The Irish Civil War part 1: scale of the onrushing tragedy powerfully conveyed

Television: Cliches are ticked off ruthlessly but this is impressive big-picture documentary-making

There is a certain kind of documentary RTÉ invariably makes when the subject at hand is Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries. Those clichés are ticked off ruthlessly in The Irish Civil War (RTÉ Sunday, 9.30pm). Hollywood narration is courtesy of Brendan Gleeson, who has taken over from Liam Neeson as the RTÉ equivalent of the Voice of God.

Drone shots of contemporary Dublin are juxtaposed with archive footage of Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera addressing cheering crowds. Historians say things such as: “The previous solidarity that has sustained the independence movement starts to tear apart.” Everyone insists on the annoyingly affected “historical present” tense – as if Dev and Collins were big on TikTok rather than figures from 100 years ago.

The Irish Civil War has also perhaps been made with one eye on the international market. We are told about “unionists ... who wished to remain in the United Kingdom ...” and about the establishment at the Mansion House of “an underground parliament ... called Dáil Éireann”. There is also the matter of the title: shouldn’t it just be called The Civil War? It’s going out on RTÉ: the “Irish” part is understood.

This is big-picture documentary-making and so there isn’t much space for smaller human moments. But that’s fine as the seismic events of early 1920s benefit from the epic perspective brought by director Ruán Magan, working in collaboration with University College Cork (UCC) and drawing on its Atlas of the Irish Revolution.


The focus is on the titans who bestrode the struggle for Irish independence: De Valera and Collins, and Churchill, huffing in the margins like an Edwardian Bond villain. Here and elsewhere, the tectonic vastness of the forces rocking Ireland at that time is impressively communicated.

We revisit the 1914 Government of Ireland Act, which promised Ireland limited self-rule. And then on to 1916, the 1918 General Election and Treaty negotiations, in which Collins and Arthur Griffith were dispatched to London. There they went toe-to-toe with the architects and custodians of British imperialism. “They have lost their deference to the imperial masters of the world,” says Dr John Borgonovo of UCC.

Only in the second half does the unthinkable prospect of Irishman fighting Irishman loom. The business classes supported the Treaty – along with the IRA forces around Dublin, we learn.

Opposing it were the troops in the field: in Munster and the west. And when the British blamed anti-Treaty forces for the assassination of the Longford-born Field Martial Sir Henry Wilson on his doorstep in Belgravia, war drums struck up in earnest – tensions not helped by the fact that Ireland was brimming with firearms. “The country was awash with handguns,” says historian Séan Enright. “Bank robberies were endemic.”

It’s sweeping stuff: Dr Zhivago with a flat cap and a Lee Enfield stuffed down its trench coat. But it could perhaps have done with more ordinary voices. After the British had left, there was, we learn, a sense that all our troubles had been banished, a new future dawning.

“The summer of 1921 was a gorgeous summer,” recalls one eyewitness. “People began to think we actually had something.” It must have felt as if the sun was finally coming out as the Union Jack went down and the Tricolour flapped in its place. Instead, the country was about to plunge into terrible darkness. In part one of the Irish Civil War, the scale of that onrushing tragedy is powerfully conveyed.