The verdict was never really in doubt.
However there was plenty of food for thought in tonight’s final instalment of TV3’s1916 drama experiment ‘Trial of the Century’.
For the past two nights, viewers had watched a dramatic interpretation of the trial Padraig Pearse might have faced, had the British authorities not opted to court martial and execute him and other leaders of the Easter Rising.
The first episode, scripted by Hugh Travers and directed by Maurice Sweeney, focused on the prosecution case that might have been made if Pearse was tried before a jury for treason.
The second episode concentrated on the hypothetical case for the defence Pearse might have offered.
Tonight’s episode saw a contemporary jury – made up mostly of well known public figures – debating the cases laid out by the prosecution and the defence in the drama.
Their task was to reach a verdict if Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s Padraig Pearse was guilty, as charged.
The foreman of the jury was the broadcaster Pat Kenny.
The other jury members were the singer-songwriter Damien Dempsey, the human rights activist Colm O’Gorman, the comedian Eleanor Tiernan, the writer and broadcaster Emma Dabiri, the journalists Justine McCarthy and Una Mullaly, the playwright Michael Nugent, former investmemt banker Nick Leeson, Senator and student leader Lynn Ruane, All-Ireland winning Armagh Gaelic Footballer Oisin McConville and the historian Professor Patrick Geoghegan.
What followed was a polite but fascinating discussion where most of the contemporary jurors, by their own admission, struggled to dispassionately look at the evidence outlined in Travers’ courtroom drama.
Kenny began by asking each juror if they could envisage taking up arms in the rebellion had they been living in 1916.
While Oisin McConville and Emma Dabiri were certain they would have, Michael Nugent insisted he would have opposed the Rising and others expressed sympathy for the cause but struggled to say if they would have been actively involved.
For the most part, the discussion was understandably conducted through a 2016 lens.
For much of the discussion Michael Nugent offered a contrary opionion, arguing some of Pearse’s writings were delusional.
The playwright controversially argued: “If you take some of the writings of Pearse and replace God with Allah, you are not million miles away from ISIS.”
Colm O’Gorman, Justine McCarthy and Una Mullaly politely rejected his claim – the latter describing it as offensive.
The panel also struggled with the question of whether the rebels had acted recklessly in staging an insurrection that inevitably resulted in heavy civilian casualties.
They were particularly shaken by a replay of Aoibhinn McGinnity’s portrayal of Catherine Foster in episode one who told the court how her two year old son was shot dead in his pram.
As the resident historian, Professor Geoghegan provided a rather chilling observation that at the time the authorities would not have been concerned about civilian deaths. They would have been more concerned about any collusion with Germany.
As the contemporary jury reviewed evidence by Nick Lee’s Bulmer Hobson that the Rising actually contravened the constitution of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and was effectively the work of a junta, it led to a discussion about the legitimacy of republican armed groups including during the Troubles 53 years later.
In a reference to Hobson’s claim, Oisin McConville noted splits had been a way of life in republicanism including contemporary republicanism.
He went on to articulate that from a modern republican perspective later atrocities like Enniskillen and Omagh could not be justified.
Michael Nugent and Una Mullaly clashed over whether the leaders of the Rising, like the Provisional IRA and Real IRA in his view, were wrong to act as they did because they were a minority within a minority.
Referring to the Rising, Mullaly countered: “Just because someone’s a minority within a minority doesn’t mean they’re wrong.”
As the sole Englishman on the panel, Nick Leeson said there was no doubt his fellow countrymen had oppressed many nations and it was not something to be proud of.
Professor Geoghegan gave another insight into the British military mindset at the time, saying the soldiers who arrived in Dublin saw the Rising as an extension of the First World War and they very much viewed the events that were taking place as a part of the Empire “stabbing a home nation in the back”.
As they reviewed Pearse’s case for the defence, many of the jurors accepted as credible the claim by John Cronin’s Joseph Mary Plunkett that the rebels were well armed when they surrendered but laid down their arms because of the civilian deaths from gunfire and British shelling.
Colm O’Gorman observed the rebels did not expect the British military to unleash the kind of violence they did on the civilian population. What they did would today be regarded as a war crime.
Professor Geoghegan noted one of the leaders of the Rising, Tom Clarke wanted a fight to the death.
He mused if they had fought on, Ireland would have lost the next generation of leaders – Eamon de Valera, Michael Collins, William T Cosgrave.
This led to another fascinating exchange of views on the romanticism around James Connolly as opposed to Pearse.
Justine McCarthy argued it is easier to identify with Connolly than Pearse who was more intellectual and aloof.
“I think a whole good cop, bad cop narrative has developed around Connolly and Pearse,” she claimed.
Emma Dabiri explained the whole modern day attraction to Connolly was that he wanted to reorganise society and this led to a conversation about the 1916 Proclamation.
Nearly everyone agreed it was a radical document, with Colm O’Gorman claiming what it said about equality was very much a challenge to the theocracy of the Catholic Church which is why the Church hierarchy opposed the rebels.
Justine McCarthy commented: “If Dev had been executed..as a woman I think it might not have been such a bad thing”
As Pat Kenny pushed the contemporary jury for a verdict, the dilemna they were facing was if they convicted Pearse of treason they would be sending him to his death and giving him the blood sacrifice he wanted but if they didn’t, there would be no way of knowing where Ireland would have ended up as a result.
While it was clear the majority of the panel would acquit Pearse, there were dissenting voices.
Damien Dempsey asked after three centuries of British colonialism around the world with slavery, genocide, starvation: “where was their trial?”
Justine McCarthy confessed to finding it impossible to be objective “as I am the beneficiary of what Pearse and the other Rising leaders fought for..We have a republic.. It is an inclusive model we are all a part of..Our destiny is our own.”
Pat Kenny was also put on the spot and admitted in hindsight, he would have acquitted Pearse with reservations.
The broadcaster said he would have seen the rebel leader as an idealist, if a little deluded, and he would have felt uneasy about the loss of civilian life inflicted by the rebels.
As the TV3 jury left the studio with their verdicts placed on the table, it emerged nine had decided Pearse was not guilty and three thought he was.
Given the year that is in it, TV3 took an imaginative approach to dramatising the Easter Rising and wisely did not try to compete with RTE’s ambitious but flawed five part drama ‘Rebellion’.
Working within the confines of a tight budget and over just two episodes, Travers’ drama felt a little rushed and stagey but it undoubtedly had moments of power.
Not every performance was strong but the decision to cast Vaughan-Lawlor was wise and he definitely shook off memories of Nidge in the RTE gangland drama ‘Love Hate’.
The contemporary discussion about 1916 in the third episode, while gimmicky, was also a smart move and it was fascinating to watch the panel struggle with the reality of what Dublin must have been like in 1916.
One hundred years on, the past really is a different country and they certainly did things differently there.
(Dan McGinn is the resident film critic on Belfast 89FM’s ‘Saturday Bites’ programme and has a film and TV blog, They’ll Love It In Pomona – http://loveitinpomona.blogspot.co.uk/?m=1)