Remembering a controversial 1916 Rising drama shown on the BBC

Final moments in the GPO: a scene from the 1966 re-enactment of the 1916 Rising, Insurrection 1916

Lance Pettitt, Associate Research Fellow, Birkbeck College, London, explores the impact of a TV drama about the Easter Rising on viewers in England in 1966 and asks for Irish World readers to help him investigate its broadcast.


In April 1966, RTE screened its dramatized reconstruction of the Easter Rising to commemorate the 50 year anniversary. Titled Insurrection, it was written by the dramatist Hugh Leonard and produced and directed by Louis Lentin.

It was broadcast nightly on RTE in twenty-minute episodes as if it were a news-current affairs programme covering the event live. Eye-catching and innovative, it certainly sparked the imagination of many viewers, young and old, at the time.

With Ray McAnally as the TV studio anchorman and roving reporters on location around Dublin, the production was a huge logistical undertaking and an RTE was under the spotlight by government officials keen to avoid controversy or dissent from the official nationalist line on the birth of the state.

RTE appointed Dr Kevin Nowlan (UCD) as the historical advisor for all of the station’s programming on 1916 with absolute powers of editorial veto which he exercised.

Casement honoured Westminster
Pictured is the name of Roger Casement among the names of both Irish and English casualties during the 1916 Rising, as they appear on a new monument in Glasnevin Cemetery. Photo: RollingNews.ie

The script was demanding but it was skillfully realized, with some stunning pyrotechnic special effects showing the final moments in the GPO [IMAGE] and the cast produced performances which, to my view, hold up well over time and at moments are emotionally affective.

Pearse was played by Eoin O Suilleabhain, Constance Markiewicz by Joan O’Hara, Connolly’s daughter by Fionnuala Flanagan and Tom Clarke by Jim Norton.

Justly praised at the time by critics and Ireland’s then growing TV audience, Insurrection has since become seen as a bit of an Irish TV classic but wasn’t re-broadcast again until the 2016 centenary commemorations. Or was it?

RTE archives indicate that the programme was sold at the time to a number of Scandinavian, European and north American territories, even if sometimes in shorter, cut-down versions. How interesting it would be to find out what viewers in those countries made of the programme?

What’s less well known and under-researched is the fact that Insurrection was broadcast in that spring of 1966 in its entirety in England on the then-fledging BBC-2 between 24 April and 7 May.

Commemoration to mark the 102 Anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. President Michael D Higgins with members of the Irish defences forces(Soldiers) during the laying of a wreath outside the General Post office(GPO) on O Connell Street Dublin for the commemoration to mark the 102 Anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Photo: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Under its new Controller, the youthful David Attenborough, BBC2 only ran programmes in the evenings, its transmission signal was limited in range and not everyone then had an aerial to receive the new channel which was soon to innovate with colour TV.

Insurrection went out at 22.30, the penultimate programme slot in the schedule, followed by Joan Bakewell and Denis Tuohy in ‘Late Night Line Up’, so the numbers of viewers who saw Insurrection in England was limited.

But it was received favourably by most English newspaper reviews that covered it, and we know from the evidence of letters written to RTE that the BBC screening was seen by Irish people living or visiting London at the time.

Such letters provide fascinating reading and offer an insight as to the impact of Insurrection beyond the island of Ireland, qualitative evidence of how actual viewers made sense of the drama’s reconstructive aesthetics and how the programme helped reshape views of Irish history.


If you remember seeing Insurrection on BBC-2 in April-May 1966 or have any letters or diary entries about it, please get in touch with Lance Pettitt before 29 May, if you can, via: www.lancepettitt.com or l.pettitt@bbk.ac.uk


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