1968: The Long March review: ‘The germ of a much better documentary was hidden inside this largely tepid hour’


1968: The Long March review: ‘The germ of a much better documentary was hidden inside this largely tepid hour’


Miriam O'Callaghan with Eamonn McCann
Miriam O’Callaghan with Eamonn McCann

Coming a week after the engrossing, if uneven, In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America, Miriam O’Callaghan’s one-hour documentary 1968: The Long March suffered badly by comparison.

Made to mark the 50th anniversary of the birth of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, it fell awkwardly between two stools.

O’Callaghan’s personal recollections of watching television coverage (at the tender age of eight, mind) of the turmoil in Derry, on the

barricades in Paris, and on the student campuses of the United States suggested we were in for an authored documentary.

That approach might at least have provided some distinctive flavour. What we were treated to instead was a bland and largely mediocre history lesson seemingly aimed at enlightening people who have never sat through a history lesson, read a history book or watched a history documentary. It might as well have been called ‘Northern Irish Civil Rights for Beginners’.

The links between the civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 and the ones in Derry three years later, which were patterned after Martin Luther King’s tactic of “visible peaceful protest”, have been well documented elsewhere, most recently in last week’s Hume film.

Miriam O'Callaghan with Selma residentsMiriam O'Callaghan with Selma residents

Miriam O’Callaghan with Selma residents

O’Callaghan’s programme added no new insights, although the footage of police brutality in both locations never loses its ability to shock and sicken, no matter how many times you’ve seen it before.

She travelled to Selma and met some people who took part in the marches. Unfortunately, the review copy I watched lacked any identifying captions, but the interviews were pretty perfunctory anyway.

There was a chat with Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert F Kennedy, which told us nothing we didn’t know already. Meanwhile, a contribution from Al Sharpton, a figure as controversial and divisive, even among African-Americans, as he is charismatic, was so brief, it could easily have been left on the cutting room floor without making the slightest difference. The documentary really came to life only when Eamonn McCann and Bernadette McAliskey were on screen.

The indomitable McCann, who always gives terrific value as an interviewee, was as bluntly, unsparingly honest as ever, describing the Northern Ireland government of the day as “the stupidest regime in Europe”, unwilling to recognise that there was nothing political or religious, “no revolutionary fervour”, about the Civil Rights Association (CRA). The issues it campaigned on were humanitarian ones: the right to equality of housing and employment.

Home Affairs Minister William Craig’s mantra “CRA equals IRA” eventually became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, said McCann, who lays the blame for the ensuing 30 years of carnage on Craig and the RUC.

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It was interesting to hear McAliskey admit that she wasn’t in the least politicised when she attended her first civil rights march. She went along simply to hook up with friends.

What changed her destiny was witnessing protesters being savagely beaten by the RUC— whose members another contributor described as “big country louts” — at the October 5 march. “You couldn’t look at the RUC and forget that that had happened,” she said.

“You couldn’t say, ‘That was an aberration’.”

The germ of a much better documentary was hidden somewhere inside this largely tepid hour.

1968: The Long March is now available to watch on RTE Player


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