In 'Once Upon A Time In Northern Ireland' on PBS, English director James Bluemel and Northern Irish filmmaker Sian McIlwaine focus on the choices and consequences faced by individuals caught up in the conflict.

When you say the words The Troubles now many people's eyes glaze over. They don't want to hear about a lethal conflict that happened long ago, in many cases before they were even born.

But this year marks the 25 anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace it has brought to the North is increasingly being taken for granted, worst of all by some of the very elected officials who are entrusted with its care.

So the arrival of the new PBS series 'Once Upon A Time In Northern Ireland' (the fairytale echo of the title seems like a wry comment on the real horrors it contains) is well timed, because anything that reminds us of just how dark it got and how long it lasted is a necessary corrective to the complacency that's all too common now.

Commissioned for BBC Two, BBC Northern Ireland, and PBS, the new series comes from the award-winning director James Bluemel and the team behind the critically acclaimed BAFTA and Emmy Award-winning series 'Once Upon A Time In Iraq,' which aired as a documentary special in 2020 on PBS.

What you make of the overlap between the two conflicts is an open question, but Bluemel's focus is consistently on the choices and costs faced by individuals caught up in the maelstrom of the larger conflict.

Watching the early years of the Civil Rights protests as their energy and defiance are met with police baton charges and orchestrated assaults is like the first movement of a terrible symphony. 

Once again Bluemel also reminds us that the British Army was greeted with cups of tea and biscuits by the grateful people of the Bogside in a tragic foreshadowing that has lost none of its power to move.

That good fellowship would quickly change when the British Army subjected the locals to terrifying house searches looking for hidden IRA weapons. Then the events of Bloody Sunday led the city and Northern Ireland into a death spiral of violence and retribution that it would take decades to emerge from.

A still from Once Upon A Time In Northern Ireland

A still from Once Upon A Time In Northern Ireland

There is so much power in the early images. There's Paisley with his not an inch rhetoric throwing petrol on flames. There's the city of Belfast burning as Catholics contend with the largest ethnic displacement in Europe since 1945.

Where some would offer further historical context Bluemel chooses personal testimony. This makes what unfolds more dramatic, but it also skips over important developments in a manner you may find inevitable or enraging. 

“We didn't know why the streets were on fire,” says a working-class Protestant Belfast woman who can't have failed to notice the pogrom of Catholics that preceded it. You can't really claim this kind of innocence but the interviewers let it pass without comment. Of course, she knew, the dogs in the street knew. 

“I'm from England,” Bluemel tells IrishCentral. “I grew up with The Troubles on the news when I was young as a sort of constant. But I suppose like a lot of people I didn't really understand it. I think for people in England sometimes there's an apathy about what's happening in Northern Ireland. It was a sort of willful ignorance and the desire to think that it's just over there. And it's nothing to do with us. Which is obviously a massive injustice because it's all to do with us. It's all to do with the British state. So that's the back story, and where I'm from.”

Whilst making his award-winning documentary about the Iraq war for PBS Frontline he was looking at the civil war in Iraq. And it reminded him at times of Northern Ireland, a conflict on his own doorstep. Then came the shame of realizing he had never really understood it, he says. 

“And so that's where the idea of a series on Northern Ireland came from, but one told through ordinary people and not through politicians telling their personal stories,” he says.

A still from "Once Upon A Time In Northern Ireland'

A still from "Once Upon A Time In Northern Ireland'

Sian McIlwaine adds: “I grew up in Northern Ireland. I was born when The Troubles were still happening, but obviously, I didn't really have a memory of it. I do remember the Good Friday Agreement. I guess when I heard about the focus of this series it was definitely interesting because we didn't really get taught anything about The Troubles at school. There was definitely a curiosity to dig into that history. I think especially at home you're definitely aware that this thing sort of hangs over society without ever truly understanding what that is. And you sort of learn a bit more as you get older, and you look at things yourself. It's been a massive privilege to speak to as many people as we have done.”

Wait I say, you weren't taught anything about The Troubles when you were in school? No historical context? Nothing?

“I think we did the Good Friday Agreement but no,” McIlwaine replies. “The school syllabus follows the British one. I went to a state school, which would be seen as a Protestant school. So we would get taught British history. We wouldn't learn any Irish history. When I was growing up it was very much you learn about the Victorians and the Elizabethans and that's the history you know.”

Right there, that's a good reason for this series to exist and for the experiences of the people in it to reach as large an audience as possible. It helps that the direction and focus are so compelling. 

In fact, watching it often feels like having your heart pulled out of your chest. It's down to the power of the individual testimonies, the words of the people who were pulled into this conflict, and the various perspectives they represent. 

When you are forced by war to contemplate your own identity and history and the actions you have taken, you can become alive to your choices and their consequences in ways that people who live in peacetime may not appreciate. At its best 'Once Upon A Time In Northern Ireland' turns the camera on people who barely escaped with their lives or now regret the person they once were, the murderous work they foolishly volunteered for, and the long shadow it has cast over their lives. 

“We wanted to really prioritize voices that have never been heard before in a mainstream way like this. If you have people telling their stories and explaining what life was like from their point of view within their own community the audience will be able to empathize with that position.” 

Ideally, you could find yourself empathizing with people that you never thought you could empathize with, especially within Northern Ireland. Wouldn't it be interesting if if you could tell the story of the Hunger Strikes in such a way that you feel something for someone you never thought you could, because you never considered it like that. And I think that is something that any sort of good documentary should sort of strive for.”

'Once Upon A Time in Northern Ireland' will debut on PBS on May 22.