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‘Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland’ aims to capture conflict that euphemistic term ‘the Troubles’ fails to convey

Survivors of the strife ‘are coming to real-time conclusions in this interview space, which makes the whole thing feel alive,’ said James Bluemel, whose five-part docuseries debuts on PBS starting Monday

Morning after a night of riots in Belfast in 1976. James Bluemel’s new five-part documentary series, “Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland," debuts on PBS starting Aug. 28.ALAMY/ Alain Le Garsmeur/Alamy Stock Photo

Billy McManus’s father was one of five people shot and killed inside a bookmaker’s shop in Belfast in early 1992. “Big Willie” was one of the nearly 4,000 people who lost their lives during the so-called Troubles, the brutal Northern Ireland conflict that began in the 1960s and lasted for more than 30 years.

The elder McManus was an innocent victim of an attack in a Catholic neighborhood by members of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the paramilitary group aligned with British rule, organized in response to the Irish Republican Army. His son, who has spent his adult life demanding justice, appears in James Bluemel’s new five-part documentary series, “Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland,” which debuts on PBS Monday through Wednesday.


McManus can’t bring himself to use the euphemistic term “the Troubles,” he says on camera. “We were [expletive] animals to each other.”

A youth stands against a background of a blazing van, his head covered in a striped scarf to protect his identity on May 7, 1981 in Belfast.AP Photo/Robert Dear

Bluemel, an award-winning British documentarian noted for his 2020 series “Once Upon a Time in Iraq,” agrees. Calling the conflict the Troubles “is erasing a level of horror that really shouldn’t be erased,” he said during a recent video call.

Now 48, Bluemel grew up in the 1980s, when the fighting in Ireland had a constant presence in the British news. Still, he said, speaking from a bucolic setting in Norway, where he was on vacation with his family, the news coverage felt at the time like an impenetrable, distant problem to a teenager from North London.

He decided to tackle the subject while working on his Iraq series.

“I told the story of the Iraq War through people who weren’t the decision makers, people who weren’t in positions of power,” he said. “I was hearing familiar terms like ‘sectarianism,’ and it reminded me so much of the news that I grew up with.


“Here I am trying to understand what happened in Iraq when I hadn’t even been able to understand what happened on my back doorstep. … There was almost a sort of fatigue around it for people who weren’t involved. I think in England they would’ve rather forgotten it.”

Which is why he was startled by the overwhelmingly positive reaction when the series premiered on the BBC earlier this summer, he added.

“In England, people are going, ‘I didn’t know any of this stuff. I feel ashamed. Why weren’t we told this was going on?’”

Anne Marie, age 10, throwing bottles at British troops during a riot in Belfast in 1981. Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

What was unraveling, as the series makes abundantly clear, was a murderous dispute that devolved into atrocious acts of terrorism on both sides — the nationalists who sought a united Ireland, and the loyalists in allegiance with the British government and its influence in the north.

Children from a loyalist area in Belfast in front of a Union Jack flag mural, Northern Ireland, 1971. Alain Le Garsmeur/ Bridgeman Images

The series features a cast of interview subjects representing various stakeholders in the conflict, from IRA gunmen and military police officers to ordinary civilians whose lives were ravaged by the warfare. One man recalls being blinded in a schoolyard by a British soldier’s rubber bullet. A woman who lost her husband says she could no longer “forgive those who trespass against us” in her nightly recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Bluemel singled out his interview with Bernadette O’Rawe, whose husband, Ricky O’Rawe, has written books about his time spent in prison for his role in the IRA.

Bernadette accompanied her husband when he first met with the filmmaker on a “recce”, a preliminary scouting visit to speak with potential on-camera subjects. Her plea for someone — anyone — to “swallow your pride” and do something to end the cycle of retaliation is one of the series’ most powerful moments.


“I’d read about Ricky, who is quite a well-known character in Belfast,” Bluemel said. “I hadn’t read about her. No one has, because she’d never spoken to anybody before” on the record.

“She was not an ideologically-minded person,” he continued. She wasn’t wired that way. She had empathy for lots of people on both sides. She just saw the incredible loss of life. I think that position now is really validated.”

The interviews are augmented with a profusion of disturbing period footage, including television news reports, home videos, and police surveillance. A lone gunman attacking a funeral cortege. Guards hosing down the walls of a prison, after protesting inmates have smeared it with excrement. A young Catholic woman, tarred and feathered after being caught associating with a British soldier.

“You’re taking me to a bad place, James,” one interviewee says to the director, who’s off camera.

“Before they sit down in that chair, I spend quite a long time getting to know them and building up some sort of trust,” Bluemel said of his subjects. “Talking about this stuff doesn’t necessarily come without consequence. Not just within the community, but also the psychological consequences of reopening those boxes.”

Survivors of the strife “are coming to real-time conclusions in this interview space, which makes the whole thing feel alive,” he noted.


James Bluemel speaks on stage during The 76th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony at Cipriani, Wall Street on May 20, 2017 in New York City. Brad Barket/Getty Images for Peabody

There are moments of grace. Footage of a punk-rock bar in Belfast, for instance, which provided an oasis for young people from either side of the “peace walls,” the barriers that separated predominantly Protestant neighborhoods from Catholic ones in Belfast and elsewhere. Or Richard Moore — the man who was blinded as a boy — setting aside his animosity to befriend the British soldier, now elderly, who fired the bullet that hit him between the eyes.

Bluemel said he hopes his series reminds the country to consider how much progress has been made since the peace process began in the 1990s.

“I wanted to make a pro-peace film. I can’t think of any post-conflict societies that have rebuilt themselves so successfully as Northern Ireland,” he said. “Especially right now, with the currents of this post-Brexit climate, there are some outlying factions — and I stress, small numbers of people — who are rattling the cage, trying to stir up trouble again.”

James Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.

Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misnamed the title of this docuseries in the headline. The title is “Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland.” The Globe regrets the error.