Rebellion: A Review

Rebellion: A Review


Howard Adelman

Two hundred years ago, Britain defeated Napoleon and the British Empire dominated the nineteenth century. One hundred years ago, that empire began to unravel. The Easter rebellion broke out in Ireland. Britain squashed the rebels in the ensuing battle, but lost the war; by 1922 Ireland, dependent on Britain for over seven centuries, had won its independence. Brits did not know how to translate the ruthlessness of war into the forgiveness of victory. Almost exactly one hundred years ago today, the highly decorated British General, Sir John Grenfell Maxwell, ordered the trial and execution of hundreds of rebels. Great Britain lost, no longer simply the struggle for home rule, but the war for Irish independence. Two years later, with American help, Britain won the war against the Germans. Then lost that peace as well. John Maynard Keynes (The Economic Consequences of the Peace) rightly predicted that the Versailles Treaty would lead to financial collapse and chaos, a position echoed and elaborated upon in a broader canvas by the great Canadian historian, Margaret Macmillan, in Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. I suggest the adumbration of that disaster was foreshadowed by how the British handled, or mishandled, the Irish rebellion.

Yesterday evening in a single marathon session on Netflix, we watched all five episodes of the special series commemorating the Easter rising in 1916 called, appropriately, Rebellion. Written by Colin Teevan and directed by Aku Louhimies, a Finn, the series was not well received by many critics. Major criticisms focused on historical inaccuracies and viewed the series as a family soap opera against the background of the Easter rebellion. Ed Power dubbed the series as “more damp squib than explosive triumph.” Pat Stacey of the Irish Independent called the dialogue “egregiously stilted” and dubbed the direction “flat.” As well as muddling events, Maureen Ryan for Variety described the series as lacking “a sense of excitement and momentum” as well as failing to provide a historical context for the events. Most of the characters never acquire “a modicum of compelling depth or complexity.”

I think these writers have misplaced their criticisms because they misread the film as being primarily about a political rebellion by the Irish against the British when it is really about a feminist rebellion against both the paternalistic patronizing British as well as the condescending attitudes of the leadership of the Irish rebellion. It is about a battle lost by women in the short run not won (eventually) by political rebels.

The only female rebellious leader, Countess Constance Markievicz (Camille O’Sullivan), the military commander of the battalion that occupied the Royal College of Surgeon’s Building as a base from which to capture Stephen’s Green, is only given the tiniest part, and then only to portray her (accurately) primarily as a leading suffragette and campaigner for the rights of women, but also as a cold-hearted killer who sets off the rebellion by killing an unarmed guard who refuses to open the gates to Dublin Castle. It would have helped the film to know that, although she, like the other male leaders, was convicted and sentenced to death, she was not executed, but went on to serve in the Irish Parliament as the only woman in Eamon de Valera’s cabinet. She was there to witness de Valera suppress women’s rights just as much or possibly more so than Ireland’s imperial predecessors.

The real leads in the series are all women. May Lacey, played by Sarah Greene, Frances O’Flaherty (Ruth Bradley) and, most importantly, Elizabeth Butler (Charlie Murphy). May works at Dublin Castle, the headquarters for the British administration in Ireland. She is the secretary of Charles Hammond, the British Chief Secretary as well as her lover who gets her pregnant, much to the consternation of Hammond’s beautiful wife, Vanessa (Perdita Weeks) who suddenly arrives from Britain just as the rebellion is starting. May is not a separatist, but gets involved in and compromised by the rebellion when Hammond’s wife arrives and Charles shunts her to the sidelines. May steals a secret document, a key element in the advance of the plot, for it is the paper that purportedly fingers all the leaders of Sinn Fein. The Gaelic League and the other Irish-centred organizations.

Frances is a teacher at Patrick Pearse’s St. Edna’s School, a Gaelic and English private school that plays such a prominent part in the series. She is a front line fighter. In comparison, Elizabeth Butler, a daughter of a prominent and wealthy Anglo-Irish banking family, is both an ardent feminist as well as a hard-line exponent of the Irish independence cause. At the very beginning of the rebellion, she becomes a runner in her wedding dress, and, just when the wedding ceremony is about to begin, she abandons her betrothed, Stephen Duffy Lyons (Paul Reid), who happens to be a British officer. She joins the rebellion and the true and hidden love of her life, the rebel socialist leader, Jimmy Mahon (Brian Gleeson), one of the few leaders of the rebellion who is a realist rather than a romantic poetic visionary. Elizabeth is a medical student and leading member of Countess Constance Markievicz’s battalion. All three of the above female roles are fictional to the best of my knowledge.

