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Ireland in the 1960s was a society on the move. An old order was dying, though not without kicking and screaming and elaborate death throes. The protracted passing of the clear and cozy world into which post-independence Ireland had settled would not give way without virulent protest and sustained struggle to hold its own. The emergence of the not-so-clear and not-so-cozy forces that threatened to displace it were met with very formidable resistance. It was a complex shift in the balance of power that, even now, is far from finished. The values of traditionalist Ireland were basically rural, religious and nationalist. Its mentality was more feudal than bourgeois, in the sense of the emphasis being more on ties of blood and land than ties of capital or labour, more on agriculture than industry, more on the community than the individual, more on hierarchical authority than democratic rights, more on decreed doctrine than open inquiry, more on inherited ritual than personal fulfillment. Its legacy of frugal self-sufficiency was isolationist with respect to the rest of the world, all that is except what came within the orbit of the Church of Rome. Catholicism was its primary, and nearly exclusive, tie to a larger world. Otherwise its protectionism erected insulating walls to keep holy Ireland to itself alone; tariff barriers in the realm of economics and censorship laws in the realm of culture.
The walls were far from impenetrable, however. Capitalist market forces, emigrant ships, European radio waves, British trade unions and television transmissions, Hollywood films, imported paperbacks and smuggled condoms had long been making inroads. Warnings against these alien influences were constant and there was always a backdrop of fear of city lights and foreign ways and the more complex and challenging problems and possibilities they opened to view. Not that everything that filtered through from the outside world threatened its traditions. Much of what it picked up on re-inforced its conservatism, particularly the whole cold war mentality prevailing in the western world.
It was hostile territory for those who had ventured into the open spaces in open view and had the temerity to come back and talk about it. It branded its most honest and creative thinkers as common pornographers. For such a small country, it outdistanced many a larger one in banned books and theatrical riots. There were honours for those writers who chose the path facing into an imagined past, into an idyllic romanticisation of folk traditions. It was another story, though, for those who looked to the real past, who exposed its dark areas or who set out to explore new ways. Marginalised or rejected, they often felt driven from dissent and defiance to despair or self-destruction. It was not only the iconoclasts, but even those who stood with anything less than reverential awe before the icons, who came under pressure from the powers-that-be. Priests, politicians and patriarchs wanted to keep the rules of the game simple:
“Keep the faith.”
“Up the Republic.”
“A woman’s place is in the home.”
“The family that prays together stays together.”
Artists, intellectuals and left wing activists who insisted on asking “Why?” were a disruptive and most unwelcome presence. It was not only the official censorship, but also what John A. Murphy has called the layers of unofficial, self-righteous, ‘busybody censorship’.1 Then there were all the complex forms of self-censorship, overt and subtle, conscious and unconscious, direct and indirect. While there was no direct censorship of theatre, as there was with literature and cinema, the prevailing atmosphere of censoriousness took its toll there nonetheless. The court case surrounding the Pike’s production of Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo, the public outcry against the Abbey’s production of Sean 0’ Casey’s The Bishop’s Bonfire and the withdrawal of O’Casey’s The Drums of Father Ned from the Dublin Theatre Festival were cases in point. Even so, there were those willing to swim against the tide and to set forth and defend a more humanistic, a more secular, more cosmopolitan perspective on what Ireland was and what Ireland ought to be.
If the most progressive forces of the day failed to prevail, it must be said that neither did the most reactionary forces get everything their own way. Against severe pressure from such groups as Maria Duce on the right, the 1937 constitution had its liberal aspects. Ireland was at least formally a secular state with no established church. It was a republic, which recognised no aristocratic titles. It was a democracy in which many individual liberties were guaranteed.
But it was hardly the cutting edge of social, cultural and political advance on the world stage as the 1950s moved towards the 1960s. When things began to change in 1957, when de Valera was succeeded by Lemass, it was to bring itself into line with the direction in which the rest of the world was moving, ie, the growing internationalisation of capital and its corresponding culture. Ireland was basically a capitalist society, despite its low level of capital accumulation and its high level of feudal residue. Lemass’s policies for economic expansion involved accelerated capitalist development and industrialisation through foreign investment, thus opening Ireland to the international marketplace. After several decades of resistance, Irish national capital did a volte face and decided to ally itself with international finance capital. Multinational investment brought a rise in productivity, a rise in employment, a rise in consumption. There was not only a rising standard of living, but a general air of buoyancy, an energy in the 1960s that stood in marked contrast to the inertia of the 1950s. There was an atmosphere of rising expectations. It was a time, in the words of the song of the era, of “high hopes”.
The advancing industrialisation naturally brought a formidable demographic shift from rural to urban modes of economic and social organisation. This in turn, again quite naturally, brought a gradual erosion of the social base of rural, catholic and gaelic definitions of Irish identity. Concomitant with the new openness of the Irish economy to the international laws of supply and demand was the openness of Irish culture to the bourgeois mentality and its characteristic forms of cultural expression. Ireland was suddenly full of rock’n’roll, the space race, smart clothes and situation ethics. The country particularly basked in the reflected glory of the election of John F Kennedy in the US and felt on top of the world on the occasion of his 1963 visit to Ireland. Ireland was very much apart of the whole upbeat, on the-move mood prevailing in the wider world in this burst of modernist thrust.
The more liberal, cosmopolitan atmosphere in Ireland was greatly enhanced by what was happening in the Catholic Church on a world scale. Catholicism itself was adapting to modernising moods and mores. As protestantism had emerged as the theological concomitant of capitalist economics and bourgeois culture, Vatican II catholicism represented a hybrid form, a belated, complex and controversial protestantisation of catholicism. The whole atmosphere of aggiornamento had cultural consequences that were much more far reaching than any of the particular reforms promulgated by the council. The main impact was in its relativisation effect. So much of what had been considered absolute was discovered to be relative. So much of what had been thought immutable was suddenly made mutable. So much of what had been static for centuries was suddenly all changing. Many resisted and resented the loss of this rock of stability in their lives. Many welcomed the new spirit of openness and relevance. Some who began re-thinking and re-evaluating old dogmas according to the new guidelines pushed onward and took the process much further than even the most liberal theologians intended, exceeding catholic guidelines and outgrowing the church altogether.
In academic centres, thomism was giving way to existentialism. Catholic social teaching as embodied in the papal encyclicals was losing ground to empirical social sciences. The orthodox reverential and nationalist approach to Irish history was coming under the challenge of a sweeping historiographical revisionism, which undermined many cozy and heretofore unchallenged assumptions.
Not surprisingly this convergence of forces put considerable pressure upon traditional definitions of Irish identity and brought about a marked disintegration of consensus in what had been a remarkably homogeneous society. The years ahead were to be full of tensions between old and new ways. They were to be characterised, not only by conflict, but efforts to reconcile old and new, particularly to find ways to fit new developments into the framework of old ideologies. But there were also new ideologies. The Irish, like many another people, took their stand in relation to them and began the parting of the ways. But not without a great deal of jostling and arguing over division of common property before taking leave.
The Coming of Television
Into this hectic and somewhat heated atmosphere came television. Television had already arrived on the east coast, which received British television, a fact which coloured the expectations and reservations attending the introduction of Irish television. Preceding the introduction of Telefis Eireann were several years of public debate on what the coming of television would mean for Irish society. It was a debate which had a particular edge to it because of the perception of the country as being at a crossroads in its development. From the public record of statements of the hopes and fears expressed from various quarters, it would seem that the fears predominated, at least among official spokesmen. From church pulpits, from oireachtas debates, from GAA meetings, from Knights of Columbanus seminars, came worries and warnings about the effects of television, which was basically seen as an agent of erroneous ideas and alien values. These sorts of apprehensions were enhanced by the radical character of the British television drama at the time. Denunciations of the ‘kitchen sink drama’ on TV as sordid and immoral were central to the tone of the debate..2
The enabling legislation, the Broadcasting Act of 1960, was cast in a liberal mould, changing the structure of existing radio broadcasting as well as laying the ground for the introduction of television broadcasting. Breaking with the existing civil service organisation of broadcasting, which put it under the direct control of the minister of posts and telegraphs, on the one hand, and refusing to give commercial interests the franchise, which would put it at the mercy of the free market, on the other, it established an independent broadcasting authority. Just how autonomous the RTE authority, appointed by government, was to be was not clear. Tried and tested at points of crisis and subjected to amending legislation and judicial decisions over the years, it remains unclear to this day.
The opening night of Telefis Eireann on new year’s eve 1961 was surrounded by great festivity and excitement. Beginning with the national anthem, the night’s programming included music, poetry, news, benediction and ceremonial speeches. The speeches sounded contrasting chords. Eamon de Valera, now the president and the personification of the older post-independent Ireland, struck a cautionary note. Television, he said, was like atomic energy: it could be used either for good or bad. It could either impart knowledge and build the character of a whole people or it could lead “through demoralisation to decadence and dissolution”. Cardinal D’ Alton also spoke in an apprehensive tone. He warned parents against letting children become television addicts. He exhorted programme makers to ensure that programmes reflected high ideals and not the “caricatures of Irish life” that were expressed by writers in recent years. However, he expressed confidence in Eamonn Andrews, the first chairman of the new RTE authority, whom he described as being “on the side of the angels.” There was no such holding back, however, in the speech of the Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, who was the voice of the new policies. Addressing the Irish people as citizens of the world as well as of Ireland, television fitted very well into his plans for the country. Full of optimism about what television would bring, he stressed that there were standards, aims and values that transcended national frontiers and were universal in application.
The financing of the new television service was something like a cross between the methods of BBC and ITV. Revenue came both from licence fees and advertising. Despite recurring clashes between the public service dimension and the commercial element, the ethos of public service broadcasting has predominated. In a situation where it has never had a monopoly of its audience, it has always been anxious about its ratings and its ability to attract advertising revenue to pay its way. It has, all the same, never been a slave to the TAMs and has been conscientious in trying to provide a proper spectrum of programming for its audience.
Just what constituted a proper spectrum, however, was a matter for debate both for its audience and for its own personnel. The composition of staff and mix of programmes were such as to provide grounds for a constant tug of war between traditionalist and modernist values and for considerable divergence of judgement as to how wide the spectrum should span to the right or to the left of what was a very unstable centre.
There were those who believed that television could give new support to old ideas and values and they were in at the ground floor in the formative years of Telefis Eireann. Programme schedules were full of liturgical ceremonies, prayers, indulgent coverage of ecclesiastical events and clerical statements and a great deal of pious commentary. Much of RTE’s style of address to its audience has been in this sort of reverential, triumphalist and introverted tone, which assumed that all were of the one true faith in the one true church. Those of other faiths have rarely felt themselves acknowledged, except as an afterthought and in a token and piecemeal way. Atheists and agnostics have hardly ever felt their existence acknowledged at all. News, features and current affairs coverage routinely rested on unexamined assumptions of the rectitude of the prevailing structures of power in the world and of the validity of existing social, political and economic institutions. Controversy generally centred on differences of emphasis within the particular blend of pre-capitalist and capitalist norms that Ireland was working out for itself. Those further to the right or left, especially to the left, most often felt their point of view was either left unexpressed or marginalised in the infrequent and precarious forms of expression opened to them.
There were others, however, also in at the ground floor, who would have had it otherwise. Working in RTE, some in relatively influential positions, were a significant number of people of progressive and even radical views. Although their work never expressed the full force of their convictions, they nevertheless put up a formidable fight to secularise and to liberalise programme output. Their struggles were not without success. But in their edging forward, they had to contend with the counterweight of forces striving to push them backward every step of the way. Key figures involved bear witness to the pressures they had to deal with at the time, especially of the heavy lean of church influence in RTE. Jim Fitzgerald, a producer in the early years whose photograph and address was once printed in the Catholic Standard with the caption “This man is dangerous” spoke of the presence of clerics at policy meetings and the role of a clerical unit in RTE. He claimed to have had his presence at meetings questioned because of his ‘left wing bias’. He felt it vital to try to drill a hole in a lot of silences and to speak of things not spoken about before, but felt he was hampered in having his work continually scrutinised for political bias. Not that it was always so out in the open as this. The normal way to prevent things being done, he contended, was to slice the budget.3 Carolyn Swift, writer and script editor, spoke of the strong control of the Knights of Columbanus in RTE. They were, she claimed, behind the prosecution of The Rose Tattoo case at the Pike Theatre. They had, in her view, failed with theatre and were determined to have their way with television.4 James Plunkett too had his problems. An author and producer, formerly a trade union official, he had earlier lost his job in Radio Eireann on account of a trip to Moscow. According to him, the shock waves were coming all the time, though the liberalising forces did manage to move ahead. The clergy, in his view, tended to overplay their hand. Television, as he saw it, tended to liberalise as society liberalised.5
Television did much more than reflect the liberalisation of Irish society. It also did a great deal to contribute actively to its liberalisation. Whatever the tug of war between traditionalist and modernist values in personnel and in programme content, television in itself was inevitably an instrument of modernisation. It was in the very nature of the medium to be an agent of liberalisation, which was perhaps why a country like South Africa only introduced television reluctantly and late in the day. Itself the product of industrial and technological progress, its very presence brought even the most remote rural dwelling into a whole web of implication in the forms of perception and rhythms of response embodied in the culture which brought it forth. On one level, the overt opening of Ireland to other cultures providing constant points of comparison and contrast to its own culture, was bound to have a powerfully relativising effect. On another level, a sort of subliminal seduction into the whole pace and texture of its dense and discontinuous flood of stimuli, has most likely had even more far-reaching consequences, though much more difficult to assess or even express.
