Saturday 16 December 2017

TV Review: Shedding light on our dark past

A Lost son (RTE1) ---- ONE doubts that former Tanaiste, Justice Minister and Progressive Democrats leader Michael McDowell is the type of person to engage in something as frivolous as Who Do You Think You Are?, the genealogy series where celebrities go clambering up their family trees.

McDowell -- who by the time he lost his Dail seat and announced his abrupt retirement from politics had become one of the country's most disliked politicians -- has always come across as an arrogant, humourless individual.

Yet for long stretches of Niamh Sammon's vivid documentary A Lost Son, presented by McDowell, we might well have been watching an especially sombre edition of that franchise.

McDowell went on a journey to shed light on a Civil War incident that has haunted his family for 90 years: the killing in 1922 of his uncle, Brian MacNeill, by the forces of the Free State government of which Brian's father (and Michael's granduncle), Eoin MacNeill, was a leading light.

In the aftermath of the 1916 Rising, Eoin MacNeill -- a co-founder of the Gaelic League who had staunchly opposed it, believing it to be a worthless blood sacrifice that was doomed to fail -- was sentenced to penal servitude for life as a co-conspirator (he was released in 1917).

With MacNeill in jail and his wife having no means of support, their children had to be farmed out to relatives.

Brian, the second youngest and, according to McDowell, his mother's favourite, went on to study medicine at UCD, where he excelled, while remaining active in the IRA.

Bright, fresh-faced and charming, he was youthful-looking enough to pass himself off to the British as a schoolboy, while taking part in a gun-running mission with his brother Niall.

When a truce with the British was declared, the IRA used the chance to galvanise its forces. Brian, by now a senior figure in the movement, despite his youth, was dispatched to Sligo to supervise a training camp.

According to one historian McDowell spoke to, there was a carefree, almost holiday atmosphere about the camps: "It was a good time to be in the IRA."

Brian was soon second-in-command to Liam Pilkington, for whom he developed a deep respect and loyalty. Judging from the archive documents, including letters written by Brian to his mother, McDowell sifted through, it was this loyalty that kept Brian (who had been planning to resign his military post once peace had broken out) in Sligo, where the IRA was virulently anti-Treaty, when the Civil War erupted.

Brian found himself conducting guerrilla warfare (including stealing the prized Ballinalee armoured car) against the Free State forces supported by his father, who was the education minister, and his brothers.

Following the assassination of Michael Collins, however, the Free State stepped up its efforts to crush the anti-Treaty resistance in pockets of rural Ireland. Sligo, where Brian and his comrades had taken to hiding out in the mountains, was a primary target.

Brian met his end on a September day in a beautiful spot on Benbulben Mountain. Just how, though, was the issue that was troubling McDowell, whose family never spoke about the circumstances of Brian's death.

Free State documents vaguely say Brian and a number of his comrades became involved in a gun battle with Free State forces. This is at variance with other, non-official accounts, which suggest that the men were machine-gunned while raising their arms in surrender. His conclusion was that the Free State engaged in a cover-up.

McDowell became emotional while reading a letter from Eoin MacNeill -- a loving father, but not a man given to outward displays of affection -- in which he communicated his torment at losing his son.

This was an excellent film that showed, in microcosm, how one of the darkest, most violent periods in our history tore families down the middle.

It also showed McDowell in a new, more human light.

A Lost Son 4/5

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