Historical anniversaries are an abiding obsession at BBC radio, where handfuls of documentaries each week are introduced with lines such as “Marking 25 years since…”, “Exactly four decades on from…” and “10 years ago this month”. The implication is that things somehow become more noteworthy when they’re pegged to a round-numbered birthday, which is both daft and oddly restrictive. Imagine all of the interesting programmes that are going unmade because their subjects are 42, or 13, or 67-and-a-half years old.
That being said, it was hard to complain about BBC radio making a fuss of the Easter Rising centenary. This felt, for once, like an anniversary with some genuine heft, of an event that really did leave its mark on the century to follow.
1916: A Letter From Ireland (Radio 4, Sunday) was among the best things I heard on the subject last week. Presented by the journalist Fintan O’Toole, it took listeners into Maynooth University’s rich archive of personal letters and documents from the time of the Rising, all of which were sourced from attics, libraries and shoeboxes across Ireland over the past few years. By turns dramatic, domestic, hastily written and elegant, the letters shimmered with life and captured the mood of the era in remarkable detail.
A letter from Patrick Blair-Carphin, returning to Dublin on Easter Monday, described “an atmosphere which you can hardly imagine… No post in or out, no telegraphs, no telephone, no newspapers, no gas and not much to eat all through the Sinn Fein rising”. Doris Meyer, unable to send correspondence, instead extended it into a gossipy journal, detailing the activities in the streets outside, and noting – with just a touch of Hyacinth Bucket-style disappointment – that the British forces hadn’t bothered to search her house, even as she’d readied it for them.
Not everyone was excited or impressed by the rebels. There were letters between two lovers – for whom the insurrection was less interesting than the prospect of a spring wedding – and from an Irish-born sailor in the Royal Navy, who complained that “it would seem as if the Temple of Glory built by our brave Irish regiments had been pulled down by their own kindred”. As perspectives multiplied and the details accrued, I had the feeling of seeing a long-obscured scene in colour for the first time.
Insights were thinner on the ground in The News From Home (Radio 3, Sunday), a new play by Nick Dear, also commissioned to mark the centenary. It centred upon Nora (Charlene McKenna) and Kitty (Clare Dunne), Tipperary-born maidservants at an English country house in the New Forest, circa Easter 1916. Dear’s aim was to show how the effects of the Rising rippled out across Britain, dividing families, raising questions of Irishness versus Britishness, threatening vested interests. Sadly in pursuing it he forgot that his piece also had to function as a drama. Scenes careered past, the plot began to bunch and knot, and, in spite of some gallant acting, characters came across as little more than ideological vessels: the class-conscious heiress, the Loyalist gardener, the Republican maid.
There was one particularly awkward moment in which Ken, a Marxist-inclined soldier, started lecturing Norah about “the downfall of capital, the building of the socialist state… and an end to plutocratic wars”. Presumably Dear was simply trying to add more political spice to the mix here; but the end result was overcooked, rather than enlightening.
Meanwhile, Ireland – Looking Beyond The Border (Radio 4, Monday) gave a heartening account of reconciliation and peace in modern Ireland, one hundred years after the first shots were fired. Travelling around both the Republic and the North, the BBC’s talented Ireland correspondent Chris Page spoke to Unionists, nationalists, historians, bystanders, and wondered: how far have we come as an island?
Memorable answers came back. The author Philip Orr reflected that “the border my grandfather knew about, and rarely, if ever, crossed – it’s gone”. As if to back this up, a lady from the border town of Blacklion mentioned a crochet group that was keenly attended by members from the Republic and the North (I loved the image of them cross-stitching peacefully together). Politicians from both ends of the spectrum spoke of acceptance and cooperation, with none of the vitriol that used to flavour their speeches in previous decades. It came as a reminder – an extremely welcome one – that progress is possible.