Northern Ireland

Easter Rising 1916: BBC documentary explores the northern perspective

British soldiers survey the interior of Dublin's General Post Office (GPO) - the rebel headquarters destroyed in the 1916 Easter Rising Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption British soldiers survey the interior of Dublin's General Post Office (GPO) - the rebel headquarters destroyed in the 1916 Easter Rising

The 1916 Easter Rising, told from the perspective of people from what is now known as Northern Ireland, is explored in a new BBC documentary.

The official centenary commemorations took place at Easter last month, but the TV programme will be broadcast on the actual centenary - Sunday 24 April.

Exactly 100 years to the day that the rebellion began, the BBC film examines how events were viewed from Ulster.

It includes eyewitness accounts from both British soldiers and Irish rebels.

Historical context

The Easter Rising was an ill-fated insurrection against British rule in Ireland which lasted less than a week - from 24 April to 29 April 1916.

Image copyright TJ Westropp/Royal Irish Academy library
Image caption The Easter Rising led to the deaths of almost 500 people, more than half of them civilians, and saw the destruction of much of central Dublin

However, the short-lived rebellion made a lasting impact on the course of Irish history and ultimately led to the partition of the island and the creation of the state of Northern Ireland.

"There wasn't a shot fired in the north, but there was still a very large northern contingent who fought on the side of the rebels," says series producer Paul McGuigan.

"Also, you have the irony that some people from the north were part of the British Army and they were all Irishmen at that stage because there was no partition.

"So, you had Irish fighting against Irish and some people from the north were part of the British Army stationed in Dublin at that stage and I don't think that has really been looked at in any of the proceeding documentaries."

Image caption The programme uses actors and first-hand accounts from eyewitnesses to reconstruct the events of Easter 1916 from a northern perspective

The programme, entitled Voices 16 - "Rising", concentrates heavily on putting the rebellion in its wider historical context - as an unexpected challenge to British colonial power right in the heart of its empire, while its troops were suffering heavy losses in World War One.

'Tipping point''

It also examines the origins of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and the parallel, arguably even greater, threat it posed to British authority in Ireland by resisting Home Rule.

The outbreak of World War One postponed the introduction of limited self-governance in Ireland - legislation that had set northern unionists in direct conflict with southern republicans.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Northern unionists were fiercely opposed to Home Rule and staged mass rallies in Belfast

"In 1913-14 Ireland was on a tipping point of civil war over this issue of Home Rule," National Museum of Ireland curator Lar Joye tells the programme.

Political historian Éamon Phoenix agrees, adding that unionist leader Edward Carson and his well-armed UVF militia had become a seditious force to be reckoned with.

"The Larne gun-running of the 22nd of April 1914 changes everything," Phoenix says.

"Thirty-five thousand German guns distributed around the province of Ulster - sophisticated weaponry including machine-guns.

"Now Carson's army has military dominance in Ireland. It's even a threat to the forces of the Crown."

The rebels also made their own, unsuccessful attempts to ship German guns to Ireland, notably led by County Antrim-raised Sir Roger Casement, who was later hanged for treason.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Sir Roger Casement, a British diplomat raised in County Antrim, was executed as a traitor

Phoenix says that it appeared to many that the government was using "kid gloves" on unionists and "lead bullets" on nationalists.

However, the government was not the only player to tread with caution around the UVF.

Using a witness statement from an Irish Volunteer, the programme recounts how rebel leader James Connolly angrily issued the order: "You will fire no shot in Ulster".

The Scottish-born socialist, who had moved his young family to Belfast, was wary of sectarian conflict, but later added: "If we win through, we will then deal with Ulster."

'Pretty special'

The documentary also hears testimony from the Belfast activist, Winifred Carney, who acted as Connolly's military secretary during the rising.

Carney had helped to set up an organisation called Cumann na mBan (League of Women), which was known as the women's IRA.

Image caption Winifred Carney was a trade unionist from Belfast who assisted the rebels in the GPO

Stationed in the rebels' headquarters - Dublin's General Post Office (GPO) - she typed out orders from Connolly as the city centre building burned down around them.

The GPO was destroyed in the bombardment, but remarkably, both Winifred and the typewriter she used survived the heat of battle.

The programme team managed to track it down 100 years on, and seeing the actual typewriter used to despatch rebel orders was "pretty special", according to the producer.

Image caption The original typewriter that Winifred Carney used inside the GPO has been tracked down

"With that, came a cache of letters and telegrams from the likes of James Connolly," Mr McGuigan says.

"We also found her first-hand account [of the Easter Rising] the actual transcript of it and the document itself, and these haven't been seen in quite a while."

The documentary also recounts how a last-minute order issued by County Antrim man Eoin MacNéill - chief of staff of the Irish Volunteers - threw plans for the rebellion into confusion.

Image copyright National Library of Ireland
Image caption Eoin MacNéill from County Antrim has gone down in history as the man who tried to stop the Easter Rising.

His notorious countermand, issued on the eve of the rising, meant the rebellion was confined to Dublin and ensured its military failure was even more emphatic than expected.

'Beginning to change'

MacNéill was imprisoned while other rebel leaders were executed, on the orders of Sir John Maxwell, the British general brought into to restore the rule of law.

"As the executions grind on over those weeks in May, you can see things beginning to change," says National Archives of Ireland historian Catriona Crowe.

Image caption Sir John Maxwell order the deaths of the signatories of the Proclamation of Independence and originally wanted to execute 90 rebels but faced a public backlash at home and abroad

Contributors agree that Maxwell "misjudged" the mood of moderate Irish nationalism and that his merciless approach only engendered greater sympathy for the rebels' cause.

But Crowe reminds the programme that the same British general had never been inclined to tolerate dissent from any corner of Ireland.

"Interesting, Sir John Maxwell wrote to his wife during those weeks in May to say that 'If we -the British establishment - had taken a strong line against the Ulster Volunteer Force and nipped that particular rebellion in the bud, none of this would ever have happened'."

Voices 16 "Rising" will be broadcast on BBC One Northern Ireland on Sunday 24 April at 20:00 BST.

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