Previous media had, of course, played their role in the modernising process. Like television everywhere, Irish television drew on previous media and developed in a complex and ever changing relationship to other media. Growing out of an organisation already in the business of radio broadcasting, there was a natural tendency at first to regard television as simply radio with pictures. The complexities would become apparent in due course. Not surprisingly, personnel were recruited from the worlds of the press, radio, cabaret and theatre, as well as from foreign television services. Quite naturally, various television formats showed the influence of traditions formed in these previous media. News and current affairs, for example, tended to look to the conventions and procedures pioneered by the popular press and mediated through radio.
Drama tended to draw primarily from theatre in its first years, although strands of influence from literature, radio and cinema, both domestic and foreign, were also in evidence. Constant exposure of both programme makers and audience to a great deal of British and American television has always been an important source of influence as well. The earliest efforts in the field of television drama in most countries have been marked by a predominance of adaptations, with original written-for-television material taking some time to come into its own. In a country like Ireland, with such strong and internationally honoured literary and theatrical traditions, it was even more bound to be so. RTE’s first heads of drama, Hilton Edwards, Jim Fitzgerald and Chloe Gibson, were drawn from the world of Irish theatre, as were most of the producers, directors, writers, actors, and designers, bringing with them the styles, structures and skills that had been evolved by the theatrical profession.
The prevailing production methods in television at this time also tended to favour a style of drama very close to that of theatre. The main form of dramatic production was the studio-based single play. The confinement to studio space generally meant the use of sets very like those of the stage. Even though videotape had by this time eliminated the need for live performance and made possible production in advance of transmission, drama was still played right through from the first scene to the last in proper sequence as in theatre. The plays were done in long single takes with a minimal number of changes of scene, set, wardrobe and make-up. For technical reasons, there was little editing, even when mishaps occurred or lines were fluffed. Acting styles only gradually began to move away from the projection of voice and grandness of gesture customary in the theatre to the more quiet and subtle type of performance appropriate to the more close-up, intimate and domestic medium of television.
Most important of all in assessing the influence of Irish theatre in the development of Irish television drama was the appropriation of themes, genres and modes of representation characteristic of indigenous theatrical traditions. In fact, the majority of television plays were direct adaptations of stage plays in these first years. As to the state of Irish theatre at this time, it had been for several decades in the doldrums, except perhaps for such sporadic challenges to the mainstream as came in the shape of theatres like the Pike and the Globe. The Abbey had settled into a rut of what Frank O’Connor called “museum theatre”. Its succession of cottage kitchens presented a picture of a cozy and complacent society, disturbed only by individual transgressions and cute eccentricities. Stemming from the traditions of the Irish literary revival, particularly from Yeats’s brand of aristocratic hostility to bourgeois values, it represented an urban idealisation of rural life. It was a theatre based in heroic legend, pitted against the modernist idea of progress. It focused on the warm organicist peasant community as a haven from the cold individualist industrialised world. It spoke in a highly stylised mythical language, grounded in an aesthetic that consciously chose romanticism over realism. Although the Gate brought the best of international theatre to Ireland and Irish writers such as Sean O’Casey, Denis Johnston, Walter Macken and Brendan Behan wrote in a decidedly different vein, the national folk drama of a poeticised peasantry was the dominant tradition.6
The relationship of Ireland with America, particularly the influx of US tourists and the making of Hollywood films about Ireland, did much to maintain and even enhance antiquarian images of Ireland as a land of lush landscapes, laughing leprechauns and lovable lads and lassies. America, never really believing in itself quite as much as it pretended, seemed to need a nostalgic fix in a connection to a picturesque pastoral past, to legitimise itself in an imaginary link to roots in paradise lost. Ireland, in a schizoid sort of way, both laughed at the yanks and proceeded to prostitute itself to fulfil their fantasies of Ireland as a kind of Celtic Disneyland. To bring its own way a share in the wealth that industrialisation had brought, they were happy to play to the galleries and be the swaggering boyos and comely colleens in an anti-industrial scenario full of sunbursts, shamrocks and shillelahs. There were variations on the theme, but these were only aspects of the same cycle of delusion and self-delusion. As Micheal O hAodha put it, the stage Irishman was a swaggering, good natured buffoon who dearly loved a lord, who was always ready to raise a laugh or strike a blow, but was as gentle and innocent as a turtle dove. Then there was the equally fallacious idea of the noble peasant, who had the blood of kings in his veins. He regretted, as did others, that the Irish theatre did not bring forth playwrights to mirror the deeper thoughts and emotions of their people, instead of all the falsely sentimental images of cozy cottages and mother machrees and purty colleens and crubeens and clay pipes and all of the other trappings of stage lrishry.7
It had its critics, of course. Sean O’Faolain was particularly scathing about it, characterising much of the myth making as really myth faking. It was a source of sorrow to him that the Irish persisted in a lack of intellectual sophistication and tended neither to write realistically nor to ponder deeply. He saw the two as connected, linking the lack of realism to the strain of anti-intellectualism in Irish culture.8 Irish culture never provided much of an arena for intellectual debate. In its whole range of artistic expression, it was always been more descriptive than analytical. Irish drama was a drama of ideas. It was drama that took great delight in descriptive dialogue, but not in philosophical meaning. In its great flow of witty words and ironic insights, it displayed capacity to be remarkably clever, if not notably deep.
Not all of it has been in the yeatsian tradition of poetic romanticism. It had its other modes, both naturalistic and expressionist. All of these were to find their way onto television, with the balance shifting as the years went on. Its early adaptations spanned the whole range of existing theatrical styles, taking in Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory, as well as Joyce and Beckett, as well as O’Casey and Behan. Its original material would eventually widen the range still further. Its forms encompassed melodrama, tragedy, comedy, tragicomedy, thriller, farce, allegory, soap opera and drama-documentary.
It did take time to find its own original material, however, and to discern the distinctiveness of the medium and what was appropriate to it in the way of dramatic style. An early issue of the RTV Guide 9 went to a number of Irish playwrights and posed the question:
How will Irish drama be affected by the coming of Telefis Eireann?
Some believed that it would not be affected at all:
· John B. Keane answered flatly that it would not be affected, though he then warned of the dangers of writers becoming slaves of its techniques. He saw creativity as rebelling against its constraints.
· John O’Donovan was even more certain that it would involve no radical change. Television, he stated firmly, was a method of presentation, nothing more and nothing less. It presented no challenge in dramatic technique. The television play needed arresting dialogue, observant characterisation and interesting situations, just as stage and film did. The important thing, he insisted, was what you presented, not how you presented it. No amount of lighting effects, camera gimmickry, and hopping from one lens to another would turn a bad play into a good one.
· Maura Laverty agreed: Television wouldn’t affect playwriting in the slightest.
Others felt it would affect playwriting and they did not welcome the prospect:
· Austin Clarke said there was nothing he liked about television. It was such a visual art that it would make it difficult to appreciate the imaginative power of words. He did concede that television could open the field for a more popular kind of drama, but stipulated that producers would have to find a method to give due value to language.
· Frank Carney would have none of it. He said he wouldn’t dream of allowing his work to be presented with advertisements popping into the middle of a play.
Others were more open to the new possibilities for Irish drama in the medium of television:
· David Hayes and Brendan Behan thought television would have a stimulating effect on drama.
· John McCann considered television to be a most exciting and enticing medium.
· Donagh McDonagh thought that the brilliant production of Synge in the first week of Telefis Eireann augured well.
· Gerard Healy was all for television. It was a more flexible medium. It would help drama get away from the kitchen sink and explore whole new settings. It would show aspects of Irish life that had been neglected by Irish theatre.
In the same issue was an article entitled “The Problems and Possibilities of Television Drama”. It was by Hilton Edwards, the grand old man of Irish theatre who was RTE’s first head of drama who kept television drama firmly within theatrical traditions. Ironically, the article was on the need to break away from theatrical traditions and to realise the distinctiveness of television as a medium for drama. It indicated quite a clear view, on one level at least, of what the situation required in this respect, however much he may have failed to implement his own recommendations in practice. Edwards looked back to his early days in the theatre as a time when he was sure of his ground and not beset by aesthetic doubts. This situation was undermined by the advent of cinema with its obvious pictorial superiority to stage. This necessitated discovering what qualities were truly theatrical. The coming of television in its turn threatened both stage and cinema. There was confusion among the three domains, especially since the invention of videotape. The solution, Edwards argued, was to isolate the essential germ of each medium. Each would remain irreplaceable in its own domain, if true to itself and if not lured into playing games away from home. In isolating the essential germ of television and finding what made it other than stage or cinema, Edwards noted various characteristics. There was its capacity to penetrate the family hearth. There was its ability to highlight details through the use of the close-up. It was possible on television to reveal the inner life of a play. The camera and the microphone, the eyes and ears of the audience, not only came to meet the action, but almost entered into it, sharing moments of greatest intimacy. All the same, this still made television sound like an audio-visual aid and transmission system for the existing theatre.
Edwards then set out his new department’s strategy. Initially, it would be necessary to rely on existing works of indigenous and international theatre, until writers familiarised themselves with the new medium. In doing so, it was best to search for those plays which the alchemy of television could transmute to a new quality and give renewed life. RTE produced quite a number of classic and contemporary works of international theatre, such as Antigone, The Wild Duck, The Fire Raisers, The Government Inspector, An Apple a Day, Dr. Korczak and the Children, Skipper Next to God, The Physicists, Do You Know the Milky Way? and Martine. It also did its own productions of quite a number of classic and contemporary works of Irish theatre, such as The Well of the Saints, The Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet, Candida, O’Flaherty VC, The Man of Destiny, The Moon Shines on Kylenamoe, In the Shadow of the Glen, Church Street, The Far-Off Hills, The Whiteheaded Boy, Michaelmas Eve, The Scythe and the Sunset, The King of Friday’s Men, The Year of the Hiker, The Field, The Plough and the Stars, The Shadow of a Gunman, The Hostage and The Loves of Cass McGuire. But ultimately, Edwards stated, the task was to find original television writers and to produce plays unique to television, plays which owed nothing to stage or cinema.10
Television did nothing, however, to change his fundamental aesthetic, which was declaredly romantic and escapist.ll He had no time for the social realist, documentary style of drama that was having its day on British television. He was determined to resist the idea of drama as reportage, to which he thought television tended. It was, as he saw it, a medium which made it difficult “to see the dramatic wood for the journalistic trees.”12 The problems of contemporary society should be left to news and current affairs to clear the field for drama to deal with areas where the dust had long since settled.
In this matter, he got his way. Whatever else about the RTE drama of this era, it was not designed to give a picture, challenging or otherwise, of Irish society in the Lemass years. Nevertheless, even in its way of drawing back from it, it often gave more of a picture of it than it intended. Most of it was set in the past, at least at first. As time went on, an increasing proportion of the drama was set in the present. Not that drama set in the past needed always be irrelevant to the present. It could be either an avenue of escape from the problems of the present or an agency for shedding a long clear light on them. Ironically, productions shedding the most light on the present were sometimes those most firmly rooted in the actuality and complexity of the past, as opposed to those moving in a kind of dreamy indeterminacy about time that passed for timelessness.
Many of the plays had the tone of the universal morality tale and carried a sense of an essentialist human nature that was what it was, regardless of the particular existential realities of time and place. Plays such as The Well of the Saints and The Devil a Saint Would Be, whether in a tragic or comic vein, assumed a static sort of conflict between good and evil, a universal set of virtues and vices, somewhat oblivious of the transforming reality of historical process in shaping such conflicts and in defining good and evil and virtue and vice. Plays such as Everyman assumed that there was an essentialist and universalist everyman, that good deeds were good deeds, that beauty was beauty, that life was life and death was death, whether in the peasant fields of the medieval world or in the night clubs and bourgeois penthouses of modern times. They were tales more in the tradition of biblical parables than tracts for the times. Far from promoting any sort of historical understanding or social consciousness they fostered attitudes that turned away from it. There was a sort of quaintness about them that was oddly out of tune with the times that were in it. But they represented a strong strain in Ireland’s past that it was desperately trying to hold on to as it was being pulled into the future. The moral of the story was generally of the order of:
· better to be blind than to see the ugliness of this world (The Well of the Saints).
· better to be civil to a demon than to risk insulting a saint (The Devil a Saint Would Be ).
Hardly the most appropriate sentiments for marching bravely into a brave new world.
The lives of the saints actually loomed quite large in this scheme of things. There was a series of five plays under the title of The Little Father on the life of Francis of Assissi. There was a tableau Oliver of Ireland on the life of Ireland’s beatified and to be-sainted Oliver Plunkett. There was Enquiry at Lisieux on the route by which Therese Martin became Saint Therese of Lisieux. This sort of production was presented in a pious, reverential tone that seemed to take not the slightest notice of the remotest possibility of any sort of doubt or dissent in the whole of the country. The RTV Guide actually presented Everyman ”as a final Lenten offering.”13 It presented Enquiry at Lisieux in terms of an endearing (or cloying, depending on your point of view) reference to the “Little Flower” as “one of the saints nearest to the hearts of the Irish people.”14 It was a mode of address more appropriate to the pulpit than to a public broadcasting service. It assumed a degree of consensus that was never really there and was steadily being eroded yet further. It even implicated in the very production people who did not believe in it. It was not as honest and as innocent as it seemed.
