Local faces in Easter Rising film shot in Cookstown to be screened on Sunday

Vincent Higgins as Eoin MacNeill in BBC's The Forgotten Man of 1916

Vincent Higgins as Eoin MacNeill in BBC's The Forgotten Man of 1916

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The casting call went out one sodden Tuesday in January, which Mid Ulster Mail journalist Gavin Butler answered.

‘Appeal for extras for period drama at Cookstown,’ the read.

Gavin Butler as Patrick Pearse

Gavin Butler as Patrick Pearse

A picture of the Downton Abbey cast may have helped, but for several days the Mid-Ulster Mail phones were busy, not only with news, but with questions from across the country asking how they could get involved.

I thought it would make a good story for the paper, and put my name in the hat thinking that if I was lucky I would get a place as one of those needed for crowd scenes.

I was not expecting to be cast as Patrick Pearse!

The film - ‘Eoin Mac Néill – Fear Dearmadta 1916’ - will air on BBC Two NI on Easter Sunday, 27th March at 10pm and will tell the compelling story of the life of Ulsterman Eoin MacNeill and his part in one of the most controversial circumstances of the Easter Rising – MacNeill’s attempt to prevent it from happening.

The documentary also examines MacNeill’s reasons for making his most controversial decision – when he attempted to stop the Easter Rising of 1916 by issuing a countermanding order.

Gavin Butler

Through dramatic reconstruction, access to MacNeill’s unpublished memoir, interviews with key historians and experts, and through the personal account of MacNeill’s grandson, former Tánaiste Michael McDowell, pivotal moments in history are brought to life.

The documentary also examines MacNeill’s reasons for making his most controversial decision – when he attempted to stop the Easter Rising of 1916 by issuing a countermanding order.

Shot over a week at Lissan House, the production company had access to grand formal rooms and also a basement which doubled as prison cells. The upstairs apartments for were used for more formal domestic scenes.

“I was thrilled to welcome Doubleband Films to Lissan House, especially as the subject for their film is based on such an iconic event in Ireland’s history – the 1916 Rising,” said Dr Neil Watt, Property Manager.

“I know that we had stiff competition from other locations, especially properties nearer the city, so it was a real coup for Mid-Ulster that Lissan House was chosen as the central film location. The cast and crew stayed in a hotel in Cookstown, used local caterers, and generally enjoyed all Cookstown had to offer.”

“It was also very fitting that Lissan House was chosen as the central location, as a previous owner of the house, Sir Robert Ponsonby Staples, was an Irish Nationalist and left many written records of the Easter Rising amongst his personal papers. His diary entries for Easter 1916 are evocative of the uncertainty and trepidation felt by him and by Ireland at the violent turn of events – he even sketched the Dublin landscape enveloped in a burning glow.

“Here for nearly a week, the director and producer really enjoyed working at Lissan House, for many reasons – but it was undoubtedly the unique character of Lissan’s interior that won them over – it provided them with authenticity, a unique backdrop - but also choice. They could film country house scenes in the grand formal rooms, but could also use basement rooms as prison cells, or the upstairs apartments for more informal domestic scenes.

“The interior of Lissan House boasts an arts & crafts staircase (the only one of its kind in the world), along with other preserved interiors, ideal for filming period films. The person in charge of sound said that she had never been in such a tranquil location and that her job was made amazingly easy – the virtues of having a mile long driveway!

“It snowed whilst they were here, which meant that some extras couldn’t make it – so with nobody else around who could help, I became Bulmer Hobson! The show must go on, as they say!

“As a self-supporting and independent charity, Lissan House relies on public support, be it taking a tour of the house, attending one of our events, holding your wedding here, or indeed hiring the house as a film location!

“Without such use and financial support Lissan House, a national treasure, would be lost forever. So lets hope that other film crews will come and use Lissan House – Game of Thrones perhaps?