'Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland' Is No Feel Good Fairytale

Anne Marie, aged 10, throwing bottles at British troops during a riot in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1981.

Anne Marie, aged 10, throwing bottles at British troops during a riot in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1981.

(Photo: Courtesy of © Peter Marlow/Ma gnum Photos)

Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland, a five-episode documentary about the decades-long conflict known as “The Troubles”, is that rarest of treasures, a series that speaks to viewers with great prior knowledge and to those who are newcomers to the subject alike. The series, from Once Upon a Time in Iraq director James Bleumel, aired on the BBC to great acclaim in May of 2023. Riveting, moving, and endlessly thought-provoking, the documentary is essential viewing for anyone with an interest in all too recent, often shockingly violent, political history.

Once Upon A Time In Northern Ireland, which airs on PBS from August 28-31 and is streaming in full on PBS Passport, tells the story of how a civil rights issue whose proponents drew on the nonviolent protest strategies of the U.S.’s civil rights movement erupted into sectarian violence and later devolved into terrifying tit-for-tat vengeance. As part of the terms for the establishment of a Free Irish State in the 1920s, the United Kingdom carved out six of the island’s 32 counties and designated them as the province of Northern Ireland. 

Although it was home to both Roman Catholics and Protestants of various denominations, the political system of Northern Ireland was designed to maintain a permanent Protestant majority. This system created insurmountable barriers to Catholic citizens in every aspect of life, from education and housing to voting rights and career opportunities. U.S. viewers will recognize the system that led to the Troubles as plainly analogous to Jim Crow and its descendants, including red-lining, technically legal barriers to voting, and violent over-policing of Black communities.

The series’ episodes provide a survey of the Troubles, from its genesis in Northern Ireland’s earliest history to the ramifications its survivors experience today. Strong, but never heavy-handed exposition introduces viewers to the era’s many shifts, including the peaceful protests of the civil rights era; the welcome the British Army first received upon their arrival as peacekeepers and how it curdled into fury and violence; the appalling and ineffective policy of internment, and intense sectarianism that spiraled out of control.

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Once Upon A Time In Northern Ireland

Powerful series about ordinary people caught up in the Northern Ireland conflict.
Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland: show-poster2x3

Bleumel skilfully weaves together documentary news footage and home video with extensive interviews with everyday people whose lives were upended by the Troubles. For those viewers who have prior knowledge of the decades-long conflict, some interview subjects may be familiar, such as Ricky O’Rawe, who served eight years at HM Prison Maze (often called Long Kesh or the H-Blocks) in the 1970s in a leadership role among the IRA paramilitaries incarcerated there. O’Rawe was a participant in the yearslong blanket and dirty protests demanding that imprisoned IRA members be granted political status and permitted to wear their own clothes, not held as criminals obliged to wear prison uniforms. He also was a lead organizer of the hunger strikes that ended the lives of 10 prisoners from 1980-81.

Other interview subjects, including O’Rawe’s wife Bernadette, will be new to nearly every viewer, as this is her first major public interview. Across generations, geography, religion, and political affiliations, the interviewees are unanimous in their view that the devastating ripple effects of the Troubles continue to this day. It’s a little obvious to say that a documentary series is about memory, but Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland leans particularly hard into recollection and time, generally. Like Patrick Radden Keefe’s award-winning book on the Troubles, Say Nothing, this series asks both its subjects and viewers to consider the doctrines that drive political violence, and what happens to the ideologies and their ideologues, to perpetrators and survivors over time. The vividness with which interviewees recall both devastating and benign reminiscences of the era is particularly vital, given that much of what they share on camera had been tightly held secrets for decades. 

Kate, whose brother William was shot dead by paratroopers on Bloody Sunday, stands in front of the Free Derry sign in 'Once Upon A Time in Northern Ireland'

Kate, whose brother William was shot dead by paratroopers on Bloody Sunday, in 'Once Upon A Time in Northern Ireland'

Gus Palmer/Keo Films

By sinking its teeth deep into the complexities of the Troubles as much as the specifics of the era’s shocking events, Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland both refuses and discourages easy conclusions. Nearly every person in Northern Ireland at the time was involved in the Troubles, whether they wanted to be or not. The referendum that ratified the Good Friday Agreement in a landslide may have taken effect 25 years ago, but the wounds of those who lost loved ones will never fully heal.

No one here is entirely heroic, just as no one is exclusively villainous, yet the series’ deft hand and the interview subjects’ candidness and self-reflection ensure that Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland never reeks of both sides-ism or what about-ism, and never shrugs fatalistically, either. Some interviewees can forgive the actions of others but not themselves, some do the opposite. Some prefer to put the past behind them as much as possible, while others continue to fight doggedly for transparency and justice for their dead. All of them live every day with the paradox so eloquently summed up by interviewee Richard Moore: “Peace is tough, but we’ve got to keep working at it. You never know where it’s going to lead to.” 

Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland is now streaming on PBS Passport. As always, check your local listings for linear broadcast dates in your area.

Sophie's Selfie

Sophie has been happily steeping in the potent brew of British TV since her parents let her stay up late on a Thursday watching the Jeremy Brett adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. She loves mysteries, espionage thrillers, documentaries, and costume dramas, and if you're not careful, she might talk your ear off about the Plantagenets. Sorry about that in advance! 

You can find Sophie on all the platforms as @sophiebiblio and keep an eye on her bylines from all over the internet via her handy portfolio.

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