Religious texts and sub texts pervaded many of the plays. Priests and nuns were a persistent presence among their characters. Virtually all other characters were within their faithful flock. Whatever their temptations and their transgressions, which were often the stuff of the drama, they still believed. Indeed, they lived their days and did their deeds in an atmosphere in which it was seemingly unthinkable not to believe. As Hugh Leonard described the situation:
“The Irish writer is alone in the world in the sense that in every other country the existence of God is doubted and a serious play becomes a… search for a purpose and a meaning. The Irish writer is different in that he accepts God and so do his characters. That is his starting and his finishing point and it is inclined to put him out of step with the rest of the world’s writers. At the beginning of every Irish play there is the presumption that God exists. In nearly every other European country among the literati …there is a belief that God is dead and that we must carve our own meaning out of life”15
The priest often came into play as the mediator of social tensions. In A Matter of Conscience, the parish priest brought reconciliation and the true Christmas spirit to the conflict between unctuous citizens and a family of tinkers. Persuading those involved to tip the scales of justice on the side of charity, the priest was typically the resourceful and inspired solver of the community’s problems. Occasionally, the priest was revealed as having problems of his own. In A Ship in the Night, a sort of Canterbury Tales scenario involving the interactions of five passengers on a boat crossing the Irish Sea, all were thrown together and set up to come face to face with their problems. Of all their stories, it focused most intently on an alcoholic’s downfall and a priest’s crisis in his vocation. Even more occasionally, the priest stood against the community which was itself resourceful and inspired in taking into its own hands the resolution of its own problems. Liam O’Flaherty, who had himself studied for the priesthood, had the people reject their parish priest and form a committee to fight landlordism in an eight part serial entitled Land.
Nuns also made their presence felt in the plays of the period. A typically benign view of their way of life and their role in the world came through in A Letter from the General in which the good sisters were not only holy virgins and benevolent missionaries of western culture in the eastern world, but brave bulwarks against the communist threat. When their mission in the far east was threatened with closure upon the communists coming to power, they sought to hold their ground, despite the new government’s declared aim of eradicating all traces of the dominance of western culture. One of the old nuns, who had taught the local communist leader when he was at school, believed that a plea from her might succeed in stemming the tide. They then proceeded to await a letter from the general. When it came, it became apparent that their plea had failed and his sympathies had changed.
A more critical view of convent life came through in Cradle Song. It traced the reactions of various nuns to a baby left in a Spanish convent, their decision to keep her, her growing up and in time making her decision to leave. The effect of the foundling on each nun was used as a device for revealing layer after layer of the characters of each of them. It seemed to have not gone down very well with RTE’s convent audience. One nun wrote to protest. She called it a travesty of convent life. She objected to its picture of nuns as immature, hypersensitive, jansenistically narrow in their relations with men, catty and superstitious among themselves, and feeding their repressions on untheological devotions to the blessed sacrament.16 Whatever this Sister of the Holy Child Jesus may have claimed, others might find such a characterisation an extremely accurate description of convent life from inside its walls.17
There were other plays as well which touched on the hypocrisy of the holy and the mixed motives underlying much religious observance. Some Women on the Island put the spotlight on a number of women on a pilgrimage to Lough Dreg. They were shown as preoccupied with gossiping about their fellow pilgrims and grumbling about their physical discomforts to the exclusion of any awareness of their own need for penitence. Another nicely ironic cameo of the role of religion in Irish life was Grace, an adaptation of one of Joyce’s Dubliners stories. Following upon a session combining drinking, camaraderie and a rambling theological discussion, a group of Dublin businessmen made their way into a retreat for businessmen at the jesuit church in Gardiner Street. In a burst of a kind of holiness that was indistinguishable from alcoholic euphoria, they renounced the devil, not forgetting his works and pomps, and bellowed out the stirring strains of Faith of Our Fathers.
Occasionally, an eye was cast on the presence of minority religions in the country, reflecting the new ecumenical spirit abroad in the land by the late sixties. The Last Eleven, a play written by the assistant controller of television at RTE, Jack White, was specifically about the challenge of ecumenism. Showing how the last remnants of a protestant community in rural Ireland were being affected by the changing times, it concentrated on the conflict within a protestant cleric of the old school in dealing with a catholic curate of the new age.
Morality was normally, either implicitly or explicitly, tied to religion. What was defined as moral or immoral was generally done in accordance with the dogmas of catholic moral theology. What passed for ethical discussion was corrosively conditioned by the catholic canon law mentality. Many plays showed Irish life as perhaps more full of sin than sanctity, but sin was a matter of the individual straying from the prescribed path, which never called the prescribed path into question. Morality or immorality was a matter of individuals deciding to adhere to or depart from the socially accepted moral norms, which corresponded to divine commands, the dos and don’ts of which were simply taken as given. The drama generally spotlighted the circumstances and consequences of the decision for the individuals directly affected, but threw little or no light on the social evolution of the moral norms setting the terms of the decision. There was rarely the slightest hint of challenging the legitimacy of the prevailing moral codes or the legitimacy of the social order which produced them and policed their observance.
Occasionally, matters of public morality were raised. Those which did so most explicitly, however, were adaptations of works by foreign authors and were often met with hostility from the domestic audience, or at least that section of it for which they came closest to the bone. Jim Fitzgerald’s productions of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People and Frisch’s he Fire Raisers concerned the responsibility of the individual to confront social pressures and to examine the validity of their claims upon him. In these plays, it was not simply a matter of individual conscience versus social convention, but a matter of the social responsibilty of the individual to stand against prevailing social mores. Giving Public Enemy an Irish setting certainly carried a strong implication that its dilemma was as relevant to Irish society in the sixties as to the time and place of its origin and that the will of the people could come down just as harshly here against anyone who stood with integrity against their less-than-noble vested interests.
An indigenous treatment of a similar scenario was John B. Keane’s The Field, which also showed an entire community implicated in suppression of truth and conspiracy in crime, but elicited a certain sympathy for it in standing its ground against forces outside it. Its strong imagery showed a world where 2Oth century jet planes flew over 19th century feuding, land hunger and dying folk ways. It showed a society in transition in microcosm, focusing on the fate of one field and whether it would or would not be incorporated into Ireland’s relentlessly advancing industrialisation. Despite this clear exposure of the greed, frustration, violence, and even murder, smouldering just under the surface of rural life, it portrayed the people of such communities as ground down and locked together by centuries of poor land and backbreaking toil and therefore not to be judged too harshly for anything they might do to prevent what little they had being taken from them. However, while all matter of crimes, including murder, could be justified within such communities, sexual transgression surely could not. Speculating that it might have been an avenging husband who murdered the man who came to buy the field:
“Can you blame the poor man, Father? In all fairity can you blame him for murderin’ a home-wrecker?”
How many had qualms of conscience in the face of such representations would be hard to tell. How many Irish communities, one might wonder, which knew and would not say where the bodies were buried, flinched at whatever recognitions such drama might have brought to the surface. How many secrets lay buried in rural Ireland, how many strangers ended in unmarked graves, how many girls gave birth alone by cold dark grottoes, how many families disposed of unwanted babies in the deep of the night, no one will ever really know. Much about the dark face of the hidden Ireland and the forces keeping it hidden remained outside the domain of television drama.
Despite the public face beaming to the world indications of warm, friendly communities, there were other glimpses of how harshly communities could deal with particularly vulnerable individuals. Showing what cruelty and neglect could be visited upon people in need of compassion and attention, there were plays such as The Bomb and The Loves of Cass McGuire dealing with the situations of old women essentially alone in the world, An Triail dealing with the reception given to a young unmarried mother in distress; and Them dealing with the treatment meted out to a simple, amenable retarded child. Showing what harm could result from envy and greed and the corruption of truth, were plays such as The Old Ladies and Patter O’Rourke. Showing what devastation could be wrought by struggles for domination and bullying human relationships, were plays such as A Walk on the Water, Shadows in the Sun and An Bullai.
But ultimately transgressions were transgressions of individuals. Theft was put down to the individual thief, although A Matter of Conscience did indicate that what the tinkers might do illegally was nothing compared to what a businessman might do legally. Lying was done by the individual tongue, although The Liar did infer that doing one thing and saying another was by no means a rare Irish characteristic. Murder was an individual act and the question was to find out ‘who done it’, although The Glass Murder could make it a very engrossing story. But there was rarely any probing of the social order and how it had shaped the individuals who did such things. Often the surrounding society was redeemed in a revelation of what was regarded as the essential goodness of human nature. This was usually embodied in some good, but ordinary, individual who, through some kindness, brought the offending individual face to face with his offence. The sinner became a penitent and all would be well with the world once again. Even the cynics would soften in the heart warming glow radiating from such good acts and come to a higher opinion of their fellow men and learn to move more easily in the social world. The Bomb, The Paddy Pedlar and No Trumpets Sounding were among the many examples that could be given of such tales of reformation and redemption.
Images of Sexuality
Not all stories would end so well, however. Given the Irish tendency to an obsessive identification of immorality with sexuality and to a disedifying levity about other moral matters, it was not surprising that An Triail could have no such happy-ever-after resolution. Discovering that she was pregnant, a young country girl took leave of the repressively religious atmosphere of her family home and came to the city seeking work. Here she encountered various types of people with various types of reaction to her condition, including that of the father of her child, who drunkenly declared his desire to have nothing to do with her. Giving birth to a baby girl and feeling rejected all around, she ended up taking her own life and that of her child. One of the few plays written by a female author, this was one story that did not shrink from showing the darker recesses of Irish society, at least those into which women were forced owing to the repressive regimentation weighing upon female sexuality, stemming from the jansenistic strain in Irish catholicism. Some of the most biting plays were done in Irish, where it was perhaps possible to do things that could not be done in English.
Once in a while, there was a throwback to a pagan sensuality, which would be expressed in such productions as Merriman’s Midnight Court and Synge’s In the Shadow of the Glen, pouring scorn upon clerical celibacy and loveless marriage and glorying in the honest and illicit expression of human sexuality. But, for the most part, sexuality was given a fairly muted treatment on RTE. It tended to be more of an implicit off-screen presence than a matter for explicit enactment. Whatever erotic passions came into play confined their physical expression to fully-clothed, above-the-waist embraces, at least on screen. There were no torrid love scenes of naked bodies rolling in the rural hay or doing their best in the back of a morris minor along the Dollymount Strand. Domestic sets were more likely to be kitchens or sitting rooms than bedrooms. Certainly, an exploration of the deeper side of human sexuality was not very high on the agenda.
There were many stories surrounding the mating rituals of Irish society. Many of these were lighthearted battle-of-the-sexes stuff. Whatever their comic overtones, productions like Me and My Friend, Happy as Larry, Pigs in the Parlour and I Have Heard the Mavis Singing showed how far apart men and women really were and how little understanding there was across the gap of the sexual division of labour. Many of these, from a male point of view, saw the problem in “the wiles of women and their fickleness in love” (Happy as Larry). The female of the species was a mysterious law unto itself, beyond the power of male reason. The following bit of incidental dialogue was typical:
“April is a tricky month alright. You never know where you are with it.”
“Like a woman.”
“You’re quite right. It’s a strange month.” (The Field)
There were a number of plays painting an interesting picture of certain aspects of male / female relationships. For example, there were the anti-marriage attitudes of the Irish bachelor set in his ways in The Chair. There were the pressures upon courtship and marriage brought to bear from emigration in The Lambs; from rural-urban tensions in An Bullai, Mr. Power’s Purchase and All the Eels in the Ranny are Dead; and most of all, from rural property relations in The Girl From Mayo, Michaelmas Eve and numerous other productions. The tie of sexuality to property, particularly the relationship of matchmaking to land hunger, was very striking indeed.
Always a staple of dramatic conflict, there were many tales of the eternal triangle, spanning centuries and countries in the range of settings. Not that it played itself out in the same way for all times. There was the ancient Deirdre fleeing from marriage to the high king of Ireland to her lover Naoise. There were the feudal conflicts between aristocracy and peasantry in Martine and The King of Friday’s Men, which set the terms of relationships between peasant girls and lords of the manor. There were the big house intrigues of The Real Charlotte. There were the rural small holding sorrows of loveless marriage in In the Shadow of the Glen and the dilemmas of the young woman of the house torn between father and son in Autumn Fire and Two’s Company. There were the freedoms and restrictions of the middle classes in Candida. There were the grand forces involved in pre-independence politics and the fall of Parnell over Kitty O’Shea in Mourn the Ivy Leaf. There were the mundane manipulations of sixties singles in a Dublin bedsit in Me and My Friend and the sad results of modern marriage on the rebound in urban working class life in Babby Joe.
The representation of women in all of this was extremely traditional. These plays were full of earth mothers sacrificing themselves to their husbands’ appetites, spoiling their sons, shamed at their errant daughters, sorrowing over their emigrating offspring, sturdy and nurturing amidst domestic stress and setting a sound moral example to one and all. The salt of the earth were these women, according to the stereotype. Queens within their own sphere of home and hearth, so the story went, they knew well enough not to reach beyond it. The wider world was left to men. Its issues, ideas and ideologies were beyond their ken and of no possible interest in any case. It was best to let men get on with it all, politics or economics or whatever it was. Indeed they were busy with their own domestic details, not to mention gossiping about those of their neighbours.
It was assumed that a woman should not work outside the home. If she did, it was only something to be endured until rescued by a man whose duty it would be to keep her in the best style he could manage. It was thought to be a woman’s right to live by a man’s labour. Alternatively, she might work because she was left unclaimed on the shelf or because she wished to improve the family income. But rarely did she work because she had something vital she had to do in the wider world. In this scheme of things, women who were not securely on the path from being comely and complacent colleens to being settled and spreading matrons were often either scheming bitches or neurotic victims. Brought up not to make their own way in the world, but to latch on to men who were, women were bred to a parasitic mentality. Those who had not managed to find a host were almost bound either to be predatory or to feel pointless.
