Last Night's TV - The Story of Ireland, BBC2; All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, BBC2
A history of violence
Tuesday 24 May 2011
It was a shame that last night's episode of
The Story of Ireland was transmitted just after rather than just before the Queen's historic visit to the Emerald Isle. Had she watched it before she set off for Dublin, her expressions of regret for centuries of British misrule might have been more impassioned. On the other hand, maybe it was perfectly timed; the tricolour-waving republicans, whose protests seemed less than ferocious from what I saw on the news, would surely have had their anger stoked by fresh details of all that brutality.
And what brutality it was; about as much as can be permitted before the watershed. Fergal Keane, a man whose reputation as one of the BBC's best foreign correspondents was forged in more distant trouble spots, did a fine job of explaining how things unravelled in his native land, starting with the 12th century King of Leinster, Diarmuid Mac Murchada, whose enemies were ritually blinded and then castrated to ensure that they didn't produce grudge-bearing heirs.
Eventually, other Irish nobles decided enough was enough, but Diarmuid escaped their retribution, and as Keane eloquently put it, his "fleetness of foot would change the course of Irish history". In what was effectively the first Anglo-Irish summit, Diarmuid sought the help of King Henry II, who in turn got Pope Adrian IV's blessing to invade Ireland by promising the papal coffers an annual tax of a penny per Irish hearth.
The man recruited by Diarmuid to lead the invasion went by the nickname Strongbow, and next time you buy his cider you should spare a thought for those who stood in his way all those centuries ago. He had some formidable lieutenants too, among them the ominously named Alice the Vicious, who was said to have slain 70 men to avenge the death of her lover. So 800 years of Irish problems with the English, and for that matter England's problems with the Irish, essentially began with Strongbow, who married Diarmuid's daughter and became the next King of Leinster. Incidentally, Leinster's rugby union team beat Northampton in the Heineken Cup final on Saturday, and if that's the modern incarnation of a scrap between the square-jawed men of Leinster and their English counterparts, then I reckon that probably counts as progress.
Still, the centuries of English influence begat by that early violence wasn't all pernicious. As Keane explained, Ireland got from its occupiers a language, laws, and even its modern rural landscape. But it also got a whole load of grief, compounded by Henry VIII's decision to divorce Catherine of Aragon, split from Rome and establish the Church of England. Henry was unable to spare the soldiers to enforce Protestantism across the Irish Sea, so Ireland stayed Catholic, making loyalty to the English crown all the harder to secure. For Henry's daughter Elizabeth, one solution was to send the delightful Sir Humphrey Gilbert to quell any rebelliousness, which he did by enthusiastically decapitating men, women and children, and decorating the path to his tent, along which bereaved relatives were made to walk, with pikes bearing their heads. You can see why this history lesson might have spiced things up for the Queen last week. I hope she watched anyway, even though it meant missing Emmerdale.
I hope, too, that All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace got the audience it deserved. Here was a counterblast to the notion that television caters for the Lowest Common Denominator, whoever he might be; indeed it was a documentary of such immense erudition that I confess it gave me a headache.
Conceived, produced, written, narrated and edited by Adam Curtis, it kicked off a three-part series in which the film-maker presents his view (at least I think it's his view) that computers have enslaved rather than empowered us. Which wasn't how it was meant to be for the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who embraced the philosophy of the Russian-born novelist Ayn Rand, to the extent that some of them named their children after her. It was Rand's belief that humankind's highest moral purpose is the pursuit of individual happiness, and another of her disciples, rather worryingly, was Alan Greenspan, later the chairman of the US Federal Reserve and as such, in Curtis's view, the most powerful man in the world.
This was complex stuff. My notes are full of phrases such as "logical positivism" and "planetary consciousness", which befuddle me no less now than they did when I scribbled them down. And yet for all its intellectual heft, there was much that was beguilingly simple about Curtis's analysis of a world in thrall, politically, socially and most of all economically, to computer systems.
It seems, for instance, that for all its dotcom sophistication, the global economy is still vulnerable to the oldest of human impulses. I don't think Ayn Rand gave us the adjective "randy", but Curtis made a direct connection between the regrettable business of Monica Lewinsky's red dress and the bursting of the property bubble in Asia, suggesting that Bill Clinton became so distracted by the Lewinsky affair that management of the world's impending economic crisis, which in turn dictated US foreign policy, passed to Clinton's Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin. It must be frustrating for Curtis that the dramatic fall of former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, another powerful man allegedly led by his loins, came after he had washed up the coffee mugs and left the editing suite for the last time.
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