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DVD Review: The Story of Ireland

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The Story of Ireland is quite a story indeed. I had originally intended to watch this five-episode, five-hour double-DVD set piecemeal, but found myself so absorbed in the story that I wound up watching the whole thing in one sitting. Although (as far as I know) I have no Irish blood, that is irrelevant. Besides U2 and Guinness beer, about the only thing I previously knew about Ireland were stories of IRA bombings. Obviously, I had a great deal to learn, and The Story of Ireland tells an incredible tale.

The program was written and presented by historian Fergal Keane, who does not seem to have any political axe to grind. Some may disagree with me on this, but my perception of the series is that it is as advertised, simply telling the story of the nation. And what a story it is. We begin in an ancient burial site at New Grange, which is considered the oldest building in Ireland. Archaeologists have determined that it was built 1,000 years before Stonehenge.

According to Professor Gabriel Cooney from the University College in Dublin, New Grange was built “In the centuries just before 3,000 BC.” Think about that for a moment. The structure is at least 5,000 years old, and remains in remarkable condition. There are some fascinating clues about the early, first inhabitants of the island contained here. For one thing, there is a very pronounced multi-culturalism on display – which completely debunks the old notions of a “pure” Irish people. It seems fairly clear that the first people to settle there immigrated from other parts of Europe.

In later years, these early inhabitants of Ireland were named the Celts. Another element which is very interesting is the wealth of artifacts which have been discovered. One-sixth of the country lies under bog, formed when early farmers began to clear the upland forests. This bog has preserved items over the centuries extremely well, and the artifacts clearly show how the Celts were progressing as a society.

From here we progress through the centuries, and the extraordinary violence the land has struggled with in fending off attempts to maintain their independence. Five hours of detailing these events is too much to go through in a mere review, but Keane walks us step by step through all of them, up to the present day.

Besides the struggles the Irish had with others attempting to take over the country were the religious battles. These again are very complex issues, but Keane takes us through them in great detail.

One of the biggest occurrences in relatively recent Irish history was the Irish potato famine. Potatoes were a huge part of the Irish people’s diet, and when Phytophthora infestans, (commonly known as “blight”) struck in the mid-nineteenth century, the country was devastated. It is estimated that a million people died of starvation during this time, while a million more emigrated to the United States.

At this point, Keane takes us to New York, where so many Irish settled. In particular, the spot in the city that was once known as “Five Points.” Five Points gained international notoriety as a slum run by gangs. The Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York (2002) is based in Five Points.

The twentieth century saw an enormous amount of political violence, and the issues became more and more complex. Again, Keane walks us through the issues, without taking sides – simply explaining the various points of view, and the inevitable violence that accompanied the events.

One of the most notable things about The Story of Ireland is the many beautiful landscape shots. From the ancient monasteries, to the shores, to the green, green land itself – the country is a glorious feast for the eyes. This BBC production does not have any bonus features, but after spending five hours watching century upon century of Irish history, there really does not seem to be a need for more.

Although something like this may sound like a dry documentary, it is anything but. I was captivated by it, all the way through. The Story of Ireland is extremely well-done, and very highly recommended.

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