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Thursday 23 November 2017

Fresh and unfettered take on Easter Rising

British soldiers inspect the interior of the shelled GPO. Photo: Getty
British soldiers inspect the interior of the shelled GPO. Photo: Getty

YOU won't have seen a better film about the 1916 Rising this Easter, and won't see one any other Easter, than A Terrible Beauty.

Despite relying on an exhausted line from a WB Yeats poem for its title – a title shared, incidentally, with a 1960 Hollywood movie starring Robert Mitchum as an unlikely republican volunteer – it offered something rare: a completely fresh take on the subject.

Pearse, Connolly, Collins and de Valera were nowhere to be seen. There was barely a shot of the totemic, bullet-scarred GPO. Writer-director Keith Farrell's outstanding feature-length docudrama focused instead on the specifics of what was happening on the ground.

A Terrible Beauty told the story largely through powerful dramatic reconstruction and straight-to-camera "testimony" based on the first-hand accounts of those involved in the fighting and of ordinary Dubliners on whose lives the violence impacted.

It sharply cut through the fog of myth and received wisdom that surrounds the Rising.

Dublin at the time, said one historian, was "a haven of peace". There hadn't been any serious violence in years. When the rebellion kicked off, citizens of all social classes – more concerned with enjoying the bank holiday weekend than with the cause of Irish freedom – were as surprised as the British establishment, and generally no more sympathetic.

TERRIFIED

When the volunteers closed the post offices, women whose husbands were away fighting on the World War One battlefields were unable to draw their dispensations and feed their children.

Even less impressed, and more terrified, were the families turned on to the streets to fend for themselves as the rebels commandeered their homes for the battles to come.

Any romantic notions about the underdog Irish volunteers seeing off the might of a superior military machine, at least in the early part of the week, were exploded here. The British army's initial tactics were inept.

The first wave of British soldiers dispatched to Dublin, the Sherwood Foresters, who believed they were bound for France (some even greeted the locals with a cheery "bonjour"), were barely soldiers at all.

Raw and ill-prepared, whatever scant training they had received – and some had never fired a rifle – was tailored to trench fighting, not urban warfare. As the troops advanced along Northumberland Street, the better-drilled volunteers, firing from upper-floor windows, picked them off.

The main focus of Farrell's film, however, was the brutal battle of North King Street, where the volunteer forces commanded by Ned Delaney (McDonnell) were dug in.

At first, the volunteers' guerrilla tactics got the better of the South Staffordshire Regiment, led by rabidly imperialist Lt-Col Henry Taylor, who ordered that every and any Irishman found in the area should be treated as a hostile enemy.

The South Staffordshires eventually gained the upper hand by "burrowing" from one tenement house to the next. The consequences for innocent Dublin families were catastrophic. Crazed with a thirst for revenge, and incensed that the volunteers were using dum-dum bullets which effectively tore their victims' bodies apart, members of the regiment coldly murdered 15 civilian men by shooting and bayoneting.

The highest compliment you can pay A Terrible Beauty is that it was a forensically researched, balanced account of a particularly dark chapter in the complex story of that fateful week. History is supposedly written by the winners, but you'd be hard-pressed to find any winners here. HHHHH

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