BBC TV’s Story of Ireland series reached 1798 last week and devoted 13 of its 59 minutes to the United Irishmen and the Irish Rebellion (or Revolution, as presenter Fergal Keane refers to it).
To be fair, the programme covered two centuries, from the aftermath of the Flight of the Earls to the defeat of the Rebellion and the death of Wolfe Tone.
The place of Ireland in the religious wars of the 17th Century, the plantation of Ulster under James VI and I, the arrival of the Scottish Presbyterians, the other Irish Rebellion – of 1641, the depredations of Cromwell and his successors during the Interregnum, the Williamite-Jacobite war, the Irish Ascendancy, emigration to America and Grattan’s Parliament as well. A lot to squeeze into an hour.
And the scene was set well for the story of 1798.
So – what was there to praise about the programme?
It showed the United Irishmen and the 1798 Rising in good historical context – not just the European religious wars, but the revolutionary and republican movements which had seen American independence and the Revolution in France.
Rightly it pointed out that the early high-minded political and revolutionary movement of the (originally largely Protestant) United Irishmen changed as sectarian conflict and terrible military atrocities on a largely defenceless population swept more and more people into conflict.
It leaned quite heavily on Wolfe Tone, though of course he was vital to the story. And it was balanced – although there were multiple atrocities perpetuated by the military, there were also two by the rebels against the loyalists/government supporters, in Wexford and Scullabogue.
What was missing?
But it’s puzzling that little or no mention was made of the yeomen, volunteer regiments which were responsible for many of those atrocities. Since Nicholas Delaney’s story involves yeomen, I may come back to them in another post.
And there was no mention of the Battle of Vinegar Hill, where the rebel/United Irish army was finally crushed in the south-east, and the last pitched battle there – apart from what was more of a skirmish at Ballyellis, Nicholas’s own home.
A story often told
Ever since the last man died and the last woman was raped at Vinegar Hill the story of 1798 has been retold and reinterpreted time and again – republican revolution, nationalist rising, agrarian rising, Catholic rising, early attempt at socialism, anti-English war, anti-Catholic war and much more.
I’m glad that it has now has been told in prime-time on a main BBC TV channel, even if the programme was too rushed for me and made those two surprising omissions.
For more background on the United Irishmen and 1798, try these links from Wikipedia and the BBC. There’s so much on the internet, these seem good places to start. Can anyone suggest other good overviews?
New: Here’s a link to the episode. What do you think?