Yesterday I was lucky enough to see a screening of the new documentary about the 1916 Easter Rising A Terrible Beauty, at the Derby Quad cinema, in the presence of its director Keith Farrell. The film is part of an ongoing multimedia project A Terrible Beauty 1916-2016, which sets out to look at the Rising ‘from a fresh and unbiased perspective’ and it was a deeply impressive piece of work, combining compelling dramatised reconstruction of two of the key battles in the rebellion in Dublin, with archive footage, stills and insightful commentary from mostly Irish historians.
Most accounts of the Easter rising tend to focus on its most familiar protagonists and events; Padraic Pearse, de Valera, Michael Collins,James Connolly, the battle at the Dublin GPO, the executions ordered by General Maxwell at Kilmainham jail that took place afterwards.
Farrell concentrated instead on two battles at Mount Street and North King Street, which he meticulously reconstructed through letters and testimony from mostly unknown protagonists from the Irish Volunteers, the British Army, and also from the civilian population caught up in the fighting. These letters and testimonies were sometimes spoken directly to camera as dramatic asides by Irish actors – speaking in Gaelic and English – and English actors who also featured in the battle scenes – an unusual technique that worked surprisingly well, despite one or two slightly clunky performances.
By focusing on these previously unheard voices that he retrieved from the archives, Farrell has constructed a genuinely fresh look at an episode that has been variously depicted as a glorious act of patriotic sacrifice, as reckless lunacy, or a heroic failure that paved the way for the Irish War of Independence and the creation of the Irish Republic.
Though the politics of the Rising are not ignored, Farrell has chosen to concentrate on the nuts and bolts of the battlefield experience from the perspective of both rebels and soldiers. Despite a relatively low budget, the film contains claustrophobic and powerful scenes of intense urban combat, in which rebel snipers shot at soldiers from commandered houses, stairwells and rooftops, and British soldiers were obliged to penetrate rebel-held positions by using jerry-built armoured cars to transport them through the Dublin tenements or by ‘mouseholing’ through the walls of rooms and houses, and gunfights took place on landings and stairwells.
All this was very different to the kind of war that British soldiers were trained to fight, and the notion of the city as a battleground was then something of a historical novelty in the early twentieth century. Some of the scenes in A Terrible Beauty recalled the urban fighting of the Second World War, and more recently the battles in Fallujah in 2004 and the technique of ‘breaking the geometry’ used by the Israeli army during the seond Intifada, when the IDF blasted ‘roads’ through Palestinian refugee camps by blowing holes through the walls of individual houses rather than advance through the streets.
The film shows the arrogance and folly of the British high command, in ordering inexperienced and barely-trained soldiers to storm rebel-held positions when they first arrived – a decision that cost them scores of casualties. It also shows atrocities carried out by British troops in the King Street battles, when members of the South Staffordshire Regiment shot unarmed men inside their homes on the principle that any military-aged man was a rebel fighter.
Despite these scenes, the film doesn’t demonize the British, nor does it glorify the rebels. When I spoke to Farrell afterwards he told me of his determination to avoid such glorification. Irish nationalists will be pleased by the courage, resilience and patriotic fervor shown by the rebel fighters, but they will not like the scenes of civilians cowering in their homes, of Dublin women berating the rebels, or volunteers refusing to join the rebellion.
Some may baulk at the film’s even-handed treatment of the fighting as a common experience of fear, loss and trauma experienced by both rebels and soldiers, a focus that resonates more with Wilfred Owen’s ‘pity of war’ than the ‘terrible beauty’ of Yeats’s famous poem.
But nearly a century after the rebellion, Farrell should be congratulated for his painstaking reconstruction of the Rising as a historical event, rather than a nationalist myth. This history had a particular significance in the Midlands, where the two regiments depicted in the film, the South Staffordshires and the Sherwood Foresters, came from.
These connections became even clearer during the Q&A session with Farrell afterwards. Some members of the audience revealed that they had relatives who had fought in these regiments during the Rising. Listening to their stories, and the ways in which they echoed and intersected with those told in the film, was extremely moving – a reminder of the often untold connections between past and present.
Farrell talked about the influence of Iraq and the battle of Fallujah on his film, and his commitment to the principle of ‘history from the ground up.’ When I asked him how his film had been received in Ireland and in Northern Ireland, he said that it had been variously criticized for being pro-British and for promoting ‘republican propaganda.’
Farrell felt that such criticisms meant that he had succeeded in his aspirations. I can’t disagree, and this superb film is really a model of historical filmmaking, which deserves the widest screening, and really ought to be essential viewing for students of Irish history, and for anyone who wants to understand the often violent and bitter history of Anglo-Irish relations.