So is the important role of Ingrid Webster (Sophie Robinson), who arrives from Belfast just as the rebellion begins and, refuses to return as ordered by her fiancé, George Wilson (Andrew Simpson), who as a barrister is conscripted by the army to lead the prosecution of the rebels that will reveal itself to be a legal farce. Ingrid ignores his orders and learns to be a nurse of those wounded in the uprising. Another important character is the feisty mother of Elizabeth, a proto-feminist, Dolly Butler (Michelle Fairley), who is anything but a doll, though she is certainly stately and ladylike in her dress and attitudes. Gradually, she comes out of herself to reveal the independent streak inherited by her daughter. Another powerful minor character, Peggy Mahon (Lydia McGuinness), is Jimmy’s sister-in-law, the brother of her husband, Arthur Mahon (Barry Ward), a British fusilier who needs the position in the army to support his family. As expected, he has a falling out with his rebel-leader brother. But the real source of their eventual separation is perhaps the most moving part of the series, but I will not be a spoiler. I will claim, though, that the award for acting excellence in the series should go to his long-suffering wife, Peggy.

So the drama does not take place primarily in the political and military battles. They serve only as background. The interpersonal and intrapersonal struggles, mainly but not exclusively, of the women, provide the foreground. That seems to be why many of the critics put the series down and depict it as a soap opera. But it is far more than that. For the series puts the women at the home front as the centre of war and conflict, and not the men doing most of the fighting.

Look at how the major leaders of the rebellion are portrayed. Of three of the co-founders of the Irish Volunteers. Patrick Pearse (Marcus Lamb), the Irish teacher, orator, poet, barrister and primary author of the proclamation of independence, as well as teacher of Gaelic and founder of St. Edna’s School, is the only one that has a prominent, though minor, part in the series. Thomas MacDonagh the gregarious poet and Gaelic champion, who was a co-founder of the Irish Volunteers and led the 2nd battalion Dublin Brigade in the battle or Jacob’s Biscuit Factory, does not even appear. Thomas (Tom) Clarke (Lalor Roddy), with a thirty-year history of bombing British locations and serving many years in British jails, who was charged with the military planning of the rebellion, does make a very brief appearance. All three were executed by a firing squad after being found guilty of treason in a secret military trial. Yet as much time is spent revealing his condescension towards women as on his role as a leader of the rebellion.

The rebel military commander and head of the Irish Citizen Army – as distinct from the volunteers – James Connolly (Brian McCardie), who, like Pearse, had a significant role in the series, was killed by a firing squad while sitting in a chair on the final day of the executions while suffering gangrene in his shattered ankle. His death in particular led to a dramatic shift in public opinion. From largely opposing the rebels, the Irish masses began to hold them up as Irish heroes. But the political background of his differences and disputes with Pearse are left vague at best.

On the other hand, there are two outright villains – the Dublin head of detectives and the British general leading the repression of the uprising. The latter, General Maxwell, arrived in Dublin on 28 April 1916, the day before the battle against the Irish Republicans was won. He declared martial law, and, contrary to his performances in the Boer War, in particular as Military Governor of Pretoria, in Ireland he was directly responsible for the execution by firing squad of fifteen rebel leaders, with the first execution taking place one hundred years and one day ago on 3 May 2016. But he does not appear in the film.

Steve Wall, playing Detective Coleman, does appear in every one of the five episodes, but he is never more than a one-dimensional hard-headed and hard-hearted cop. In contrast, whatever their shortcomings in the treatment of women, the leaders of the rebellion are likeable romantic visionaries. In his November 1913 article, before he was supposedly committed to militancy, Pearse in a very ironic article in retrospect entitled, “The Coming Revolution,” wrote,

“As to what your work as an Irish Nationalist is to be, I cannot conjecture; I know what mine is to be, and would have you know yours and buckle yourselves to it. And it may be (nay, it is) that your and mine will lead us to a common meeting-place, and that on a certain day we shall stand together, with many more beside us, ready for a greater adventure than any of us has yet had, a trial and a triumph to be endured and achieved in common.”

