IRA gunmen queasy about violence, a British soldier with a conscience, strong female characters and some nasty nuns – Ireland’s war of independence has been given a makeover.
Resistance, a glossy RTE television drama that blends real and fictional characters, has shone a contemporary light on the guerrilla campaign led by Michael Collins that helped overthrow British rule in what became the Republic of Ireland a century ago.
The fifth and final episode will air on Sunday with the conflict’s outcome foretold: the rebels win.
But as viewers have seen over the past four weeks, it will be a partial victory extracted at great price and with omens of more bloodshed to come – a civil war.
To what extent that constitutes victory is a question that hangs over the series and to some extent, Ireland itself as the country embarks on a series of events to commemorate the centenary of the 1919-20 war, a conflict which ended British rule in southern Ireland but partitioned the island, cleaving a border with the north that continues to vex and polarise.
“There’s a tendency in Ireland to say it was a good clean war and we got the better of the British,” Colin Teevan, who wrote Resistance, said in an interview this week. “But under the guise of the war of independence a lot of scores were settled. I’m intrigued about ends and means, that in order to achieve a desirable and just goal we have to be unjust.”
More than 2,000 people, including 750 civilians, were killed by the time the rebels signed a treaty with the British government which gave de facto independence to 26 counties and left six northern counties with a pro-British Protestant majority under UK rule.
The series presents a greyer portrait of the conflict than Michael Collins, the 1996 biopic directed by Neil Jordan, which cast Liam Neeson as a dashing, romantic revolutionary who found time to woo Kitty Kiernan, played by Julia Roberts.
That version reflected blossoming national confidence at the outset of the Celtic tiger era, said Teevan. “Historical dramas are always about the time they’re written in. I think it’s a fairly simplistic, heroic take on Michael Collins.”
Resistance is not a revisionist takedown of the IRA leader. Played by Gavin Drea, Collins is dynamic, disciplined and charismatic. But the focus shifts to other characters and storylines.
Jimmy Mahon, a fictional IRA gunman played by Brian Gleeson, has qualms about violence and an added complication in the form of a brother who is a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary and thus a target for the IRA.
Simone Kirby plays a code-breaker at Dublin Castle, the heart of British rule, who seeks IRA help in regaining custody of a son wrenched and spirited away from her by nuns, a sub-plot based on a true story which foreshadowed the Catholic church’s clout and practice of forced adoptions in the newly independent state.
“No nuance for the nuns,” lamented a review in the Irish Catholic newspaper – which did, however, praise the show for making space for strong female leads, filling a void left by other depictions of the conflict, and for humanising at least one member of the Black and Tans, the nickname of a hated British military force. “One of them was shown as having a heart, uneasy with the arbitrary violence of colleagues,” the paper’s Brendan O’Regan wrote.
Teevan hopes UK audiences will appreciate the shadings of British characters in a conflict British history books call the Anglo-Irish war.
“They need to be humanised,” he said. “Out and out baddies are not that fascinating. Just to have them executing people – that’s a Hollywood world of black and white. I try to keep it balanced. I can’t know what an English person will feel about it.”
Resistance will be available on Netflix next month but subscribers in the UK must wait until March, said Teevan.
A playwright and TV showrunner, Teevan is Irish but studied in Scotland and lives in England. He wrote Rebellion, a mini-series about the 1916 Dublin rising which RTE aired in 2016. He hopes to complete the trilogy with a drama on the 1921-22 civil war. That conflict pitted anti-treaty rebels against pro-treaty former comrades led by Collins, who was shot dead by a sniper.
Ireland commemorated the rising’s centenary with enthusiasm but the war of independence is a “more awkward” memory, said Eunan O’Halpin, a history professor at Trinity College.
The treaty signed by Collins split Irish nationalism and abandoned Northern Ireland Catholics to hostile, sectarian rule, leaving a collective sense of unfinished business that is now stoked by Brexit, he said.
The British government’s current attempt to dump the backstop – an insurance policy designed to prevent the return of a hard border – amid the chaos of Brexit negotiations has rekindled Irish perceptions that some old colonial reflexes endure, said O’Halpin.
“Look at the British political elite; all these idiots come from Oxford,” said O’Halpin. “There is an underlying residual ignorance and disdain for the Irish issue.”