Watching documentaries about the Troubles

Most of these have been ripped off old VHS tapes which are themselves recordings of television broadcasts. The uploaders will have been conscientious enough to edit out the ad breaks, but sometimes they are left in. These are never quite as interesting as you expect them to be; none of them offer a very robust insight into the times in which they were broadcast, they are primarily noteworthy from the point of view of how orange television signals seemed to have been in the eighties and nineties. The usual artefacts of video recordings also return; discolouration, especially at the edges, random lapses into black and white, the momentary appearance of a teal screen with the words TRACKING in the top left. The other videos the accounts have uploaded are highly miscellaneous, some will have an exclusively republican focus, others will have a more overtly socialist or working-class history slant, but most of them have no discernible theme at work at all. Bad recordings of live gigs, old RTÉ or UTV idents, randomly edited news footage, audiobooks. 

An Tine Beo (1966) was commissioned by RTÉ as part of a commemorative program for the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising. The rising appears here mediated primarily through recollection and recordings of military testimony, which appear as narration over shots of relevant Dublin sites in the sixties; St. Stephen’s Green, Boland’s Mills, the GPO. Sometimes these streets are empty and the effect is sombre, the voices spectral reminders of a time when struggle against the British Empire took on a concrete form. The documentary locates the rising in the context of the United Irelanders, the 1913 lockout, the Gaelic cultural revival and the founding of the Irish citizen army.  The overall thrust is to locate the free state under Eamon DeValera, who appears behind his desk towards the end, as the culmination of these centuries of struggle. In line with this aim, rebel tunes are played throughout, but as stately  and tasteful orchestral scores over close up shots of Merrion Street’s neo-classical architecture, rather than as populist working-class ballads. We are offered a reminder that when in office DeValera put an end to the death penalty, a clear repudiation of the idea that the Cosgrave government can claim to be the first in the state. 

As part of the Abbey Theatre’s commemorative programme in 2016, Fintan O’Toole interviewed Roddy Doyle about his novel A Star Called Henry (1999), which represented a young man from Dublin’s tenements, Henry Smart, as the Forest Gump of the free state. The novel is an irreverent one; it dabbles in magical realism, representing Smart as a big hit with Cumman na mBán brigades and having sex with some of them during crucial moments in the early history of the revolutionary period, in a bid to pour scorn on what we might refer to as ‘romantic nationalism’. I think we can trace this attitude or criticisms of it to Ruth Dudley Edwards’ accounts of figures like Padraig Pearse, who is spoken of as more akin to a suicide visionary or religious extremist than an anti-imperialist. Doyle also recalls episodes from his childhood in school when they were required to learn the names of the participants in 1916, glorify the Fenian dead, have teatowels with their likenesses on them, etc etc. Snapshots of this also appear in Doyle’s more autobiographical novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993). What Doyle seems to object to here is the idea that there is a lineage stretching from Cú Chulainn to Wolfe Tone to Pearse, that the history of struggle against the British Empire forms a totality. I’m not exactly sure why it is de facto regarded as a bad thing to identify the commonalities in struggles waged by the Young Irelanders, the Fenians and the Irish Citizen Army, I prefer to think of the history of Ireland’s solidarity with smaller nations as something to be proud of or celebrated, as in the Dunnes Stores strikes against apartheid, or the reasons why Israeli ambassadors speak openly about what a difficult mission Ireland is in comparison to other states. One of the reasons I can think of in accounting for why it is that Irish writers seem to keen to write this stuff off is revisionism’s capacity to present itself as introducing greater amounts of nuance or intellectual credibility to the wholesale rejection of imperialism, John Banville speaks in very similar terms in his positive appraisal of Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces (2014) which reads the revolutionary generation as bourgeois and anti-democratic narodniki. There are certainly shots of graves, Cú Chulainn’s statue in An Tine Bheo, but in large part the aim of the documentary is to lay such ghosts to rest, incarnate the living spirit of Republicanism in Dev and replace the haunted streets with images of a bustling metropolis. It concludes with full streets, buses, commuters and a voice assuring us that we have ‘paid our debts’, setting the stage for an economic model premised on foreign direct investment. Easter 1916: A Curious Journey was also commissioned for the fiftieth anniversary, but focuses to a greater extent on the actuality of the struggles and its participants. These veterans are equally divided into treatyites and anti-treatyites and important junctures for both camps seems to have been the assassination of Michael Collins (though Tom Barry is not asked about this) as well as the familiar bitterness of the civil war, whose wounds are still evident, bringing more than one participant to tears. A Curious Journey emphasises to a greater extent than An Tine Bheo, the trajectory towards a United Ireland and the anti-sectarian nature of republicanism as envisioned by Wolfe Tone. Partition is identified as a mistake and a causal factor in the ongoing failures of both the Irish state and the northern statelet, but the actuality of getting there is not touched upon to any great extent. 

