RTE Television

The Story Of Ireland

The Story of Ireland - a groundbreaking new series presented by Fergal Keane about the history of Ireland - cultural, social, and economic, and its role on the international stage.

The Story Of Ireland is a five-part landmark history of Ireland, to be presented by Fergal Keane.

Ireland is living through a significant period in its cycle of history - since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the island has been at peace. This is unprecedented in the history of modern Ireland and so seems like a perfect time to reflect on the Irish as a people now, as a modern European nation, and how we got to this place.

The big ambition of this telling of the story is that it should be expansive and outward looking. When the previous television history series was told by the historian Robert Kee in 1981, Ireland was in a very different place, at war with itself in the north and economically ravaged in the south. The series naturally reflected those conditions and primarily viewed our story through the prism of our troubled relationship with our nearest neighbour.

This series will show us that this view is narrow and self - limiting. The Story of Ireland will look at the evolution of the country in a world context and will show that as an island people our very DNA has been formed by successive waves of peoples coming from outside and that we in turn have travelled and influenced world events for nearly 2000 years.

As a BBC foreign correspondent, Fergal Keane has nurtured a world view of current affairs and history for over 20 years and will act as a knowing and trustful guide for this new Story of Ireland.

The story of Ireland is vivid, exciting and immensely varied. It is far more than the sum of old cliches and myths which set the Irish as a people who were prisoners and victims of history. This series sees Ireland as an international island which is both changed by and helps to change the world beyond her shores. As a foreign correspondent who has traveled on every continent I have tried to bring my experience of the wider world to this story of Ireland and. I have tried to see our past with a clear eye and an open heart.


Programme One: The Age Of Invasions

The opening idea and theme for the whole series is best surmised as follows: This is not the story of Ireland as John Bull's 'other' island, nor is it a romanticised vision of Ireland as a place apart, a wild land on the furthest flung corner of Europe. Instead the series aims to explore Irish history on its own terms, using the historical facts and evidence while charting the origin and impact of the numerous myths that have been passed off as history in the past. Key to this approach is relating developments in Ireland to events and changes in Europe and the world at large as the centuries progress.

Major areas discussed in the opening episode include the origins of the idea of a 'Celtic' race, apart from the main; the impact of early Christianity and monasticism in Ireland; the birth of Ireland's potent literary culture; the unique law tracts created by Irish lawyers that afford us remarkable insights into the day to day lives and habits of ordinary people nearly 1500 years ago.

The Vikings are treated not simply as barbarous marauders, but resourceful settlers (as the Celts were before them) who established Ireland's major towns and placed them at the centre of a vast trading network.

Brian Boru comes to us as a man of his time - above all else motivated by the will to power. Far from driving the Vikings out of Ireland he relied on their military skills to achieve his ambitions.

Programme Two: The Age Of Conquest

And so come the English, with their giant war horses, lethal archers and shimmering impenetrable armour. Thus begins 800 years of Irish subjugation to their brutal neighbours from across the Irish Sea. Or maybe not. This episode gets under the skin of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland, and relates it to the huge upheavals and changes taking place across Europe at the time.

We hear the Norman view on Ireland through the pen of Gerald of Wales - chronicler, propagandist, author of fantastical lies and at other times poignant, moving passages on Irish music and the handsomeness of its people. A truly fascinating lens through which to view the invaders' opinions of the Irish.

The impact of the Normans on Ireland's landscape was immense at first; but the structural frailties of the expansion and subsequent Gaelic Revival in the mid fourteenth century challenge traditional views that the Irish merely gave in to the settlers. Gaelic culture and life in fact proved remarkably resilient.

The Tudors centralised power in fits and starts - but Elizabeth I was forced to deal with Ireland head on. External factors propelled this - a Protestant queen far from secure on her throne, Ireland's potential as a back door to England for hostile powers was the catalyst for much of the action in the Elizabethan Age. We see canny Irish leaders horse trading with the European superpowers, Spain and Rome. The emergence of major secular divides is brought to light in this era, as is the destruction of an old Gaelic order in the wake of Kinsale.

