Thursday, March 17, 2016

A review of Fergal Keane's “The Story of Ireland” (BBC Northern Ireland)

" ... the said kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland shall, upon the first day of January, which shall be in the year of our lord one thousand eight hundred and one, and for ever, be united into one kingdom, by the name of 'the united kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland' ... "

- Act of Union (Ireland) of 1800, passed by the Parliament of Ireland; and accompanying the Union with Ireland Act of 1800, passed by the Parliament of Great Britain

I should preface this review by saying that I am an American, whose ancestors are predominantly from the "British Isles." Although this includes much English, Scottish, and Welsh; I also have a significant portion of Irish ancestry as well; and so Ireland is something of a heritage country for me. As a disclaimer, though, I will freely say that I have grown up with a generally positive view of the British (although one which recognizes that the British were not perfect people, and did a number of things that complicate their legacy). I will also say freely that all these things notwithstanding, I have not always sympathized with the anti-British rhetoric coming from some in Ireland today, although I have disagreed with a number of things that the British have done over the years - including the way they treated my American homeland, in the years of our own revolution; and the way they treated the other colonial peoples of their empire in the complicated history of British imperialism.

A modern stained glass window of Saint Patrick (the man who brought Catholicism to Ireland),
whose authenticity I will neither vouch for nor call into question

Catholics and Protestants is a major theme in Irish history

Nonetheless, all these things aside; I felt like I learned a lot from this landmark documentary on "The Story of Ireland," and it helped me to understand the other side of the story - a largely Catholic viewpoint, to be sure - from the one we often hear in my strongly Protestant country. I consider myself a neutral in the wars between Catholics and Protestants, I should note; and as a devout Mormon, I don't feel compelled to pick sides in this argument. (As my dad might say, I "don't have a dog in this fight.") I sympathize with both sides in this struggle to a large degree; and I certainly can understand the Irish side - and even sympathize with some of their grievances against the British - without any feelings of shame about my other "British Isles" heritage.

Union Jack flag, a potent symbol of British union that is controversial in much of Ireland

The division of the island speaks volumes

This separation between the Irish and the British is evidenced in the full name of the United Kingdom today, which is the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland." This name recognizes Ireland's separateness from the region that we call "Great Britain." England, Scotland, and Wales are the chief parts of what we today call "Great Britain," for those of my American readers who don't know. Ireland, by contrast - even the portion still within the United Kingdom - is not considered part of Britain at all (although the United Kingdom is sometimes called "Britain" by many Americans, who use the terms interchangeably). Thus, the UK feels compelled to mention it separately, in something as important and official as their country's name. This most basic of facts about British geography - so basic, in fact, that it may bore my readers from this region - speaks volumes about the separate status of Ireland within the United Kingdom. (I'm sure some Irish folks are still affronted about their island being put on world maps as part of the "British" Isles - a name which is surprisingly quite loaded with political significance.)

Map of Ireland at the time I post this

Which part of this divided island does this series come from? (not a small question ... )

This struggle between the Irish and the British features prominently in this narrative. Even the particular network that financed this program - which is "BBC Northern Ireland" - is a politically significant thing, because of what it says about the current status of the island. The southern part of the island is now an independent country ruled from Dublin, today simply called "Ireland" (or sometimes, the "Republic of Ireland"); while the northern part of the island is still a part of the United Kingdom - something that continues to irk a number of Irish nationalists today. (They would prefer that the entire island be ruled from Dublin.) Nonetheless, the region that we today call "Northern Ireland" is a province of the United Kingdom; and this television history of Ireland comes from this very same northern part of the island - something that is more than mere geographic trivia, in the still-controversial environment of Irish geopolitics.

