Contributed by Adrian Grant
(Review of Part 1, broadcast Tuesday, 1 June, 10.15pm)
In a post on this website back in April I questioned the ability of RTE to make a decent historical documentary. However, I held out some hope that The Limits of Liberty would prove me wrong. The prospects for the series were good. Its subject matter is something that will stir the public consciousness at this time and it is co-written and presented by a competent historian. It sets out to show how successive Irish governments in the first decades of independence were preoccupied with the pursuit of centralised power. The first part of the series does not disappoint in this regard. There was no moralistic back slapping of the Cumann na nGaedheal government for its defence of democracy. Instead, Ferriter showed what is often lacking in mainstream historiography. The Cumann na nGeadheal government was a conservative regime that abandoned the principles of the Democratic Programme. Ferriter was at his best when showing the audience the primary sources that backed up his points. Cosgrave’s opinion on the children of the workhouses forcefully drove the point home that these people simply did not care about the children who fell through the cracks. His description of the continuance of the workhouse system as a “sick joke” sums up the pure evil of the system. Even a historian who normally remains emotionally detached from his subject cannot help but be moved to anger by such an obscene system.
The treatment of the Labour movement was very welcome. The last television documentary of this kind, Seven Ages, barely mentioned organised Labour at all. Looking at the bread and butter issues of the day shows that the Irish people were not obsessed with constitutional questions. An examination of the Irish historiography of this period would lead to that conclusion. Analysis of the postal strike of 1922 was also a welcome addition. The government’s attitude to this strike really summed up its attitude to organised Labour in general. While the inclusion of Labour in this is most welcome, and long overdue, Ferriter fell into the trap of accepting some of the myths of these years. Firstly, Labour did not step aside in the 1918 and 1921 general elections for the common good, or because it was under pressure from Sinn Féin. It did so for its own reasons. Secondly, “Labour must wait” was never a catchphrase of Sinn Féin and, in fact, no one ever said these words. Labour chose to wait for the dawning of a new age of democracy that never came. This short review does not allow me to go into any great detail on these points but I can elaborate for anyone who wishes to comment.
All in all, the first part of this series was good and addressed some of the major issues of the day which have been swept under the carpet for too long. The documentary was particularly good on the issues of child abuse and the suppression of the Carrigan Report. The use of O’Casey’s plays to highlight how little things had changed in independent Ireland was also good. This week’s instalment looks at Fianna Fáil in power and grassroots action. It will also be reviewed here.
Adrian Grant is in the final year of a PhD at Magee College, University of Ulster. His thesis, which is entitled ‘Irish socialist republicanism, 1909-36’, examines the Irish Labour, republican and communist movements in the period.