A Sense of Loss (1972) was directed by Marcel Ophuls and seems to have been filmed in a pre-Bloody Sunday milieu and it therefore affords significantly greater amounts of attention to the Officials than the Provisionals. Ophuls’ approach is an exercise in a kind of a high irony; he poses disinterested yet often deeply challenging questions to everyone he interviews, whether loyalist or republican, military or civilian and manages in that intensely subtle way great interviewers can to get people to reveal themselves in ways I find it hard to think that they intended. Loyalist families say there is no such thing as housing or job discrimination in the orange state and that it would solve everything if Britain annexed and re-occupied the twenty-six counties. This can be over-egged at times; a lot goes into the juxtaposition of families talking about loved ones they’ve lost in the conflict while Irish-American marching bands proceed down a New York street or shots of dolls in military regalia hang in a toy shop. It is difficult to shake the sense that Ophuls is significantly more sympathetic to the republican side of the argument, his random interviews in London reveals the British to be totally ignorant about the roots of the conflict and an RUC man instructs him to interview moderate Protestants for his documentary, presumably knowing people like Patrick Ruddell or John McKeague (the latter filmed sitting between two portraits of Elizabeth II and in front of one of William of Orange) will have no qualms about describing Catholics as ‘gutter rats’ or argue that songs with lyrics like ‘Falls was made for burning / Taigs were made to kill’ do not encourage or celebrate pogroms against Catholics; ‘we were acquitted on this charge’. Ophuls’ documentary remains one of the few which affords significant consideration to loyalism and the facts of the ideology as explained by its adherents render it difficult to present as just another side of one argument. 

No Go (1973) is likewise focused on the officials, but is concentrated primarily in Derry. The documentary’s narrator is Irish-American, everything Irish people say is subtitled and much of the documentary’s soundtrack is composed of ballads which gesture towards the Officials’ supposedly more Marxist outlook which glazes in it a bit of a sentimental pall. The film’s high points are footage of training camps, where a few young men are screamed at for not dropping into a sniper’s position or holding their rifles correctly. Representations of the Bogside as under siege are also very well done with barbed wire, barricades, terraced houses, overseen by snipers between gaps in sandbag walls, facilitated by Derry’s geography. From the point of view of the young men who are interviewed, joining the IRA was either a matter of having been born into it, with one’s father being a member, or an imperative due to the need to protect the community from British forces, or, as another reports, seeing an unarmed teenage girl shot by a British Army officer. A now-familiar account of the IRA’s growth and development is laid out here, from the disproportionate reaction of the RUC to civil rights protesters, to Bloody Sunday, to a lack of economic opportunity for Catholics. A political account of the provisional movement receives short shrift here, an Official presents them as single-minded militarists with no political content to their approach whatsoever. Such lines are continually propagated by the bafflingly resilient stickie-historiographical industrial complex, but as Gearóid Ó Faoleán documents in his book A Broad Church (2019), the split in the IRA was articulated in manifestly different ways in a number of different areas depending on far more pragmatic and local causes than are usually discussed, such as personalities, group affiliation, the capacity of one side of the organisation to mobilise or arm itself in one area as opposed to another. Tyrone in particular represents an exception to many simplistic narratives of provo bible bashers on one hand versus dialectical materialists on the other. No Go also features a B plot wherein an explosive device is manufactured, smuggled across the border and bypasses a British Army checkpoint. Strange dubs clearly undertaken by yanks are used in these reconstructions (‘this will blow away these Pratastant haethans!’) and it is difficult to know what the point of these scenes are. We also see the fallout from the Officials’ shooting of William Best, a teenage soldier in the British Army, and the role his assassination played in galvanising a peace movement in the area, especially by priests who are calling for a universal end to violence. I recall Mary Holland’s documentary Creggan (1980), no longer on YouTube, that represents residents of the Bogside as surprisingly willing to say on record that though Best’s death was regrettable from one point of view, he should not have been in the British Army.

