The IRA on Film and Television
by Mark Connelly
The Irish Republican Army emerged during the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War that followed.
The Easter Rising
On Easter Monday 1916 Padraig Pearse led 1500 volunteers and seized the General Post Office in Dublin. The insurgents raised a Republican flag, and Pearse declared an Irish Republic “in the name of God and of the dead generations.” The poorly armed rebels lacked the resources to expand their attack or defend what they had seized. By Saturday the revolt ended. Pearse agreed to surrender and ordered volunteers still fighting in scattered units to lay down arms. Fifteen of the rebels, including Pearse, were executed.
For filmmakers, the Easter Rising was an event to be heralded as a doomed but heroic stand comparable to the American Alamo or dismissed as a foolhardy venture by vainglorious amateurs. John Ford created two distinct visions of the Rising.
The Plough and the Stars (1936)
Sean O’Casey’s play The Plough and the Stars caused a riot when it debuted in Dublin in 1926. Angered by its satirical treatment of Irish nationalism during the Easter Rising, audience members took to the stage and disrupted the performance. In bringing this spirited drama to the screen a decade later, John Ford transformed O’Casey’s sardonic send-up into a patriotic romantic drama that pitted newlyweds Jack (Preston Foster) and Nora (Barbara Stanwyck) Clitheroe against the turbulence of the Easter Rising. In his film version, Ford introduced the character of General Connolly who delivers an impassioned call to arms, declaring, “Ireland has this night become a nation…. We are a sovereign people…Ireland will be free.”
The rebels stage a noble but futile battle that ends in defeat and capture. A wounded Connolly is executed in his wheelchair by British soldiers. With Dublin in ruins, a distraught Nora asks her husband, “What was it all for?” Jack promises that it is only the beginning, telling his wife, “We will live to see Ireland free. And go on fighting until we do.”
Young Cassidy (1965)
Thirty years after The Plough and the Stars, John Ford presented a more faithful expression of O’Casey’s cynicism in Young Cassidy (Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer). The film, based on O’ Casey’s autobiographies, follows the career of John Cassidy (Rod Taylor) from Dublin day laborer to rebel to playwright forced to leave Ireland following a riot at the Abbey Theatre.
Cassidy joins the Volunteers drilling in the hills outside Dublin but becomes quickly disillusioned with the ragtag group of middle-aged men armed with obsolete weapons, leading him to quip, “All the world’s a stage. . . but some of us are desperately unrehearsed.” Dispirited by their insistence on waging a conventional war he deems hopeless, Johnny
abandons the Volunteers.
Watching the smoke of the doomed Easter Rising fill the skies over Dublin, Cassidy proclaims, “The fools, the bloody magnificent fools.”
War and Treaty
Shake Hands With the Devil (1959)
The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)
The defining issue of the War of Independence was the Anglo-Irish Treaty which partitioned Ireland and created the Free State, not the Republic the IRA sought to establish. Two films, both directed by Britons, provide contrasting views of the Treaty. Both portray the IRA as heroic freedom fighters who use measured violence against sadistic Black and Tans.
Based on a novel by Rearden Conner, Shake Hands With the Devil links the Irish War of Independence with the American Revolution. The leader of the IRA, the General, is portrayed by soft-spoken Michael Redgrave who looks more like a Mayfair banker than a Fenian rebel. In contrast, the hard-fisted leader of the Black and Tans wears a Nazi-like black tunic and threatens to “burn every house in Ireland.” When the Treaty is announced, the IRA celebrates the peace. The lone dissident Republican (James Cagney) argues to fight on for fighting’s sake and is killed by his Irish-American protégé. The message of Michael Anderson’s film is clearly pro-Treaty. Those IRA men who accept it are noble patriots; those who reject it are psychopaths.
Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley departs from Anderson’s film by presenting the anti-Treaty forces as the true Republicans, representing those Irish nationalists who desire a social and economic revolution in addition to independence from Britain. The Free State Army is dismissed as the “Green and Tans” for continuing British policies in a muted form. The fratricidal nature of the Civil War is dramatized with a Free State officer commanding the firing squad executing his Republican brother who refuses to compromise his ideals.
The Big Fellow: Michael Collins
Michael Collins’ story was made for Hollywood. Young, handsome, daring, inventive, he emerged as the most dynamic, most colorful, and most tragic figure of the Anglo-Irish War. In a public career of just six years he played innumerable roles – the intelligence chief who caught spies at their own game, the wanted man who hid in plain sight, the innovator of guerrilla techniques that inspired Begin and Mao, the Minister of Finance who bankrolled a revolution, the diplomat who negotiated with David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill to gain Irish independence, and finally the romantic martyr slain by former comrades in his home county at the age of thirty-one, leaving behind a grieving fiancée and a nation bereft.
Michael Collins (1996)
Brian Aherne played Dennis Riordan, an Irish rebel leader loosely based on Michael Collins, in the 1936 romantic adventure Beloved Enemy. Brendan Gleeson portrayed Michael Collins in the 1991 docudrama The Treaty.
A variety of directors and actors were attracted to a Collins biopic, including Walter Huston, John Ford, Robert Redford and Kevin Costner. Neil Jordan’s eponymous production Michael Collins was nominated for two Academy Awards and became the second largest grossing motion picture in Irish history, surpassed only by Titanic.
The production of Michael Collins became a national event in Ireland. It was an ambitious big-budget production, shot on eighty-four locations. Newspapers reported on the progress of the movie. Thousands of people agreed to work as unpaid extras. The largest film set ever constructed in Ireland was assembled to recreate the Easter Rising sequence. After filming was completed, the set was opened for public tours, leading some to suggest the Irish government purchase the structure as a national monument. The film was endorsed by former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald and the Minister for Justice Nora Owen, a grand-niece of Michael Collins.
The British response to the anticipated film was guarded and often hostile. Liam Neeson who had played Oscar Schindler, the heroic savior of Jews during the Holocaust, was now cast as a figure many considered a terrorist. English critics condemned the film as “anti-British” and an “I.R.A. film” unseen. Concerned about its reception in the British market, Warner Brothers softened its advertising. An early movie poster depicting Liam Neeson holding a rifle in front of an Irish tricolor was replaced with the image of Michael Collins giving an energetic but unarmed speech.