works. Strolling through Dublin during Easter week in 1916,
a medical student called Ernie O’Malley spotted an
eye-catching billboard outside the GPO. Previously
indifferent to nationalism, the aloof young man was so
impressed by the marketing blurb — aka the
proclamation of independence — that he decided to
abandon genteel middle-class security and become a guerrilla
rebel. By nightfall he was exchanging gunfire with the
Like the late
Victor Kiam, the American businessman who liked an electric
razor so much he bought the company, O’Malley launched
a corporate takeover, becoming such an ardent republican
that he soon controlled an IRA division. He fought with the
zeal of the convert, the most lethal weapon on any
In the 1922
civil war, O’Malley was assistant chief of staff on
the anti-treaty side, ordering ferocious assaults against
the Free State, which had been created by associates of the
men whose 1916 proclamation he had so admired. Celebrated as
a man of action, O’Malley took nothing more seriously
than words, and their idiot brother, rhetoric.
power of propaganda was just one of the subjects considered
in The Struggle (RTE1, Tuesday), last week’s Hidden
History documentary. The film was the work of brothers
Manchan and Ruan Magan, best known for their globetrotting
TG4 travel shows.
though, was their most intense voyage of discovery yet, an
exploration of their family’s backyard. It also added
a subtle nuance to the title of the series, in that it was a
search for truths hidden by history.
The Magans are
grandsons of Sighle Humphreys, the republican heroine. The
daughter of wealthy merchants, the teenage Humphreys became
more interested in guns than gowns after the British shot
her uncle, known as The O’Rahilly, during the Easter
home on Dublin’s swanky Ailesbury Road was a safe
house for fugitive republicans. It was from a room concealed
behind a wardrobe that O’Malley directed the attacks
mounted by his forces throughout 1922. This secret room
would attain quasi-mystical status in republican mythology;
Narnia, IRA style.
inevitable raid came, O’Malley and Humphreys staged a
Butch and Sundance shoot-out with a unit of Free State
soldiers. O’Malley was riddled with bullets and
arrested while Humphreys and her family were carted off to
jail, but not before they enjoyed high tea in the dining
recounted this colourful story with cinematic flair. The
dramatic reconstructions and readings from contemporaneous
accounts were unusually effective, with Mark Doherty as
O’Malley deftly evoking the peculiarly cold-blooded
fervour of the intellectual revolutionary. Fran Healy was
equally memorable in the role of Humphreys, a study in
film wasn’t just another gee-whiz re-enactment of
patriotic derring-do. Its secondary purpose was to reveal
how O’Malley and Humphreys subsequently sanitised
elements of the Ailesbury Road gunfight, not least the death
of a soldier at their hands. Like many republicans of the
era, they believed it was their duty to concoct inspiring
folklore, celebrating victories but concealing victims;
advertisements for the cause.
also illustrated the morbid bloodlust and childish
braggadocio that frequently accompany exceptional courage.
“Guess how many wounds I have,” O’Malley
giddily asked Humphreys in a letter from his prison cell.
gleefully embarked on a protracted hunger strike, an
experience she would later commend to all women as an
unrivalled aid to a beautiful complexion.
offered intimations of what could become a new form of Irish
historical documentary: one that salutes the undeniable
heroism of dead patriots but simultaneously questions their
methods, achievements and, indeed, sanity.
most incongruous contribution came from Rita O’Hare,
Sinn Fein’s Washington envoy. Literally speaking in
hushed tones as she waxed lyrical about Humphreys’s
exploits, O’Hare appeared to have swallowed whole the
myths and legends without so much as a burp of scepticism.
Even at its most
transparently deceptive, it seems, advertising works.