Television drama could hardly be blamed for representing women in this way, if this were how in fact the vast majority of women tended to be, a line of defence for which a reasonable case could be made. But it could perhaps be blamed for not representing it more sharply, for not digging into its roots in the sexual division of labour, as a historically contingent and not an eternally necessary condition. It could be faulted for not highlighting the exceptions more carefully, for not exposing the alternatives more credibly. Even in Ireland by the 1960s, there were a growing number of women reaching towards a more liberated way of life. Even then females could be found who were not reducible to their relationships to men, whether human or divine, women who were other, or more than, girlfriends, wives, mothers or nuns. When occasionally a woman who broke the mould came along, she stood out a mile. The woman writer returning to the place of her roots in Oilean Tearmainn was an alien species, even to her own kin. Part of the problem, according to Carolyn Swift, was that there were few women writers and that there was not enough scope for those there were. Men tended to be disturbed, in her opinion, by women’s perceptions and by their more accurate characterisations.18
The representation of men was, naturally enough, correspondingly traditional. Men were also shown dealing with domestic difficulties and having their own problems as harrassed or harrassing husbands, as tyrannical or tractable fathers, as bothersome and benevolent brothers, as spoiled or sturdy sons. But they were never reduced to those roles. They were always more. They had consequential things to do in the world. They were heroes, statesmen, politicians, guards, soldiers, revolutionaries, union organisers, orators or adventurers. They were doctors, lawyers, scientists or engineers. They were saviours, scholars, poets or priests. They were farmers, merchants, clerks or accountants. Of course, they were also tyrants, bullies, buffoons, thieves, deserters, drunks and village idiots. These were to be fought, redeemed, reformed or tolerated. What could not be tolerated was failure to fight. A man had to establish his virility in a certain amount of daring-do. Whether it be a battle of brains or brawn, he had to come forward and fight his corner or he was no man. If the blustering boyo had to cross swords over the cailin deas, all the better. Masculinity was regarded as in its glory in the fighting, as femininity was in the being fought for. The male protagonist in An .Bullai was prototypically described as having “a mind full of fact and fancy of the fighting prowess of ancestors.” In coming to grief, he was perceived as “an island of self-destruction” 19, showing a growing male insight into this version of masculinity.
There was an advancing front in opening up many matters to a wider view as the decade moved forward. Irish society was experiencing a stepped up tempo of social change and feeling the need to come to grips with it in one way or another. When Hilton Edwards was replaced by Jim Fitzgerald and then Chloe Gibson as head of drama at RTE, there was a more explicit commitment to drama that would reflect social change and stimulate a coming to grips with it. There was all the time an increasing proportion of original written-for-television material. There was cultivation of new writers, such as Michael Judge, Eugene McCabe, Brian Friel, Wesley Burrowes and James Douglas. There was an increasing emphasis on serials and series to supplement the single play format. There was more drama with a contemporary setting. There was a real commitment to dealing with the more challenging problem areas. There was a determination to have more drama based in urban life. But it was not easy. Such drama could not be produced by simple fiat.
Images of Rural Life
Most of it was based in the preoccupations of rural life. As Hugh Leonard diagnosed the situation, Ireland’s playwrights were too incestuous and imitative with respect to their predecessors. While writers in other countries were making urgent personal statements about new ideas and values, Irish writers were “still dribbling on about the aunt’s farm and the marriage broker.”2o Robert Ballagh singled out the idealisation of the west of Ireland as perhaps the greatest inhibiting influence on twentieth century Irish art.21 Even among urban elements, there was a long-standing tendency to equate rural Ireland with what is authentically Irish, which has blocked any proper analysis of either rural or urban Ireland.
Reflecting on the historical origins of this idealisation of the west of Ireland, one source was the legacy of colonialism. Michael D Higgins targetted a kind of internalised colonisation, based on a misplaced antiquarianism, a romanticised reconstruction of the past, which glossed over its economic and social realities, and spelled the death of real participatory culture, which spoke of the harshness of poverty and deprivation. These cameos without context presented landscapes, to which were added peasants, without histories or present structural locations. It represented a tyranny of images in which the colonised took upon themselves the coloniser’s version of themselves.22
Penetrating further, other aspects of the process came to light. Both the protestant Anglo-lrish ascendancy and the catholic nationalist bourgeoisie promoted the agrarian ideal, as an enclave of traditional values in a world of rampant industrialisation, but they espoused decidedly different versions of it. Explaining the middle class outrage at Synge’s plays in these terms, Luke Gibbons outlined the struggle over a controlling vision of Irish life in terms of the clash between the puritan ethos of the catholic bourgeoisie and the aristocratic ethos of the protestant ascendancy. The one was a production ethic of duty before pleasure, while the other was a consumption ethic of leisure and sensual indulgence. The literary revival represented a reversion to an image of pre-famine Ireland, when the hegemony of the ascendancy was still secure, as a refuge from the values on which the consolidation of the rural bourgeoisie was based. The ideal of the playboy of the western world, as the collective fantasy of the rural community, with its respect for violence, its smouldering sexuality and its disregard for due process, struck at the very foundations of both the family unit. and the nation building process itself. It was a protest against the encasing of sexuality in a grid of economic calculations and against the centralisation of law, ideology and the state apparatus, thus undermining the modernisation process.23
Various plays written or adapted for television dealt with law and order in various modes and in various contexts, an analysis of which would disclose something of the layers of ideological complexity co-existing or clashing in Irish society. Over the whole range of productions touching upon the administration of justice, there were varying attitudes of loyalty or hostility to the centralised forces of law and order. What predominated, however, was the hostility, which spanned the range from rural communities, which were a law unto themselves, to urban individualists, who would grab whatever they could regardless of any rules. Against this, there were the voices of church and state dominated by the interests of the national bourgeoisie wishing to establish the rules of existing law. There was also the voice of Irish labour, demanding a more just form of law consonant with the interests of the working classes. Bringing several of these voices into confrontation with each other could be powerful and revealing drama. In The Field, there were several occasions of full frontal conflict. Even before the catalytic crime, a prophetic exchange set up the forces that could not be reconciled:
Sergeant: “I’m wasting my time! There’s nothing in your heads but pigs and cows and pitiful patches of land… a man might be beaten to death here for all you’d give a damn.”
Bull McCabe: ” And a sergeant might get his face split open at night and all the guards in Ireland wouldn’t find out who did it …not if they searched till kingdom come!”
There were no complex arguments contesting the legitimacy of the state or the doctrines of the church, but a simple appeal to more mundane realities and primitive folk ways to which their law was alien.
Bull: “There’s a law for them that’s priests and doctors and lawmen. But there’s no law for us. The man with the law behind him is the law and it don’t change and it never will.”
When told by the priest that God would ask him questions about the murder one day, he replied:
Bull: “And I’ll ask God questions! There’s a lot of questions I’d like to ask God. Why do God put so much misfortune in the world? Why did God make me one way and you another?”
There were numerous strands of ideological explanation that could be brought to bear upon an analysis of the prevailing modes of representations of both rural and urban life. Irish drama encompassed layer upon layer of ideological deposits, reaching back centuries and indicating traces of many overlapping social orders. It bore witness to residues of pre-celtic and celtic pagan folk ways, of catholic medieval hierarchical systems and mediating rituals, of protestant dualism, bourgeois individualism and capitalist industrialism, of reformist and revolutionary republicanism, and even hints of a socialist critique of it all. It was just a matter of singling out characters or plays or playwrights which separately embodied each of these elements in a clearly articulated and self-contained sort of way. It was more often a matter of various elements all mixed together, congruously or incongruously, within a play or even within the minds of particular characters and their authors, and rarely brought to a point of clean, clear articulation. All sorts of historical complexities complicated the combinations and brought various peculiarities and anachronisms, which played themselves out both within the wider world and in the dramatic representation of it. Such reversals of normal historical patterns of development as the association of catholicism with republicanism and the association of protestantism with monarchism and aristocratic privilege made it a very dense site to excavate. The balance between the various elements shifted significantly over the years, but all of these elements, in various proportions and combinations and hybrid forms, remained persistently present, however (inevitably) unstable in their transformations and multiple maninfestations. All sorts of hazards lie along the road to trip up any facile generalisations. It could be said, for example, that rural drama was often a vehicle for expression of traditional values and urban drama was a more likely instrument for breaking new ground. But it was not always the case. In the development of Irish television, rural drama could be quite pointedly progressive and urban drama could at times be less so.
While much of the rural drama was of the cute kitchen comedy variety, some of it was quite serious and sharp-edged. All the machinations involved in the ownership, acquisition, inheritance and expansion of property did have its ironic twists and its funny side, to be sure, and were often dealt with according to some formula like:
“Take one will, two cousins, one comic housekeeper, one exasperated lawyer, add a pinch of love interest, a slight trace of message and shake well.”
The result, for some of its audience, was sheer hilarity. “Good clean fun for all the family” expressed the tone of a number of letters written to the RTV Guide about RTE’s production of All the King’s Horses. Others, however, felt it was a ‘diabolical production’, marking Jim Fitzgerald’s ‘fall from grace’ as a redoubtable critic of kitchen comedies and showing that “TV is the great corruptor”.24
Other productions, however, focused on the tragic side of it all. Giving expression to the bitterness and devastation brought by land hunger and by the class tensions of the countryside were the searing stories of Land, The Field and The Girl from Mayo.25 Showing the pressures and misunderstandings of family life, most memorably as viewed in relation to bleak old age, were The Year of the Hiker and The Loves of Cass McGuire, which stirred a storm of protest following the RTE production and also highlighted the wrenching and uprooting brought about by emigration, as did Going Into Exile, The Lambs and A Ship in the Night.26
A number of plays revealed dimensions of the rural-urban interface in Irish society and the tensions it brought to the surface within individuals, within families and within communities. Focusing on those who left the country for the city and on their efforts to resolve the problems arising from their ties to their rural roots were All the Eels in the Ranny are Dead, Mr. Power’s Purchase, An Triail and Oilean Tearmainn. Also looking at it from the point of view those left behind, Oilean Tearmainn and An Bullai gave forceful expression to the seething anger and resentment of country people towards their urbanised countrymen. They declared their hatred for ‘bryl-creamed towny slickers, who might steal the apple of their eye in a country ballroom of romance. They sought to take their revenge upon the woman writer, a thinly disguised Edna O’Brien figure, who did not give a very flattering picture of the place to which she returned to pose for photos for a gimmicky article in a glossy magazine and to find locations for the filming of her novels. Two rural bachelors, portrayed by her as sexless, conspired to rape and murder her, with the collusion of the parish priest and garda sergeant. It was very strong stuff and, again interestingly, in Irish. When asked if it was possible to go further in dealing with difficult matters in Irish than in English, Brian Mac Lochlainn, who directed both An Bullai and Oilean Tearmainn, said on reflection that perhaps it was.27
Traditional rites of passages played a very large role in the drama of rural life: birth, coming of age, marriage, old age and death, especially death. An extraordinary number of plays were built around the rituals of burial and all the peasant cunning and fortuitous complication attendant upon it: eg in The Paddy Pedlar, The Weaver’s Grave, The Purchase and Myko. In other plays, a death and a funeral were the catalytic agency for further events, eg in A Walk on the Water. Another recurring source for dramatic development has been the fork in the road, coming to a point in life where it was necessary to choose between diverging paths and coping with all the pressures from different directions, eg in Come Back, The Whiteheaded Boy and The Far-Off Hills.
Private Life and the Public Arena
When career choice has led in the direction of service in such institutions as the gardai or the army, there has been scope for drama involving the interface between domestic life and public activity and how the experience of the one may affect the modus operandi of the other. The duties and codes of behaviour of soldiers as affecting and affected by their family situations provided the basis of O’Flaherty VC, Yesterday is Over and Saighdiuri. The way of life and pursuits of the gardai provided high dramatic conflict in a mountainy adventure with poitin makers in All the Sweet Buttermilk and in a sinister thriller in which the guard turned out to be the mysterious killer obsessed with the fickleness of women in The Fiend at My Elbow.
While most of the drama was domestic in setting, there were other productions which saw the dramatic possibilities of public affairs. A recurring theme was the clash between old and new ways and the rising tide of mistrust. Whereas The Chair dealt with it inside the home, other plays opened it out into the larger community. In The Hollow Field, a government inspector came up against local superstitions and prejudice fighting to preserve a fairy fort. In The Moon in the Yellow River, a German engineer was brought into conflict with locals, who eventually blew up the power station as a symbol of alien technological progress. Taking a somewhat cynical view of the incongruity of Ireland’s efforts to combine industrial development with basically rural values, Denis Johnston threw into light relief the solemn arguments about machines versus men and the standard clichés regarding German efficiency and Irish fecklessness. Casting a satirical eye on both international industrialism and parochial pastoralism, he was attempting to shed light on the changes overtaking Irish society and to challenge the prevailing terms of reference for dealing with them. Other drama set in the public arena ranged from the intricacies of local politics in Down at Flannery’s and The Deputation to the larger canvas of Irish history, particularly in the high points in its protracted struggle for national independence, in The Long Winter, The Fenians, and Insurrection.
Reconstructions of Irish History
All of the wide range of productions putting forward dramatised interpretations of Irish political history came at a time of growing historiographical debate. Different productions reflected it in different ways, with some coming down on the side of the traditionalist interpretation of the making and meaning of the Irish nation and with others veering in the direction of the revisionist re-interpretation of it. However, not even the most reverential productions supporting a nationalist stance could be written off as a whitewash. Nor did the most critical productions go anywhere near the more extreme anti-nationalist or two-nationist positions that were being expressed in the wider arena of debate. RTE veered towards the centre of the spectrum, though allowing some room for manoeuvre this way or that way in relation to it.
There were, first of all, what were considered to be the worthy productions. These were generally made from written-for-television scripts and often commissioned to mark the occasion of an anniversary of one the turning points in Irish history. Marking the centenary of the 1867 rising, there were two drama-documentary productions: The Fenians and The Republican Brotherhood. The Fenians combined a poetic and prose narration by Padraic Fallon and focused on the figure of O’Donovan Rossa as a way of overcoming the difficulties in dealing with a movement such as fenianism, so spread out in time and place and so diverse in its personalities and activities. The Republican Brotherhood, being a six part series, was able to give attention to a number of other figures such as James Stephens and John Devoy and to a more elaborate historical assessment of the movement. According to this production, there were certain mysteries surrounding it all, but the significance of the fenians was that they sought to subvert the social system of their time. John O’Donovan, who adapted the script from the work of UCD historian Donal McCartney, considered them to be ‘the communists of their day’ .The bottom line was that their cause may have been a failure on one level, but it was not a fiasco. On another level, it was perhaps more successful than they knew.
