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Why were the 1916 leaders cast as background characters in Rebellion? The drama's writer explains

The focus on bit-players means the viewer has to guess the fate of the drama’s protagonists, Colin Teevan explained.

RTÉ’S LAVISH NEW 1916 drama finally hit our screens last night – with over 600,000 of us tuning in.

There was a generally positive reaction to the opening episode – and plenty of plaudits for the decision to make three of the five leading characters female.

But the episode threw up questions from some viewers too…

Chief among them: why are we watching a drama about a group of unknown characters – and not one about the likes of Pearse, Connolly and Markievicz?

Why indeed.

Writer Colin Teevan explained ahead of the drama’s airing that, from the start of the process, he knew he wanted to stay away from the “great man” view of history.

What I’d never seen before and what I wanted to explore was what it was like to actually live through that period.

Open-ended storylines

Speaking to Matt Cooper on the Last Word this evening, Teevan said there were several reasons for the approach.

“One is that the protagonists’ stories are the ones we – nearly all of us – receive in school from when we’re quite little all the way up to Leaving Cert in my case.

“In one sense I felt that was well-trodden ground. In another sense I think it leads one to write a story leading towards an end we all know.

“I wanted to take a step back and consider and explore what it was like to actually live through those times – when you don’t know which way history is going to turn.

There are many people in that  first episode – people like Dolly and Edward, Elizabeth’s parents… I suppose to them, they’re on the right side of history. And I suppose it’s sort of inconceivable for them that this world might be turned upside-down – which is what happens in a revolution.


“So in one sense by looking at this through fictional characters I can gain access to all strata of Dublin society and Irish society.

Also I think it can take the story in surprising ways. Since they’re fictional we don’t know what the fate of our characters is going to be.

Daunting but exciting

Speaking to TheJournal.ie at the press screening of the new drama’s first episode before Christmas, Teevan said that when RTÉ first approached him in March of 2014 it was clear they were looking for a different approach.

Penning what was intended to be the State broadcaster’s landmark 1916 centenary drama was, he said, both daunting and exciting.

I started off by looking at ‘what don’t I want to do’ – but also what would I like to see. And from that it came. It was very organic. I didn’t even start off with three female leads.
charlieCharlie Murphy as ElizabethSource: RTÉ Rebellion

Teevan said he had read an account of the Rising detailing how the Dublin waxworks was looted as the rebellion began. He found the theatrical element interesting, and it became an inspiration.

“All these kids broke in and they came out with loads of costumes – and they were having a sword fight in front of the GPO as the Rising was going on on the Monday, before the British soldiers arrived.

“I just thought of the idea of theatre…  A lot of [the 1916 rebels] were playwrights and actors.

So I thought this idea of theatre was a good place to start – because in the theatre of the time, at something like Gilbert & Sullivan, you would have had all levels of society present in the theatre at any one time, from the the cheaper seats to the more expensive seats.

The opening scene of Rebellion is set at a performance of The Mikado in 1914. The three female leads – doctor-in-training Elizabeth, Dublin Castle civil servant May, and teacher/Pearse disciple Frances – are starring in the musical. By the end of the first episode it’s clear that at least two of them will have roles to play in the Rising.

rising Source: Bureau of Military History


Teevan explained that while he didn’t base any of his lead characters on real living people, he drew inspiration from the testimony of Dubliners who had direct experience of the insurrection.

His extensive research included trawling through the thousands of witness statements and other documents contained in the Bureau of Military History Archive of the years 1913 to 1921 (the material was compiled in the 1940s and 50s, but not released until 2003).

“I was very inspired by some of the testimonies and some of the lives of the people involved,” Teevan said.

They inspired me to write these characters, to place them in and around the people they would have been placed in and around.

Rebellion runs for the next four weeks – with episode two airing next Sunday at 9.30pm.

Read: We got a first look at RTÉ’s major new 1916 drama – here’s everything you need to know

Read: What’s up with the f****** swearing in RTÉ’s new 1916 drama? 

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