‘Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland’: Troubling!
via PBS

On May 22, Public Broadcasting Service started streaming its new 5-part series Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland. The series is a brilliant, heart-wrenching, often violent account of the struggle for Irish independence through previously unheard personal testimonies and extensive archival footage of the events. The cumulative impact of this series sears the senses.

To call this period in Irish history “The Troubles” is a polite understatement of the brutal consequences of people fighting to free themselves from the last vestiges of an empire’s occupation. The episode titles themselves suggest the stages of the struggles: “It Wasn’t a Movie Anymore,” “Do Paramilitaries Lie Awake at Night,” “So Many Broken Hearts,” “The Dirty War,” and “Who Wants to Live Like That.”

Northern Ireland had evolved into the 20th century as a colony of Great Britain. British Protestants had colonized the entire island displacing the indigenous Irish who tended to be Roman Catholic, subjecting them to an often brutal regime ruled largely from afar by the British Crown and their local vassals. Northern Ireland particularly was shaped into such a two-tiered society—generally a Protestant overclass and a Catholic proletariat. British settler rule discriminated against the native Catholics in employment, housing, healthcare, and education. Catholics were confined to living in crowded ghettoes with dilapidated housing and scant upwardly mobile jobs to break this stranglehold.

The Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) won greater independence for the southern part of the island, the Irish Free State. But the British settler majority in the Northern counties chose to separate out from the rest of the Island so that they could maintain their plantation economy.

As conditions worsened, activists protested. Bernadette Devlin and John Hume formed the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, using the American civil rights movement and worldwide push for progressive political change as models. Their marches in 1968 and 1969 spurred counterdemonstrations by right-wing Minister Ian Paisley and Northern Ireland Protestant groups.

Director James Bluemel, who directed the award-winning Once Upon a Time in Iraq, the story of the battle of Fallujah, has pieced together a compelling kaleidoscope of archival footage and idiosyncratic personal testimony. The stories, full of intimate detail adding up to maddening tragedies, complement stark dramatic footage of the ebb and flow of events from Bloody Sunday and militarization of the struggle, through Hunger Strikers, escalating casualties to the ultimate progress of uneasy resolution.

Veterans on both sides, families and ordinary people, soldiers and civilians, tell the story of the fight for rights played out against the backdrop of centuries of injustice.

This reviewer had the painful experience of being in Belfast on Orangeman’s Day in 1969 when large-scale outbreaks of violence by organized Protestant militias attacked Catholic neighborhoods, pulling all the furniture and belongings out of homes and burning them in the streets. Fires, smoke, ruins, and gangs of roving thugs made a simple walk a dangerous expedition.

Director Bluemel and PBS have done a great service by letting the participants tell their stories. They have exposed the roots of the Irish “Troubles,” calling attention to similar kindred unresolved struggles throughout the world.

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Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.