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Gripping OU/BBC series ‘Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland’ unveils the hidden stories behind The Troubles

A young boy plays with a toy pistol on a street in Belfast with people and soldiers in the background

A hard-hitting new OU/BBC co-production, Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland, explores the human experiences of The Troubles, giving voice to the people who share intimate stories from all sides of the conflict.

The powerful new five-part documentary combines unfiltered personal accounts with archive footage to tell the story of the people and communities who had to live with violence daily - and are still dealing with its legacies today.

Director James Bluemel - whose previous work includes the multi award-winning series Once Upon a Time in Iraq and Exodus – Our Journey to Europe - says that “I realised I had no idea how anyone in Northern Ireland really felt about what it was like living through that turbulent history. I had been exposed to the politics of the conflict, but I had not heard the human stories from those that were there.”

Twenty five years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, he noted that “everyone we spoke to has first-hand accounts of the events they recall, and some expressed to us that now, with the passing of time, they are able to speak more openly and freely than before.”

The interviews were conducted with care and consideration for those involved. “For some, opening up those boxes in which painful, traumatic or shameful memories have been locked, is always done with thought, care and caution. Raking up the past, especial a past as difficult as this, is not done flippantly,” said James.

Dr Philip O’Sullivan, Senior Lecturer in Environment and Politics and academic consultant for the series, says: “I have now lived in Belfast for over 30 years, so the history and politics of Northern Ireland and Ireland and are very close to me.

“A lot of the series made for very uncomfortable viewing, but sometimes uncomfortable is a necessary thing. The programme is original in that it's not the usual retelling of events from the view of professional historians and political commentators, or past and present local politicians; rather it is the extremely powerful personal testimony and witness of ordinary people who lived through and witnessed extraordinary times.

“I don’t have the vocabulary to do those individual stories justice.  They are many moving stories; some are inevitably very sad and still raw.”

Beginning with It Wasn’t Like a Movie Anymore, the first episode charts the progression from a time of relative peace in Northern Ireland to full-blown conflict – teenager Billy lived in a working class, Catholic area, joining the civil rights protests and eventually the IRA, eventually being caught up in the horror of Bloody Sunday. The series continues with the escalation of violence, with ordinary people in Northern Ireland living with fear and hatred – Michael remembers his mother being forcibly taken from the family home and how he and his siblings had to fend for themselves. He had to wait 30 years for the IRA to reveal where his mother was buried.

Subsequent episodes see the impact of the hunger strikes through the eyes of three women – Bernadette was just 10 years old when she was told that her father Joe, an IRA prisoner, was the next man to go on hunger strike - and the battle for intelligence as tensions rise with the police and army infiltrating paramilitary organisations - ”Brian” is an ex Special Branch (police) officer who worked at a high level with informers and agents for decades, and believes his life is still at risk from paramilitaries seeking revenge. The series ends with the desire for change propelling the possibility of peace for the next generation, and a breakthrough. When the Good Friday Agreement was finalised in April 1998 there was optimism about new beginnings, but the conflict exacted a heavy cost, and its effects on individuals and communities are lasting and significant.

One Upon a Time in Northern Ireland broadcasts from Monday 22 May at 21:00 on BBC2, BBC Northern Ireland, and BBC iPlayer. Extensive resources and information on related topics, including an exclusive interview about the making of the series with Director James Bluemel and Producer/Director Sian McIlwaine, can be found on the Broadcast & Partnerships site OU Connect.

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