All stories grow enamelled over time, and I worried at first that James Bluemel’s new five-part documentary series Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland would struggle in the face of wisdom-after-the-fact and post-dated bravado; that the years gone by would bring with them a concealing tidiness, an opacity that is of no use at all to a journalist film-maker.
When Billy McVeigh, a man who can still be seen in a famous Republican mural on the side of a Derry terrace, talked in the first film of the “good craic” in the run-up to what would come to be known as the Troubles – at the time of the Battle of the Bogside in 1969, he was just 17 – I doubted it would be even half so good as Bluemel’s last (the brilliant and award-winning Once Upon a Time in Iraq).
It is good, though. It may be the best television ever made about Northern Ireland. In part, this is because the events these films relate are so utterly terrible. Even the hardest, most cynical, most partisan of men must reckon up in the end; sometimes, we can see revision, even penitence, happening in real time, on screen. But it’s also thanks to the fact that Bluemel has, for the most part, avoided talking to the usual suspects.
The third film, which focuses on the Republican hunger strikes of 1981, relies largely on the testimonies of three magnificent women: June, the wife of Johnny Proctor, a murdered Royal Ulster Constabulary officer, shot by the IRA as he left hospital having visited his new baby; Bernadette, the wife of Richard O’Rawe, a Republican prisoner who became, against her wishes, one of the so-called Blanketmen (protesting that they were no longer regarded as political prisoners by the British government, Republicans refused to wash, cut their hair, or wear prison uniforms, covering themselves instead in standard-issue blankets); and another Bernadette, this one the daughter of Joseph McDonnell, the IRA man who was the fifth hunger striker to die. These people are not used to performing for a camera; what they have to say is hard-won, and all the more painfully dramatic for it.
It is difficult to capture on paper what works on screen. It’s the small things – the human, intimate things – that bring you to tears. Here is a Protestant man, John, who was told as a boy that his mother had died in a car crash, only to find out later that she was alive, driven out of the community because (unbeknown to him) she was a Catholic. His story is unfathomable, but it was the way he smoked that set me off, his body wrapped around his cigarette as if in an embrace.
Another man, Michael, describes how, in his childhood, his Protestant mother, who’d married a Catholic and lived in that community with her ten children, was kidnapped and murdered by the IRA, having first been escorted from the family flat by two women. (Were these females coerced or willing? My mind raced.) Again, I was dry-eyed until the moment we saw the utmost gentleness with which Michael, now a committed pigeon fancier, folds his birds into the palms of his hands. He seemed to be full of grace, a state that would, were I in his shoes, be impossible for me.
For most of us, sectarianism is just a word, an almost abstract concept. I am a Protestant who is married to a Catholic, and this matters only the tiniest bit more to me than the colour of his eyes. But in Bluemel’s hands, sectarianism is made real. It is, we see, a kind of madness: a disease of the imagination, which thrives on pulpit-talk and isolation. When John discovered his mother was alive, his shame and horror at her Catholicism (“witchcraft!”) wrestled his desire to see her almost to the ground.
There is something corporeal about sectarianism. The body politic breaks – it splits clean in two – at which point, individual flesh and blood finds itself suddenly on a front line. Bodies may be destroyed, butchered like meat, or they may be used as a weapon. It is a state from which, I think, recovery may not be entirely possible.
Bernadette O’Rawe visibly recoils at the memory of visiting her husband in the Maze prison. It was disgusting. The stench. And she can smell it still, even as he sits beside her now, smiling, middle-aged, a grandfather.
Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland
BBC Two, 22 May, 9pm
This article appears in the 24 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Crack-Up