The Patriot Game (1978) emphasises to a far greater extent than elsewhere the political program of the provos. The documentary offers the closest to a Marxist account of the Troubles that yet exists on film, a history stretching as far back as the plantations, through the United Irishmen, the efforts of James Connolly, and to a lesser extent Jim Larkin, to fuse republican and socialist struggle into a single coherent movement. An account of how the partition of Ireland facilitated the construction of the orange state, to which the civil rights movement emerged as a response in the late sixties and how this peaceful protests were in turn responded to by heavy-handed police tactics, consisting of internment, as well torture administered in police custody (electric shocks, drugging, sleep deprivation, beatings, sometimes administered to death, the use of supposedly ‘non-lethal’ weapons) re-vivified the IRA; all this is identified with a broader history of colonial settlement and decolonial struggle. It is likewise attentive to the ways in which the British conducted counter-insurgency operations, bomb alerts passed onto the police on Bloody Friday were not being acted on and special branch both assisted and facilitated loyalist paramilitaries in their efforts to collapse Sunningdale.

The original footage which appears here is shot roughly in black and white. We move through housing estates with children playing, while patrols of armed British soldiers and convoys of military trucks drive by. It’s here that we see something like a recognisable aesthetic of the Troubles take shape, the particular kind of grain that alerts you to the possibility that something in the foreground will be blowing up very soon. One hesitates to apply the concept of the uncanny to these films, signs of youth culture, kids playing in housing estates co-existing with British army patrols, convoys of military trucks, but that it prompted a particular kind of prurience lying behind takes about what the imminent American civil war will look like is undeniable. If one were interested in such things, one might try to re-read Mark Fisher’s notion of hauntology is a more overtly political light here; British council estates populated by Irish people, main arteries marched down by a seventeenth-century union of craft workers and thereby put the mourning for what Fisher refers to as the British ‘postwar consensus’, which was in fact deeply contested, not least in Ireland, under significant amounts of pressure. Provos appear in silhouette assembling guns, drilling, outlining the program for a 32-county socialist republic as well as the Éire Nua scheme. The molecular nature of revolution also receives attention here, self-organised nationalist communities form taxi associations in response to the government removing bus services from Catholic areas. 

A friend of mine recently made the point that the history of Irish struggle is not rife with great speeches. Ruairí O’Brádaigh’s address to a Sinn Féin ard-fheis in 1986 does not quite count as one of them, but the passion with which it is delivered as well as its hitting the reformist trajectory of Sinn Féin point for point means that I am compelled to watch it on a regular basis. O’Brádaigh opens his address with a reference to Adams’ media strategising (‘I shake hands with everyone and at every time not just in front of the media’) and draws on the history of the republican movement to rebuke the idea that recognising partitionist parliaments is anything other than a turn towards parliamentarism and reformism: 

“The destabilisation of the state, we are told, will result and the movement will be strengthened. Always has it been otherwise, every time has it been otherwise, the movement suffered and the state was strengthened. Four times since 1922 it happened, all ended in failure and ended ultimately in the degradation and shame of collaborating with the British, of handing over our political prisoners to them and running counter to what they originally set out to do.”

McGuinness speaks in favour of the motion O’Bradaigh speaks against and is laughable in its evasions of the point, insistence that SF will never do any of the things it ended up doing and renders emotive comparisons with the bourgeoning split and that of the Officials/Provisionals in the seventies. 

