Rebel Heart – a coming-of-age drama set against the backdrop of the Irish revolution

By Alison Martin

Recently, the series Resistance, based on the Irish War of Independence has aired on Irish national broadcaster RTE. In the lead up to the centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016, RTÉ commissioned its predecessor, a five part drama series Rebellion which depicted the events of the Rising and its aftermath from the perspective of various fictional characters.

Fifteen years prior to this, the Rising had been depicted in another drama series Rebel Heart. Unlike Rebellion however, this series focused on events from the Rising up until the start of the civil war. Rebel Heart had been the brainchild of Robert Cooper, head of drama at BBC Northern Ireland.[1]


Ronan Bennett

During the summer of 1994, Copper asked Ronan Bennett, an award-winning author and screen writer to write a drama series about the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. [2] Bennett wrote an outline of the story and was then introduced to Malcom Craddock, an independent producer.[3]

Bennett’s own life story is interesting, as it most likely informed his writing of the series. Born in 1956, Bennett was raised in Belfast and was a teenager during the early years of the Troubles. [4]

In 1974 at the age of eighteen, he was arrested and wrongly convicted of murdering an RUC officer during an Official IRA bank robbery. [5] Bennett served around eighteen months in Long Kesh, before being acquitted after his conviction was overturned on appeal. [6] Following his release, he was arrested in England and charged with ‘persons unknown’ of conspiring to cause explosions. [7]

Ronan Bennett, the writer of Rebel Heart was wrongly convicted of of killing an RUC officer in 1974.

Once again however, he was eventually acquitted. In 1987, Bennett completed a PHD at King’s College London. Further controversy surrounded him in the autumn of 2000, when during an interview with Boris Johnson, who was then editor of The Spectator, Bennett suggested that he would not turn in the Omagh bombers if he knew their identity (see endnote). [8] Bennett later claimed that he had also said that ‘if there was evidence to bring the bombers to justice, do it. Convict them. Absolutely.’ [9] However, this was not reported in the Daily Telegraph at the time. [10]

Bennett had written several novels by the time he was asked to write the screenplay for Rebel Heart. Even with Bennett on-board however, it would be several years before Rebel Heart found a director and went into production. The series was made independently by Picture Palace Films but received significant funding from the Irish state broadcaster and An Bord Scannan. [11]

With a budget of around six million pounds, it was one of the most expensive productions to have ever been made in Ireland. [12] The drama was shot on one hundred and fifty different sets in Dublin, including the GPO and featured one hundred and eight speaking parts. [13] The participation of around three thousand extras was also required. [14]

As Rebel Heart was a co-production between RTÉ and the BBC, it was scheduled to be shown on RTÉ in January 2001 and then repeated on BBC during the following month. [15] The scheduling was deliberate as it meant that the drama would be broadcast in the lead up to the eighty-fifth anniversary of the Rising, thereby giving it additional significance. It was originally broadcast in four parts.


Image result for rebel heart bbc series irish war of independenceRebel Heart focuses on the experiences of fictional character Ernie Coyne (James D’Arcy), during the tumultuous years from 1916 until 1922. The series begins with Coyne, an idealistic eighteen-year-old member of the Irish Volunteers, reporting for duty on Easter Monday.
Whilst stationed inside the GPO, Coyne is introduced to Tom O’Toole and Albert Kelly, two members of the Citizens Army.

Despite trying to impress them, the two older men are mildly amused by Ernie’s youthful idealism about fighting for Irish freedom. Moreover, class tensions are evident when O’Toole informs the middle-class Ernie ‘you already have what you need to be free, money.’ [16]

Rebel Heart focuses on the experiences of fictional character Ernie Coyne, during the tumultuous years from 1916 until 1922.

Despite their differences however, Ernie gradually befriends the two men. He also comes into contact with several real life historical figures, such as Patrick Pearse and Michael Collins, played by Downtown Abbey’s Brendan Coyle. Whilst delivering a dispatch for Collins, Coyne is assisted by Ita Feeney (Paloma Baeza), a young Cumann na mBan member from Belfast.

He is deeply impressed by her and much of the series focuses on their developing romantic relationship. Following Coyne’s arrest for his role in the Rising, his father expresses disappointment in him before urging him to take up a place at Trinity College.

Related imageHis speech however, does little to deter Coyne. In 1919, at the request of Collins, he travels to Belfast in order to survey the situation with regards to the strength of the local IRA units.

During his visit to Belfast, Coyne is re-united with Ita. However, whilst staying the night in her family home a group of RIC men raid the house before shooting dead Ita’s Father and five brothers.

This further hardens Coyne’s resolve and as the War of Independence escalates, he travels to West Cork in order to organize local resistance there. The final episode focuses on the divisions caused by the Anglo-Irish Treaty. When the agreement is signed, Coyne is torn between his loyalty to Collins and his devotion to Ita, who is worried about the consequences of the Treaty for her remaining relatives in Belfast.

When Coyne is sent by Collins to defuse an inflammatory situation in Dublin, he finds himself pitted against some of his former friends, including Kelly who chooses the anti-treaty side. Once the fighting begins however, Coyne’s old loyalties prevail and he helps Kelly to escape. During a subsequent encounter Coyne and O’Toole mortally wound each other. In the end both men reconcile with each other, before eventually succumbing to their wounds.

Critics’ reaction

Image result for david trimble
David Trimble, Northern Ireland First Minister, sharply criticised the programe.

