Aidan Gillen, star of “The Wire” and Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish in “Game of Thrones,” is attached to play one of the leads in “The O’Neill,” a Gaelic Ireland epic turning on its greatest hero, Hugh O’Neill.
Stephen Saint Leger, director of “Vikings,” “Vikings: Valhalla” and the climactic “The Battle” episode of “Barbarians,” is also on board, set to helm the series’ pilot and a number of episodes.
Set up at Dublin’s Revolution Media, headed by Jack Armstrong who originated the series concept, and at top Irish producer Subotica (“Michael Inside,” “Miss Julie”), “The O’Neill” will be showrun by Tim Loane, a showrunner on Canal Plus’ “Versailles” Season 3 and lead writer on Sky/Hulu’s “Das Boot” and currently “Marcella.”
Armstrong will present the series on Tuesday at Conecta Fiction’s Pitch Copro Series, the meet’s industry centerpiece, where it weighs in as the biggest and most ambitious of titles at the Europe-Latin America co-production forum.
Billed as an epic drama series and structured as four eight-hour seasons, “The O’Neill” follows Ireland’s O’Neill dynasty, its most powerful Gaelic lordship, as in 1560 a nine-year-old Hugh O’Neill is taken from his native Ireland and groomed as an English Lord at the English Court where he forms a tight bond with the future Queen Elizabeth I, only 10 years his senior.
Sent back to Ireland after he came of age to govern for the crown, he has to decide between becoming an English landlord or a Gaelic warlord. His decision would mark the greatest threat to England sovereignty until WWII.
Breaking through in “Queer as Folk” and famed for his performance as Tommy Carcetti in “The Wire,” Gillen will play Sir Henry Bagnal, Marshall of Elizabeth I’s Royal Irish Army and O’Neill’s bitter arch enemy.
One of the most popular and most depicted periods of history in cinema and television is the Elizabethan era, said Loane. “Almost always the narrative is the glory of Empire from the colonists’ perspective; we will do a 180 on the period and view events through the eyes of the vanquished, the colonized, of Gaelic Ireland,” he added, calling “The O’Neill” a “‘Braveheart’ for television.”
Armstrong will produce with Subotica’s Tristan Open Lynch and Aolfe O’Sullivan.
Loane, Armstrong and historian James Sheridan have spent months researching the period. “This is big, ambitious epic, but also based on real characters and events, and also contemporary, resonating with many of the values emerging in Europe today,” Armstrong told Variety.
“Hugh O’Neill managed to unite the clans, which had never happened before, and engaged in what was called the Nine Years War but was really the climax of a 400 years war with England, the last gasp of great Gaelic Ireland.”
“For much of Europe at the time, he was like a rock star,” Armstrong added.
A pilot has been written, as well as a bible for the first season, and the storyline of the subsequent three, he added.
“In Gaelic Ireland, women had equal standing to men and so it was not uncommon for women to be clan leaders. So there are many female leaders depicted in ‘The O’Neill, like Ineen Dubh, de facto leader of the O’Donnells and Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen, The O’Malley,” Armstrong added.
“This is an incredibly important story for the Irish and there are so many great roles, not just for men but also women,” he said.