In Review: The Rubberbandit’s Guide to 1916

The Rubberbandits are given a mission by President Michael D Higgins: to make Ireland’s official documentary on the 1916 Rising. Our hosts go from the streets of Dublin to re-enactments in open fields, interviewing clueless bystanders, telling us a mix of facts, bullshit and events recreated in the most (intentionally) gammy way possible, in a mix of scripted and improv comedy. James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde give advice while getting pissed, arguing and making out.

RB1916Citing a low budget, Blindboy and Mr Chrome re-enact the Rising using fantasy and sci-fi Warhammer models on a six-foot gaming table in a hobby shop. A comprehensive and accurate map of Dublin city centre during the Rising is recreated on the miniature green battlefield. A fortress gate represents Trinity College. Jacobs’ Mills is packet of crackers.

In front of the GPO (a futuristic Stalingrad-esque ruin) Padraig Pearse, dressed like some kind of space-pirate and frozen in a violent pose, reads out the proclamation, laser-pistol in one hand, cutlass in the other, to a square regiment of zombies. A rubber duck cruises with an idiotic grin up the fake blue paper river as far as the first idyllic hump-backed bridge, where it proceeds to shell the gothic, already-ruined GPO and a huge grey castle where Liberty Hall should be. The rebels are powerless in the face of a massive army of winged demons, led by the hundred-foot tall “six-titted lizard witch”, Brigadier-General Lowe.

The Rubberbandits are not half-arsed about this re-enactment. They show an unshakeable commitment to absurdity. At the most dramatic moments of the narrative, real footage is interspersed with shots of this version of 1916 Dublin in which everything is in roughly the right place, but everything also looks like it came either from The Hobbit or from the flash-forward bits in Terminator.

This year, Ireland will celebrate the centenary of the 1916 revolution,” says a voiceover, “Which was a great day, when the, eh… Ah sure the details don’t matter.” The contradictions of the centenary are clear. The Irish Independent, which howled for Connolly’s blood in 1916, today boasts a series of high-quality supplements on the Rising. Some politicians and journalists argue that the rebels would have been better off on the supposedly “non-violent” path of killing and dying in muddy trenches on the continent. On the other side we have a dreamy attitude that romanticizes the failure as if it was a good thing, and makes no tactical or strategic criticisms of the IRB’s attempt to spark a massive, broad revolution through narrow, conspiratorial methods and without addressing sectarian division or class.

In the face of all this, a serious commitment to representing the Rising absurdly is actually a valid and respectful way of approaching it. The whole documentary approaches the subject with the clueless-but-passionate pub-stool republican mindset brilliantly summed up in the Rubberbandits’ 2008 song “Up the Ra”, part of which features in the show.

At the end the Rubberbandits read out their own proclamation, to a bunch of teenaged Italian tourists at the GPO. Now, “the 1916 Proclamation rewritten” is becoming a massive cliché, and people really exaggerate how “radical” this vague document is. Having said that, I thought the Rubberbandits’ version was sharp, genuinely felt, raised a lot of great points from Irish Water to abortion rights, and is really worth listening to.

The show also looks at the years following the Rising, including a segment on the Limerick Soviet in 1919. By explaining how the workers of Limerick (including presumably the ancestors of Blindboy and Mr Chrome) took over and ran the city for weeks, they point to an alternative to the counter-revolution that actually ended up happening (symbolized in the show by De Valera and a bishop dancing around lovingly in a field). Our hosts flash a wad of the Soviet’s currency, whose symbol is naturally the hash leaf.

Their persona, while it allows a funny, sharp and fresh way of addressing the Rising, also has its limitations, which you notice in a 45-minute show. The Rubberbandits are immature and crass – that’s the whole point – so, for instance, women don’t get their due in this documentary even though they played a key role in the Rising. Their persona is probably incapable of talking to or about women in a genuine way. I know that’s all a deliberate part of the joke, but nonetheless that’s a real limitation.

At one point Blindboy and Mr Chrome are trying to make a comparison between “taking the soup” during the famine and selling out to multinationals, while also having a go at hipster pop-up artisan food. This ends up with the spectacle of the Rubberbandits jumping out at people and shouting “Protestants” at them in an accusing way. I understand that part of the point of the sketch was to take the piss out of the hysterical sectarianism inherent in the idea that starving to death was better than “taking the soup”. I’m not going to go ringing Joe Duffy about it, but even though I understood what they were trying to do, it made me cringe.

An event so extraordinary, and which so many people talk so much rubbish about, is really begging to be approached through ridiculous set-pieces and gleeful, deliberate shovelfuls of bullshit and anachronism. The Rubberbandits (their personas) are mad rebels; in their comedy and their politics that’s what they represent in Ireland in 2016, most clearly seen in that clip of Blindboy laying into neo-liberalism on the Late Late Show. They conclude that the rebels were failures and fuck-ups but they were our, beautiful failures and fuck-ups, that their courage and defiance deserve the highest respect.

Is this simply a comical variation on the “blood sacrifice” idea that makes a fetish out of failure and often blocks out sympathetic criticism with a cloud of emotion? Largely, yes, but there’s more to it. As well as making us laugh and encouraging us to look at the events in a new way, it helps us to understand why people look up to the rebels of 1916 with such massive respect. John Bruton doesn’t get it. The journos and historians who lament how poor John Redmond’s parliamentary career was destroyed don’t get it. But the Rubberbandits, even though they never listened in school, get it. This point will be made again and again, in different ways, unfortunately sometimes to the exclusion of important lessons that can be learned. But the Rubberbandits have made the point brilliantly.