Home Rule was insufficient, even though the British Parliament had passed such a bill but suspended its implementation until after the war. But we are not told that fact in the series if my memory is correct. I would very much like readers to check if they watch the series, for I only saw it once. I believe viewers were not informed adequately of any of the following:
• That 54% of those killed (270) were civilians; we see many bodies of what look like civilians, but the series only alludes to this fact or the background just war principles behind the ethical dilemmas in fighting wars in crowded urban settings
• 40% of the civilian casualties were children under the age of sixteen and only two of them served the rebels as message runners, something depicted in the movie but without any ethical context
• The British army and constabulary suffered twice as many casualties as the rebels, but we neither know this fact and we are certainly not given any explanation why from the series. For example, there is no depiction of the stupid frontal assaults on the rebels holding the Mount Street Bridge over the Grand Canal, a direct repetition of the blunders in fighting in France. As a result, there were only four volunteer casualties, but at a cost of many British Foresters dead and wounded (two thirds of British casualties took place in the Mount Street Bridge battle) when the British could have used another route across the canal and attacked the rebels both from the rear and the front
• Most British military casualties and all constabulary casualties were Irish
• The difference between the political home rule party and the militants fighting for independence is alluded to, but not explained, unnecessary for the Irish home audience probably, but certainly crucial for non-Irish viewers if the story of the rebellion is being accurately portrayed
• There is no exposure of the cultural aspect of the war versus the political and military ones, except for the effort to make Gaelic at least survive as a living language; W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory are not in the series, though we anticipated their presence from what we all learned if we ever took an English course at university
• The difference between the Irish Citizen Army and the Irish volunteers is not explicated and is confusing
• The differences between the civilian and military British leadership is certainly part of the fore-story, but it comes across as a muddle
• As in Canada, especially in Quebec, mandatory conscription was a source for strengthening the rebel cause; it is alluded to but not elaborated upon in the series
• The series suggest that the rebels were not guilty of treason but framed themselves to become martyrs when the historical evidence overwhelmingly points to the militants’ plans and efforts to collaborate with the Germans; the series does bring out that a German shipment of arms, including (20,000 rifles, a million rounds of ammunition as well as a great deal of explosives), was intercepted just before the rebellion broke out, but the German captain scuttled the ship before it was captured
• A small part of the problem was that the rebels failed to guide the ship to land; they failed to show up
• We are told, however, that the Brits did not want to reveal that they knew about the shipment lest the Germans learn that the British had broken their codes, just as they would do so again with Enigma in WW II
• No clarity is offered to the differences between the Irish political and military rebel leadership, though there are a few hints that would go over almost any viewer’s head watching the series
• It is never made clear in the series that the document, the Castle Document purloined by May when she was Hammond’s private secretary and mistress, was one that she had likely been “allowed” to steal since it was a forged document by the British military to gain the support of Irish moderates and allow the British army to round up leaders of the Irish Volunteers, Sinn Féin and the Gaelic League
• Nor is it made clear, though this is hinted at, that the rebels knew the document was forged, but went along with assuming it was real to rally more Irish to their cause, but the series never makes clear either the British or the rebel strategy behind the use of the document
• Nor are we told anything about the treachery among the Irish rebellious leaders, such as between Eoin MacNeill, the expert on Gaelic and Irish nationalist, and the seven-man military council
• We do learn that the order for the uprising was countermanded because the rebels would not have sufficient arms for the volunteers expected to join them; defeat would almost be certain
• The impression given is that the rebellion went ahead, but largely only in Dublin, and only by some of the militants in the romantic notion that the battle was for hearts and minds first of all, not for territory and freedom from British rule, so defeat was expected, but it was viewed as a better choice than prison without even a fight
• Though the fight very early appears futile in military terms, especially if we had learned that the rebels had failed to capture the two main railway stations and the port, and becomes even more futile when far fewer volunteers join the uprising than expected, the series takes the position that this was the result of contradictory orders from different quarters and a romantic vision of the way the rebellion would succeed, plus the failure of the rebels to recognize that the British would bring in large number of reinforcements that would certainly doom the rebel cause
• The defensive nature of the rebellion, the effort to last at least three days to earn international recognition, in particular, the signal battle at the Dublin Post Office, the reading by Pearse of the proclamation and the failed battle at Dublin Castle, were all well portrayed, but with little suspense or excitement since everyone knew, the rebels, the British and the viewers, that defeat was inevitable
• Dublin City Hall used as a base to lay siege to Dublin Castle, was a very weakly defended position, and was sometimes alluded to, but, for film economy in telling the story, such sites were mostly not portrayed
• The confusion of the British response at the beginning was communicated
• There is no explanation for the spate of looting, except suggesting that mob behaviour takes over when the looting took place only because the British ordered the police constabulary back to quarters; there were strict orders by the rebels not to kill the police who were, in any case, both Irish and unarmed
• Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Viscount Wimborne, Baron Ashby St. Ledgers, a grandson of John Spencer Churchill and cousin of Winston Churchill, is portrayed as the dumb contradictory incompetent that I believe he was
• The conflict between Hammond, the Under Secretary, and Wimborne, is depicted with reasonable accuracy, though the TV series makes no reference to the fact that Wimborne was held not to have had any responsibility for the uprising by a Commission of Inquiry, even though the series portrays him as stubbornly unwilling to act on the basis of army intelligence to head off the rebels
• I do not know why the series did not portray the use of artillery on ships that was so responsible for destroying central Dublin, killing many uninvolved civilians and alienating the Irish
• It was not clear whether the main battle depicted was the British assault on the Mendicity Institute, but I believe it was that battle.

There are many more historical instances that would make, and do make, historians apoplectic. But, for me, these are just an indication that the rebellion was not the primary story, but the background to a domestic drama about the fight for equality by women and the indifference of rebels in history as well as establishment political leaders to pay heed to the emergence of women as individuals. Further, the battle for Irish independence and the stupidity of the way the British handled the crisis offered part of an explanation of why, over the next thirty years or so, the British lost its empire.

As I wrote, this is not primarily a political or military series, but a domestic series between men and women over gender rights. Some critics think that this makes the series a light melodrama. I regard the series as a very well produced and directed drama against the background of a rebellion. Alter you experience a gestalt, you may want to watch and appreciate the series.