Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: REBELLION -- 1916 Easter Rising and three little maids

from Easter 1916 
by W. B. Yeats

 All changed, 
changed utterly:
 A terrible beauty 
is born. 

On Easter Monday 1916 with World War I raging in Europe, about 1600 Irish rebels and followers staged a rebellion against British government rule: declaring independence, seizing a few buildings in Dublin (including the General Post Office, shown in an original photo below) and clashing with British troops. It was over in six days, a blip compared to the Great War, but its symbolic value raged on, wore on. Pegged to Easter, the Rising itself took on glory and martyrdom.

At the time Irish public opinion had been rather indifferent to revolutionary fervor, but as victors do, the British overplayed their hand in carrying out revenge executions and atrocities. Courts-martial were held in secret without offer of legal defense and leaders executed; one, James Connolly (original image of him, above, reclining on pallet), faced the firing squad tied to a chair with a shattered ankle. As the executions proceeded, public outrage grew. Even folk opposed to the Rising came to its defense, and desire for independence began to spread. 

Two years after the Rising in 1918, Sinn Fein, the Irish Republic Party, won a landslide victory, formed a breakaway government, and declared independence from Britain. A treaty established the Irish Free State in 1922; it became the modern day Republic of Ireland in 1949, including 26 Southern and Western counties. Six Northern counties remained with the UK (below).

Ireland is Britain's oldest colony, under its thumb in one form or another since the late 12th century. The eventual military defeat of Gaelic Ireland by Protestant minorities occurred in the 1600's (in Scotland, the British destroyed Gaelic and Highland clan culture in 1746). Conflict simmered on in Ireland between majority Catholics and minority Protestants who controlled the bulk of the Irish economy. In 1800 an official merger created the United Kingdom in which Ireland lost its parliament and became governed through representation in London. Irish nationalists fought in British Parliament for a home rule bill that they finally won in 1914 but which was then suspended when World War I broke out. Meanwhile a secret revolutionary group began planning the Easter Rising, hoping to use wartime confusion to advance Irish independence.

While the story of the Easter Rising is legend, its 2016 Centenary led the Irish network RTE to make REBELLION which debuted in the US on Sundance last Spring and is now available on Netflix. Reviewers have quarreled with its problems; I did too, but even flawed, it was absorbing and memorable. (It falls in the category of 'not terrific but I liked it anyway'. ) The issue for American viewers, if not its Irish audience, is the lack of context to anyone unfamiliar with the Rising: English rule over Ireland, and incessant religious conflict (no wonder our founders were so adamant about religious freedom). The dramatic problem was the rapid introduction of many characters and their stories, cutting among them early in the series at dizzying, off-putting pace. You can gauge writer Colin Teevan's imperatives: represent the points of view of rich, poor, English, Irish, rebel fighters, British army, with friends and family members falling on opposite sides. There simply was not enough time to assimilate all the story lines. The problem lessened as Teevan focused on the women chosen to represent the many who participated in the action but whose stories have been ignored in prior versions of the Rising.

To that end, the five-episode drama opens on the performance of "Three Little Maids from School Are We," the famous trio from Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta "The Mikado," itself a satire of British bureaucracy, racism, and misogyny. From there we follow the fictional paths of the 'three little maids' as their paths cross and diverge during the Rising. Elizabeth Butler (Charlie Murphy, center) is a medical student and rich banker's daughter; May Lacy (Sarah Greene, right) is an apolitical secretary to a British bureaucrat with whom she is having an affair, and Frances O'Flaherty (Ruth Bradley, left) is a passionate member of the rebellion (all three are also show at bottom of this post).

Elizabeth's prominent family includes her parents, played by Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones) and Ian McElhinney (GoT and Rogue One), at left, the most famous cast members. Elizabeth (Ms Murphy, the compelling young actress of The Last Kingdom) spends the Rising dressed for her wedding which she cuts out from just as the fighting begins. Her Virgin-Mary look, white silk dress and powder blue coat, grows progressively disheveled as she, bloodied, tends to injured rebels. The groom she deserts is an Irish officer in the British army, ignorant of his fiance's increasing affinity for the rebel cause and distaste for upper class privilege. But he, too, while awaiting her at church, is ordered to report for duty to put down the rebellion, putting him on the opposite side of Elizabeth; she, meanwhile, has befriended Socialist rebel, Jimmy Mahon (Brian Gleeson, son of the ubiquitous Brendon Gleeson, shown below and in cover photo at the top), whose lot she throws in with.

May Lacy's affair with Charles Hammond (Tom Turner) is heating up as the battle engages; to protect her from the fighting, he sends her to his suburban home. There mistress May is put through the wringer by Hammond's abusive upper-class wife (Perdita Weeks, below, who is the younger sister of Honeysuckle, of Foyle's War).

Frances (below) meanwhile, a trained soldier involved with leadership, fully engages in fighting and killing, at which she is dogged and accomplished.

Trapped in the middle are the poor, especially the many children caught in the crossfire between the rebels and the British army. A ten year old member of the family below goes missing and is later found dead.

The Rising is put down as animals are put down. The British assembled 16,000 troops in a few days and obtained complete surrender from the ragtag remnants. The last episode is devoted to 'the Reckoning' experienced by our three heroines, as well as the suffering of others -- there would be no mercy. The only one who salvages anything is the pregnant May, who negotiates schooling and a promotion in exchange for giving up her baby to the childless Hammonds. Elizabeth and Frances remain alive, their prospects grim.

Mr. Teevan in effect has written a passion play in which the British reprise the Romans, martyring leaders and fueling a movement to come. The series works better with the passion play construct in mind rather than as straightforward narrative about a resistance movement. The dramatic weaknesses are dwarfed by the enormity of watching freedom and self-determination ground up by an authoritarian military power and there being no happy ending for any of the characters we've come to care about. Yet these events launched the actual rising of Irish independence which arrived not long after. As Yeats memorialized, 'a terrible beauty is born'.

The above post is written 
by our monthly correspondent, 
Lee Liberman.

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