Programme Three: The Age Of Revolution

Spanning the Ulster Plantation to the Act of Union, this is an era that sees Ireland take centre stage in a much wider European conflict. It is also a period rife with bloody events still raw in the 'memories' of many Irish people, both catholic and protestant. Vital to this episode is a measured, factually driven approach to the more controversial moments and characters, to hold up the truth of events as they happened, their impact, and in doing so blow away some of the myths that have built up around them.
Portadown, Cromwell, the Boyne, penal laws and land resettlements are all major areas for exploration, and all will be set in wider contexts than has traditionally been afforded them.
Attention will also be given to the 18th Century boom time Dublin especially - an economic, intellectual, architectural and cultural flowering that is often overlooked.

In contrast, we will also investigate Gaelic life and culture during the eighteenth century. Through poetry, music and the rise of a catholic middle class we will see the story in a more complex light than simply rich ascendancy minority on one side, poor Catholic majority on the other.

The story of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen is vividly brought to life with extensive specially shot material in Paris, again pulling the Irish story into the broader history of Europe, in this instance revolutionary France and the cry of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité that resonated so strongly with Tone and his fellow reformers back in Ireland. The severity of the sectarian divides and violence in Ireland in the wake of the failed French landing however shock Tone, he realises, as so many would after him, how much more complex the Irish situation is than even he'd ever dared to imagine.

Programme Four: The Age of Union

This episode is not just the inevitable and inexorable rise of the Home Rule movement. A new area for exploration is Ireland's role in the British Empire - both in terms of military service - Irish regiments holding the Punjab for example, and in terms of intriguing Irish governors and political men posted in various corners of the British Empire.

Daniel O'Connell dominates the domestic political scene, as does the Great Famine. Its impact, the different readings and explanations of this seismic event are looked at against the backdrop of the political ideas of the time when Government believed in free trade economics.

The founding of the IRB and the American influence in this organisation is an important development and one that was to shape the funding and orchestration of nationalist movements for many years to come.

As the campaign for Home Rule gathered pace in other parts of the Empire, notably in Canada and India, Ireland was unique in having representation in Westminster. This film reveals the extent to which Irish MPs in Westminster altered British and therefore world history. Parnell for example, the champion of Home Rule in Ireland supported Cecil Rhodes imperialist adventures in modern day Zimbabwe.

By the 1890s Parliamentarians and advanced nationalists had thrown their lot in behind the Home Rule campaign. The Gaelic leagues were preparing the ground for a 'Celtic twilight' that would come under Home Rule. This was to be spearheaded by the likes of Arthur Griffith, and romantic Irish aristocrats and intellectuals like WB Yeats, Maude Gonne, Douglas Hyde.

This wave of optimism ended with the resounding defeat of Gladstone's second Home Rule act in 1893 in the House of Lords. Conservative and Unionist peers found Home Rule a fearful spectacle.

But advanced nationalists ambitions hardened and key characters (Mac Bride, Griffith, Gonne) were particularly taken with the plight of the Boers in SA - and inspired by their armed resistance to British rule.

Programme Five: The Age of Nations

The Boer War is of much forgotten significance to the Irish story in the early 20th Century. Irish nationalists were drawn to the Boer cause, but the forces they were fighting were the Irish regiments of the British army. So Irish fought Irish on different sides in deserts and mountains 6000 miles from home.

A strong theme in the programme is the exploration of Irish nationalism, the welding together of culture, physical force and blood sacrifice, from Patrick Pearse, Connolly and Larkin right through to the beginning of the period known as 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland.

The programme examines the loyalist backlash and the rise of the Volunteer movements in both north and south. The rebellion of 1916 is looked at in the context of the First World War. We will see the Sinn Fein election of 1919 against a backdrop of World peace through The Treaty Of Versailles in the same year.

The programme looks at the treaty and civil war in the south and the creation of the closed world of the two Irelands - DeVelera's in the south and Craig's in the north. There is a look at culture and repression in these worlds and how censorship narrowed the Irish minds in the 40s and 50s; a look at the economic stagnation and mass emigration in the 40s and 50s and abuse of clerical power in the south.

The opening up of the 60s under Sean Lemass brought in a new era of economic openness in the south along with the beginnings of Ireland looking out again through its involvement of the UN and its eventual membership of the EEC. In the north the international civil rights movement of '68 came into Northern Ireland. There is a look at some key moments in The Troubles, and Margaret Thatcher's role in the end game. Taking the programme right up to the present there is a look at the peace process, the emergence of the Celtic Tiger economy, and Ireland's subsequent economic collapse.

The Story Of Ireland
  • RTÉ One, Tuesday, 10.15pm