"Rebellion," the gripping new five part series on Irish network RTE about the 1916 Rising that will be broadcast in the U.S. in April on Sundance TV, takes an up close look at the Irish uprising and paints a vivid picture of the emerging nation that's as relevant now as when the first shot was fired. Cahir O'Doherty talks to the program's writer, Colin Teevan, and asks him what he's learned about Ireland's revolutionary generation from writing their unforgettable story.
What would you have done in Dublin in 1916? Would you have joined the rebellion to free Ireland from centuries of British rule? Or would have locked your door and prayed the guns didn't reach you?
Could you have taken a more venial route, like smashing in a shop window and helping yourself to whatever came to hand like every other looter taking advantage of the chaos?
The basic question that writer Colin Teevan, 47, asked himself over and over as he wrote Rebellion, the gripping new five part TV series filmed in Dublin that was just picked up by Sundance TV and will be broadcast in the U.S. for the centenary was, what would I do?
That put-yourself-in-their shoes question has turned "Rebellion" into a totally immersive, you-are-there experience that shows exactly how complex and dangerous the Rising really was.
“I started with a list of things I didn't want to do,” Teevan, who grew up in Dublin but now lives in the U.K., tells the Irish Voice.
“I didn't want to do the great men of history making the decisions, or the glorious history of it all, because that approach is always written with the benefit of hindsight.”
Every Irish school kid already knows who the Rising's leaders were and what they stood for, but what makes "Rebellion" work is that it shows us just how many ordinary Irish people also had a dog in the race.
From its opening scene "Rebellion" breaks away from portraying the usual iconic subjects and gives us a series of bloody street level skirmishes involving ordinary people that only really conclude after the British bring in the huge battle ships, and their big guns pound the city into the ground.
“I'm not a politician. I don't have a particular angle to try and sell to people,” explains Teevan.
“The question I asked myself was, what was it like to have lived through this? What side would you have been on? What decision would you have taken if you didn't know what way history was turning? I wanted to write from the point of view of people living through it.”
It's often forgotten now, but Dublin in 1916 was 25 percent Protestant. The British already administered the city and the country from strongholds that had proved unassailable for centuries. Few uprisings have ever occurred in such proximity.
“What struck me doing the research for 'Rebellion' is how history has written out so many lives that participated, such as 50 percent of the population, those of women. The socialist contribution has been written out too,” Teevan said.
To bring balance in his telling, Teevan foregrounds three female cast members played by Charlie Murphy (best known for "Love/Hate"), Ruth Bradley (also "Love/Hate") and Sarah Greene (best known for her role in "The Cripple of Inishmaan") and he tells the story of the Rising though their individual experiences.
Bradley plays the starry-eyed idealist who quickly discovers that the new Republic will actually “cherish” some of the children much more than others. Murphy plays a high-born Dublin socialist who is sickened by the social and political inequalities she sees all around her, and Greene plays a young woman who is swept up by events and forced to choose sides.
Each played with a rare degree of complexity and courage, you will root for all three of them as they take their first difficult steps toward a date with history that will transform their lives and their nation.
“I wanted to view 1916 through the eyes of people who lived through it. Not those making the decisions, but those who are having to decide which side they're on,” Teevan says.
That approach won Teevan as much criticism as applause when "Rebellion" was broadcast in Ireland last month. Not every commentator enjoyed seeing women foregrounded when it was the men who made the difference, they claimed.
“I've underestimated how much of a sacred cow Patrick Pearse is,” Teevan says with a laugh. “I think it's very true, going back to the source materials, that he was very much against the inclusive call to Irishmen and Irishwomen that's in the Proclamation. That was something that came very much from James Connolly.”
Instead, Pearse was much more concerned with the need for a symbolic “blood sacrifice.”
“That gets commented on, but in one sense it wasn't that unique. Rupert Brook the English poet echoed it. It was a bit of a First World War attitude that the blood of this generation will purify the next,” Teevan says.
Choosing Easter, already long associated with death and resurrection, was no accident.
“Yesterday’s fundamentalists become today’s national heroes. It's interesting how people are remembered if history goes one way, than how they are remembered if it goes another way,” Teevan says.
Had the British not executed the Rising leaders, the national response might have been very different he suggests. But in their anger the British did and the lines were drawn.
“The revolutionaries were really a minority of a minority. Only 1,500 went out, but the British military reaction was overwhelming.”
From London's point of view, the Rising was an extraordinary act of treachery, but in context also a minor one (they ruled much of the earth and they were already halfway through World War I after all). “I don't think they paid it enough attention,” says Teevan.
Deciding that some people are beneath your attention can have far reaching consequences, as "Rebellion" reminds us. In the series (and in reality) Pearse banished the women to the kitchen and below stairs in the GPO.
Eamon de Valera, who would eventually become the Irish leader, would not even allow them into Boland's Mills, where his unit was positioned. It was already becoming clear what the new Republic's attitude to women would be like with men like this at the helm.
Connolly’s socialists were the only party that actually welcomed women's participation as equals at the barricades and the ballot box, so fledgling Irish feminists (who included many members from the top ranks of Irish society) had moved further left on the political spectrum than even the suffragettes in the U.K. had.
What's the point of a revolution if it only favors the usual suspects and writes everyone else out of the picture? Why fight if all that happens is that the horse changes riders and the whip goes on? These questions are asked in memorable ways as the story progresses.
“One of the things I discovered was that it was much more interesting writing the series from the women's point of view,” Teevan says.
“The strategies that women have to employ just to try and participate in the first place end up saying a lot more about what's really in play. It's so much more complicated. Irish nationalism and British imperialism are both very patriarchal, tied up in the male view. I wanted to challenge the received ideas of this event. It's 100 years on. We should debate the value of the even. What we have gained and what we have lost?”
"Rebellion" will broadcast April 24-26 at 9 p.m. on Sundance.