The Long Winter, also written by John O’Donovan with James Plunkett, who directed it, was a six part series of drama-documentaries covering a large canvas of centuries of struggle for Irish nationhood, culminating in the 1916 Easter rising. The most memorable of these, When Do You Die, Friend ?, was based on the diary of William Farrell, a Carlow saddler involved in the 1798 rising. It traced his development from his schooldays and apprenticeship, through his oath of allegiance to the Brotherhood of the United Irishmen, to his subsequent arrest, imprisonment, interrogation and execution. It underlined his great love of learning, which brought him to draw on traditions from the Greek Iliad to the writings of the French and American revolutionaries of his day. It showed how his ‘abiding hatred of tyrants and tyrannies’ and his commitment to the rights of man made him face into the terrors he saw around him: martial law, floggings, burnings, spying and informing, torture and hangings. Great care was taken in the production, from the detail of studio sets and effective use of location shooting to the highly literary script and very serious performances. There was a haunting sincerity and high moral tone to it that made the viewer want to hold his head high at having inherited such traditions.
A somewhat different style and tone characterised the other major and even more elaborate production of 1966, marking the 50th anniversary of the Easter rising. One of the best remembered and well received productions in the whole history of RTE, Insurrection commanded an unprecedented marshalling of resources, involving an army of actors and extras (which actually included the army), and months of studio recording and location filming. It was highly innovative in format, both in its style of production and in its schedule of transmission. The script by Hugh Leonard mixed drama and documentary codes, framing a dramatised account of the events of Easter week 1916 within a You Are There style of actuality reportage. Interspersed with the narration were long stretches of dramatic reconstruction, which set out the struggle as a constant mixture of tragedy and farce. It focused not just on the heroic leaders, but on the ordinary volunteers, in a very humanistic sort of way. It was played highly naturalistically, presented as if in real time and broadcast on eight successive evenings through Easter week. It was very much the communal talking point for days to come and won the critical acclaim of virtually all shades of opinion. Though set in the past, it struck chords echoing the need to define Irish identity for its own time and it did so in a way in which the harmonious notes could, for the time being, override the disharmonious ones. It did give due weight to at least one set of political issues that had called for political struggle, but it was a struggle that united us against them, rather than dividing the us. There was still considerable consensus about 1916 at this time.
Other productions in the style of more traditional plays sought to find a harmonious sphere, rising above the disharmonies within the island itself, employing other strategies. In The Long Sorrow by vocational teacher Thomas Coffey, two men, one from the RUC and the other from an IRA raiding party, lay dying of their wounds and exposure in the snow. Although conditioned to animosity, they became dependent on each other for survival. The dilemma as posed by the play was to choose between loyalty to their political convictions and their responsibilities to each other as fellow human beings. The moral of the story was that they discovered too late that their bond to each other as human beings was stronger than the bonds of their political allegiances. It was meant as a story showing that a focus on human relationships could transcend political conflict.
A similar spirit pervaded Dawn Chorus by Labour TD Sean Dunne, a civil war story in which two former comrades found themselves on opposing sides, the one at first the prisoner of the other and then vice versa. The matter of whether the second should be executed was then solved by a ceasefire. The play, refraining from taking sides, saw an exposition of the rights and wrongs of political struggle as secondary to an exploration of how tragic events had worked their poison in the hearts and minds of those caught up in them. There was a vague implication in such productions that a universal humanism could cut through all political conflicts, which unwittingly begged all sorts of questions regarding the concrete conditions giving rise to such conflicts in the first place and actual strategies for achieving solutions to them.
These were liberal plays which echoed the liberal mood of the times on a world scale. Many productions, even those of Hollywood, flowed with the tide of the liberal vision of north and south, rich and poor, black and white, all discovering their transcendent humanity and throwing off all ideologies, pulling together and moving on into the future. It was a tide soon to turn, as voices from the left joined those from the right in faulting it for neither properly addressing the problems nor offering a solution. The ‘end of ideology’ position was shown to be as ideological as any other.
Bringing a gallows humour to bear, when there seemed to be no solution in sight, was Brendan Behan’s way of handling the drama of IRA dreams and dilemmas. Set against the backdrop of the 1950s border campaign in the north and high emigration and low living standards in the south, An Giall (The Hostage) brought the hostilities of the larger world into the shoddy, claustrophobic space of a Dublin brothel. Under the layers of bawdy laughter and music hall carry-on, there were other levels: such immediate matters as the fate of the British soldier held hostage in Dublin and that of their comrade awaiting death in Belfast; such political issues as republicanism, loyalism and the border; such moral ironies as sexual prudery in a house of prostitution and prostitutes condemning communists; such moral dilemmas as taking “a life for a life” and justifying man’s inhumanity to man. The wider world of political struggle, coming into tight confrontations and funnelling into close-up and highly charged studies of character, was recurring motif. It was in its time one which has sometimes stirred up, rather than smothered, the disharmonies not far below the surface in Irish society. Frank O’Connor’s story Guests of the Nation, which RTE also adapted, had caused uproar in Dail Eireann, when certain TD s objected to its inclusion in a secondary school English textbook. In this story, the killing of hostages, who right up to the last referred to their IRA captors as ‘chum’, was revealed to be an act of poignant and tragic finality, which could not easily be covered by talk of duty. Rather than justifying the deed in grand talk about following orders and the necessities of war, the main narrative voice was one left feeling:
“very small and very lost and lonely, like a child astray in the snow.”
Indeed, there was a sense of all involved being powerless before forces they did not really understand.
Interestingly, some of the sharpest-edged treatments of Irish history which RTE produced at this time were actually in its adaptations of works written earlier and for other media. Liam O’Flaherty’s Land, for example, had an unusual bitterness and forcefulness, along with a rare quality of philosophical reflectiveness, in dealing with land-based oppression and struggles against landlordism. Frank O’Connor’s Guests of the Nation brought the perspective of class conflict into the midst of republican politics, with one of his characters declaring himself a communist and explaining to the others:
“The capitalist pays the priest to tell you about the next world so as you won’t notice what the bastards are up to in this.”
Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars and The Shadow of a Gunman, along with Denis Johnston’s The Scythe and the Sunset, represented a somewhat sardonic treatment of sacred moments in the nation’s history and a decidedly anti-heroic view of its mythologically heroic struggles. In O’Casey’s plays, set amidst Dublin tenement life of 1916 to 1920, the men on the fringes of nationalist politics often turned out to be wastrels, cowards, braggards, spoofers, informers, failures or hangers-on, while the women were generally apolitical humanitarians. On one reading, these plays could be taken to indicate that politics was a force intruding upon and subverting truly humanitarian sentiments. Yet any attempt to find an apolitical grounding for humanitarian values was doomed to failure. On another reading, they could be taken to show how fragile human relationships could be in any case, but most particularly in the case of a particular type of politics, which revelled in a rhetoric of vengeful violence and mystical blood-letting and was willing to live with the random suffering resulting from it. Johnston’s play The Scythe and the Sunset, like O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, was set in Dublin during the Easter rising and took a highly cynical view of the nation’s sentimentalised version of its own history. In an orchestration of various individual voices, he gave expression to multiple angles of vision from which to look upon this turning point in the nation’s history. Gathering into one room characters giving voice to the range and interplay of forces of the emergent nation and its ancient enemy, he showed both the innocence and idealism of the rebellion as well as its incompetence and its elements of farce. Johnston was for years concerned with spotlighting and analysing myths in the making, particularly those by which the new Irish state sought to legitimise and consolidate itself. Such drama showed there to be not some simple factual history, but varying versions of history, corresponding to various purposes and points of view.
Of course, even earlier, James Joyce had pioneered the use of an incisive irony to cut through the self-delusions of Irish politics and the shallow sentimentalities that passed for a hold on its history. This was also taken up and brought to a wider audience by television. Ivy Day in the Committee Room, another of Joyce’s Dubliners stories which RTE produced under the umbrella title of Dublin1, centred on the meaning of the life and death of Parnell for the political animal of the next decade and gave a look at the cultural process by which a historical figure gathered to itself the force of myth. Already historical memory was being overlaid with the gloss of emerging mythology. Celebrating him in recitation and song, the chief was looming larger than life as his followers were sinking to the maudlin. They called him the “uncrowned king of Ireland”, seemingly oblivious of the incongruity and tackiness of dressing their nationalist leader in monarchist imagery. In the words of an amateur versifier among their number:
“He lies slain by the coward hounds
He raised to glory from the mire,
And Erin’s hopes and Erin’s dreams
Perish upon her monarch’s pyre.”
The story showed how Parnell was becoming, not just a leader who brought to articulation and political action what forces were welling up from below, but a messiah with a singular mission and divinely endowed powers. It was expressed employing a whole gamut of linguistic styles, which Joyce put into his characters via RTE actors, ranging from such high flown and flowery poetry to their more mundane pub prose:
“He was the only man that could keep that bag of cats in order.”
Parnell’s times were becoming the times, as if nothing could be achieved in the come-too-late world of their own new century:
“Musha, God be with them times. There was some life in it then.”
But the sceptical voice had its say as well:
“In Ireland, any dead politician is, by definition, a patriot.”
Speaking of how those who persecuted him joined in the chorus promoting him to near sainthood:
“We all respect him now that he’s dead and gone, even the conservatives.”
In all events, Parnell was dead and there were the political needs of the living to be getting on with and, of course, characters to say so:
“What this country needs is capital. Look at all the factories down by the quays there, idle. Look at all the money there is in the country, if we only worked the old industries, the mills, the shipbuilding yards and factories.”
To those who could look forward and not only backward, a new force .was looming on the horizon, that of the labour movement with Its potential, not only as an industrial force, but a political one as well. As their discussion moved into the question of the political representation of the working classes, the case was firmly put:
“Hasn’t the working man as good a right to be in the corporation as anyone else – ay, and a better right than those shoneens that are always hat in hand before any fellow with a handle to his name?”
And it was not only the right of representation that was at stake, but perhaps, it was thought, a more progressive and honourable form of representation would come of replacing publicans with bricklayers as public representatives. Pursuing the argument:
“But it’s labour produces everything. The working man is not working for fat jobs for his sons and nephews and cousins. The working man is not going to drag the honour of Dublin in the mud to please a German monarch.”
The next decade, of course, gave rise to the “neither king nor kaiser” Citizen Army and the identification of the cause of labour with that of the nation in 1916. The ensuing years also saw the growing strength and self-consciousness of the labour movement, climaxing in the lockout of 1913. In Connolly and Larkin, the working class had found political representatives who changed the very nature of political representation. Such towering figures, they too, in their turn, gathered to themselves the aura of myth. RTE’s drama-documentary The Testimony of James Connolly, written and directed by Eoghan Harris, set out to unravel the threads of myth woven around the figure of Connolly. Targeting the various factions which he saw as attempting to rob Connolly’s ideological grave, Harris took issue both with those who presented him as a full-fledged dialectical materialist and with those who treated his socialism as an aberration best forgotten. Particularly antagonistic to the latter, he wished to correct the view of Connolly as cast in the same mould as a modern day trade union representative on a board of directors. The bottom line, as far as this production was concerned, was that Connolly was most definitely a socialist as well as a nationalist. He was, even to the last, preoccupied with and committed to the political philosophy of socialism. This type of production, built around the grand events of Irish political history, provided one of the main avenues of dramatic expression in an urban setting.
Images of Urban Life
There were also other avenues. There were a number of plays, both adapted and original works, dealing with city life from a number of different angles and bringing it out of the past. Most were new plays set in Dublin and dealt with contemporary urban life. A number of these dealt with the trials and tribulations of domestic life in the city. Marital problems were a recurring source of dramatic tension, both in the effects in the home and in the ramifications in an immediate circle of acquaintances. Plays such as How Long is Kissing Time?, Babby Joe and No Trumpets Sounding explored its causes and consequences in their various ways.
Very few dealt with the world of work. It was a gap of which the drama department was very conscious. There were appeals for scripts, which did not always yield the hoped for results. There were also scripts turned down at a higher level, according to Jim Fitzgerald in recounting the obstacles he met in achieving his aims when head of drama.
In the meantime, productions such as Dublin 1 did something to fill the gap. More sharply than many a later effort in a more urbanised Ireland, Joyce’s Dubliners stories gave crisp cameos of Dublin life, each leaving its reader with something worth pondering. RTE’s production softened the impact somewhat unfortunately in dramatizing them in a light hearted music hall style that belied the more weighty intentions and the more insightful humour of Joyce’s stories and Hugh Leonard’s scripts adapting them. Counterparts was an exceptionally striking story in exploring aspects of the bullied and bullying male ego. In tracing the process by which a man’s oppression as a worker was related to his oppressiveness as a father, it gave a most interesting picture of the interface between the workplace and the home in the city and the pub culture of male camaraderie mediating between the two.
But adaptations of works of decades past were no substitute for new works dealing with new aspects of urban life. Chloe Gibson, in her turn, was also conscious of the lack of plays with an industrial background, which was becoming increasingly incongruous as increasing numbers were moving into industry. As head of drama, she commissioned script editor Norman Smythe to write a script with a storyline set in a factory. The resulting production A Case of Teamwork concerned a young engineer taking up a position as assistant manager of a paint factory. His eagerness to learn the ropes and do the job well quickly brought him into conflict with the attitudes of the works manager who had been there for twenty-five years. Danger, Men Working, by John D Stewart was another effort to fill the gap and to find dramatic material in the working lives of those who were building the homes and hospitals and factories and schools in which everybody else lived and died and worked and studied. Dealing with difficult labour relations on a building site, it explored the conflicts between management and workers as well as among the workers themselves. A ruthless manager, using British Army tactics, was driving the men as if they were machines and producing the opposite of the desired effect. It was all rather neatly resolved in having an accident bring the manager to his senses. If it was meant to imply that management with a human face could resolve class conflict, then it was not so close to the cutting edge as one might have hoped. It was, however, progressive in showing the difficult lives of building workers as worthy of dramatic treatment and respectful consideration.