Some account of the social and economic milieu of the north emerge in Irish Ways (1989) including how important the securitisation of the six counties is for creating employment for the loyalist population, we are shown bullet holes in walls and ceilings of Catholic homes, that Ballymurphy has an 80% unemployment rate, we hear a woman describing how a British soldier blinded her with a rubber bullet by shooting her in the face. In overall terms though, it represents a pivot in the ways in which the troubles are represented in documentaries, which begin to take a ‘two sides’ version of the conflict for granted. The Republican end is represented by Brendan Hughes, hunger striker and member of the Provisional IRA while Gusty Spence and David Irvine form the UVF contrast to Hughes in Irish Ways and Voices from the Grave respectively. What makes the difference here then is the way in which the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Ulster Volunteer Force are taken seriously as political organisations in their own right. Spence advances a brief analysis of the history of the north according to the idea that Irish republicanism was always a murderous and dissident force against the neutral ‘state’ represented by the plantations, sadly the documentary does not expand on this Kaiserreich version of early modern Irish history to any great extent. For some of the reasons touched upon above, even in these accounts it is always Republicanism that commands greater amounts of attention. There’s a clip of Michael Stone in The Enemy Within (1990) talking about how he always regretted how Republicans were much better at prison propaganda than loyalists were, which leaves you wondering what exactly a paramilitary arm of the existing state could actually be propagandising for.

Voices from the Grave (2010) goes into further detail on Hughes’ biography, due to their being based off oral testimony Ed Moloney collected in the course of his Boston Tapes research. Hughes talks about growing up in the orange state, a neighbour who used to spit at him when he walked past and asked him if he had blessed himself with the pope’s piss that morning. His experiences of the conflict are actually reconstructed fairly well, including when women broke the British Army curfew and allowed IRA fighters to escape the area by putting arms in prams, an attempted assassination attempt, his regrets about Bloody Friday and the assassination of Jean McConville. It is after the resumption of struggle during the period of the hunger strikes that Hughes becomes increasingly disenchanted with the direction of the organisation under Adams and its becoming ‘just another middle-class party’. 

The hunger strikes, especially the second, looms largest in documentaries about the troubles, for the obvious reason that it attracted extensive amounts of international attention. It is also identified as a turning point in Sinn Féin’s electoral struggle, based on the military stalemate the army had entered into in the eighties and the boost in electoral success. One hunger striker in particular argues that Adams stalled negotiations with the British in order to recoup further electoral success, Moloney’s A Secret History of the IRA (2002), though Adams-centric to a fault, offers the most fully-fleshed out account of provos’ history with Adams as the Machiavelli. 

Hughes would not be the only longtime Republican to make criticisms such as these, in Maria McGlinchey’s Unfinished Business (2019), Christy Burke outlines his reasons for leaving Sinn Féin in 2009 after becoming frustrated by the degree to which the party’s strategy seemed to be determined by media strategists and consultants rather than his working class constituents. Hughes also outlines his suspicions that there was a high-level informer operating within the IRA after the execution of Joe Fenton had occurred before he could be interrogated, as if to protect this informerand how the UVF escalated their campaign, particularly in the most Republican areas of East Tyrone where dissent to the direction of a peace process could be anticipated, in order to strong-arm the republican movement into the peace process to make, as Bernadette says, ‘the price of staying out of it too high’. The relatively comfortable careers of the two loyalist men in Stormont form a sad contrast with that of Hughes, whose wishes that SF and Adams would have nothing to do with his funeral were ignored.

Shoot to Kill (1990) is a docu-drama about the 1984 – 86 inquiry conducted by the Manchester police Constable John Stalker and the events leading up to its being established in Armagh. In his attempts to identify whether or not the RUC had indeed colluded in the covering up of evidence relating to the shooting dead of six suspects, Stalker found himself stonewalled by the RUC and conspired against by MI5, who had him suspended from the Manchester police force under false pretences. In addition to being one of the best thrillers you’ll ever see, especially if you are into the representation of procedural detail, it is strikingly clear-eyed about just how partisan the RUC were. On YouTube the 3.5 hour film is followed by a thirty-minute panel discussion between the film’s director, Peter Kosminsky (who distaste for fictionalised narrative is deeply refreshing) David Trimble, Seamus Mallon and Ian Gow, a Tory MP who was assassinated by the IRA a few months after the discussion was broadcast. Trimble and Gow argue the RUC probably don’t do enough of what they are accused of in the film, Mallon that the RUC is a good police force but there are a couple of bad apples while Kosminsky speaks on the facts of how the RUC operate and O’Leary keeps interrupting him.

