to remember a major challenge in all film and documentary work. It is essentially expensive. It is essentially group work. As a small country, we cannot achieve the total financing of a feature or a documentary. It generally takes four or five - or more - financial partners. It is tedious, hard work. Nowadays, more and more, the State’s application requirements can run to 45 pages of questions. The mania for reams of defence documentation is all-pervasive. It takes a major effort to maintain a creative spark. The armies of administrators, each with an opinion, a criticism, a small bit of power, believe, as in days of old, that each one has a divine right to wield that power.

No wonder people under forty rarely look at television nowadays. Social media, the often hateful shorthand of social encounters, and drama series on other media publishers, are the draw. Do ancient viewers still switch on the Late Late Show on Fridays, knowing from Wednesday morning who will be there – repeated ad nauseum during the programme itself to insult the audience’s intelligence - and to fill advertising slots.

There is forever, thank god, beyond hierarchies of silly class and power abuses, the awkwardly independent and charmingly irrepressible Irish genius for ad hoc arrangements for difficult truth-telling.

Yeats will always remind me of the persistent emotion of civil war at the tower at Ballylee, of daily life itself:

            We are closed in and the key is turned

            On our uncertainty

One of the most compelling Civil War memories this year is of Martin McDonagh’s moving, brutal and hilarious The Banshees of Inisherin; the loving eccentricity of character, the rending of friendship, the self-mutilation and tragedy that ensues. In the vast grandeur of our countryside, that kind of remembering is thought-provoking, ethical, magnanimous.