Although the country was in the throes of relatively rapid industrialisation and more and more lives were coming within the orbit of the division of labour and distribution of resources appropriate to the capitalist mode of production, there was still a vague notion that Ireland was a classless society. This was primarily because it did not have its own aristocracy and secondarily because it did not have a very highly developed native capitalism. Nevertheless, capital and labour, whether the capital was native or foreign, were the overarching forces in organising the basic realities of Irish life. Yet neither capital nor labour was given dramatic attention in any way commensurate with its role in Irish society. Very few plays gave even a glimpse of how the everyday business of the country was done, let alone insight into the basic structure of the system that so pervasively shaped everyone’s everyday life.
Eugene McCabe’s Breakdown was unusual in being set in the world of commerce. In it, a Dublin business tycoon in financial trouble prevailed upon an ex-schoolmate, who had become an accountant, to cook his books, so that he could get financial backing and a government grant for his business. In the background were various complications regarding their wives and involving the death of a mutual friend. The accountant’s dilemma was, not only whether to help him or to refuse, but whether his refusal would be out of integrity or vindictiveness. It was basically a morality play about both choices and motives. It was not only about doing right or wrong, but about doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. It was also a play about power and reversal of power, a scenario in which the cat had become clawless and the mouse had become mighty, a scenario in which the powerless have always taken a vicarious delight. It was a delight that could be healthy enough, though it could also be a distraction from the structures of power to exaggerate the possibilities of the small man getting his revenge on those at the top.
Another study in small scale power relations took place in a setting far removed from the corridors of commercial power, a Dublin doss house. In Shadows in the Sun, a tough guy, just off a ship, robbed a drunk and bedded down in a hostel, where he proceeded to bully its odd assortment of infirm and down-on their-luck characters. Eventually, they got even with him for taking over the place and lured him into the hands of the police. For the author, Dr. Maurice Davin-Power, a Dublin district medical officer, who knew such places from his professional experience, the moral of the story was:
“The right of man to opt out of the herd is inalienable.”28
This production was an early expression of at least three trends that would mark much of RTE’s subsequent representation of urban life:
(1) a tendency to put a disproportionate emphasis on lumpen elements and the squalid indiscipline of down and outs at the expense of the more normal urban dwellers and the demands of work discipline.
(2) a tendency to see the city as the site of loneliness and alienation.
(3) a tendency to define both its problems and its solutions in highly individualist terms.
It was fair enough to picture contemporary cities as full of strays and wasters. It was fair enough to give voice to the lonely man in the urban crowd. For A Ship in the Night, all were
“like satellites orbiting in a dirty great empty space.”29
But it was not fair enough to leave it at that and to fail to explore adequately either the socio-historical grounding of individual alienation or the higher forms of social organisation of urban life. There was little in the televised picture of city life to suggest it might have offered a higher stage in evolutionary development, rather than a fall from a rural eden.
Series and Serials
Although single plays were the main form of television drama production in the sixties, series and serials became increasingly important, not only in terms of volume of output, but also in terms of creating a vehicle for giving dramatic expression to the growing edges of contemporary Irish life, both rural and urban.
There were a number of limited series, mostly historical, dealing with figures ranging from the humble The Little Father to the social climbing The Real Charlotte, but mainly recreating the events of political struggle in the sober The Long Winter, the experimental Insurrection and the angry Land .
Others were contemporary and belonged to the same genres as were becoming current in television elsewhere. They were most probably deliberate attempts to create Irish versions of the sort of series and serials that were being imported in great quantities from abroad and popular with the Irish audience. There were two situation comedy series, both written by Fergus Linehan and each running for a single season. Me and My Friend was about two man mad girls in a Dublin bed sit, waiting to be swept off their feet to married luxury, and Killyraggart 17 was about a London couple inheriting a decrepit hotel in Ireland and their efforts to start a new life. There were also two serials in the thriller genre, both in Irish, O Duill and A hAon isa hAon sin a hAon. Both brought Ireland into the world of international intrigue with Irish detectives facing great danger and saving the world from unscrupulous misuse of modem science. There was also a series of courtroom dramas in Justice at Large, written by lawyer Rex Mackey.
But most important in taking hold of the public imagination were the longer running serials of the genre called soap opera, although those involved in making them invariably pleaded for a more dignified label. Wesley Burrowes, for example, expressed his preference for the term chronicle drama, which was certainly more accurate and appropriate, however unlikely it was to come into common use.
RTE’s first efforts in this direction were short-lived. Its first serial, Siopa an Bhreathnaigh, began on RTE’s first week on the air and was written by Niall Toibin. In its first season, it was set in a Dublin shop and introduced a bilingual situation, with the shop being run by Irish speakers who spoke English to their customers. In its second season, the shop had migrated to the west of Ireland on the very edge of the Atlantic. It raised problems of coexistence with an English partner and with Germans involved in intrigues over a copper mine. Next came several experiments, initiated by the new controller of programmes, Gunnar Ruggheimer, to establish a rural serial on videotape. Both seem to have failed in falling awkwardly between the stools of fact and fiction. Down at Flannery’s was set in the fictional village of Ballybeckett and storylines involved romances, returned yanks, concerts, feiseanna, disputes over land and local politics. It ran into problems with professional performers playing amateurs in pub sessions striking what seemed to be a false note. Shinrone involved bringing outside broadcast equipment to the real village of Shinrone, Co Offaly, with the intention of producing an unscripted drama, recording the ordinary lives of its inhabitants. The double lesson to be taken from this seemingly unsuccessful experiment, according to Eoghan Harris, was that the results were predictably fascinating to the inhabitants of Shinrone, but boring to everyone else, but that there was an enduring public interest in ordinary lives.30
However, with Tolka Row the long running serial took off. Running from 1964 to 1968, it was a domestic serial in an urban setting. It was meant to be RTE’s answer to Coronation Street. Originated from Maura Laverty’s 1951 play, it was set in a new corporation housing estate on the north side of Dublin, where the Nolan family had moved from their Liberties tenement life. The narrative centred on the domestic life of the Nolan family and extended outwards to encompass their neighbours, friends and workmates. The Nolan’s were the stable, responsible, urban working class family. They were counterpointed in various ways by various other characters, such as Gabby Doyle, still close to his rural roots, and Chas and Queenie Butler, leading an unstable and irresponsible lumpen life of indolence, punctuated by gambling and petty crime. Within this network of social relationships, all sorts of problems arose to build up dramatic tension and advance toward at least relative resolution: those surrounding birth and death, courtship, marriage, housing, financial viability, pregnancy, child rearing, generational rebellion, neighborhood gossip, interfering in-laws, illness, career choice, retirement, care of the elderly, sexual jealousy, cultural expression, all fundamental human situations generating many variations on the theme.
The importance of Tolka Row was that it touched on so many basic human experiences in terms of the concrete conditions of everyday working class life. It showed how so many basic human desires found specific forms of fulfilment or specific obstacles to fulfilment within the particular parameters of a particular class at a particular time and place. It dealt with all the typical problems of finding meaningful work and financial viability in 1960s working class Dublin. Working life constantly ran up against problems of alienated labour, insecure or ill-paid employment and unemployment. Sometimes solutions to problems of unemployment were sought in small businesses. Even if the capital could be raised, these were as likely as not to come up against either bankruptcy or multinational takeover. Other times the solution was seen to be emigration.
It raised all of the problems with a commendable descriptive accuracy, even if it failed to push further and to probe the structural roots of the problems or the possibility of finding structural solutions to them. Any analysis of the social order, which made their problems what they were, was beyond the ken of any of the characters and presumably beyond the boundaries of the terms of reference the scriptwriters set out for themselves. The attitude of Maura Laverty and the other writers seemed to be that it should have no overtly reforming social message, but that it should give an honest picture of the social conditions surrounding working class life on the new estates. They felt they had a duty not to shirk the problems, but the problems were more grist for the anecdotal mill than conditions demanding an analysis of their causes and strategies for social change. Indeed they seemed to believe that people could get through life by meeting such problems with courage, sympathy and down-to earth humour and left it at that. The causes were left almost deliberately opaque. This was re-inforced in a crucial exchange in the concluding episode, as the two central characters, Mr. and Mrs. Nolan, were coming to terms with their own reluctant decision to emigrate and as the audience was witnessing the disintegration of the community with which they had built up such a firm identification over five years. As if to highlight their inability to put their own personal experience into a larger social context, their nearly last words to the world were on the subject of emigration:
Jack: “It’s the Irish curse …I was reading somewhere that over one million people have left Ireland since 1940. Not many of them came back.”
Rita: “Have you ever asked yourself, Jack ”
Jack: “Yes, Rita, often. But I don’t have an answer. Maybe them politicians have, but I haven’t.”
It was as if their lives were governed by mysterious forces that they could never comprehend. It was as if it was beyond the comprehension of the working class to understand their condition. It was true to life to present, as typical, working class characters, even central characters, who did not comprehend. But it was not true to life to present no working class character who did comprehend over the whole course of such an extended serial based in working class life. Dublin working class life at that time did have enough of a tradition of trade union militancy and left-wing political activism that it would have been unlikely for the Nolan’s and the whole range of their friends, workmates and relations to live out their days without ever encountering anyone with larger ideas about how the system worked and what should be done about it. With all that came within its orbit in the whole course of its run, it never produced a voice giving it a critical edge. It broke no new ground in illuminating the socio-historical forces underlying the phenomena with which it dealt. It was content to record the surface phenomena without probing further into their deep structure.
Nor did it break any new ground in the realm of personal relationships, particularly with respect to the sexual division of labour. The representation of male and female roles was perhaps even more traditional than in some of the rural drama. There were many scenes centring on the daily lives of full-time housewives, normally addressed as Mrs. Nolan and Mrs. Feeney, in a way that never queried the role of housewife as a socially honoured and honourable role. When, later in the serial, Rita Nolan took on part-time work, it was to improve her home. Even this caused problems, as Jack Nolan took it as a reflection on his ability as a provider. Even in courtship, there were rigid rules about the male taking the initiative and the female passively waiting for the male to call the shots and make the running. When Sean Nolan, the Jack-the-lad son of Jack and Rita, finally became serious about one of his many girlfriends, it did not work out because she attempted to force the pace and therefore lost him. Naturally, it was the female anxious to get married and the male wary of being cornered.
It wasn’t that these weren’t the codes and customs prevailing in this sort of working class community at this time. It was not wrong that sex roles were portrayed as being so traditional, but that the portrayal of traditional sex roles was so unquestioningly traditional. By 1968, there were certainly other notions in the air from which such characters and their scriptwriters might not have been so hermetically sealed off. There were even women around rejecting the custom of changing their names upon marriage, an area in which the theatrical profession had always taken a lead, allowing a professional dignity to its female members that was not common elsewhere. May Ollis and Carolyn Swift went by names of their own and not by their husband’s names. Yet, and this was perhaps the most disappointing expression of the sexual politics of Tolka Row, in an article dealing with the tendency of audiences to relate to serial characters as real people, Carolyn Swift saw fit to explain that May Ollis was really Mrs.Pat Lehane and not Mrs.Jack Nolan or Mrs. Desmond Perry.31
Nevertheless, Tolka Row did break new ground in giving extended dramatic treatment to the everyday joys and sorrows of working class life. It was the most sustained dramatic representation of urban life that RTE produced for decades. Its enduring significance was that it showed urban Ireland both to itself and to others. As Niall McCarthy, a later head of drama, put it, “it introduced one half of Ireland to the other half.”32 Certainly those living in working class communities, especially the new estates, identified with it fully and continued to wax lyrically about it long after its run. By this time, most had seen much drama on the screen, but it was cowboys and indians, cops and robbers, lords and ladies, doctors and lawyers, saints and spies and statesmen. For the first time, with Tolka Row, it was people like themselves on the screen whose lives were seen as having dramatic significance. It made them feel differently about themselves and their own lives and they warmed to it greatly.
When it was gone, they missed it, not perhaps because it was irreplaceable, but because nothing comparable did replace it for many years. When it was terminated, there were a string of post-mortems from producers, scriptwriters, critics, commentators and audience. Most paid tribute to its relevance and its popularity and regretted its passing. In marking its ending, most commented on the difficulties of sustaining a serial and felt it had, for whatever reasons, run out of steam. Some said it had degenerated into too much family squabbling. Others thought it had begun to mix naturalistic characterisation with music hall send-ups in a way that did not work. Others put it down to factors like cast turnover and static studio-bound sets. The assessment of Tolka Row, the subject of sporadic comment over the years, was subjected to more systematic analysis later with the advent of media studies.
