There is nothing more stirring and romantic than a people’s fight for independence. Who cannot be moved by an underdog taking up the rifle to make a stand and be counted in the community of nations?
And yet the reality of revolution — and the civil war that it seems must almost inevitably follow — is grim, violent and often sordid.
I have pretty much stopped watching the news, for reasons that I’m sure don’t require explication here, and I seem to have lost my interest in NFL football. So, when I crave some autumnal “down time,” I’ve been wielding that handy little Roku device to scout up some good history documentaries. Nothing more relaxing than lying back on the couch and catching up on a couple of centuries’ worth of mayhem, betrayal and conspiracy…
Youtube’s algorithmic sorcery took me from the Shawnee Tecumseh’s fatal struggle to create a pan-Indian polity in the Old Northwest to the docudrama The Road To Irish Freedom. It’s worthy. The three-part series profiles not the big political figures of the Irish War of Independence — the likes of Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera — but the gunmen and guerilla fighters who actually carried out the nasty little war that brought the British to the negotiating table. After the 1921 settlement that led to the Irish Free State and the partition of Ireland, they were also pulled into the brief but savage Irish Civil War.
The IRA guerillas portrayed in the film — which includes interviews with the men themselves — were unabashed killers, and even in the winter of their lives they made no apologies and sought no absolution. Whether you respect or even admire that, or whether you recoil, depends on your perspective — and you may, like me, feel a storm of mixed emotions as you watch the tale unfold.
Tom Barry, who commanded the 3rd West Cork Flying Column was characteristically blunt in his defiant justification of his own violent career:
“They said I was ruthless, daring, savage, blood thirsty, even heartless. The clergy called me and my comrades murderers; but the British were met with their own weapons. They had gone in the mire to destroy us and our nation and down after them we had to go.”
In addition to Barry, the series covers Tipperary gunman — and later maverick parliamentarian — Dan Breen…
…and IRA anti-Treaty hardliner and man-of-arts-and-letters, Ernie O’Malley.
The series is telling an Irish nationalist/republican tale from an Irish nationalist/republican point of view, so it can’t be said to be even-handed. There is no perspective from the British or Ascendancy Establishment. That is not to say, though, that the take is uncritical. The film deals forthrightly with the violence and outright brutality of the men and the times.