Echoes of SA struggle in Irish doccie

JOHN HARVEY

Professor Briona Dhiarmada, the creator of the critically-acclaimed film, 1916: The Irish Rebellion, was scheduled to attend the New York screening of the documentary on the centenary anniversary of the uprising on Sunday April 24.

However, so strong were the parallels with South Africa’s own liberation struggle that an invitation from Patrick Tummon, of the Cape Town chapter of the Irish South African Association to attend the Cape Town screening instead proved too hard to resist for Professor Dhiarmada.

Of particular significance was that she was a student at Dublin’s Trinity College while the late Kader Asmal was a lecturer there.

“I would see this man walking around campus, and I was in awe of him,” Professor Dhiarmada told a near-capacity audience at the Baxter Theatre on Sunday, prior to the screening of the film.

Certainly the ties between the fight for freedom in Ireland and South Africa cannot be ignored. In both countries, it required the strength and will of intellectuals to shake off the yoke of European imperialism by taking up arms and accepting they would have to perish for the cause.

It therefore came as no surprise that the screening was attended by struggle stalwarts Albie Sachs and Professor Asmal’s widow, Louise.

The address by Justice Sachs was particularly moving, as he recalled how he had been implored by the late Oliver Tambo to draw up South Africa’s first Bill of Rights.

“I had been blown up by the apartheid state security forces in Mozambique in 1988 (a car bomb resulted in the loss of his arm and the sight in one eye), but as soon as I was out of hospital, I was asked by Oliver Tambo to go to Kader Asmal in Ireland. I was to help draw up the Bill of Rights,” he said.

“I remember it was one of those ‘pinch me’ moments. Here I was – a lawyer – and I was asked to do this. Kader Asmal lived in a place called Foxrock – I always want to call it ‘fox trot’ – and I sat down at his kitchen table with a pencil and paper. That was the beginning.

“About a year later, I was in London, and there was a knock on my door. There was this chap who said he had been an inmate at Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland. There were still republican prisoners there. This man told me that the IRA (Irish Republican Army) wanted to know whether it was possible for a freedom fighter to cry. It was so strange, but I told him, ‘Yes, it is possible to cry.’”

Justice Sachs then explained how, some 10 years later, he had been in a room with both Irish nationalists and unionists and was asked to tell the story of how South Africans had started working together and reconciled after the fall of apartheid.

“I felt there was a real desire for freedom and peace. We are very proud in South Africa to have contributed to the peace that exists in Ireland today. But I think sometimes you need crazies in the world (like those behind the 1916 Irish rebellion and in South Africa).”

The Irish ambassador to South Africa, Liam MacGabhann, revealed that there were more than 70 million people of Irish descent living outside Ireland – which was why the documentary would have such a global appeal.

“But, of course, there are strong links to South Africa as well. When Nelson Mandela addressed the Irish parliament in 1990, he was certain that what had happened in Ireland could happen in South Africa as well. Many figures involved in the rebellion were also involved in the Boer uprising against the British in South Africa (Sinn Fein leader, John McBride, the last of the rebellion leaders to be executed, fought with the Boers before escaping to Paris after the surrender),” says Mr MacGabhann.

In his address, Cape Town deputy mayor Ian Neilson, said: “In his poem, Easter, William Butler Yeats called the uprising a ‘terrible beauty’. Today, the terrible beauty has grown to be a wonderful beauty.”

1916: The Irish Rebellion is narrated by film star Liam Neeson and traces the circumstances that led to the uprising as well as the events themselves.

In addition, it looks at the subsequent events that led to the establishment of an independent Irish State and, indirectly, to the breakup of the British Empire.

This seminal event in Irish history and its ramifications were felt as far as India and other parts of what was then the British Empire.

Professor Dhiarmada, of the University of Notre Dame in America, said there were many elements to Ireland’s 800-year fight for independence, and the film-makers had been careful not to try to be too general in their approach.

“Sometimes you can have overkill, so we found that the ‘less is more’ approach worked well for us. We also wanted to show the human side of the rebels, focusing on things like the letters they left for their loved ones before they were executed.”