Luke Gibbons argued that Tolka Row came to grief because it tended to present the family, not only as the main focus of dramatic interest, but also as the centre of power relations in the community, thus reducing complex political and economic questions to personal or family dilemmas. The basic structural weaknesses in Tolka Row, the existence of workplace only as a foil for family conflicts and the non-existence of a communal meeting place in its main sets, testified to the attenuated nature of the wider community in its basic conceptions and to the de-socialised character of its response to social problems. He also pointed out that it was a representation of urban life which displayed its residual rural structures in showing the continued existence of the extended family and its tendency to derogate wider social functions to itself, giving rise to a misplaced confidence it its own ability to withstand the harsh realities of social and economic change.33
The same tack was taken by Martin McLoone, who argued that there was a basic contradiction at the heart of the strategy of Tolka Row. Despite the fact that it was designed to provide for the first time positive sympathetic images of the working class and to re-insert the missing discourse of the city into Irish culture, it looked at city life from the perspective of the country ideal and it therefore only re-confirmed the simplistic notion of city life implicit in rural mythologies, ie, the notion of the city as the site of disharmony and communal breakdown, in contrast to the myth of rural harmony. For him, this was evidenced most clearly in the closing down of the subplots whereby Statia (nee Nolan} and Gabby Doyle made the decision to leave Dublin and return to his family home in Donegal, thus implying that rural retreat was the answer to the problems of city life, even for the city bred Statia. His thesis was basically that it was the complexities of the specific historical conjuncture and the serial form itself that conspired to turn its progressive intent against itself.34
This thesis, however, was somewhat overstated and unduly formalistic. It was surely off the mark to characterise the particular historical conjuncture of Ireland in the 1960s as parallel to that of Britain in the 1850s and to claim that Tolka Row did not work in the Ireland of the 1960s for the same reasons as Coronation Street would not have worked in the Britain of the 1850s. Whatever its own level of indigenous industrial development, Ireland was living in a wider world long since industrialised and touched on many levels by the fruits of that industrialisation, especially through modern media, in a way that would make this anachronistic comparison quite inappropriate. It was, however, true that rural customs and values were carried into urban life, although it did not follow that Tolka Row did not work because of this. Tolka Row did work insofar as it reflected this and its audience identified with it and accepted it as accurate and appropriate.
Nevertheless, McLoone’s placing of Tolka Row within the wider ideological project of Irish television was more to the point, although the term ‘project’ might imply a degree of conscious intent that .would be inappropriate. His reading of the final episode, particularly the discussion of emigration and the reference to ‘them politicians’, was an indication of the challenge of the social democratic tradition to the catholic nationalist interference in social or family matters, the implication being that, despite its origins in British protestant liberalism, only the development of the welfare state could keep the community intact in a way that frugal self-sufficiency had not. Although it was a reading that might have over-reached the writer’s intentions, it was one implication that could be taken from the text.
Another important factor in the assessment of Tolka Row, both during four years of its five-year run and in the years after, was comparison with The Riordans. The Riordans, one of the longest running and most successful serials in RTE’s history, began in1965 and ran until 1979. Both serials were enormously popular. Tolka Row maintained highTAM ratings throughout, while The Riordans topped the TAMs over its whole fifteen year run. Not only because of its longer run and higher ratings, but because of its bolder approach, The Riordans stirred all sorts of recognitions and emotions and became even more central to the popular culture of its time and more firmly embedded in folk memory since. The Riordans broke more new ground, both in its methods of production and in its range of concerns.
The Riordans was a rural serial set in the fictional village of Leestown in the real county of Kilkenny. The narrative centred on the life of the Riordan family and their farm and opened out onto the life of the whole community, particularly their communal meeting places. In its production, it broke entirely out of studio, but without using film. It used an outside broadcast unit to combine the immediacy of video technology with the authenticity of location shooting. So innovative was this in international terms that observers came from foreign television services to see videotaped drama made on a real farm, a real pub, a real church, a real village. With the more naturalistic setting went a more naturalistic style of acting that was a much more decisive break with both Hollywood and Abbey styles than Tolka Row. The casting of actors from outside the Abbey tradition also contributed to the break with its style.
In its storylines, it was far more issue-oriented. In the beginning, the weight of emphasis was on matters agricultural. It was forthrightly didactic in aim and firmly modernising in mission. When this task was taken over by Telefis Feirme, the emphasis shifted somewhat to matters psychological and sociological. Its role, as seen by its script editor and script writer Wesley Burrowes, was to be a chronicle of human relations in an Irish community. If, in doing so, an issue of wider social significance was suggested by a story, he preferred to plunge into the heart of the issue, rather than skirt around its edges.35 And plunge he did, bringing upon himself and RTE years of continuous controversy. Criticisms were often vehement and vituperative, quite unlike any levelled at Tolka Row, which rarely stepped on anyone’s toes and, when it did, did so very lightly. Occasionally, there were complaints that Tolka Row dealt with topics not suitable for children or that dialogue in the Dublin idiom was belittling, to which Carolyn Swift could easily reply that they had a duty not to shirk reality and ask facetiously:
“Do we really wish Oliver Feeney to talk like a BBC announcer or Queenie Butler like a BEA hostess?”36
But Wesley Burrowes would not get off so easily. The Riordans stepped on many toes. It did so, not out of any aggressive intent, but out of a simple desire to move gently and courteously forward along a road full of people threatened and determined to stand in the way.
Interestingly, it was the rural serial, rather than the urban serial, which came closest to the cutting edge of what was happening in Irish society. Both Gibbons and McLoone put this down to Tolka Row being a view of urban life from an essentially rural perspective and to The Riordans being the opposite, a view of rural life from an essentially urban perspective. In breaking with romantic images of rural life and establishing its validity in verisimilitude, its realistic representation of rural life did far more to undermine the tradition of the rural idyll by unravelling it from within.37 For his part, Wesley Burrowes said that what he had intended to do was to show the real rural Ireland to the city, but that what he did manage to do was to give the rural people of Ireland a city person’s view of their life. In reality, The Riordans did both. As it evolved,
“there developed a two way conduit of ideas, showing urban attitudes to the country and rural attitudes to the city.”38
To many, not least to himself, Burrowes must have seemed an unlikely person to be the major writer of a rural serial based in a catholic community in the south of Ireland, given his own urban, northern protestant background. He has always been disarmingly bemused by his initial innocence and ignorance of the life he was to chronicle in such detail, never hesitating to say that the “hidden ireland” was more hidden from him than from anyone else in the country. But it was not hidden for long. With remarkable thoroughness, he set out “on a long liquid excursion in search of Leestown.”39 He went to live in the real Kells to which the mythical Leestown came to bear a growing resemblance and really immersed himself in the life about which he was writing. No doubt much of the edge of The Riordans came from this intricate knowledge of this sort of life from inside it, constantly counterpointed by the experience of life from outside it. It was showing a way of life, both from the inside looking out and from the outside looking in.
Of course, television itself, opening a window not only on the rest of the country, but on the rest of the world, began a process of fusion between town and country that was to be irresistible. The Riordans was very much a part of this overall process. It fulfilled its most important function, in his opinion, in its challenge to traditional values. The co-operative movement and the winning of the right to own land had done little to promote egalitarian ideals. For Irish farmers, the priority was to own land, the more the better, and to cultivate their own gardens. The tendency of men of property to cling to traditional values and to resist change was constantly under challenge from men of no property and radical movements, mostly based in the city, demanding change40 The Riordans constantly highlighted the contrast between men of property and men of no property and showed how people’s values were affected by their station in life. Although he never set out to write a treatise on class and class consciousness, Burrowes has always put a great deal of emphasis on class consciousness and tended to show how each person in each episode was acutely affected by it.41
Characters were well chosen and well drawn to mark the contrasts very vividly. There were those with a solid stake in rural property: the Riordans with their hundred acre farm and Johnny and Julia Mac with their pub and Miss Nesbitt, the horse protestant lady of the big house. There were professionals such as Dr. Howard. There were educated wage earners like Jim Hyland, the agricultural instructor and Roddy Byrne, the schoolmaster. At the other end of the social spectrum were travellers like Eamonn, Eily and Francey Maher and the orphaned waif Maggie Nael. There were agricultural labourers like Batty Brennan and later Eamonn Maher. A key figure in mediating between all the various strata, though there were many types of ties, was the catholic priest, Fr. Sheehy, whose role naturally loomed far larger than that of his protestant counterpart, Canon Browne. Also important in mediating, though on quite a different level, was Minnie Heffenan, the priest’s housekeeper and village gossip. There was also a steady stream of urban characters coming and going, not only from Dublin, but from the far corners of the earth. There was never a claustrophobic or introverted feel to it, with a rich variety of positions in the social order of its time and place closely observed and each strongly counterpointed against others.
Both forms of dress and forms of address sharply marked off characters in terms of their status in society according to class, age and sex. On the Riordan farm itself, Benjy and Batty were normally seen in work clothes, whereas Tom nearly invariably was wearing white shirt, tie, waistcoat and hat befitting the patriarch and politician and Michael was wearing the sports coat and tie of the young professional. Mary, of course, was usually in an apron. Habitual forms of address were strikingly asymmetrical. For an encounter between priest and matriarch, he was Fr. Sheehy to her, but she was Mary to him. In an encounter between the ascendancy lady who married the local doctor and the priest’s housekeeper, the one was Mrs. Howard, but the other was Minnie. Even the young Michael Riordan was addressed as Mr. Riordan by the older Francey Maher, but it would be hard to recall Francey ever being addressed by anyone as Mr. Maher nor Batty as Mr. Brennan.
With relentless topicality, The Riordans dealt with a host of contemporary issues, ranging from the agricultural to the sociological, from the minutely practical to the grand philosophical. It could be methods of slurry disposal at one moment and a priest’s crisis in his vocation in the next. It was enormously educational, in different ways for different people. No doubt a substantial proportion of what many city dwellers knew about agriculture and day-to-day rural life came through years of watching The Riordans and its successors. Much of it must have been a revelation, their education heretofore having been utterly lacking in anything having to do with methods of slurry disposal, use of fertilisers, techniques for improving milk yield, systems of keeping farm accounts, schemes for eradicating bovine TB, the role of co-operatives, conflicts over mining rights or rights of way or farm retirement schemes. Others, more informed about these matters, might have found the expression of new attitudes about marriage or the honest treatment of mental illness to be new food for thought. In all sections of the population, it raised matters which were considered in a new light when filtered through the strong identification which the serial engendered. No doubt it played its role, not only in reflecting, but in reshaping, social attitudes to travellers, unmarried mothers, hare coursing, mixed marriages and much more, especially when it moved into the seventies and sailed even closer to the wind than in the sixties.
The airing of social issues was all the more effective for not being done in an awkward, agit prop sort of way. Such matters as arose seemed to do so quite naturally and organically, out of the rhythms of the lives of familiar characters in a familiar setting. There was an honesty and a humour in the tone of it that made whatever came seem quite plausible. There was also a sense of proportion about it. There were big stories of murder mystery following a dead body being found in the woods; of violence over the appointment of a schoolmaster, raising ghosts of ancestral conflicts in the local area’s part in the struggle for national independence; of decisions about emigration and inheritance of land. There were also small, often funny, stories about poitin making and greyhound racing and amateur drama casting and ‘murial’ painting, not to mention participating in tidy town competitions. Regarding the ‘murials’, as an example of the characteristic humour of the serial, which combined light comic relief with a serious satirical edge, Eamonn had to paint clothes onto the naked nymphs of the mural done for the new pub lounge. It was a laugh, but a laugh that said more about the Irish mind and its cultural consequences than many a tedious commentary.
Although it all seemed to flow rather easily and to be a simple record of events as they happened, it was in fact a carefully constructed narrative created in a process Burrowes described as like walking a tightrope.42 There was a constant, but obviously creative, tension between the aim of providing entertainment and that of raising themes for development by way of social comment. It was a dilemma posed as treating Leestown either as a backwater, touched only by an occasional ripple from the social pressures of the day, or as the open sea, buffeted by every wave of controversy and hotly debating all the burning issues of the era. Burrowes claimed to have fallen off both sides of the tightrope regularly, but it could equally be claimed that he performed a fine balancing act. There were also other tensions in establishing the rhythm and pace of the narrative, which he also described using the tightrope metaphor, involving striking a balance between simply recording the happenings of village life, which would be dull, or giving action-packed adventure of the kind the audience was seeing in The Man From UNCLE, which would be false. Here he provided a running narrative, which was true to life to the point of showing the trivia, without being tedious, and at the same time was interesting, without being artificially slickened up with contrived confrontations and cliffhangers at every turn.
The Irish audience was at the same time spending most of its viewing time watching television drama produced elsewhere, whether imported and transmitted by RTE or on the British channels, whether American sitcoms and action-adventure series or British historical epics and modern domestic serials. However, in The Riordans, there was an authenticity and relevance to their lives that made it special. For many viewers, it was the high point of the week’s viewing. However, it was not only its indigenous character that made it special. While The Riordans was firmly within the developing television tradition of the domestic serial, it opened it out to explore new potentialities of the form. It dealt with all the minor and major joys and sorrows of family life within a small community, but without disengaging these from the larger socio-economic context conditioning them in the way the standard soap opera formula normally did. Even on an international scale, it stood out in this respect. Reflecting on the failure of British television serials to reach the same level of social comment as 19th century serial fiction did in its day, Raymond Williams wondered if anything of value might come of the television serial and then commented:
“The most encouraging example I know is Irish television’s The Riordans”. 43
Verdicts on the Decade
Indeed, there was much that was encouraging in the television drama of RTE’s first decade. Certainly its output was prodigious for a station of its newness, size and limited resources. By the mid-sixties, there was on average a new home-produced play every fortnight, plus several series and serials. To give more specific figures, as set out in the RTE Guide at the end of the decade:
Of the 136 plays produced in the first 10 years by RTE: 103 were by living writers, 81 of which were Irish.
33 were classified as classics, 2/3 of which were Irish. Over half of these began life as stage plays.
There were also anthologies and serials. By the end of the decade, serialised drama represented more than half of RTE’s drama output as measured in actual television running time.44 In commenting on these statistics, Wesley Burrowes contended that they established that Ireland, in proportion to its viewing population, had easily the highest output of home produced drama in Europe. 45 The quantity of home produced drama was considered important in itself, no matter what the quality. Jim Fitzgerald especially insisted on this. He contended that, if output was kept to the maximum, it would find its own level. If the quantity was kept up, the quality too would rise. He believed that, to the degree that writers were encouraged and this policy was followed, the results would begin to show. Both quantity and quality did rise, he argued, though the problem came when this began to frighten those in authority.46
RTE tended to be highly self-conscious in assessing its own performance, both in quantitative and qualitative terms, not only in production levels, but also in audience response. Its audience research encompassed the quantitative TAM ratings from 1962 on and the qualitative assessment panels from 1965 on. Whereas imported drama often topped the TAMs, indigenous drama did very well indeed in attracting both the differential attention and the critical acclaim of its audience. Calls, letters, resolutions and submissions from all sorts of sources poured in and received various degrees of attention. The RT E Guide was constantly devoting its columns to readers’ praises and protests on programmes, as well as initiating features, such as a series by newspaper television critics, giving a critical appraisal of RTE’s performance.