Mother Ireland (1991) is a documentary featuring interviews with Bernadette Devlin, Nell McCafferty as well as scholars, academics and filmmakers about Irish women and Irish feminism. Provisional IRA member Mairéad Farrell also appears with her voice dubbed over in order to satisfy laws on censorship in an appearance filmed a few months before she was  murdered by British intelligence agents in Gibraltar. It offers an expansive history of women under colonialism, the penal laws and outlines the radicalising influence of women in organisations such as the land leagues, Cumann na mBan, the broader Republican movement and the counter-revolution against women and women’s rights waged in the free state. The consensus offered here is that Republicanism is perfectly compatible with feminism as against the growing academic consensus that it has for most of its history been a manifestly anti-feminist or masculinist ‘discourse’ to the extent that it is indistinguishable from British imperialism. On the contradictions between feminism and republicanism, Nell McCafferty argues the following:

The further away the women are who are struggling the easier it is to support them. Irish women for example have no trouble supporting Willie Mandela and the ANC, or the guerrilla women in the Philippines or the women of Nicaragua but when it comes to the achievement of supporting physical force to achieve an objective here at home they are confused and I don’t expect Irish women or feminists…to be any less ambivalent or any clearer-mined than the majority of Irish constitutional nationalists who also don’t know, can’t make up their minds.

Sighle Humphries, veteran of Cumann na mBan in complains about scholars and journalists reading women republicans as mere handmaidens of the volunteers who should have followed the example of the English suffragettes. How the image of Irish womanhood is now used in order to attract multi-national investment and tourists is also very interestingly discussed. 

In 1993, Olivia O’Leary presents an investigation into the 1974 Dublin-Monaghan bombings, an instance in which two bombs were detonated on the north side of the inner city and one around Trinity College. In addition to forensic reconstructions of the routes the cars took across the border and towards Dublin, the report features extensive accounts of confidentially disclosed statements which make clear that the guards were unable to proceed with their investigation past a certain point or to pursue the loyalist terrorists from Portadown who were responsible. Eight perpetrators, all members of the mid-Ulster brigade of the UVF are apparently known to the guards. In the early stages of the investigation the RUC facilitated their investigation, but blocked their capacity to interview the suspects. The documentary also presents evidence which suggests the loyalist brigades were receiving money as informants from British intelligence and also received assistance from the Brits in order to do carry out the bombing.

In 1994 Adams appeared on the Late Late show. The first ten minutes of the interview consists of Gay interviewing Adams by himself and thereafter the playwright Hugh Leonard, Austin Currie (SDLP) Dermot Aherne (Fianna Fáil), Jim Kenny (Labour), Michael MacDowell (Progressive Democrats) show up to heckle him. There is no real substantive engagement with any issues surrounding the conflict in the north or the political approach of the Provisional IRA in this interview, but for anyone who has ever gotten frustrated with the standard of coverage Sinn Féin receive today (Louise O’Reilly being asked about whether a shadowy council in Belfast drafted her COVID policy or suchlike), it will be very familiar. Adams runs rings around them and pulls down applause breaks after almost everything he says in response because he has spent more or less his adult life talking working-class revolutionaries around to giving up every principle they ever abided by as opposed to the private schoolboy L&H society debate clubs the rest of them were spawned in. All of them are only interested in the north insofar as it provides atrocities which may be used against people they don’t like and MacDowell goes so far at one stage to let slip that he thinks the RUC are a legitimate police force. The biggest laugh of all is that what they’re trying to bash Adams for, not facilitating a peace process, is that that is exactly what he’s there to promote. The question arises as to what these people really want? Hard to shake the feeling that it’s for people in Tyrone to stop making claims on being Irish.

Battle of the Bogside (2004) is another instance in which some aspects of the struggle have come to be re-read in new light. Events surrounding Free Derry become an Irish answer to generalised 68’r ructions with people who went on to have careers in journalism or Stormont commanding the bulk of the talking head space as opposed to republicans. Security forces and orange order members are surprisingly forthcoming in their contrition and their awareness about how what they did was wrong and that the violence against the protestors was unwarranted. Jack Lynch is criticised far more often than the actual people with the batons or parliamentary seats. No-one mentions imperialism and radical politics in general don’t get much of a look-in, unless throwing things at the police counts. 

