Easter Monday isn’t just about eating another six-pack of Cream Eggs and wondering if you can make a bread and butter pudding out of stale hot cross buns. In Ireland it’s a much more important day, especially this year, the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, when 1,600 rebels took over Dublin. This was the first act of the Irish revolution.
I like to think I’m no ignoramus when it comes to world history, but this programme taught me a thing or two. Maybe I’m not entirely to blame for my lack of knowledge – growing up in England in the 80s and 90s with the backdrop of The Troubles, there may not have been much sympathy for the Irish Republic in the British national curriculum.
I’ve stood outside and admired the grand columns of the General Post Office on O’Connell Street in Dublin, and touched what I was assured was a bullet hole in the stone work. An actual physical reminder of the violence from 100 years ago (Irish myths are strong – it may have been, or it may not, who am I to say?), but I never had a proper understanding of this enormously influential six days in history until now.
Brendan O’Caroll is a warm, thoughtful and charming presenter, engaged with the subject not just because it’s in the news right now, but because three of his uncles played a part on the front lines of the rebellion. I think there’s definitely a career in this for him should he ever decide to hang up Mrs Brown’s cardigan and retire his most famous comic character.
He presents a complicated political situation in a very easy to understand style. Surprisingly the Irish Volunteers were a militia originally set up to defend home rule (a system of government whereby the Irish people would have been in charge of their Commonwealth country, rather than Brits sitting in City Hall taking decision for them); they simply wanted what was promised to them by the British. And so the pro-British rule Protestants in the north set up the Ulster Volunteer Force, to protect themselves from the armed Catholics in the south. None of this was ever originally intended to be a rebellion against the crown.
Brendan and his team of historians explained a splinter group of rebels decided to take this one step further and organise a proper rebellion. They then encountered a demoralising list of failures and set-backs- weapons being shipped from Germany never turned up, there was in-fighting in the force itself and they had no popular support on the streets of Ireland. So much so that the purpose of the Easter parade, that was to spark the rebellion, was kept secret even from other members of the volunteer force. All this fed the confusion that meant it all kicked off a day late and with large numbers of recruits missing. Was it too secret? But they did manage to keep their intentions a total surprise from the Brits.
So a bunch of foolhardy and courageous young men managed to hold the great buildings of Dublin for six days. They were too few in numbers and very badly prepared and yet they wiped out hundreds of Sherwood Foresters in Northumberland Road. It was so strange to see Brendan and a historian walk around the swanky parts of Dublin and talk about blood flowing in the streets at the Battle of Mount Street Bridge. Brendan said he’s walked past the memorial so many times but never realised what it was for, and that he hoped somewhere there’s a memorial to the British forces who died – another set of ill-prepared boys who thought they were off to France to kill the Germans in World War 1.
Brendan’s family connections are clear – his pride and wonder at the actions of his uncles, and his empathy for the family that they left behind to go out and man the barricades but his point of view isn’t maudlin, which it so easily could have been.
Interestingly once the rebels had surrendered there was anger towards them. They were blamed for the deaths and the destruction of the city. It was the overreaction of the British government that made the rebel leaders into martyrs. They held true – their last letters from prison of the eve of their executions show such faith in their ideals; their hope for the future of Ireland, that the rising would be vindicated.
So Britain grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory, in not only making martyrs, but setting up prison camps where men were deported without charge to England. ‘Troublemakers’ were rounded up, even men who had nothing to do with it. But of course when they were released and allowed home to Ireland they came back with new resentments to add to the old ones, and their politics had been radicalised.
All this fed the popular support for the rebel cause and the independent Republic of Ireland was born in 1922. Which you can see is a great source of pride for Brendan O’Carroll as he stands next to the memorial to the founding fathers of his nation, inside the old prison yard where they were executed.
This documentary is available on iPlayer for another couple of weeks