To an "outsider" like myself, Ireland is far from an unknown land; sure I know the major cities, notable names, and a few historical events, but if pressed beyond a level provided by a world history class or the occasional Hollywood film, my knowledge would be tapped out. The BBC's 2011 five-part miniseries "The Story of Ireland" is an answer to ones woes when it comes to knowing more about a familiar but still mysterious country. Hosted by Irish native and BBC broadcaster, Fergal Keane, "The Story of Ireland" is a fast-paced, almost always engaging look at the turbulent history of a country that is far more fascinating than the images of the color green and shamrocks often associated with it.
"The Story of Ireland" is in constant motion from episode one to the conclusion of episode five, and for a five-hour history miniseries, this is a vital element. Keane acts as an amicable guide providing viewers with basic facts and transitions between topics, which early into the program don't always fit into history genre conventions. While the famed St. Patrick is discussed and more adequately explained to viewers, the series makes time for a fascinating detour into anthropological and artistic finds, effectively shedding the notion that history is all names and events, mostly political in nature. This does come with a cost to viewers outside Ireland and the British Isles at large, as there is likely an inherent assumption the original viewers of the program already had a basic level of understanding when it comes to Irish history; to a complete outsider, there will be a little confusion, but nothing that can't be remedied by picking up a book, should the interest remain post-viewing.
As the series progresses from ancient origins into the Middle Ages conflict with English rulers that would set the seeds for dissent and ill-feelings still present to this day, the high quality production values of the series never waver. Utilizing Ireland's natural beauty as basis for visual appeal, events are supplemented by culturally relevant illustrations and photographs; likewise, when Keane turns to an expert to illuminate further on a fact, the expert opinion feels far more objective in nature than viewers familiar with modern History Channel offerings. One nice touch is setting some interview segments outdoors as opposed to a bland, dimly lit room or in front of a tacky greenscreen. All these smart production choices coupled with the incredibly strong pacing of the series, make "The Story of Ireland" one of the quickest five-hour educational journeys you'll experience.
As the history of Ireland enters the timeline of America's own birth, the series makes the interesting choice to not confine the impact of Irish culture and people to its own borders; fans of "Gangs of New York" will notice familiar events covered late into the series. In short, the global perspective gives viewers a greater appreciation for the Irish. "The Story of Ireland" is a rousing success on nearly all levels; for every important event like the great potato famine, it adds many additional events of equal significance but lesser notoriety. The series is thankfully absent of any bias towards a specific timeframe, which may frustrate viewers most interested in a modern Ireland, but ultimately, the goal is to relay the big picture, which it does with an engrossing skill.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is a little soft in detail, with rich vibrant colors, but not without its flaws. Some sequences are too intense from a visual perspective resulting in a hot color scheme that obscures facial details with a mildly red glow; additionally, scenes utilizing the visually stunning engraved illustration style suffer from the occasional moiré patterns. For a documentary, it's a good looking program, but not of the higest technical quality.
The Dolby Digital English stereo audio track gets the job done, with dialogue clear and prominent, leaving thematic scoring appropriately pushed to the background. English SDH subtitles are included.
"The Story of Ireland" accomplishes its goal of covering a wide swath of Irish history in a mere five-hours, while keeping a level of high production. The highest compliment I can pay it, is that it has made me want to know more, which is exactly what a program of its nature should do. Highly Recommended.