Critics’ reviews of Rebel Heart were generally mixed. The Irish Times described it as ‘extremely watchable’ and praised its’ portrayal of real life historical characters, despite admitting that their time on screen was limited. [17]

When the drama was shown on BBC America, it received relatively positive reviews, with the New York Times describing it as ‘a handsomely mounted romantic drama.’[18] Not all critics were as positive however. The writer and historian Robert Kee for instance, expressed some misgivings about its historical accuracy. [19] He also questioned whether Bennett had ‘let his historical emotion overflow into the present.’ [20]

Northern Ireland first Minister David Trimble stated that Rebel Heart could ‘glamourise political violence’.

The series was also strongly criticised by David Trimble, who was then First Minister of Northern Ireland. In a letter to Sir Christopher Bland, Chairman of the BBC Board of Governors, Trimble voiced his objection to the BBC’s choice of Bennett as writer. [21] He then went on to claim that Bennett’s forays into writing were ‘hopelessly one-sided.’ [22]

Moreover, although Trimble later denied that he had asked for the programme to be banned, he did question whether the BBC should fund and broadcast ‘such a film by such a writer’, during what he regarded as a sensitive political time. [23] The programme was broadcast just three years after the signing of the Good Agreement and Trimble feared that the positive public mood would be soured by ‘glamorous representations of political violence.’ [24]

The Chairman of the BBC however, denied such allegations. Furthermore, a representative from the broadcaster claimed that they were ‘very proud’ of Rebel Heart. [25] Bennett also suggested that Trimble had criticized Rebel Heart before actually watching it. [26]

When the drama was first aired in Britain, it attracted an audience of around 3.9 million viewers, therefore gaining a fifteen per cent share of the audience. [27] Such viewing figures may have been slightly disappointing considering that The Treaty, a made for television docudrama about the negotiations that lead to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, had managed to reach a respectable 5.3 million viewers when it was shown on ITV in 1991. [28]

Rebel Heart was watched by about 3.9 million viewers.

Despite this however, the drama had many positive attributes. The drama does not shy away from depicting the brutality of events during the revolutionary period. It also highlights issues such as class tension.

For instance, when Ernie takes up his place at Trinity College following his release from prison after the Rising, he finds himself further alienated from the working-class O’Toole and Kelly. Inter-generational conflict over politics is also evident, when Coyne’s father appears to disagree with his son assisting Sinn Féin during the 1918 election campaign.

Furthermore, Ita’s character is used effectively in order to provide a northern nationalist perspective on the conflict. The drama’s director, John Strickland, won the coveted Nymphe D’Or Award for Best Director at the Monte Carlo Television Festival in 2001.[29]

Following on from Rebel Heart, Bennett went on to write several successful novels including Havoc, in its Third Year (2004), which won the 2004 Hughes & Hughes/Irish Independent Irish Novel of the Year. [30] It was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. [31] Bennett has also written screenplays for film and television, one of the most notable being the screenplay for the film Public Enemies (2009), starring Christian Bale and Jonny Depp. More recently he wrote the three-part BBC drama Gunpowder, broadcast in 2017.


[1] The Guardian, 3 Dec 2001.

[2] The Guardian, 3 Dec 2001.

[3] The Guardian, 3 Dec 2001.

[4] The Guardian, 27 Oct 2001.

[5] The Guardian, 3 Dec 2001.

[6] The Guardian, 3 Dec 2001.

[7] The Guardian, 3 Dec 2001.

[8] According to an account in the Daily Telegraph, during the conversation, Bennett said he ‘had a major problem’ with the concept of the armed struggle. However when asked whether he would turn in the Omagh bombers if he found out who they were, Bennett said ‘No.’ He added: ‘Turn them into the RUC? Turn them in to a completely discredited force?’ When Johnson suggested they be turned into Special Branch, Bennett replied ‘Turn them in to courts that have no juries? Do that? Turn anybody in to that situation? That is a very hard thing to ask a Nationalist to do.’  The Daily Telegraph 6 Oct 2000.  In December 2000, Bennett said he was sorry if his remarks had offended the relatives and surviving victims.  He also said ‘I believe those responsible should be brought to account.’ The Guardian, 3 Dec 2001.

[9] The Guardian, 3 Dec 2001.

[10] The Guardian, 3 Dec 2001.

[11] Mark McCarthy, Ireland’s 1916 Rising: Explorations of History-Making, Commemoration & Heritage in Modern Times (Farnham, 2012), p. 344.

[12] The Guardian, 3 Dec 2001.

[13] McCarthy, Ireland’s 1916 Rising, p. 344.

[14] McCarthy, Ireland’s 1916 Rising, p. 344.

[15] McCarthy, Ireland’s 1916 Rising, p. 344.

[16] Quote from the drama.

[17] The Irish Tines 30 Dec 2000.

[18] New York Times, 14 Mar 2003.

[19] The Guardian, 7 Jan 2001.

[20] The Guardian, 7 Jan 2001.

[21] The Daily Telegraph, 1 Dec 2000.

[22] The Daily Telegraph, 1 Dec 2000.

[23] The Daily Telegraph, 1 Dec 2000.

[24] The Daily Telegraph, 15 Jan 2001.

[25] The Daily Telegraph, 9 Jan 2001.

[26] The Guardian, 3 Dec 2001.

[27] The Daily Telegraph, 9 Jan 2001.

[28] Alison Martin, ‘The Treaty- the forgotten Michael Collins film,’ Ireland’s Own (Christmas annual, Dec 2018.)


[30] Troubles Archive, (

[31] The Guardian, 4 Dec 2004.

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