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Documentary reflects on 1916 Irish rebellion

| Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Briona Nic Dhiarmada said when she first started planning her three-part documentary series about six years ago, she set the goal of commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising in a special way.

The series, “1916: The Irish Rebellion,” was written and created by Nic Dhiarmada, a fellow of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies and the Thomas J. & Kathleen O’Donnell Chair of Irish Language and Literature, and will premiere on many PBS stations, including WNIT-TV this Thursday at 9 p.m.

“I really felt that with the resources available at Notre Dame and the Keough-Naughton Institute, and given the sort of distance both in time and in space, from Ireland and from Irish history, that we would able to do something new and we would be able to look at that event not only simply as Irish history or Irish-British history, but as part of actually world history,” Nic Dhiarmada said. “I think it goes to prove that we’re very lucky to be at the University of Notre Dame.”

Christopher Fox, executive producer of the documentary and director of the Keough-Naughton Institute, said the project served as an opportunity to extend Notre Dame’s academic reach and educate people worldwide about this event.

“For over 20 years we’ve been bringing Ireland to Notre Dame and Notre Dame to Ireland,” he said. “I thought the one thing we really hadn’t done was kind of public education, and this is public education on a global scale. It allows us to bring Ireland to the world, and also … I don’t think there has ever been a time when something based in our research and teaching mission will be seen by so many people, millions of people worldwide.”

The film first premiered in the U.S. at a gala held in DeBartolo Performing Arts Center on March 3. The audience was packed with students, faculty, filmmakers, donors and celebrities, including Oscar-nominated actor Liam Neeson, who narrated the documentary, and Anne Anderson, Ireland’s ambassador to the U.S.

Nic Dhiarmada and Fox will complete a screening tour of the feature film format of the documentary that will take to them to 16 countries throughout 2016, Nic Dhiarmada said.

“We’re bringing the film around the world to various universities and culture centers and Irish embassies. The Irish government, from a very early stage, took this project on board as one of their official centenary events for their official program,” she said. “Even though it’s specifically Irish, it’s also a global story. Actually, the response has been unbelievable. It’s beyond our wildest expectations, I suppose, that we get to show it in so many places.”

Fox also said the response to the film at these screenings has been overwhelmingly positive.

“It’s been getting standing ovations every place we’ve shown it,” he said. “The surprising response we’ve gotten is actually from some unionists and some British people who have seen it and said afterwards, ‘This is balanced, this is fair.’”

Fox said the creative team was largely able to maintain an impartial view on the subject by showing it through a historical lens rather than a political one.

“We decided not to use political pundits or commentators, we wanted historians involved, serious historians,” he said. “Now they don’t all agree, but they can have a discussion here. The story that ended up telling itself was really a story about the breakup of empires. I think that’s one of the reasons the film has the broad appeal it has.”

Nic Dhiarmada said she drew inspiration from Ken Burns’s documentary series, “The Civil War,” in order to sensitively handle an issue that remains contentious in Ireland.

“The American Civil War is something that’s still very raw, still quite contentious, and what Ken Burns did for that was to give it back to the people,” she said. “He contextualized it, but he gave the personal stories and the impact that history has on ordinary people. … We didn’t exactly copy Ken Burns or what he did, or really imitate him, but we tried to do something similar and create for Irish history what he had done for American history.”

People who aren’t Irish or of Irish descent have still been able to relate to the story as a human story, Nic Dhiarmada said.

“I think it’s a story of historical significance because it was like a ripple effect. Its effects were felt way beyond Ireland, but I think on a human level it’s a story of great courage, of idealism, and also then of loss, as well,” she said. “I think it’s certainly resonant for people who respect equality, people who struggle and strive for equality, and justice, and freedom and things like that.”

Fox said the impact this story had on the largely-Irish creative team was evident in the care they took during the filmmaking process.

“It was family history, this is their history. And it just wasn’t a job, it was a labor of love,” he said. “A whole bunch of really creative and smart people got together, and it was wonderful for me to be orchestrating all that, but a lot of really smart and creative people got together and we found ourselves in the middle of something special, and they all felt that this will be a landmark documentary.”

Nic Dhiarmada said she remained very conscious of the personal nature of the story she set out to tell throughout the entire process.

“You’re dealing with people, with people’s memories, with history and you’re dealing with people’s lives,” she said. “People make history, but history makes and breaks people, so we’re conscious of a great responsibility, I suppose, and really what we tried to do was tell the story as honestly as possible, keeping in mind that one has to be ethical when you’re telling these stories and conscious of the effect it can have on people.”

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About Courtney Becker

Courtney is a junior from New York City majoring in film, television and theater with a minor in journalism, and currently serving as News Editor. She is a proud resident of Pasquerilla West Hall and a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

Contact Courtney