Speeding up the armed struggle in RTÉ's new historical series Resistance

Simone Kirby and Brian Gleeson in Resistance, beginning on Sunday on RTÉ One.

The dominant mood of the new RTÉ historical series Resistance is speed, writes Richard Fitzpatrick.

The action in the second part of the trilogy about Ireland’s revolutionary years — which is set in November 1920 right in the middle of the Anglo-Irish War and four years after the 1916 Rebellion series — unfolds at breakneck speed.

“The series starts at the point where there are two states — the Brits and the Irish Republic — working alongside and against each other. It was definitely meant to be a thriller feel to it, which is why I shot it predominately handheld and kept it quite pacey,” says Catherine Morshead, director of Resistance.

“The story is much more of a thriller than I felt the first series had been. That was deliberate because there was so much double-dealing with the British spies and the Michael Collins Squad. It’s perfect material for a drama.

“No one stood still. If you did, you got shot. You had to move. It was the same with the ghastly Black’n’Tans. They’d come into your village and you didn’t know if they were going to raid your house or burn your farm down. Everybody seemed to be living on tenterhooks, and not sure what was going to happen and who was going to get hit next. That felt very exciting so the best style was to keep it pacey.”

The beating heart of the series is Simone Kirby’s character, Ursula Sweeney. She’s lost her fiancé in the First World War and has had to surrender her illegitimate child to a religious order who plan to flog the young boy to a wealthy family in Boston. Working as a code-breaker for the British in their government buildings at Dublin Castle, Ursula decides to turn into an agent for the Irish rebel side in a last-ditch effort to get them to overturn the nuns’ adoption plan for her child.

“She’s estranged from her sister,” says Morshead, “who is a supporter of the Irish Republic but not of the violent side of it — although it’s very hard to extricate the two from each other. I think had not all that business of the Catholic Church in Ireland and orphans and children and unmarried mothers happened to her Ursula probably would have stayed working for the Castle. She was fairly passive politically until this happens and then she does get caught up in it.”

Kirby stars alongside a strong cast, which includes Brian Gleeson who carries on from the first series as an IRA hitman turned intelligence officer, and Aoibhinn McGinnity as a sultry nightclub singer. Amongst the fictitious characters, Gavin Drea, another Love/Hate veteran in the cast, plays Michael Collins, full of energy and boisterousness.

“We did a lot of work on his accent,” says Morshead.

It just takes confidence. There’s a lot of documentation about Michael Collins. Some of his speeches we could use. His life is well researched. The story involved him but we weren’t telling his story. What a person to play – charismatic, an extraordinary man. For an actor, I imagine it’s like doing King Lear. Everyone does it according to their own specifications, with their own spin on it, which Gavin did really well.

The series has some eye-catching detail like, for example, a scene in the first episode where some of the senior Dublin Castle staff shoot expensive, Crown-marked plates in lieu of clay pigeons in the Castle grounds.

Morshead adds that Colin Teevan’s writing — who also scripted Rebellion — was key. “We did a lot of work on the script beforehand. With a big ensemble, you don’t want some characters to overpower. Equally you don’t want the satellite characters not to pull their weight. Everybody had a part to play.”

Resistance, RTÉ One, Sunday

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