Oliver Cromwell, one of the most hated figures in Irish history

Irish history: The roots of religious conflict in Ireland

This documentary helps to show that the conflict between the Irish Catholics and the British Protestants (in Ireland and elsewhere) has roots going back deep into Irish history, and that the role of religion in this struggle has long been at the forefront - continuing to be important, long after armed conflict between Catholics and Protestants had ceased in most other parts of the world. It continues to be a divisive issue in Ireland today, to a degree not found in most other Western nations; although armed conflict between the two is (thankfully) something of the past now. Religion is a large part of the reason that the island is now divided the way it is; since Northern Ireland - to the "ire" of many Irishmen, if you will - is predominantly Protestant, while the Republic of Ireland continues to be staunchly Catholic. This Irish identity has long been deeply rooted in Roman Catholicism, although both parts of Ireland today practice religious toleration to a degree not found in previous centuries - where Catholics were prohibited from voting and holding office in Ireland, and where they were pushed to the side in favor of Protestant immigrants from Scotland and (especially) from England.

Fergal Keane, the series presenter

Irish nationalism has a complicated history

The series presenter Fergal Keane is surprisingly good at telling both sides of the story, and helping to keep the series from being biased in one direction or the other. Perhaps as much to help understand the motivations of the two sides as for any other reason, he takes pains to show the incredible complexity of these issues that are so characteristically a part of the Irish story; and it does the BBC great credit that it did not restrict their presenter to talking about that portion of the island still under the rule of London, but that they allowed him to tell the story of all of Ireland - a subject of great interest not only to the Irish (or even to the British), but to many others across the world.

Flag of the Republic of Ireland

My chief complaint about this documentary is that it's too short ...

My chief complaint about this documentary is its length - or rather, lack thereof (since it is only five hours long) - hardly enough time to cover the history of Ireland in much depth. Indeed, one almost gets the sense that Irish history is even more complex than that of many other parts of the British Isles; and that a series two or three times as long would be necessary to help one make much sense out of it. By contrast, Neil Oliver's television history of Scotland was some 10 hours long, Simon Schama's television history of larger Britain was some 15 hours long, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's television history of Canada was some 32 hours long - which must set some sort of a record, for a documentary made for television. Nonetheless, it's considerably better than a Wikipedia article (and more visually entertaining to boot), and I'm glad to get anything at all from the fine documentary programming of the BBC.

British cavalry regiment leaving the newly independent "Republic of Ireland," 1922

The recent history of Ireland is actually fairly turbulent at times ...

One of the real surprises of this series was that its coverage of more modern periods was actually quite good, since most epic series tend to see their quality drop somewhat as they get into more modern subjects, where objectivity is presumably harder. I think part of the reason that this series does not fall into that trap may be that the more "recent" history of Ireland - which is to say, Ireland within the last two centuries or so - is more turbulent (and therefore, more dramatic) than those same periods are in other parts of the "British Isles." The 20th century saw considerable turmoil in the home island of the Irish; including the complicated events that led to the division of the island in the 1920's. (And even after the division, there continued to be actual armed conflicts well into the latter half of the 20th century; which makes for much more interesting television than the economic focus found in most other epic histories' conclusions.)

... but we finally have some peaceful coexistence between Catholics and Protestants today

The series ends on a note of "while the old hatreds still remain, we can still have a peaceful coexistence with universal voting rights, for Catholics and Protestants alike, not killing each other as in previous centuries" and so on. (This may not be an exact quote, but it is something which is reasonably close.) The vision is a nice one, and one that has been realized in fact - something which is a testament to how far the Anglo-Irish relationship has come. And on a different note, it's a pretty good series when one's only complaint is that it's too short. What it has is quite good. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand Ireland, Britain, or anyplace where British colonization - and thus, Irish immigration - has played a role (including my own country).

"An Act to make new provision for the government of Northern Ireland for the purpose of implementing the agreement reached at multi-party talks on Northern Ireland ... "

- Official title of the "Northern Ireland Act of 1998", an act of the Parliament of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which established a devolved legislature for Northern Ireland (called the "Northern Ireland Assembly")

First episode below on

DVD at Amazon

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Simon Schama's "A History of Britain" (BBC)

Andrew Marr's "Modern Britain" (BBC)

Michael Wood's "The Story of England" (BBC)

Neil Oliver's "A History of Scotland" (BBC)

History of the English language (British miniseries)

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