Reading Rebellion: Women, History, and Commemoration.

On the 16th November 2016, at University College Cork, Dr Heather Laird gave a research seminar paper, ‘Reading Rebellion: Women, History, and Commemoration’ which analysed RTE’s flagship 1916 commemorative TV project, Rebellion. Dr Laird began by discussing some of the challenges history affords us, citing Ged Martin’s work, ‘Past Futures: The Impossible Necessity of History (University of Toronto Press, 2004), which according to Howard Aldrich argues, “that historical explanation, as we know it, is methodologically and analytically impossible, but nonetheless worth doing” Historians, I am assured, may beg to differ, but the past, as Laird points out is, “a chaotic multiplicity of events” and it is always worth asking whose version of history is being presented, whose perspective is being foregrounded, where is the emphasis being placed? Laird questions the narrow notion of the political as the only historical lens and remarks that in Ireland there is often little or no tradition of social history from below. The resulting risks are state centered, patriarchal versions of history and the marginalisation of class and or gender.

In the case of 1916, little or no historical recognition is given to the role played by women, and the 100th anniversary sees attempts to include their stories, one of which is RTE’S Rebellion. Written by Colin Teevan, RTE allocated a 6 million euro budget for this historical drama. Teevan chooses to use three, fictional, female characters as the leads, we have a teacher, a nurse and a secretary; therefore centering women and, arguably,  presenting a bottom up perspective on events. All the main historical protagonists appear in the background. So Teevan, arguably, allows audiences to question the taken for grantedness in the political, state driven narrative, that all participants in the rising were male. Laird questions the extent attempts to retell stories of women’s involvement can be viewed as compensatory history? Laird, as well as many other commentators, raised many valid criticisms of what Rebellion is trying to achieve.

Laird acknowledges that it is challenging to enhance, to bring fresh, or unknown perspectives to known historical events, and cites Insurrection, an RTE production from 1966 made to commemorate the 50th anniversary as an example of when it has been done successfully. Insurrection was an eight part drama depicting events as they unfolded, day by day, in the style of a special TV news report, with a studio presenter and ‘correspondents’ on the streets, featuring ‘live vox pops’ of volunteers, citizens and covering the key events as they unfold. Laird argues the immediacy created by this approach, because it defamiliarises our historical perspective, has the impact of making the events seem more real to the viewers.

Laird proposes one of the most disappointing representations of the women in Rebellion is the motivation of their involvement in Ireland’s armed struggle, to win independence, originates solely from their relationships with men. Whilst that may have been true of some women, I concur with Laird; the evidence contradicts that motivation for a significant number of approximately 200 women who took part in the rising. Other critics have questioned the ‘Downton Abbey’ approach to the drama, which is disputed by Colin Teevan in his interview with Matt Cooper.

In an interview with Ed Power for the Irish Examiner, Teevan, states, “he wanted to portray the rebellion through the eyes of every-day characters and that he was keen not to define the women by their relationships with men”; it is difficult to understand how he imagines that is achieved. Laird argues the portrayal of the female rebel in Pat Murphy’s film Anne Devlin is all the more effective, because she doesn’t put on his uniform, arguing the women in Rebellion have the sense of being inserted into the drama, therefore undermining their legitimacy. The women appear as emblems rather than instrumental to or even part of the narrative. Laird also highlights the degree of male character stereotyping, the cad, the middle-class bore, the working class hero, and the archetypal baddie, de Valera. Laird questions whether compensatory history of this kind serves us any better than the patriarchal?

Interestingly, Pat Murphy’s, (an Irish female filmmaker, of some renown), 1984 film Anne Devlin is not currently available on any format, not even in our Universities. If the state, or indeed its citizens wish to commemorate the women who fought and supported the 1916 rising, maybe re-releasing that film might help address the invisibility of women in Irish culture and history. Rebellion is criticized by many commentators, the Irish  Independent stated it is, “more damp squib than explosive triumph”, citing seven reasons why, one being, “that [Rebellion] really wanted to be a soap opera”!

So I recommend an alternative, also made by RTE, and screened on Sunday 20th March 2016, called Seven Women, (the RTE player link is attached, catch it before they delete it). This documentary features, the stories of seven women, involved in the events of 1916. Narrated by Fiona Shaw, from inside the GPO, interspersed with academic observations, archive photos and film footage, and enacted by seven female actresses, the women’s stories are brought vividly to life. What is particularly interesting, is these women’s stories, recorded by the bureau of military history at the time, remained sealed for fifty years, another example of the silencing of Irish women’s voices and of the states intent to keep women invisible within the institutions and history of the state. They tell stories of women from both sides of the rebellion and give the viewer a real sense, through hearing their stories in their own words, of what motivated them and what their experiences may have been like. This, I humbly suggest, is an example of the potential that a ‘history from below’ can achieve and why Irish women should not tolerate their voices being silenced and their history being made invisible.

Works cited.

Aldrich, Howard. “The Impossible necessity of History”. Web. 23rd January 2017.

Anne Devlin. Dir. Pat Murphy. Perf. Brid Brennan and Bosco Hogan. Irish Film Board. 1984.

Laird, Heather. “Reading Rebellion: Women, History and Commemoration”. Department of English Research Seminar. 16th November 2016. University College Cork.

Martin, Ged. Past Futures:The Impossible necessity of History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2004. Print.

Power Ed, “RTE’s Rebellion features three of Ireland’s most talented actresses”.  Web 23rd January 2016.

————, “Seven reasons why RTE’s Rebellion was more ‘damp squib’ than ‘explosive Triumph’. WEB. 23rd January 2016.

Rebellion. Trailer. You Tube. n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.

Seven Women. RTE Player. n.d. Web.  25 Mar. 2017.


2 thoughts on “Reading Rebellion: Women, History, and Commemoration.

  1. Really enjoyed this response to my paper. I have recorded ‘Seven Women’ but not watched it yet. I will definitely move it to the top of my list of ‘recorded programmes I need to view within the next week or two’. Re ‘Anne Devlin’, you might be interested in Luke Gibbons’ commentary on it in ‘Transformations in Irish Culture’ (1996), though this is no substitute, of course, for watching the film itself.


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