In The Limits of Liberty, historian Diarmuid Ferriter has been given three one hour episodes to lay out the social history of the Irish Republic. It is, of course, too brief, but the first episode is encouraging for its dissection of the new-state’s failure to deliver on promises of equality.
The first episode is shot through with indignation, as Ferriter centres his ire around the lip-service paid to the social values of the Democratic Programme after its adoption by the first Dail in 1919. By focusing on the deliberate retention of the British system of social governance such as workhouses, he works to explode any notion that the newly-independent Free State had any desire to represent the good of the entire population. Indeed, he emphasises their class allegiances as ‘men of property’ and their contempt for less reputable elements of society.
He also provides us with assessments of emergent powers of Irish society, such as the Licensed Vintners and the Catholic Church, and the strange balancing act between them. The program builds a strengthened awareness of the various interests and allegiances that would dominate the new nation, as well as those who were dominated. Efforts at advancing an alternative path were stamped down firmly, with the suppression of strikes confirming Kevin O’Higgins’ boast of belonging to “the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution”.
We see that there were many who opposed the status quo’s implementation. We also see that those who did so, republicans and revolutionaries alike, were beaten up, shot down or forced out. The 1919 election slogan that ‘labour must wait’ seemed to have been extended indefinitely, while those who challenged the easy lies about sexual morality, Church-run institutions and continuing poverty were ignored or silenced. Throughout the program it is clear that the new consensus was founded on exclusion as much as agreement.
Ferriter is an excellent writer, investigating the lives and deeds of powerful and powerless alike, backing up his case with interviews, documents and video reels. Live action and set piece narration are used to break up the info-dumps and maintain the viewer’s interest. The interweaving of all these elements, however, is often over-wrought, betraying a similar excess of cinematographic ambition as RTE’s other recent heavy-hitter, Aftershock. The thinking at Montrose seems to be that documentary is best delivered with the dizzying shifts of a Lady GaGa video. Presumably such visual violence has permanently damaged viewers’ attention spans, so that we have to be repeatedly and violently jostled to remain conscious.
A more important weakness is that the sheer breadth of the topic confounds the program; it jumps from social history to individual biography to political history and back, with narrative thread often dropped between the bounds. The combination of the vast range with Ferriter’s impressive capacity for detailed assessment of individual issues is that the program seems to offer a scatter-gun approach to the subject – hitting only parts of its target. Where it does hit, in fairness to Ferriter, it hits hard, but the format precludes a patient and clear analysis, of causes and effects.
Despite these quibbles, this series is very welcome, if far too brief. Ferriter has been given a chance to tie together a range of phenomena in a narrative of life in Ireland after independence. His indignation is well-placed, and his focus on the political, economic and moral resemblances between the new elite and the old are very welcome. Indeed, in the current circumstances, the critical examination of Irish history can help debunk nationalist historiography and provide us all with a clearer sense of our society and the forces that have, and continue to impose limits to liberty and equality both.
The Limits of Liberty
* RTÉ One, Tuesday 1 June 2010, 10.15pm
* RTÉ One, Tuesday 8 June 2010, 10.15pm
* RTÉ One, Tuesday 15 June 2010, 10.15pm