Television itself became increasingly reflexive over the years. Among its early television plays, a number spotlighted television itself. Our Representative Will Call, Heart to Heart 47 and One for the Grave were set in television stations. Televisions began to appear regularly among the props in television plays and serials. References to other programmes began to creep into scripts. By 1968, there was RTE’s first full-scale television programme about television programmes, Right of Reply. Each fortnight, producers selected several programmes that had come in for hard words and brought into studio both critics to make their case and programme makers to answer their arguments. There was also a studio audience which was encouraged to participate. Producer Sean O Mordha and controller Jack White stressed that it was not to be a sham battle with all the cards on the side of RTE. Drama came in for considerable attention in the ensuing series. Indeed, the session on the sitcom Killyraggart 17 caused some to say it was almost as if RTE had deliberately stacked the cards against themselves. Although hints of astounding revelations about the drama department were scattered through the discussion, Jim Fitzgerald’s announcement that he was never satisfied with any programme he made seemed to have defused the fighting spirit of those who had come prepared for battle. There was also a vigorous debate over the merits of the imported sitcoms, with Niall Toibin and Michael Judge leading the critique of the canned comedies and Liam O’Leary defending whatever made people laugh. The overall pattern to the criticisms raised against RTE in the course of the run of Right of Reply (which was unfortunately only seven months) was that RTE was too Dublin-oriented, neglected rural viewers and paid too little attention to traditional Irish values. Reflecting on the value of the series on the occasion of its final programme, presenter John Bowman said that it highlighted the problem of finding out what it was to be Irish in a time of change. He quoted Raymond Williams, who had been in Dublin a few weeks earlier for a seminar organised by and for Irish broadcasters. In discussing the problems of running a television service in a small country, especially one with a much larger neighbour, the main problem was:
“to maintain a national identity, without at the same time becoming a backwater.”48
Running at the same time was another television programme about television programmes, this one specifically about television drama. The series, called Looking at Drama, probed definitions of drama and characteristics of television as a medium. The commentary was interspersed with excerpts from television drama productions, reflections from television writers such as Hugh Leonard and Tom Murphy and reactions from pub punters. After a clip from Cathy Come Home, for example, the tone of the pub comment was used to show the ability of drama to enlist viewers’ sympathies, especially when welded to the power of documentary:
“When they took the childer away from her at the end, the old one was only in floods.”
The series attempted to show the contribution made to television drama, not only by authors, but by producers, directors, designers, technicians, actors and audience. The series included a session on the value of drama for children and workshops on experimental drama. Most of the scripts were written by Carolyn Swift, with the aim of getting the television audience to reflect on such questions as:
· What is drama?
· Who are the people involved?
· What do they do?
· How do they do it?
Opening the subject out even further, there was one programme entitled Drama and Society with a script written by Raymond Williams, raising such questions as:
· Why do different kinds of societies pick out different kinds of problems and choose different ways of resolving them?
· What frame do they put them into and why?
The social origins and effects of drama were traced from the evolution of theatre to radio, cinema and television. The analysis of the historical process was illustrated with excerpts from Antigone, Hamlet, The Shadow of a Gunman, Beginning to End, The Field, Tolka Row and The Riordans.
Much of the reflection about television by the end of the decade was concerned with the growing domination of the airwaves by US imported programmes and with worries about a bland mid-atlantic conformism sweeping over indigenous cultures. Right from the beginning, a substantial proportion of RTE’s schedules were filled with American series such as Have Gun, Will Travel, The Virginian, Rin Tin Tin, Mr. Ed, Dragnet, 87th Precinct, I Spy, Mission Impossible, Father Knows Best, I Remember I Mama, Love That Bob, My Little Margie, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Indeed, by 1969,75% of its programme material was bought in from the US.49 Although the TAM ratings for the imported programmes were high, there was continuing criticism of RTE for showing such a high proportion of imported material and for such a high percentage of it coming from the US. There were constant demands for more home produced programming and queries about other possible sources for bought-in programming.
By 1966, television had come into 85% of all Irish homes. Gaelgoiri saw it as an agent of anglicisation destined to oversee the final demise of the Irish language. Others as well, even more sweepingly, accused RTE of playing a prime role in the anglo-americanisation of the Irish mind, of giving way before a cultural imperialism that heralded the death knell of indigenous cultures. The author and activist Peadar O’Donnell warned that the fireside of rural Ireland was being overrun by television and that tales of Micheal Ruadh and Big Willie Boyle were giving way to those of Kit Carson, Vint Bonner and Bat Masterson. 50
There was much discussion of the quality of American series. There were articles like John O’Donovan’s “Confessions of a Lucy Lover” and others following from it, in which various men were inspired to ponder a traditionally troubling male dilemma. This was a preference for muddling females, so as to feel superior, on the one hand, and a need for a certain degree of competence from women, so as to have a comfortable home, on the other. The consensus seemed to be that the Lucy-type, like whiskey, was best taken in small doses.51 However, the Irish being what they were, neither the whiskey nor the surrogate pleasures of the Lucy-type sitcom were likely to be taken in small doses. Addressing the problem of the large doses (and switching from a liquid to a solid metaphor), the actress and director Sheelagh Richards once compared a night’s diet of the typically flaccid programmes for family viewing to the experience of eating a whole box of chocolates. One had enjoyed each one, but the end result was a sick, irritable, leaden discomfort.52
This sort of critique of RTE’s schedule was one of the main planks in the whole case against RTE set out by Jack Dowling and Lelia Doolan in Sit Down and Be Counted. They argued that American television series, such as I Dream of Jeannie and the like, were made by a technological elite for a synthetically contrived and diluted mass audience. They were glossily packaged imitation life kits made to computer calculated specifications, dominated by beautifully edited and crisply cut audio-visual clichés. Most of it was meaningless and it displaced the meaningful on a terrifying scale of priorities. The most dangerous thing was the way in which the whole smooth acceptance of the status quo as fundamentally likeable deprived the viewer of any true experience of the problems, which were briefly faced and then swept under the carpet. All of the unmanageable incongruities were replaced by contrasts played for laughs and by solutions in which every wrinkle was ironed out and every end tied up.53
The whole row, which reached a certain climax in the resignations of RTE producers Dowling and Doolan and culminated in the publication of Sit Down and Be Counted, had been brewing for some time and involved a lot of other people as well. Aside from debate over the merits and amounts of imported programming, there were a number of other matters contributing to a dramatic build-up of controversy over RTE. The controversy came both from without and from within RTE.
From without, there were, first of all, a whole series of public debates surrounding The Late, Late Show, which had played a pioneering role in giving a public airing to issues heretofore either hushed up or spoken of only in private. The whole ludicrous episode in 1966 known to folk memory as ‘The Bishop and the Nighttime Affair’ 54 was only one of many such incidents, but the outpouring of protest, initiated by a bishop’s sermon over such a trivial and silly matter as a game in which a woman was asked the colour of her nightdress on her wedding night, served to bring to a focus much resentment that had been welling up. This incident, followed by outraged clerical and public reaction, and by RTE’s apology, united to crystallise both conservative resentment against RTE’s perceived liberalism and liberal resentment against RTE’s perceived conservatism. Typically, however, it was conservative opinion which mobilised itself most strikingly. Several weeks later came another wave of denunciations and a chorus of motions from county councils condemning an angry young man who appeared on the show criticising some of the inequalities in Irish education, various practices of Bishops and Christian Brothers, and the censorship of writer John McGahern. These and other such rows, said the authors of Sit Down and Be Counted, showed a typically Irish resistance to frank talk in public.
News and current affairs coverage was another hotbed of controversy. A number of incidents in which RTE came into conflict with politicians, more specifically with the Fianna Fail government, set off a power struggle in which the degree of autonomy which could be exercised by RTE was put to the test. Despite strict adherence to journalistic norms of balance, Fianna Fail ministers were not happy with coverage of governmental affairs. The taoiseach, Sean Lemass, made a statement in the Dail in 1966 rejecting, in no uncertain terms, the view that RTE should be independent of government supervision. The chairman of the RTE authority, CS Andrews, a strong Fianna Fail man, agreed. Just how lacking in independence they were became all too clear, when trips of RTE teams to cover events in Vietnam and Biafra were cancelled from on high. There were also various conflicts involving business interests. The consumer affairs programme Home Truths perhaps provided the arena for most blatant conflict between RTE’s public service obligations and the pressures of its commercial advertisers. Its cancellation was a source of despondency to those who fought for the primacy of the former.
While most of the overt controversy was centered around The Late Late Show, Seven Days and other programme areas, there could be little doubt that the prevailing atmosphere affected drama as well. 55 No area of programming was unaffected by the climate of internal upheaval enveloping the station. From within RTE, most of the controversy was focused on the growing tension between programme makers and management. There was staff hostility to organisational changes designed to bring about a firmer control of public affairs by the RTE authority. There was trade union rejection of management guidelines on “staff and politics”, which staff saw as an attempt to control their outside political activities, overriding their good sense as adult citizens, to say nothing of their constitutional rights. There was one conflict after another. There were rumours and counter-rumours. There were small group discussions, large meetings and staff teach-ins in the canteen. There were ultimatums and resignations. There were newspaper articles and finally a full-scale book detailing it all, as the internal politics of RTE spilled over into the public arena.
Sit Down and Be Counted was a most exasperating document to read. It was obviously written in a hurry and in need of a strong editing hand which it never got. It veered, in a most indisciplined manner, from the smallest details of telephone calls to grandiose interpretations of the history of philosophy and the history of technology, encompassing a misinformed critique of marxism and details of a trip to the USSR along the way. It was also somewhat high flown and vainglorious. It nevertheless, despite its inflated self-consciousness, spoke a lot of good sense and told a lot of truth about television and Irish society that needed telling. It accused RTE of giving way before the Irish double standard, of not tolerating in public what was tolerated and even encouraged in private. It condemned RTE for reducing dialogue to monologue, for not only throwing a switch for the light, but praising the resulting darkness. It made it clear that it was not a matter of personalities but of structures and of the way these structures embodied the ambiguities and ambivalences that reflected the divisions within the national psyche.
Not surprisingly, the Sit Down and Be Counted critique had its critics, both on the right and on the left. The chairman of the RTE authority, CS Andrews, when later writing his memoirs, took a dim view of the ‘creative people’ in RTE:
“Many of them were convinced that they were living and working in a society which was rotten to the core; they believed that they had a mission to change it through use of television … it was difficult to see how they expected so rotten a society to provide them with the expensive and complicated facilities of a television network and pay them while they rushed into the fray to establish the new ]erusalem.”56
For his part, the director-general, TP Hardiman, echoed the position of his predecessor, Kevin McCourt, to the effect that RTE could not afford the luxury of an editorial policy. He denied that either advertisers or the sales department in RTE had any influence on programme content, but he stressed that RTE had to pay its way and needed advertising revenue. It was only advertising revenue, he said, which would make possible an expansion of home produced programming. He also linked the programme makers’ protests to the wider mood of social protest and claimed that there was more involved than just circumstances within RTE.57 Not that those involved would contest this. Indeed, Sit Down and Be Counted carried a rather grandiose introduction by Raymond Williams, which linked events in RTE with events in Prague and Paris in 1968.
However, not all approved of their assumption of the mantle of the left. Jim Fitzgerald felt that they had gone public on the wrong issues, creating a situation which meant the ruination of the real progressive movement that had been building within RTE. James Plunkett also withheld his support, believing that things were edging forward and that it was important not to be distracted with false issues or lesser evils.58 The producers pushing the other way never questioned his integrity, but they felt he exercised his position of pre-eminent moral leadership in a way that calmed others’ will to resist. Sean MacReamoinn characterised a clash between Eoghan Harris and James Plunkett at a Workers Union of Ireland meeting at RTE as being like listening to an argument between Daniel Cohn-Bendit and an old guard French communist during the Paris riots.59
Summing up the sixties in a book dedicated to assessing the significance of the decade for Ireland, Fergal Tobin put considerable emphasis on the role of RTE in it all.60 Judging the end of-the-decade turmoil in RTE as the culmination of a series of pressures and protests that had been building, he outlined the major forces involved. Traditionalists, through the sixties, were inclined to blame television for all the woes of the world. The Fianna Fail government developed a paranoia vis-a-vis RTE, which they saw as a nest of socialists and other undesirables. This situation, along with constantly coming up against the conservatism of RTE’s own management, created a siege mentality among programme makers. However, in his opinion, the ‘creative people’ had embarked on a battle that could not be won. The producers might have won all the debates and have influenced public opinion, but the organisation men held all the cards. By the end of the decade, by his verdict, television was put in the hands of the safe men. But they were not the old safe men of Irish society, but the new ones. On the broader canvas, the prevailing ethos had ceased to be that of the strong farmer, with his inertia and his intensely localised view of the world, but that of the suburban bourgeois, who believed in nothing profound, but had energy and drive and links to a wider world.
This judgment and that of others, including the authors of Sit Down and Be Counted, while not unfounded, was far too harsh. Despite the resignations of the talented people who had left and the disillusionment of many of those who stayed, there were still creative and committed people struggling on, with their most original and progressive contributions still to come. It was far from true that the best was over for RTE, as the sixties came to a close, as perhaps only an examination of RTE as it proceeded through the seventies will show.
Notes to Chapter 4
originally published 1987
revised edition 2001