I often despair of television documentaries. They take an hour to tell me something I could be told in ten minutes. After each break, if they are on commercial TV, they treat me to a resumé of what has gone before until I feel I have strayed on to a children’s channel by mistake.
So what a powerful experience it was to watch this stunning 100 minute documentary on Yeats by a man who dares to challenge a sacred cow of Irish history. It had to be an Irishman to do it – no-one else would have dared. And it had to be a man who has known suffering through the death of loved ones, as Bob Geldof has done so tragically.
The film covered Yeats’ literary and political life, his love life and his interest in magic and the metaphysical. It included excerpts from his poetry read by famous actors and pop stars. This was all wonderful stuff. But what really gave it passion was Geldof’s opinion about an event that has recently had its centenary – the 1916 Uprising. Rather than trying to paraphrase Geldof’s point, let me quote from an article that gives direct quotes:
‘Yeats wrote about the myths and legends of ancient Ireland to remind the Irish that they were not just victims of oppression. Geldof compares his work to the Arthurian legends of England and the American Dream. ‘Every place has a creation myth. Yeats said to the Irish, “This is who you are. You are noble.” The man sang the nation into being.’ They didn’t always listen. ‘It’s very easy to pick up a gun and decide you want a different kind of independence and start shooting people. I’ve no time for that.’
He is scathing about the way the Easter Rising of 1916 has been held up as an act of great martyrdom over the years. ‘It’s the original sin. So much rests on this myth. How many murders have been sanctioned in its name? F*** off! This messianic, delusional vertigo of self-sacrifice, the delirium of dying.’
He’s using phrases from Yeats, who was ambivalent towards winning Ireland with violence and wrote in the aftermath of the failed Easter uprising: ‘A terrible beauty is born.’ The men and women who took over the General Post Office in Dublin and declared a republic, despite being in a city dominated by the British army, knew their mission was suicidal, he says. ‘They started writing these letters [to be read afterwards] which show clearly they knew, “The only thing that will come out of this is that we get shot, we get to be martyrs, that’ll spur another generation.”
‘What’s admirable about that, if you also don’t admire the guy who’s just walked into Pakistan and blown up 73 people at a Christian carnival in Lahore? What’s the difference? People say, “That’s outrageous, it’s not the same thing.” Excuse me?’
‘“The two-year-old who died for Ireland”: not so catchy, is it? Not something you’d want to grab your bodhrán and squeezebox and write a come-all-ye about. I wonder was it shame that made the children who died during Easter Week 1916 disappear?
They weren’t mentioned at all during the 1966 commemoration, says broadcaster Joe Duffy in his terrific documentary Children of the Revolution, and if they are mentioned in history books it is briefly and often inaccurately.’ Duffy discovered 40 children were killed – some by the rebels, some by the British snipers. Most were innocent bystanders, a few were taking part.
Geldof says “The glorification of violence stained my country for decades.” He sums up his view quite simply like this: “Dying is very easy. I’ve been around it a lot. It isn’t radical to die, it’s inevitable. Staying alive is hard.” And it was Yeats who chose to stay alive and who did more, Geldof argues, to forge an Irish identity and culture than those who chose the way of death by violence. “The modern, plural, open, generous country that Yeats wrote about and worked for has now come into being,” says Geldof. “His revolution won in the end. The revolution of the Irish mind. The Irish are now the people he said they would one day be.”
You can watch it here: