Sunday November 30, 2003

November 30, 2003

Television: Liam Fay: Hidden persuaders

Advertising 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 British Army.

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 battlefield.

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.

The capricious 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.

The Struggle, 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 Rising.

The Humphreys’s 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.

When the 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 room.

The Struggle 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 fatalistic poise.

However, the 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.

The documentary 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.

She, meanwhile, gleefully embarked on a protracted hunger strike, an experience she would later commend to all women as an unrivalled aid to a beautiful complexion.

The Struggle 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.

The programme’s 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.