As the constitutional path and parliamentary wrangling begin to predominate and the struggle reaches a lower ebb in the course of the peace process it is through news footage of protests surrounding orange order marches and debates over the passing of another agreed deadline, news panel debates what constitutes an adequate form of de-commissioning that events such as these are recorded. These broadcasts are primarily interesting from the position the UUP are thrown back onto as upstart DUP’rs can just say insane nonsense and make Trimble sound like a provo by comparison.

In this context, obtaining justice then becomes an issue pursued through the courts, NGO’s, activism, appeals, international orgnisations. Some examples of what this looks like in practice include Eamon McCann’s lecture to the British Socialist Worker’s Party on the families of the Bloody Sunday victims securing an apology from David Cameron. Serious examinations of politics receive less and less treatment as time goes on here, the default Republican outlooks seen in RTÉ programming in the sixties have disappeared almost completely. To what can this be attributed? In his book, The Impact of the Troubles on the Republic of Ireland (2018), Brian Hanley outlines the effects of partition on the political outlook of the population in Ireland. Crucially though, Hanley does not do so in psychologistic or metaphorical terms. According to his account, this pivot in terms of how the twenty-six counties began to move away from a Republican orientation took place during the Fine Gael Labour coalition headed by William Cosgrave, a time characterised by the introduction of censorship and purging of the state broadcaster, heavy-handed police tactics which extracted false confessions under torture, conducted widepread surveillance of perceived ‘dissidents’ all with the aim of securing Ireland’s political and economic integration into the EEC. The Irish-language documentary Faoi Lámha an Stáit offers one of the better overviews of the period. In some ways Hanley’s account is made possible by the development of mass-media in the seventies, how this same manoeuvre was by Cumann na nGaedhal in a pre-television era would make for an interesting comparison and draw our attention to a far greater extent to state reprisal as a means of enforcing consent.

Aside from political concerns, the quality of the documentaries produced from roughly the year 2000 onwards begins to decline significantly. While gossipy documentaries produced about Brian Cowen or Bertie Ahern being Taoisigh will always be sort of hilarious because the squalid production values form something of a commentary on the era in which Fianna Fáil were at their political height, documentaries produced by BBC, RTÉ and Channel 4 on the north are next to useless, ceding ground to an Alliance party version of history wherein The Troubles was an exclusively tribal or sectarian conflict. Some more recent ones are just absolutely unwatchable trash, with hours of bizarrely over expressive presenters interviewing journalists and American academics rather than working-class people who lived at the forefront of the conflict, long takes where they speak into camera while walking down a busy high street with a set of mannerisms indistinguishable from Alan Patridge (‘But just what were the Troubles? I went to talk to Professor McElwee in Queen’s University Belfast, to find out the truth, behind the myth’). 

The only ones worth watching now are independent productions, whether these are from commemorative DVDs produced by Sinn Féin or interviews conducted with veterans of the Border campaign. All of these are extremely valuable as historical documents, the insights offered by Jim Lane, Richard Behal and Liam Sutcliffe among others challenge many perceptions of the IRA’s ambivalent relationship with socialist politics which have been emerging amidst SF’s electoral revival. While SF’s ventures take the point of view of individuals mourning rather than broader political questions, broader questions into which dissident factions of the republican movement would have some scope in inserting themselves, they are at least, informative or interesting. Bernadette McAliskey’s lecture on the peace-process dispensation, ‘A Terrible State of Chassis‘, which suggests that the war was not worth fighting given the lack of improvement in the lot of the working class is worth watching, and worth contrasting also with another one she delivers to a Solidarity Group in Sweden at a point when the future of the peace process was evidently less secure. The Siege of Short Strand (2002) is one put together from edits of home footage filming events as they took place in one of the most Catholic areas in east Belfast. It points to some of the contradictions with the peace process dispensation, where pogroms are still eminently conceivable and police reticence to confront loyalist violence is clear. If anything interesting is to take place in breaking the Stormont deadlock in the north, it is fairly obvious that here are some of the primary tension points.

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