Chapter 5: The 1970s: Progress, Pressures and Protests

Ireland in the 1970s

By the beginning of the 1970s, Ireland was well and truly caught up in the stepped-up tempo of social change. There was a rising tide of social protest, a tendency to take politics out onto the streets, a will to challenge what was called ‘the establishment’ and to experiment with new forms of cultural expression. For many, it was true, it was only a superficial trendiness, an unfocused grasping after innovation or a passive flowing with the tide. But for others, it was a deep questioning of old ideas and values, a highly focused pursuit of alternatives and an active commitment to social causes.

In the past decade in Ireland, the nature of ‘the establishment’ had changed. The new Ireland of Lemass, while still under attack from the right, was now coming under attack from the left. The Lemass era had brought to power an intellectually and culturally impoverished nouveau riche, who believed in prosperity but not much else, at least not very profoundly. They were energetic and full of cocktail party chatter, but they had no clear vision, no coherent values. However, in the new mood, which put a strong emphasis on public morality, the issue was no longer simply the maintenance of frugal self-sufficiency or the pursuit of expansive prosperity, but also the question of how that prosperity was produced and distributed. The management ethos of the Irish Management Institute was not designed to deal with matters of social justice. In an atmosphere giving a high profile to radical, and even socialist, ideas and movements abroad, the issue was no longer simply provincialism versus cosmopolitanism, but of conflicting brands of cosmopolitanism. The new forces, with new links to the wider world, took a dim view of Industrial Development authority executives wining and dining potential American investors and preferred to be outside the American embassy protesting against the consequences of what America was actually investing in Vietnam.

In the north, there was the new wave of the traditional ‘troubles’, rooted in decades of residual resentment and sparked off by the new mood of mass movements on the march world wide. The civil rights movement in the north of Ireland was directly influenced by the civil rights movement in the south of the USA. They were moved by the same spirit. They used the same tactics. They sang the same songs. Indeed, We Shall Overcome was echoing the world over. The parallel went further. Just as the peaceful civil disobedience of the SCLC gave way to the more militant and violent black panthers, so did the initiative pass from NICRA to a new IRA armed campaign. The decade was full of civil strife, bombs and bullets, men on the run, internment, direct rule, republican splits, the proliferation of paramilitaries, the emergence of centre parties, two nationists, peace people, political initiatives, loyalist lockouts, republican hunger strikes and on and on, in an escalating cycle of schism and violence. In the south, there was the spillover effect of events in the north. The various shades of republicanism had their organisational networks through the republic. Sinn Fein (Official), Sinn Fein {Provisional) and the Irish Republican Socialist Party contested elections and engaged in various forms of legal political activity, while the Official IRA, Provisional IRA and INLA had their active service units and engaged in various forms of illegal political activity. 1

There were also housing action demonstrations, student sit-ins, contraceptive trains; campaigns against EEC entry, against the Offences Against the State Act, against inequitable taxation of the PAYE sector; campaigns for resources protection, equal pay, contraception and divorce. There were issues and causes galore, one issue for some, another for others, randomly combined for yet others or coherently integrated for still others in a strategy in pursuit of a full-blooded socialist alternative to the existing system. The Labour Party, for its part, had announced at the beginning of the decade that “the seventies will be socialist” and then proceeded to play its part in ensuring that it would not be so. Within Fine Gael, the older blueshirt element came under challenge from a newer ‘just society’ grouping, representing a cautious but significant move of the older establishment towards some sort of accommodation with social democratic impulses. In 1973, Fianna Fail, after sixteen years in power, fell, to be replaced by a Fine Gael-Labour Coalition, but were back in government again by 1977. For the left, it made little difference, addressing the same sort of protests, pickets, mass meetings and marches to one as to the other.

The women’s liberation movement began to be a formidable presence in Irish life, not so much in its particular organisational forms and activities, but more in the whole atmosphere of questioning traditional sex roles that gave rise to it. Women who never attended a women’s meeting began to perceive themselves in a new light and to work out their lives in terms of a new range of options. Enlightened men adjusted with equanimity, if not always with ease. Unenlightened men adjusted as well, if without equanimity and with remarkably less ease.

The ever more liberal atmosphere of Irish life brought a new climate for the arts and a new situation for the artist in relation to Irish society. Writers became ever more explicit and more critical in dealing with such matters as religion, sex, politics and class. Even within the theatrical establishment, there was a steady succession of challenging works by such authors as Brian Friel, Eugene McCabe, Tom Murphy, Tom Kilroy and others. Outside it, there was much experimentation, with new theatres, new companies and new forms popping up everywhere. There was the like of Plunkett’s The Risen People at the Project and Arden and D’ Arcy’s Non-Stop Connolly Show at Liberty Hall. There was street theatre all around Dublin city centre. There was also the memorable and exciting visit of the radical 7:84 company creating a highly innovative theatre elsewhere on the celtic fringe.

For some, the new climate provided the opportunity to use art as a means for a public coming to terms with matters of public importance. For others it brought a retreat from the public arena into their own private obsessions. A more ambivalent establishment did not make such a clear target for an artist to attack and to define himself over against in exile, in censored literature and in despairing self-destruction. A more liberal atmosphere could also be more indifferent. Without coherent orthodoxies to rebel against and without the clarity of vision to construct alternatives, there was a tendency towards forms of cultural expression that were more and more indulgent of individualist idiosyncracy, indifferent to philosophical coherence and dissociated from social context. This was the case with a myriad of forms: ranging from the sincere, if shrunken, worlds of masturbatory novels and highly precious theatrical productions to the pompous pretentiousness of pseudo-avant-garde paintings to the nihilistic nastiness of the punk aesthetic in dress, movement and music. Certainly it was hard to specify any common criteria for what was considered art any more.

RTE in the 1970s

The push and pull of the various forces struggling to find their place in Irish society played themselves out in relation to RTE as well. There were new pressures from political left and right, from furious feminists and happy-at-home housewives, from nationalists and two-nationists and from a host of other sources. There were also continuing pressures from Irish speakers, from catholic traditionalists, from rural and urban dwellers. All were judging the televisual picture of reality against their own perceptions of it and finding RTE wanting in one respect or another.

The pressures from the politicians, particularly those in power, continued to build and reached crisis point with the dramatic government dismissal of the RTE authority in 1972. In the course of following the understandable journalistic goal of exploring the political motivation of those in command of the armed campaign in the north, RTE came into conflict with the Fianna Fail government, which summarily replaced the entire RTE authority with a new one. RTE’s enthusiasm for the change in government the next year and the appointment of Conor Cruise O’Brien, critic of the previous government’s policy on RTE, as minister for posts and telegraphs, was short-lived. The amending legislation which he introduced in 1976 did limit the arbitrary exercise of government power in this domain. But, by issuing a more specific directive, prohibiting interviews with members of proscribed organisations, he strengthened the force of section 31 of the Broadcasting authority Act 1960 in its effect on everyday broadcasting practice in RTE. These events, along with being starved of adequate finance through lack of support from successive governments, left a legacy of suspicion and resentment between politicians and broadcasters.

When the question of a second channel arose, the minister proposed not creating RTE2, but re-broadcasting BBC1 instead. Following a survey showing this to be contrary to public wishes, the decision was made in favour of RTE2. However, due to financial problems, RTE2 only came on air in 1978. Because the issue was posed as between BBC1and RTE2, as between foreign and indigenous culture, the issue of an independent Irish channel was not raised at this time. Stemming from the second channel debate, RTE staff, particularly through the RTE trade union group, mobilised to influence public opinion in favour of RTE and to extract from RTE various guarantees regarding broadcasting practices and working conditions.

There was also the emergence of an ad hoc group calling itself Citizens for Better Broadcasting and publishing a series of position papers entitled Aspects of RTE Television Broadcasting. Among those putting their names to this analysis were acadmics, clerics, trade unionists, and theatre directors such as: Augustine Martin, Gearoid O Tuathaigh, Tony Coughlan, Kader Asmal, Austin Flannery, James McDyer, Terence McCaughey, Michael Mullen and Tomas MacAnna. Their study of RTE schedules revealed an increasing percentage of imported material and, correspondingly, a decreasing percentage of home produced material, as well as an imbalance in the sources of imported material, parallel to the imbalance in global flows analysed by UNESCO and causing international concern. Their recommendations were that home produced programmes should occupy the dominant share of the schedule; that there should be more Irish language and regional programming; that imported programmes should be selected from the widest possible sources. Their proposals also included support for public service broadcasting from public funds in the same manner as support for education and health services and control by a body appointed by the oireachtas to be representative of the whole community, including RTE staff, and to be dismissed only by an oireachtas majority. Their publication also expressed regret at the decline of authentic debate on the central issues in the life of the nation.

RTE Drama in the 1970s

The style of RTE drama in the seventies was shaped by many factors, from the central issues in the life of the nation to the exigencies of budget allocations and new developments in the technology of television production. Regarding the latter, the most obvious development, as far as the audience was concerned, was the introduction of colour in the mid-seventies. They might also have noticed a more sophisticated visual style, a more extensive use of locations and a faster pace of plot development, without being precisely aware of the extent to which any of this was due to such factors as increasing use of film and improvement in video editing facilities.

The level of output remained reasonably high, relative to the limited resources of the country and size of its audience. Over the decade, there was on average a new home produced single play every month, plus many more serials, series and mini-series. Although the balance shifted towards more original written-for-television material, there was still considerable adaptation of works written for other media. Adaptations of foreign classics included Andorra, The Rehearsal, The Promise, The Father, The Diary of a Madman, Uncle Vanya, The House of Bernarda Alba, The Strong Are Lonely, and Mother Courage and Her Children. For the most part, the works of such authors as Frisch, Anouilh, Strindberg, Arbuzov, Gogol, Chekov, Lorca, Hochwaelder and Brecht were given fairly standard productions and retained their original settings. Once in a while, they were more freely adapted and put in an Irish setting, such as in Fine Girl You Are, Hugh Leonard’s adaptation of Chekov’s The Darling. Productions of Irish theatrical classics included Synge’s Riders to the Sea. O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars and Joyce’s Exiles were RTE/ Abbey co-productions. More contemporary works of Irish theatre given RTE productions included John Murphy’s The Country Boy, Tom Murphy’s Famine and The White House, Brian Friel’s Crystal and Fox, Eugene McCabe’s King of the Castle, Sam Thompson’s Over The Bridge and John Boyd’s The Flats. Literary works dramatised for television included: The Branchy Tree, Brian Friel’s Mr. Sing, My Heart’s Delight, Frank O’Connor’s The House That Johnny Built, Eric Cross’ The Tailor and Ansty, Kate O’Brien’s The Last of Summer and Aidan Higgins’ Langrishe, Go Down.

Irish Television Drama Outside RTE

Of course, not all of the Irish television drama being watched by Irish audiences was provided by RTE. Perhaps the most memorable adaptations of Irish short stories were provided by Granada under the anthology title The Sinners and shown on RTE as well as ITV. These plays of 1973 were consciously intended to break British attitudes of condescension towards the Irish. The producer, Brian Armstrong, looked for particularly ‘meaty’ stories for this series of 12 one hour plays. He used Irish settings, Irish actors and Irish scriptwriter Hugh Leonard to dramatise works of Irish authors Sean O Faolain, Frank O’Connor, James Joyce, James Plunkett and Brian Friel. They were excellent and quite unforgettable productions, which impressed Irish audiences, as well as British ones, with what Irish talent could actually do. Granada also made an adaptation of Frank O’Connor’s An Only Child. Other ITV companies also produced Irish drama from time to time, with productions such as HTV’s co-production with CBS, an adaptation of Brian Moore’s novel Catholics, set on an island off the west coast of Kerry. BBC produced a fair amount of Irish drama as well, again most of it in the way of literary adaptation, which included Joyce’s Stephen D and Two Gallants, O’Connor’s First Confession and Macken’s The Island of the Great Yellow Ox.

It was not all adaptation though. There was also the comedy series Me Mammy written by Hugh Leonard and performed by Irish actors. There were also serious and controversial works dealing with the dilemmas of Northern Ireland politics, although there was a lot of water under the bridge between Sam Thompson’s Cemented With Love in 1965 and The Legion Hall Bombing in 1978, both of which were postponed before finally being transmitted.

Other Irish television drama was made by Irish independent producers, often co-funded and transmitted by RTE. Films such as Kieran Hickey’s Exposure and Criminal Conversation, Bob Quinn’s Poitin, Joe Comerford’s Traveller and Down the Corner, Tom McArdle’s The Kinkisha and Robert Wynne Simmons Double Piquet fell into this category. There was also The Hebrew Lesson made by the Dublin Film Cooperative at Ardmore Studios.

Occasionally too, there was an American television movie made in Ireland employing some degree of Irish talent, such as the thriller Cry of the Innocent.

RTE not only promoted, transmitted or co-funded these types of production, but made its first forays into the field of co-productions. As well as the plays co-produced with the Abbey theatre, RTE entered into its first co-productions with BBC. The first was in 1975, a psychological thriller by Michael Judge, Full Fathom Five, changed somewhat from its RTE production ten years earlier. The second was in 1979, a Harold Pinter adaptation of the Aidan Higgins novel Langrishe, Go Down.

New Initiatives in RTE Drama

However, most Irish television drama was in-house RTE production, though all of it was produced and received in a cultural environment characterised by exceptionally high exposure of both programme makers and audience to what was being done in television elsewhere. There were new genres, most often Irish versions of television genres being developed abroad. The popularity of imported medical series with Irish audiences gave rise to the indigenous Partners in Practice. The addiction of viewers to police series was given an injection from home sources in The Burke Enigma. The pull of the historical epic was meant to draw the audience fond of BBC costume drama to the saga of Kilmore House spanning 150 years of Irish life. The foreign sitcoms were given domestic analogues in The Lads, The Lodgers, What The Butler Missed, I Try To Ignore It But I Love It, Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow and Up in the World. For those who liked BBC productions of Beckett and Pinter, there was Wesley Burrowes’ surreal play The Becauseway, “a play about reality, using none of the conventions of realism”, It was set in an indeterminate time and place, but definitely a long way from 1970s Leestown. For those who admired the socially crusading drama-documentary of British television drama, like Cathy Come Home and Spongers, there was RTE’s A Week in the Life of Martin Cluxton. 3 This sort of drama was given greatest scope later in the decade when Louis Lentin, as head of drama, instituted the regular Thursday Playdate slot, in a conscious attempt to achieve in Irish television what Armchair Theatre did in bringing a new wave of social drama to British television. 4

There were serious efforts to stimulate the writing of original drama dealing with contemporary Ireland for production by RTE. Donall Farmer, as head of drama, approached established Irish writers to write for RTE. In addition, RTE sponsored a television drama competition and sent out guidelines on how to write for television to try to find new writers. It gave RTE productions to both the winner and the runner-up in this project: Liam MacUistin’s The Glory and the Dream in 1971 and Maureen Donegan’s Who Me? in 1972.

Another attempt to stimulate contemporary drama was the highly experimental Caravan series. The formula, devised by producer Tony Barry, was to send a researcher into a town or industrial plant and to construct from interviews a broad picture of the social groupings, issues and problems of the place. Writers Michael Judge, Carolyn Swift and Eoghan Harris would then produce a series of open-ended sketches reflecting this picture. Following this, an outside broadcast unit would arrive in the place, actors would perform the sketches and then the production team would conduct an open-ended discussion of the pertinent issues sparked off by the sketches, combined with contributions by local singers, dancers and musicians.

Only two of the programmes had been transmitted when the series was taken the air due to various controversies and legal complications arising from It. Spotlighting the atrocious wages paid to outworkers in the knitwear and footwear industries in Kilkenny and satirising the manners and mores of the nouveau riche who had built empires on smuggling in Drogheda, brought strong representations and protests from the local chambers of commerce and the Legion of Mary. Querying the role of the medical officer in Waterford Glass, in terms of his ties to the owners and the alleged difficulties of workers in acquiring sick certificates brought a libel suit upon RTE. Although producers wanted to let the matter go to court, RTE’s legal officer advised against it. 5 RTE settled out of court and took the series off the air.

This pattern was what most characterised the RTE drama of the seventies: RTE, through its programme makers, venturing as close as they found desirable or possible to giving a picture of the problems and possibilities at the cutting edges of contemporary Irish society and RTE, through its management, sometimes pushing full-steam ahead and other times applying the brakes, flattening out, apologising, giving way to pressure and taking programmes off the air in mid-run. The overall picture, looking back on it, was one of great vision and verve, punctuated by moments of reaction and failure of nerve.

The Riordans

Wesley Burrowes analysed the situation, as it presented itself to him, in terms of “a nervous tic in the face of RTE”:

“It will rarely happen that a specific person in authority will say “This is unacceptable”. He will more likely say that, while he personally sees nothing wrong with it, his immediate superior is not so broad-minded and perhaps it might be better to change it. If you ever meet the superior, he will say the same about his superior, and so on up the ladder. My own view of the Tic (if I may use this as a collective term for nervous men) was that they tended to pre-judge the conscience of the viewers, instead of consulting their own” 6
Burrowes outlined a number of incidents from the mid-sixties through the seventies relating to the writing of The Riordans, in which the tic intervened on behalf of Sean Citizen. Not surprisingly, the touchy subjects were sex and politics. Again, not surprisingly, more the former than the latter. The one incident relating to politics involved Tom Riordan’s standing for election as an Independent in a bye-election. Interventions involved revising scripts to water down his speeches, justified on the basis that it would not do that he should be seen as so obviously more honest and clever than party candidates. All of the other incidents related to sexual morality and transgressions thereof. There were two attempts to introduce a storyline in which Maggie Nael would become pregnant. Overruled both times, Burrowes sought alternative strategies. The first time the unmarried mother story was introduced via an outsider, an English protestant one at that, to distance it and to make it less highly charged for an Irish catholic audience. The second time, as Maggie had already begun to display “symptoms which the most sheltered of viewers couldn’t mistake”, Burrowes had to go running to a doctor for an escape route to find an alternative cause of the same symptoms, which he felt was a cheat and cast a shadow over the programme for some time afterwards. Even a bit of humour caused problems, as when Johnnie Mac, pleased as punch at Julia becoming pregnant, was asked if he suspected anyone in particular. Another instance came after Benjy and Maggie had married and Benjy’s eyes (and a bit more than his eyes) began to wander. An attempt to explore the effects of an extra-marital affair on a marital relationship resulted in the scripts being gutted, which Burrowes regarded as a triumph for hypocrisy. Nevertheless, even the kiss behind the bush, which survived the slicing, brought the farcical condemnation of the programme as a sex orgy in the chambers of the Tuam town commissioners.
Indeed, what the powers-that-be at RTE let through was far more than what a significant strand of the Irish audience thought iappropriate. The nervousness of RTE management over what viewers and their elected representatives would take in the way of progressive programming did not come from nowhere. Many in RTE were aware of a double standard in their audience, in that completely different criteria of acceptability were applied to home produced programmes from what were applied to imported ones. As Burrowes characterised this in relation to The Riordans:

“Irish viewers seem to accept fairly equably (even enthusiastically, in the case of The Brothers and Rich Man, Poor Man) any amount of sex and sadism, as long as it is foreign-made, while retaining the strictest of standards about what RTE produces”. 7
Again and again, any hint of sexual transgression on the part of any of the Riordans whether Benjy in a compromising position with a woman, before or after marriage, or Jude, a separated woman, having a relationship with a divorced man, was met with a chorus of indignation. In relation to a controversial bit of dialogue between Jude Hyland and Ed Phipps, Burrowes observed that, if Shirley MacLaine were to express the same sentiment to Jack Lemmon, there would be no problem, but viewers wouldn’t have their own Benjy or Jude letting them down. More than once, RTE in general and Wesley Burrowes in particular were accused of subverting the morals of the nation. What really raised the roof was the issue of contraception, when their own much-loved Maggie went on the pill and the much-revered parish priest was implicated in the decision. The moral dilemmas of both Maggie Riordan and Fr. Sheehy, to whom she went for advice, were posed with the utmost care. Maggie had just experienced a difficult birth and had been warned against the medical consequences of another pregnancy. Fr. Sheehy, despite the rigidity of the church’s teaching on the matter, sympathised and advised her it was a matter for her own individual conscience.
It was an accurate reflection of what was going on at that time when younger catholic women were going on the pill in that spirit and younger catholic priests were taking that sort of stance, or even going further, in opposition to papal proclamations. It was also an indicator of the progressing protestantisation of catholicism, expressed in what came to be called “a la carte catholicism”. Nevertheless, individual viewers, provincial newspapers and county councils heaped censure upon RTE, Wesley Burrowes and everyone connected with propagating, or even acknowledging, such views.

Many of the audience were confused with all the changes that had taken place in catholicism and in Irish society. They wanted the old clarity, not an analysis of the new confusion. Mary Riordan, more than the rest, spoke for them. She could not accept the breakdown of her daughter’s marriage and a discussion of it with her son encapsulated the disorientation of all like her, who had accepted a total identification between morality and church edict. In a scene in which Mary was going on about ‘this annulment nonsense’, Michael told her that she would have to get used to it. She replied that she never would. Michael, pushing her to examine her premises, elicited the reason that she was against it was because it was against everything she always believed in, ie, everything the church had always taught her. Michael, pushing further, asked how she would feel if the church’s decision were to grant the annulment:

Mary: “I would feel let down.
Michael: “You wouldn’t agree with the decision?”

Mary: “No, I certainly would not.”

Michael: “But, don’t you see, then your argument wouldn’t be with Jude? It would be with the church.”

Mary: “Ah You’re only trying to confuse me with all this smart talk. It’s not right, Michael, and it never will be.”

For many of the audience, Mary and Minnie should have been left to hold on to their old beliefs and to get on with all of the trivia of their female busy-ness, without being subjected to all of this ‘smart talk’ pressing against older traditions of Irish society at this time. However, if they had, The Riordans would have been just another soap opera, full of cups of tea and petty gossip, but devoid of the sociological significance that gave it its essential. dramatic tension and made it such a pioneering achievement. Despite the interventions of ‘the tic’ on behalf of the audience and despite the howls of protest from the most conservative and complaining section of the audience when there was no such intervention, The Riordans managed to bring “to the surface with almost relentless zeal every possible transgression of the traditional Irish family enshrined in the 1937 constitution,” 8 In doing so, as Luke Gibbons perceptively put it, it “helped to dispel the idea that marriages were made in heaven, even if their material purpose was to facilitate the inheritance of various tracts of earth,” 9
In the end, The Riordans got away with it, no doubt because the controversial issues, especially those relating to sexual morality, were raised with a deeply rooted authenticity within a long-established sympathy for popular and credible characters. It was also because of the skilful style of scriptwriting that represented a range of points of view that never veered very far to the left and kept balanced at centre or just left of centre, It gave much scope to the expression of views considerably to the right of centre, without ever giving way to the pressures to over-balance in that direction. By the end of the decade, it was possible to proceed with storylines that went much further than ones that had been over-ruled in early or mid-decade. Even Maggie, never mind Benjy, could have an affair by the late seventies.

The Spike

However, the series that notoriously did not get away with it was The Spike. Although The Spike was taken off the air in mid-run, amidst a storm of protest and blaze of publicity, following upon an infamous nude scene, the Issues involved were actually far more complicated and even now need careful unravelling for the record.

The Spike began what was to be its ten week run in January 1978. It was set in a post-primary co-educational public sector school in an unspecified urban working class area in its own time. It was, in actuality, quite specifically set in Dublin, both in the locations used in its production and in the clear associations it had in the minds of its audience. It was, even more specifically, shot in the Ringsend Technical Institute with classes actually in session and cast with pupils from Ringsend and Ballymun, giving it an authenticity that blurred the line between fact and fiction. It was, in fact, meant to be a rigorously realistic picture of a particular sector of the Irish education system, grounded in the authenticity of its scriptwriter’s own experience as a teacher in that sector.

It was furthermore intended to shed light on certain features of the Irish education system in general and of Irish society as a whole, which accounted for the inequalities and incongruities manifest in that particular sector. It was strongly implied that its analysis of that system, although presented in a fictional format, could be verified by an objective factual study of that system in reality. Its credibility was clearly staked out as standing or falling in terms of this sort of verisimilitude. Although the official name of the fictional school in question was St. Aidans, it was commonly called the Spike, because, it was said, it was once a workhouse, but also because, it was inferred, the dark shadow of that sort of world still hung over it. The Spike was pictured as a dumping ground for rejects which had been weeded out, according to the highly questionable criteria of a selection process in the Irish educational system that was tied to the class divisions of Irish society and to the role of the church in maintaining those divisions.

The author, Patrick Gilligan, pulled no punches in setting out his anti-establishment point of view. Despite his commitment to the VEC sector and his respect for the wisdom inspiring the 1931 Vocational Education Act, the reality on the ground, as he saw it, was that this sector was distinguished by a stigma. Although the vision of education as a community process dedicated to the total development of human potential sometimes managed to shine through the murk and sordidity of schools like the Spike, the darkness more often prevailed over the light. In explaining why, he wrote in the RTE Guide:

“Irish society , with its genius for division along class lines, is in no doubt at all about the role of the public sector school. The Spike is a scrap heap. Scrap can be refined into nobler metal, but the process is tiresome and costly and there are always more insistent priorities than the undeserving poor.” 10
The script, through all ten episodes, was full of class-conscious dialogue, mostly showing the contempt of the tu’pence ha’penny for the tu’pence or the anger, coupled with absurd deference, of the tu’pence to the tu’pence ha’penny. The script was permeated with the seething resentment between the ex-woodwork-teacher-turned-acting-principal and his more academically qualified colleagues; between the night class ladies with furs and fake Foxrock accents and the scrubbers (or the sanitary technicians, as they preferred to be called); between religious orders running the publicly subsidised private schools and teachers committed to the public sector ones. It also gave expression to the pathetic aspirations to upward mobility of those at the bottom, such as the prostitute who wanted to overcome her illiteracy to make the transition from working in Joe’s chip van to Erin’s Isle, so as to mix with nice people and have a good class client.
Even worse, there were the aspiring ambitions of the wife of the public sector principal who insisted on sending their daughter to a private boarding school so that “at least she won’t marry into the flats”. Along the way, the series touched on many problems rooted in class inequality: poverty, prostitution, illiteracy, anti-social behaviour in social institutions, domestic violence, child labour, lack of study time for students with bread winning responsibilities, lack of career opportunities, political hypocrisy and power struggles for control of the education system. Running through it all was an unmistakable indictment of those in power in both church and state for the incongruities and injustices pervading the status quo. The lines of connection were brought to sharpest expression in the final, though never to be transmitted, episode when O’Mahony, the acting principal of the Spike, went to the parliamentary secretary in indignation at the furtive and evasive activities of the religious orders: engineering the re-organisation of post-primary education in the area so that the new Spike would be run by a new board of management controlled by its competitors.

The politician quite straightforwardly set forth the political expediencies of the situation. His party, he explained, mightn’t have given the working class anything else, but they had given them aspirations, perhaps aspirations above their station. In consequence, he went on:

“They have middle class aspirations now, and middle class values, and middle class kids belong by right of tradition to the religious schools”.
But with the decline of vocations, the religious schools couldn’t cope with them in the traditional way. Nevertheless, as he saw their strategy:
“But you can’t imagine the religious letting what they see as part of their traditional enrolment drift into the godless, non-denominational Spike. What can they do? They haven’t the brothers and they haven’t the nuns. This approach is devious, but it ensures that the faith of our fathers will survive until vocations pick up again”.
As to his own complicity in a course of action in which he did not believe, he stated right out:
“No politician can afford to disregard the faith of our fathers and no government can afford to dismiss the aspirations of the would-be middle class. And stay in power”.
Although O’Mahony was furious in the face of the forces arrayed against his aims, he was not beyond turning this sort of political opportunism to his own advantage. Whatever his disapproval of the church’s grip on family life, on educational institutions and on parliamentary politics, he appealed to it when it suited him. Taking to the parliamentary secretary the knowledge given to him in confidence that his main competitor for the job of permanent principal was divorced, he put it to him:
“Your party has publicly set its face against any weakening of the family unit. Not out of conviction, but because the pulpit controls the marginal votes. She will have the responsibility of shaping young minds”.
Thus the hypocrisy lying behind the rigidity of Irish domestic law was brought into the picture as well. So too were other targets set up for critical exposure or at least for ironic comment: the IMI management ethos, sexual prudery, assertiveness training, youthful IRA activism, artistic dilettantism, republicanism and revisionism. Striding through all the various elements of this hectic and even chaotic scenario was the figure of Jer O’Mahony, bellowing at staff and students, as if a ganger on a building site, and uttering pronouncements of his own homespun philosophy relating to every matter at hand. Although hardly the most enlightened or coherent of men, his point of view predominated over all others, as rowdy pupils, jaded teachers, indifferent parents, cynical politicians, liberated women, parasitic wives and daughters, scurrilous special branch men, pretentious artists and a host of others came and went, projected alternative points of view and moved on. Although the action centred on the hustle and bustle of the tumbling down school, it opened out onto the streets of Dublin, houses, flats, offices, government buildings, courts and graveyards and covered a formidable amount of ground in its ten episodes.
Not that Irish viewers saw that much of it. The fifth episode was the last to be transmitted. This episode concerned the night classes held at the Spike, being a school with a heavy commitment to adult community education, in addition to its responsibilities to youth in the area of the post-primary curriculum. The episode was full of the author’s characteristic humour, which he felt to be an important dimension of the series, so as not to present a picture of unrelieved gloom. The camera cut throughout from the corridors to the classrooms, highlighting three classes in particular: the Bernard T Mullins confidence course, the ‘know your fur’ class and the ‘cleaning science’ class. While its humour had its moments, such as Bernard T. Mullins reeking of whiskey to get himself the confidence to face a new confidence class or a candidate for the modelling position declaring she had the specified measurements only to be told she was confusing inches with centimetres, but on the whole the humour was glib and clumsy and usually missed the mark. It would have been worth tackling Irish inhibitions regarding verbal and tactile communication and worth exploring negative attitudes to the human body implicit in the taboo against nakedness, even perhaps with a touch of well-aimed humour. But this script was most definitely not the way to do so and the humour was most emphatically not well-aimed.

In the course of one night’s confidence class, those who began too shy to speak were, by the end of the session, wandering the corridors mauling total strangers out of the blue. When the principal walked in the middle of the ‘shy class’ they were invited to practice their touches on him, from the matey arm around the shoulder to the ‘friendly crotch touch’. In the course of one night’s art class, the art teacher began by making an aggressive case for the necessity of a nude model, waxing eloquently on serpentine lines of beauty and undulating curves. He then found a suitable model in a woman from the shy class who proceeded to undress and come on to him seductively. He proceeded to lose his composure completely and dismiss the class. He ended up declaring ludicrously that he would not expose what was suddenly his fiance to the vulgar gaze of bankers, butchers and spinsters. It was too false to be funny, even for those who might have wanted to laugh and saw the comic potential in the material. It was too crude to elicit any real sympathy, even among those predisposed to be open-minded in broaching such subjects.

Regarding the notorious nude scene, it must be said that, however heavy-handed the script, the style of shooting brought to it by the director, Noel O Briain, was extremely cautious and restrained. Once undressed, the woman’s body was first seen from side and front angles from behind a screen. Then when posing for the art class, the body was first shot from behind only from the hips up in a medium close-up, followed by a view of the full body from the side, but only in long shot. When turning to the classical reclining pose, there was only a long shot of the full body and a medium shot from the hips up. Nevertheless, no matter how good or bad the script, no matter how delicate or brash the direction, all hell broke loose over the fact that there was a nude scene at all. This was the centre of focus in the furore that followed and it remains in popular memory as the rock on which The Spike foundered and the reason why it was taken off the air.

The truth was that there were pressures building up against the series the whole time it was in production and that there was a climate of hostility established against it before it ever went on the air. There were rumours and press reports of rumblings and reservations in the department of education before anyone even saw it. There were objections from the christian brothers, who had heard the name of the school was to be St. Aidan’s, seemingly believing that running a school by the same name gave them proprietary rights over its use. Once it was on the air, Brother Vivian Cassells denounced the series as having nothing to offer and called on RTE to take if off the air after the fourth episode, and to “consign the remaining six to the obscurity they deserve.” The television columns and letters pages of the national and provincial press were full of negative reviews and condemnations of the programme for vulgar and obscene language, for poor production standards, for gross distortion in its picture of the education system. There were features on schools taking pains to demonstrate how unlike the Spike they were. Even the more favourably disposed reviewers criticised it for being exaggerated and heavy-handed. Tom O’Dea, in The Irish Press, bent over backwards to find its redeeming features, but had to admit it showed ‘signs of overloading’. 12 Ken Gray, in The Irish Times, called it ‘gross exaggeration’ and sympathised with actors struggling with intractable material. He also commented on a ‘naive, adolescent approach to sex’. 13

The Spike began to appear on the agendas of political bodies. Press reports of official condemnations added their weight to the mounting pressures. Waterford county council called it a slur on teachers. Fermoy urban council called it vulgar and suggestive. RTE could be in no doubt that they were broadcasting over troubled waters. However, once the nude scene appeared, the troubled waters swelled to flood proportions. The founder of the League of Decency, JB Murray, suffered a heart attack, attributed to the stress caused by the sight of the naked female body on the television screen. His wife told the papers that the family had tried to stop him watching it, but he insisted on doing so. He got very worked up at the nude scene and was phoning the newspapers to complain when he came to grief over the ‘filthy play’. 14 The incident received much publicity and took its place in the folklore of modern Ireland, as virtually all factions agreed on its symbolic significance in giving sharp and concrete expression to the characteristic tensions and ironies of Irish society in the television era.

In the days and weeks that followed, The Spike in general, and the nude scene in particular, were the talk of the town in virtually every town and townland in the country. Those who missed it felt they had missed a crucial event in the life of the nation. RTE’s drama policy, the nation’s morals and Madeleine Erskine’s body were on centre stage in the most heated cultural controversy of decades. It was a major talking point in homes, schools, offices and pubs. It was a prominent item on the agenda of the most diverse meetings. It was a point of reference in court cases. Day by day, the lore surrounding it swelled, reaching ever more farcical heights of hilarity, at least for those who were not too angry or too bruised to see the funny side of it. Jim Fitzgerald claimed he had been assaulted by a fat elderly lady, who asked him if he had been in The Spike, and then thumped him when he said yes. RTE was flooded with phone calls, telegrams and letters of protest. There was a new wave of resolutions from public bodies, this time not only condemning the series, but demanding it be banned. There were newspaper editorials calling for its withdrawal. The Fine Gael spokesman on education, Eddie Collins, urged the director-general to put a stop to the programme as “an indefensible and unjustifiable attack on the teaching profession and authorities.” 15 . In the discussion leading up to Limerick county council’s unanimous condemnation, it was said that there was no school in Ireland even remotely resembling the Spike and it was asked what was the reason for concocting a school where everybody, teachers and students alike, seemed depraved. It was then claimed that problems had arisen in a Limerick city school, where there had previously been no problems, that were directly attributable to The Spike. 16

When the announcement came that the series was to be withdrawn, it was front page news. Sub-editors found it impossible to resist a spate of articles headed “The Spike is spiked and The spiking of The Spike. Telegrams of congratulations and resolutions of support came pouring into RTE.

However, if the decision went a long way towards relieving the pressure brought to bear from outside, it in turn pressed hard upon the points of pressure from inside. The decision, not surprisingly, sparked off a bitter controversy within RTE. The director-general, Oliver Maloney, who took the decision, defended the decision on the basis that the series “had failed to achieve its programming objectives.” 17 The RTE authority backed the director-general and stated that the series was making RTE a “target of ridicule.” 18 The controller, however, took sharp issue with the director-general. Muiris Mac Conghail, who was controller at the time of its transmission though not at the time of its production, issued a confidential memorandum to programme makers, which was discussed at an unprecedented meeting of all production staff and union representatives within RTE and quoted in the public press. Mac Conghail stated unequivocally that the decision would be seen ”as a victory for and by those whose criticism of the series are provoked by prudish, or indeed, illiberal and censorious considerations”. To cease transmission in mid-run was “to give substance and definition for a long time to a rather narrowly-based articulation of morality”. It would have, he asserted, “serious implications for future drama policy”. He admitted that much of the criticism had been well-founded, but he felt that there was a “slightly hysterical note prevailing in the public debate and that there was “frankly, also a considerable class reaction to the series”. He believed that the series did not transgress public morality or acceptable public taste and should be continued. 19 Basically his view, as he expressed it publicly later, was that RTE made two mistakes in relation to The Spike: the first was putting it on and the second was taking it off. Although it was badly written and made under difficult conditions, it was withdrawn for the wrong reasons. RTE should have taken more time over it and then stood by it. Instead, it was done in a hurry and RTE lost its confidence and its courage. 20

Noel O Briain, the producer, also defended the programme strongly at the time. He denied that the nude scene was meant to titillate and argued that its purpose was to examine attitudes to nudity. He pointed to the double standard of the audience, who had not complained of nude scenes in foreign programmes transmitted by RTE. He asked:

“Why was it all right for an American or a black woman to appear naked on Irish television screens but not an Irish woman” ? 21

Looking back, he conceded that the series should have been done in a more subtle way, but believed it should have been allowed to continue and find its way. He was convinced at the time, and remained so, that it was taken off more for its controversial view of the education system than for any other reason. 22 Patrick Gilligan, the author, also referred to the double standard of the audience and considered the opposition to the The Spike to be a vote for imported programmes. He pointed to the programme’s high TAM ratings and insisted that it had considerable support. As to charges of crudity, this was debatable. 23 Coming to his defence was fellow scriptwriter David Hayes, who referred to Gilligan as a “victim of our two-tone morality, whiter than white on the surface and murky underneath”. This, he believed, was the reason for RTE giving in to the craw-thumpers. 24 Jim Fitzgerald, talking to the press with a plaster on his forehead, denounced the decision as censorship and as a return to the days when Sean O’Faolain and Frank O’Connor were banned. He asked if RTE was going to be controlled by JB Murray and the League of Decency. 25 Others, while inclined to sympathise with the aims of the series, found it difficult to sympathise with its execution. Michael Judge, himself both a teacher and a scriptwriter, felt it was ham-fisted and chaotic, that it was almost as if it had gone on a suicide course. 26 Still others were anxious not to let off the hook those who hid behind its inadequacies in execution to avoid facing the facts that it was its intention to disclose. The jesuit sociologist, Micheal MacGreil, suggested that there might have been more truth in the stricken series than most people had been prepared to admit. 27 The Irish Times education correspondent, Christina Murphy, asked how different the public reaction would have been, if it had been the most sophisticated production RTE had ever put in the can. She conjectured:

“ The cries of horror would have been only marginally less vocal. I doubt if the League of Decency would have accepted a nude scene, however tastefully and relevantly presented. I equally doubt the ability of many teachers to accept an honest look at vocational schools written by Shakespeare and produced by Lew Grade”. 28
Although the presentation was gauche and this resulted in an air of incredibility, she nevertheless believed The Spike had a lot to say which was very true. Her own coverage of vocational schools confirmed the facts about students working in the evenings, about problems of classroom discipline, about rows over nude models in art classes, about teachers making passes at pupils and pupils making passes at teachers. 29 Hot Press asked why it was that extreme conservatism was always considered more respectable than liberalism. 30
Nevertheless, the battle lines were drawn and many who jumped into the fray were ill-disposed to take pains over the finer points of the aesthetics or politics of the series. The taoiseach, Jack Lynch, used the occasion of the Jacob’s awards to express his support for the decision to take The Spike off the air, despite the fact that he had not seen it. Needless to say, his insistence that, “speaking objectively”, the director-general and the RTE authority had been right, did not go down very well with the programme makers in attendance. The forces were lining up to rub salt in the open wounds. The Irish Catholic went out of its way to point out that, for once, RTE liberals could not blame the bishops. It was the plain people of Ireland who had called them to account for their artistic crudity and moral laxity. 31 While this claim was not completely without warrant, there was also evidence of a certain degree of orchestration of the public response by church institutions. For example, in the letters that came into RTE, there were a number from the same class at Presentation Convent, all using almost the same language, each claiming to be an individual child offended by the programme. JB Murray meanwhile thanked the plain people of Ireland for the enormous number of cards and messages of support that came pouring into St. Vincent’s Hospital. He took exception to the remarks of Muiris MacConghail and Jim Fitzgerald, which he regarded as offensive, and was glad to see the tables turned on such liberals who had too often got their way.

Meanwhile, the trade unions took their stand. The producers union, the Workers Union of Ireland, supported the stand taken by the controller. The actors union, Equity, did as well and expressed its members determination that the actors involved, particularly Madeleine Erskine, not be victimised. The teachers unions, in this case, were on the other side. On and on it went. It even found its way onto the order paper of Dail Eireann, when Dr. Noel Browne, TD asked if the cancellation of the series was to be taken as the precedent for a new form of censorship.

The audience research service at RTE issued several very detailed reports on The Spike, both before and after cancellation. The opinions of the panel were somewhat more complex and differentiated than those who took the initiative to write in or phone the station. The bottom line, however, in the post-cancellation survey, was that 66% believed that the series as a whole was poor. 56% approved of RTE’s decision to stop transmission, while 39% disapproved. 49% said RTE should not transmit the remaining episodes. 26% advocated transmission and a further 21% recommended transmission linked to a studio discussion of the series. (RTE Audience Research Reports February 28, March 3 and Apri126, 1978).

In retrospect, it can be said that The Spike was a brave, sincere and progressive attempt to use drama to raise public consciousness on public issues of considerable public importance. However, it was, it also must be said, an attempt that fairly clearly failed to achieve its objectives. This was both because of external pressures, which were unquestionably unfair and excessive, and because of internal deficiencies, which put its defence on weak ground when it came under such stridently strong attack. Without doubt, it ran to ground for many reasons. The question remains as to whether it would have been taken off if controversial matters had been raised with greater subtlety and sophistication, if the scriptwriting had been more adept, if production standards had been higher. On balance, there is still reason to believe that the pressure to do so would have been there, no matter how impressively it had been done, due to its explicit treatment of human sexuality, its unflattering picture of the education system and its oppositional stance in relation to the exercise of power by both church and state.

Perhaps the most controversial material was in the untransmitted episodes. Most certainly the transmission of these would have heated up the already heated controversy to boiling point. The next episode scheduled to go out concerned youthful IRA activity and the influence of an Irish teacher’s fervent nationalism upon his idealistic students. After showing the atmosphere of mystification of nation, sex and death in the Irish class, matters came to ahead with the news that a boy in the class had been blown to bits transporting explosives at the border. Although at first full of heroic tribute to the lad’s patriotism and supreme sacrifice, the first real pressure upon the teacher’s convictions brought an abrupt volte face, turning from the most traditional and romantic republicanism to the most cynical and flippant revisionism. Again the author short-circuited any serious reflection on the serious issues involved by substituting an abrupt volte face for which no psychological grounding had been given. With the characterisation so lacking in credibility and the issues at stake getting such short shrift, it would have surely failed to achieve either dramatic effect or moral enlightenment.

Another episode which might not have gone down very well, with either liberal or conservative sections of the population, though for different reasons, was the one on prostitution. On the one hand, it elicited a certain sympathy for prostitutes by highlighting the plight of Rosaleen who had left school at eight and who had to overcome both illiteracy and fear of being fried by her pimp-cum-chip-van-proprietor. It also showed prostitutes as having a certain pride in earning their money, which made them seem superior to nagging and grasping wives. On the other hand, it enunciated only two points of view regarding prostitution. The first was that of the police superintendent, who believed that the world’s oldest profession provided a socially necessary safety valve and that its elimination would leave a dangerous vacuum. The second was that of O’Mahony, who believed that it was a degraded life and wanted to set up night classes for prostitutes to offer them a way out, by teaching them deportment, nutrition, social skills and home making. Essentially, his idea was to reform them by making them marriageable. As O’Mahony analysed their situation, what it came down to was this:

“I can’t imagine a girl wanting to spread herself under a jobber for a fiver, when she could marry him and have the lot.”
Although it told a certain truth, however unintended, about the sordid side of the institution of marriage that might put it below the institution of prostitution, it was hardly a very progressive point of view. Between the police superintendent and the school principal, and perhaps the author wavering between the two, there seemed no point of entry to the sort of expansion of horizons for women which feminists of the day had in mind.
The author’s engagement with the sort of issues raised by the women’s liberation movement, as relevant to the scenario he had staked out, was quite primitive. Such confrontation as there was was most explicit in the final episode, in which the struggle for power within the school converged with a contemporary form of the age old battle of the sexes. Finding the most formidable competition for the top post in the form of a young female, who was not only highly attractive, but had higher academic qualifications, O’Mahony’s reaction was a combination of an unreconstructed horniness and sexist deviousness. The script throughout the series in general, but in this episode in particular, was full of sexist humour, which would have been all right if there had been anything else in the script to counterpoint it or to highlight it with some sort of critical edge. However, there was no indication of anything in the author’s own point of view rising above it. Running through the series was a particular male view of the female of the species, and not a very mature or sophisticated one at that, dominated by a somewhat adolescent, voyeuristic approach to female sexuality. It was a viewpoint of men superficially aware of the impact of the women’s liberation movement, but not significantly affected by it.

In the end, there was little ground for anyone to stand on to defend it. Those who would have been willing to accept a critical perspective on the education system and explicit reference to human sexuality were undercut by the clumsiness of treatment of the issues, the superficiality of the characterisation and the immaturity of the underlying point of view.

The legacy left by The Spike is hard to assess. If the result was to emphasise that new ground should be broken with much greater care and that the critique of existing social systems and of prevailing sexual mores should be approached with greater maturity and sophistication, there would have been something to show for this unfortunate episode in Irish television history. If, however, no such explicit lesson was drawn from it, and the result was to reinforce a posture of nervousness and timidity and a reluctance to risk offending any sizeable section of the audience, it may have actually set back efforts to open up drama to the terrain of dealing with the controversial growing points of contemporary society.
Social and Political Satire
Not all of the tension generated by this sort of timidity resulted in programmes being taken off the air. However, the failure to give full support to controversial programmes brought a certain disaffection among those who were willing to risk sailing close to the wind.

This was the case with some of the best political and social satire produced by RTE, particularly the two Niall Toibin series If the Cap Fits (1973) and Time Now, Mr. T (1977). Every programme in these two series was a veritable tour de force on the part of Niall Toibin, who did much of the scriptwriting and played an enormous number of roles.

In the course of the short sketches of If the Cap Fits, he appeared as ninety different characters, encompassing such roles as taoiseach, RTE newsreader, RTE arts presenter, IRA chief of staff, unionist ideologue, Dublin trade union leader, sports journalist, bishop, priest, nun and a host of others, leaving virtually no prototypical figure of contemporary Irish life with its comic potential untapped. The characters were not simply vague types, however, but cut to the bone in the way the taoiseach was so acutely Liam Cosgrave, the IRA chief of staff so obviously Cathal Goulding, the bishop so recognisably Eamonn Casey. Some were amalgams. The Dublin trade union leader was conceived as a combination of Mickey Mullen and Mattie Merrigan, though when Niall Toibin had occasion to see either of them afterwards, he thought it very funny that Mickey Mullen took it to be Mattie Merrigan and Mattie Merrigan took it to be Mickey Mullen. 32

In the longer sketches of Time Now, Mr. T, he gave in depth interviews uncovering the layers of personality in guises ranging from St. Patrick to Edna O’Brien. He came forward as well as the midlands auctioneer raging war alike on communists, street traders and taxmen, as the northern protestant savant expounding on the nature of the southern state, as the cynical Corkman seeing Dublin imperialism in an RTE announcer’s “good evening”, as another Dublin trade union leader with a difficult wife. The scripts were highly literate and the performances were extremely energetic, generating an effervescent humour that was both intelligent and earthy at the same time. Many of the laughs came from verbal ironies based on misconceived metaphors, malapropisms, mispronunciations, mistranslations, incongruous juxtapositions, double entendre and grandiloquent phraseology applied to banal realities. There was the taoiseach’s speech about “the fledgling filly that was our free state” and the need to root out “mongrel foxes and other vermin” and to deal with “this ring of shysters and shop stewards”. There was the RTE continuity announcer giving a posh but ignorant pronunciation to every other word. There was the commentary on the film Last Tango in Dingle, full of pseudo sophisticated jargon about the “screen dialectic” and “aesthetic-didactic conflict”, full of small nation pride in a product unique in that “almost two of the actors were Irish and another almost Irish, another almost an actor”. The Irish film with English subtitles translated “led thoil” as “right on” and “A bhfuil tu fuar?” as “Are you frigid?”. Then the credits rolled on and on:

script by Dominic Behan
adapted by Hugh Leonard
based on an original idea by Ulick O’Connor
based on a novel by Bryan MacMahon…

There was also the sketch of a programme Eyeball to Eyeball with Proinsias Mac Anguish talking to Sean Mac Giolla Stiophan beginning every sentence in historical send-up:

“you were born in O’Connell Street in 1916…
“you were chief of staff of six wings of the republican movement
“your motherless child scheme
“your two left wing tracts: “Ireland further from God” and “Ireland even further from God”…

Then there was the ponderous intellectual taking his stand against violence and refusing to give the Oliver Cromwell memorial lecture on the same platform as Cathal Goulding. There was the attempt to put crime in context in giving the biographical details of a pickpocket, “stricken with poverty in his adultery”.

Although the humour was highly verbal, the nuances of facial and gestural performance, as well as the skills of makeup and wardrobe in establishing each persona, gave it a visual dimension that did much to intensify the pleasure in its ironies and to justify the use of television as a medium. Often the humour was in visual / verbal juxtaposition, such as in a sequence which consisted simply of a succession of stills of Fianna Fail government ministers with only laughter on the sound track. Sometimes the visual aspect carried the humour, as when featuring artefacts embodying the tackiness of Irish visual culture and connecting the Irish film industry with diversification in the direction of a company making plastic porcupines for children’s baths and Pope Paul lampshades.

No one could say that these series chose soft targets. They took on the institutions of church and state, legal and illegal organisations, indeed RTE itself. Those involved knew they were dealing with controversial material and were not surprised to meet with oppositional calls and letters from certain sections of the audience. However, both Niall Toibin and Brian MacLochlainn, the producer of the series, were disappointed at the lack of support within RTE. When Niall Toibin did a sketch as a female social worker discussing self-abuse, there were phone calls and letters protesting, to which RTE responded with apologies. Toibin naturally felt let down and left to wonder whether the amount of stick was really worth it. He concluded that the country was obviously not ready for satire. There was, he believed, a huge amount of self-righteousness in the country that needed to be pulled up by laughing at it. The attempt to do so had brought him criticism such as he had never faced in his career. He was beset with accusations of trying to pervert, corrupt and deprave the entire Irish nation. Brian Mac Lochlainn, for his part, felt let down when RTE would not approve another series. 33

Another series of the same era, most definitely RTE’s bravest and best period for social and political satire, was the long running and fondly remembered Hall’s Pictorial Weekly. It had its origins in the Newsbeat programme, in which its editor Frank Hall scoured the highways and byways of Ireland in search of colourful characters and off-beat situations. According to Hall, it occurred to him one day that he would be much more the master of the situation, if he simply sat at home and wrote the sketches, instead of beating the bushes. 34 As it happened, Hall wrote a script about “the finest minister for hardship which this country ever had”, which Eamonn Morrissey masterfully played as Liam Cosgrave. The character caught on like wildfire. It continued and developed over the next years and became indelibly sketched on folk memory. Other characters emerged too as cartoon counterparts of various familiar figures of the times. The programme is best remembered for its anarchist lampooning both of specific politicians and of the political process itself. Its great contribution, as John Boland put it in Hibernia, was in its lampooning of the political, cultural and business leaders of “our parish pump society in which private malice never matured into public satire”. 35 Although Toibin and Hall were willing to challenge their audience to come to that sort of maturity and much of the audience were more than willing to get into it, others were not. Brigid Hogan O’Higgins complained about it in the Dail. Other national politicians refrained from public comment on it. Provincial politicians, however, did not refrain and county councillors were forever giving out about the slagging of county councillors. All the same, problems arose over meetings of the Longford urban district council conflicting with the programme for councillors who didn’t want to miss it.

Hall’s Pictorial Weekly was at its strongest during the 1973-1977 term of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government. So sharp and constant was its satirical send up of the government ministers of the time, that it is generally accepted that the programme played an important part in bringing the coalition into disrepute and perhaps even contributed to bringing it down. Once the coalition was out and Fianna Fail was back in again, the programme was never quite the same. There were still funny sketches about Bord Failte and nuns joining trade unions and RTE reporters getting progressively more drunk at every press session they attended. It even had a go at highlighting the hilarity surrounding The Spike scenario. However, the edge seemed to have gone out of its political satire, which was always the programme’s strong point. The columnists began to observe a slide, attributed to the programme being soft on Fianna Fail. The character based on the taoiseach, Jack Lynch, was essentially a benign figure. Despite the fact that there were as many targets worthy of satirical treatment as ever, at least in the view of the commentators, the programme never quite managed to rise to it in their opinion.36 This did not stop Fianna Fail councillors from giving out about such satire as was directed towards them. However, their Fine Gael and Labour counterparts were quick to point out that they had only become unhappy with Frank Hall since the change of government. Their opponents found it quite amusing to observe their response, now that the boot was on the other foot. 37

As it turned out, with one thing or another, including Eamonn Morrissey moving on and Frank Hall becoming the film censor, Hall’s Pictorial Weekly came to the end of its long run by the end of the decade. In its time, it went very close to the bone and it was to RTE’s credit to have sustained such a sharp production for so long. According to producer Peter McEvoy, those involved in making the programme often felt that RTE management was nervous enough about what they were doing, but they never intervened and the programme always proceeded with a free hand. The politicians may have been unhappy and may indeed have complained, but they would have placed themselves in a ridiculous situation, if it ever came to libel suits, in the act of identifying themselves with ludicrous fictional characters. 38

Political Drama: North and South

Satire was not the only mode of dramatic response to the character of political life in contemporary Ireland. It was, however, the only arena in which the politics of contemporary Ireland, at least of the Republic of Ireland, received up front, center stage dramatic treatment. Otherwise anything that was so explicitly political was only present as a subtext or else it was either set in the past or set in the north.

There were strong subtextual currents giving a more sober look at the darker side of the political culture of the southern state. They were really only glimpses, but they were often pictures which struck a resonating chord and left a lingering impression. Reinforcing a growing cynicism about politicians, there were the images of the cynical and opportunist Paco Kelly TD, the parliamentary secretary in The Spike and the ambitious and amoral Willie Burke, the up-and-coming politician come night-club-owner, symbolising certain lines of connection between criminal and political activities in The Burke Enigma. In one of the rare televisual images of a left wing activist, there was the combat-jacketted maoist in A Week in the Life of Martin Cluxton, whose politics of class struggle was undercut by its status as impotent pub talk. In a less pessimistic vein, there were the ongoing activities of Tom Riordan in his continuing role as a county councillor in The Riordans. However, most of the drama of contemporary politics was preoccupied with Northern Ireland. Some of it was set in the south, dealing with the spillover effect of the current ‘troubles’ in the country as a whole. Sometimes it was incidental and soft-centred as in the 1974 episodes of The Riordans, when children from the violent north were brought down to the more peaceful south for the Christmas season of good will. However, in 1978, after The Riordans had moved from serial to series form, it took a harder look at the choices posed by the north to those adhering to republican traditions in the south. In an episode called The Class of 64, the centre of dramatic confrontation was in the dilemma of Benjy Riordan, when he found himself torn between his past principles and his present compromises. The conflict emerged in a particularly acute form, when Stevie, an old college friend, came seeking help as a wounded IRA man on the run, and when Maggie, despite the dangers of non-co-operation, persisted in her uncompromising hostility to the armed campaign. To Stevie, Benjy represented betrayal. As he put it to him:

“Nothing like a wife and child and a few hundred acres to change your principles”.
For his part, Benjy had fond memories of college days and singing ballads like Kevin Barry. He still wanted to see a united Ireland, but had learned to be content with what he had. So had many others. With the onset of the troubles and with the years since, the tide had gone out and left those like Stevie high and dry. To Maggie, they could afford to be rebels in those days. There wasn’t much at stake for them then, but now it was necessary to make a choice. It was necessary to decide whether to spill blood or not. Benjy felt that both Stevie and Maggie were too uncompromising. Maggie felt that Benjy still wanted to have it both ways. In the end, resolution came when Benjy disarmed Stevie, who seemed to be asleep, and signalled the gardai who were waiting outside due to Maggie’s earlier decision. The viewer was left to decide whether Stevie had really fallen asleep or only pretended. Although the ambivalence of the resolution was the real point of the episode, it presented at least one way of posing the choices in a plausible way, which drew on the credibility and identification built up in relation to long-established characters.
Of course, credibility and identification could also be established, although differently, in shorter series and single plays. In other forms as well, there was an attempt to mobilise these in relation to the human dimensions of the northern situation. The Spike had also attempted to portray the divergent paths taken by those in the south who had felt called upon to make choices in relation to the north and to face the consequences of their republican principles in their own lives. The episode concerning the idealistic student turned IRA volunteer, who was blown to bits at the border, and the idealistic teacher turned coward and cynic the first time his beliefs came under any pressure, failed to reach its audience at all. Even if it had been broadcast, it would almost surely have failed to establish credibility or identification, because of its serious deficiencies in characterisation.

A more substantial piece challenging southern attitudes to the northern strife was Alun Owen’s play Passing Through. The plot concerned the catalytic effect of the presence of an outsider asking questions of the locals, amidst the niceties of Dublin’s suburban lounge bar culture. Peter Field, a high flying international news correspondent, moving from one of the world’s war zones to another, was passing through Dublin on his way to Belfast. He insistently probed beneath the surface pleasantries and asked people to state their point of view, when they wished only to skirt around the edges of a subject or to avoid it altogether and get on with a bit of light craic. Not that Field was above the craic. It was just that he got his kicks by turning over stones to see what would crawl out. He persistently pushed all and sundry to declare their political allegiances, in an atmosphere in which this had heretofore been studiously avoided. One by one, he stormed their defences:

Peter: “How do you feel about a united Ireland?”
Will: “You’re joking. I don’t talk politics in bars.”

Peter: “No? Well you should. You’re an Irish American and your people pump a lot of money into this country that winds up as guns. So I think I’m entitled to ask”.

Moving to the next:
Peter: “ Just how far is Belfast from where we are now?”
Liam: “100 odd miles.”

Peter: “I’ d have thought it more like a thousand, there’s not much mention of it around here. “

Liam: “Why would there be? Don’t we get it in the papers, on the telly, on the wireless, sure there’s no escaping it. We all know it’s there. Jaysus, they wouldn’t let you forget it, but I don’t feel inclined to ruin my Sunday morning jar over a pack of mad dogs killing each other above. If I was to worry about anything, it’ d be making sure it don’t come down here.”

Then, after a brief skirmish with a businessman, for whom the bottom line was that bombs were bad for business, Field turned to his natural antagonist, a parlour provo:

Peter: “So, right off, what’s your answer to this mess in the north?”
Dick: “I think like we all think when we’re honest with ourselves. I wish you and your soldiers would get to buggery out of our country and leave it to us. We’ll settle it. Are you answered?”

Peter: “You’ve a point, but what about all the innocent that might get killed?”

Dick: (Dismissively) “Oh, for Jaysus sake, will they amount to any more than the guilty that are going at the moment?”
After a bit of diversion and one of the group singing under his breath “Glorio, glorio to the bold fenian men”, the exchange flared up again:

Dick: “I’ve never heard so much codology in me life. You’re going there with a set of attitudes as rigid as railway lines without points”
Peter: “And so far as I’m concerned, you haven’t got an original idea on the subject, just a set of inherited, insular, provincial prejudices that have no relationship to the contemporary world which you seem determined not to live in.”

Jolyon: “Dick, you must make allowances for a situation that’s defied solution for ten years.”

Dick: “Ten years is it? Eight hundred and ten more like.“

Peter: “You’re talking ancient history, man.”

Eamonn: “Can you not agree to disagree?”

Dick: “That’s you, Eamonn, anything for a quiet life and a merc in the garage. I give up.”

Peter: “I wish a few more of your countrymen would,”

Dick: “You’ve no need of worries there. Most of hem have, just pray it’ll go away or at least sweep it under the carpet.”

Then an attempt to push his fellow countrymen into the scuffle:
Peter: “This is a hell of a country, but seemingly you take it in your stride.”
Jolyon: “I’m a bit lazy about social attitudes and refrain from shouting ‘to hell with the pope’ on the quays.”

As for his old friend, a Welsh author living in Ireland as a tax exile, who had been resolutely staying clear, his taunts constantly met with expressions of his non-committed stance:
Dai: I’m apolitical, always have been.”
To which his friend astutely replied:
Peter: “one is, except politicians”.

Continuing to give his verdict on his friend and on the country:
Peter: “ you’ve managed to make your selfishness seem a virtue. This country’s perfect for you. There’s no edge or worry about the place. It’s ostrich land, perfect for you, Dai, but not much use to me in what I’ll be looking for.”
Will: “ Well, I’ll give you this. You certainly managed to stroke the complacent cat’s fur the wrong way.”

In an interesting twist to the tale at the end, raising questions about the activities of foreign intelligence services in Ireland, the British and American neighbours of the Welsh writer were agents, long aware of Field’s continuing history of being a thorn in the side of their agencies. After his activities in Korea, Aden, Vietnam, etc, turning out stuff that was truthful and dangerous the decision had been taken that he be terminated. The north of Ireland was to be the end of the road.

Revealing as it was about certain types of foreigners resident in Ireland, the real point of the play was to use their presence to counterpoint the manners and mores of the natives. As seen by Louis Lentin, who, as head of drama, commissioned the work for RTE:

“Alun Owen uses this situation to present a recognisable and telling picture, not of the foreigners, but of the local Irish and their wives, of the lip service that permeates so much of Irish society at all levels. Who fears to speak of ’98 can be sung and sung loudly, but who bothers to really speak of anything? Of the North? Of 68-79? Anybody? Field may be a troublemaker, but at least he speaks to the point. Ireland of the welcomes is all very well… on the wall.” 39

It was a challenging play that hopefully left somebody somewhere with lingering thoughts about the questions it raised.

Of course, most of the drama dealing with the north was set in the north. There was, first of all, the 1970 revival of Sam Thompson’s controversial 1960 play Over the Bridge, which the troubles had made more topical than ever. Taking advantage of the new production of the play on the stages of the Lyric (Belfast) and the Gaiety (Dublin), Chloe Gibson arranged for an RTE production in the same year. Drawing on his own experience as a worker and trade union activist in the Belfast shipyards, Sam Thompson turned to dramatised portrayal to highlight the strident sectarianism within the shipyards and the dilemma it posed for the trade union movement. In a confrontation between an anti-sectarian trade union leader and an orange rabble rouser, with most of the rank and file foundering on the fences, the tension built to a shattering climax, when the trade union leader was beaten to death by the men he had so conscientiously served, creating a vivid symbol of the brutal tragedy of the situation.

Another play which had come from the Belfast stage was John Boyd’s The Flats. Set in strife-torn Belfast in 1970, it adopted a semi-documentary style, recording in a matter-of-fact way the immediate realities of familial and tribal upheaval, in the escalating cycle of hostility prevailing at the time, in an attempt to convey the essential tragedy of the situation in a particular sort of way. Although from a protestant background, the author focused the drama on a catholic family, whose home was in the middle of the firing line. Within the Donellan household, the conflict centred on the militant involvement of father and son in the local citizens defence committee, against the wishes of mother and daughter. It captured the claustrophobia, the squalor and the sense of siege enveloping the world of Unity Flats. It communicated a sense of the communal disruption and dispossession as experienced on the ground.

Set in Glasgow flats was another stage play bearing on the northern conflict given a television production by RTE. On one level, The Sash by Hector McMillan was a Romeo and Juliet love story across the orange and green divide. A young woman, pregnant and nerve shattered, had come to stay with her aunt in Glasgow for a bit of peace and solace away from the strife of Belfast, only to be confronted with the 12th of July belligerence of the Glasgow variety of bigoted orangemen. Her aunt, Miss Shaughnessy, was a strident foe of protestant triumphalism, symbolised primarily by her neighbour in the flat below. Bill McWilliam was big, bragging, boozy orangeman, who believed:

“If you give the taigs an inch, they’ll be over us like that”
When his son declined to wear the sash his father wore he was furious. The play was not, however, simply the protestant-boy meets-catholic-girl and how hopeless it all is when caught in the vicious cycle of sectarian prejudice and violence. The play was essentially about the emergence of a spark of hope in those who could come to realise:
“Yet all the blood we both have drawn
‘Twas red, not orange or green.”

It was a play with a message and a clearly left of centre one at that:

“Tell them to hell with orange and green.
Match your banner to the colour of your common blood.”

Not relying entirely on adaptation, however, RTE produced four original written-for-television plays set in the north, all by Eugene McCabe. The earliest, made in 1970, was The Funeral. It was basically the story of an ill-starred and isolated gentleman farmer, Cecil Maxwell, who reluctantly decided to attend the funeral of a catholic neighbour, thereby bringing upon himself the blackest crisis of his bleak life. Underneath the hearty and smiling welcome, he sensed the daggers. He was, for the author, the vehicle for his elegy for the rural Anglo-Irish, who had failed to adapt.

The most distinguished achievement of RTE in this area was its award winning production of McCabe’s Victims trilogy of the mid-seventies. It was a new departure for RTE in the scale and style of its production and was filmed on location in colour. All three plays were set in the present in the same part of Northern Ireland, the rural farmlands of South Fermanagh, involving crucial episodes in the lives of a loosely inter-related set of characters. A minor character in one story would be a major character in the next and vice versa. There was a definite build-up in the nature of the tension in each story.

The first story, Cancer, centred on the lives of two elderly bachelor brothers living in a derelict small farm. The play opened with overhead shots of an idyllic countryside, almost as if a travelogue panorama, with a similarly engaging musical sound track. This idyll was quickly shattered, however, first by RTE news of northern troubles on the car radio, then by the army helicopter and then by the discovery that the two men in the car were travelling to visit one’s brother in hospital dying of cancer. Cancer, through the play, functioned both literally as the physical disease killing one man’s body and metaphorically as the psycho-social disease killing the soul of both a particular man and a whole community. Dinny McMahon, with all of his spitting, venomous bigotry, was portrayed as in fact sicker than his brother Joady with terminal cancer. In every possible situation, Dinny was growling and grumbling at the British Army, at the UDR, at his protestant neighbours, at his catholic neighbours, even at his dying brother. Even their catholic neighbours saw the protestant caricature of catholics embodied in them. With nothing to do all day but draw the dole and sit by the fire, they couldn’t even manage to wash themselves or keep their house decent. Whatever their hostility to protestants, it wasn’t as if they were really even catholics, with never a mass or any other religious practice. At the same time, whatever their anti-establishment rumblings and the implication that they were communists, a neighbour made it clear that she knew what real communists would do with the likes of them.

The second story, Heritage, traced the growing crisis, building out of more overtly political forces, in the lives of a protestant family of working farmers and part-time soldiers in the UDR. The tension centred on the situation of Eric O’Neill, 21 year old farmer and UDR member, living under the same roof as his estranged parents. Torn asunder, being pushed and pulled from all sides by people with conflicting points of view and by forces he could neither comprehend nor control, he was without definite beliefs, without clear loyalties, without a firm centre from which he could sort it all out and hold his ground. Within his community, within his own family, within his own soul, the contending forces bore down upon him, bringing increasing confusion and terror. Within the community, he felt all around him the sinister presence of the anonymous killers, who had him on their death list, everywhere watching, waiting, scraping, clawing, gorging like rats. Yet he thought of the catholic neighbours he knew, all good, hard working people. He saw as well the sinister side of the protestant community of which he was a part. He listened to their talk of blind hatred and looked around the church full of loving tributes to violent death. Yet there were those he cared for, particularly Rachel, nurse and neighbour who cared for him as well. Within his family, he had given in to pressure from his mother and uncle to join the UDR, however alienated he felt from their hard, hating, humourless, sexless, black sectarianism. He felt a sympathy for the position of his father, who did not wish him to join the UDR and did his best to stand clear of sectarian divisions. His father had come in the previous story to visit Joady McMahon, his catholic neighbour who was dying. His attitude was:

“If one neighbour in ten thousand wants to kill me or mine, I’ll not hate them all for that one”.

Eric’s uncle George had also come into the previous story, declaring his determination to fight to the last ditch and promising blood by the floods, lest any pope come to the townland of Invercloon. Within this second story, Dinny McMahon of the first story made an appearance, taking his stand with a gun against the hunting party from the big house, composed of characters to come into the foreground in the third story of the trilogy. In a church scene as well, there were other minor characters to become major characters in the next story. Amidst it all, there was much talk of bravado and of cowardice. What was or wasn’t cowardice was a hotly contested matter, however. Eric was pressured to feel a coward if he did not join the UDR and, at the same time, a coward for giving in and joining.
Within himself was the worst conflict, a conflict that froze him in impotence, a conflict he felt unable to resolve, a conflict that brought him to the worst cowardice of all: the inability to choose, the inability to respond, the inability to act. He saw himself as afraid of his uncle, afraid of his mother, afraid to choose between his father and his mother, afraid of catholics, afraid of protestants, afraid to love, afraid to hate, afraid to live and afraid to die. He saw himself as standing for nothing, as risking his life for something he didn’t believe in or even understand:

“I dunno why I’m in this uniform, who I’m fighting, or what the fight’s about I’d as lief be dead.”

In the end, he decided he was already dead. Pushed further, becoming like a cornered animal, when his uncle implicated him as accessory after the fact in a blood-for-blood murder when out together on patrol, he came down at least on the side of being more afraid of living than of dying. Tired of being afraid, he crashed through a British Army checkpoint and made other jumpy soldiers the instrument of his own death and final release from his dilemmas.

There were many dimensions to McCabe’s way of telling this story of the twenty four hours leading to the death of this young man. Underneath the particularities of the events were estimable insights into psychological processes and into sociological forces. Especially interesting was his treatment of the way in which sectarian tensions were connected to stunted personal development in general and sexual paralysis in particular. In the case of Eric’s parents, both gave him their versions of their relationship. According to his mother, she had kept her marriage vows, reared his sons and kept his house for a man who treated her with a cruel silence and used her ‘unnatural’ from the start.

According to his father, he had never heard her laugh, nor ever seen her body for the whole of their thirty years together. In his view, she hated bodies, both her own and his. She could live on black bread and water, the bible and hating catholics. In the case of his uncle, his blind bigotry had made him sexless, living all his life in a womanless house, just as the two brothers on the other side of the divide in the previous story did. In the case of Eric himself, he loved Rachel and she loved him, yet he could hardly kiss her without embarrassment and awkwardness. When she reached out to him painfully and asked him why he had never really touched her, he could not respond, frightened even more of her mind than her body. When she begged him for comfort in her shattered grief when her father and brother were killed, he was hopelessly inadequate.

Also interesting was his glimpse behind the sectarian conflict on the ground to the larger structure of power keeping everything as it was. In a play for some sort of lucidity, Eric’s father asked:

“What’s he fighting for, woman? God and country? The queen? I’ll tell you what he’s fighting for! The big boys who splash more on weekends whoring than he’ll make in a lifetime… there’s goms who’ll die to keep them at it. That’s your cause, son… pound notes, millions of them, and the men who have them don’t care a tinker’s curse who kills who as long as they keep their grip, and if that’s coward’s talk, I’ll stay one.”
But the lucidity was unable to break through the darkness of his son’s ill-fated life. And so one more death in the north.4o

The third story, Siege dealt with even more overtly political forces in even more explicit confrontation. Opening at the Inver show with the union jack flying overhead and the strains of Land of Hope and Glory blaring from the loudspeakers, members of the Provisional IRA mingled in the crowd and stalked their prey. Amongst the locals, there was talk of George Hawthorne’s being released, after being questioned in connection with a double murder, and of the rumours that his nephew Eric O’Neill’s death at an army checkpoint had been suicide. George was nevertheless as blustering as ever in his bigotry. Meanwhile, in Monaghan, the IRA unit came together to be briefed in the McAleer home, full of the kitsch iconography of catholic nationalism: the sacred heart, the madonna, Patrick Pearse, the two Johns: Kennedy and Roncalli, and Lourdes water. In a sickroom smelling of fish and lysol was the prototypical catholic mother, thanking God every day for her three green fields and two strong sons.

The IRA unit selected by the army council for this special mission was a determined, but divided, group. There were Mrs. McAleer’s two strong sons, Pascal and Pacelli, played as comic tweedledum and tweedledee figures in black berets, in a way that was out of key with the production as a whole. They were meant to be atavistic creatures, who killed as ritualistically as they prayed, who carried out the orders of the army council in the same way as they participated in the holy sacrifice of the mass. Their mother had decreed they had a score to settle for their father and for all the dead generations and so be it. They were, as the dominant mother figure typically wanted her sons to be, brave clean living and sexless boys. Their mother was proud to say of them:

“they’ve got nerve, don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t interfere with girls.”

They were quite without complexity, without maturity, without irony, but they were also without guile, without egoism and without viciousness. Jack Gallagher, in contrast, was devious, macho and vicious. He was, in McCabe’s description, a natural mechanism of terror and disorder. He did not, never would, want peace and harmony. 4l He was full of racial, political and personal hatred. When he spoke of it, with his twisting mouth and bloodshot eyes, the words came out jerking and sadistic and built into a low key fury. There was blood lust on him. He had to taste blood, to kill or be killed. There was the other sort of lust on him as well. The enemy was for killing and the opposite sex was for screwing in ditches and cars. He boasted of his prowess at both: how the girls whimpered, how the targets spun, stumbled and fell, date, street, townland, all reported in detail.
Martin Leonard, the commanding officer of the group, was quite different again. There was an authority in his presence that created an aura of determination, discipline and detachment, an air about him that did not easily reveal the doubts, the fears, the dilemmas. He had killed before, though unlike Gallagher, he had never seen the face of a victim, nor did he welcome the prospect. He took no joy in killing and often awoke in a sweat after hearing screaming and seeing images of what he had done. He was, in McCabe’s words, a tired priest of violence who had ceased to believe in the creed. As seen by Kevin McHugh, who played the part, his will to believe had eroded, though he was still committed to carrying through a programme in which he no longer believed. He was efficient, but jaded. 42 He no longer had clear answers for the why and wherefore of it all, but he was proceeding and commanding nonetheless. Sexually, he was more of a mystery than the rest. All that was clear was that he exercised restraint, did not let it distract him from the tasks at hand and was able to deal with a woman without sexually baiting her, again unlike Gallagher.

The woman most at issue was Isabel Lynam, the fifth member of the group, another character of a certain complexity. A high profile ideologue of the movement (modelled on Maria Maguire who played this sort of role in the Provisional IRA in the early seventies), she was attracted to men of violence, while at the same time distrusting them and being distrusted by them. She was the only member of the group who had never killed before. She had freely chosen to stand with the men of vivid words and violent action in contrast to the hollow crafty manoeuverings of politicians like her father, a TD. She had found it easy enough to propagate violence from a platform, but found it

“different now that it prowled to her side, the bloody midwife of regeneration, a ruthless animal with dripping mouth and glassy merciless eyes.”

The sharpest contrast among members of the group, at least the one that kept flaring up in open friction, was between Gallagher and Lynam. Resistant to his sexual baiting and repelled by his sadistic bloodthirstiness, she did not conceal her contempt. He responded by taunting her as “Mise Eire Nua, calling her a “gutless, middle class yacker”, and turning sexual rejection backwards declaring “I don’t pick over garbage.” The contrast between Leonard and Lynam was of a far more subtle nature. They knew they shared each other’s doubts about both ends and means, although he was far more reluctant to air them or to swerve from a decided course of action. The greatest point of tension was in their different relationship to the gun. As he took out a pistol and proceeded to give a terse, clinical instruction in its use, his voice seemed far away, as she was overcome with the gleaming phallic awfulness of it. She reacted to his unfastening the catch of her bag and thrusting in the pistol as if to rape. The sexual tension between them was further nuanced by his knowledge of her army council affairs and her recent abortion and by his later refusal of her seductions. Isabel Lynam was not only strongly played off against the men involved, but also against the various women who came into the story. She was brought into sharp contrast with the republican mother figure in a scene in which she was brought up to Mrs. McAleer’s bedroom, a chamber with both strong uteral and sepulchral connotations. The mother macree was fecund and fatalistic, completely circumscribed by the earthy fundamentals of the unending cycle of birth, hunger, blood and death. She could not comprehend this younger woman who was childless, who tampered with the natural order of things in taking up men’s work of war, who believed neither in God nor in her Ireland. She could only ask:

“Are you a communist, child?”

And she could only respond to the complexities of her beliefs and the character of her commitment in declaring:

“Too much learnin’ is the ruination of the world. All a body needs is faith in God, his blessed mother, faith in your people and faith in your country.”

Mrs. McAleer was, she perceived, a rural version of her own more urban, genteel mother, who devoted herself to poodles and jesuits. Further contrasts and confrontations and further nuances of character came to light, as the operation which had brought them all together got underway and the scene expanded to take in the variety of persons and postions at the other end of the northern spectrum.

The plan was to go to the big house and to hold the gentlefolk and their guests hostage until three specified comrades were released from Long Kesh. Inver Hall was the home of Col. Armstrong, a retired British Army officer and member of the landed aristocracy, who had considered himself above the battle. His captors, however, considered his ambivalence as insidious as the bigotry of his compatriots and reminded themselves that the wealth, power and privilege of his like had been gained by force and fraud, even If sanctioned by the rule of law and pulpit. On his side, however, it seemed:

“all so unfair. We were never absentees. My grandfather cut rents to half and nil during the famine, mortgaged the estate to feed tenants, catholic and protestant, one of my cousins signed the treaty for the Irish side…”

Through him, McCabe returned to the imagery of cancer. After declaring his belief that nationalism was a disease, he continued:

“The cancer is in the room and may kill us shortly.”

Among his guests was Alex Boyd-Crawford, a neighbour, somewhat less liberal:

“We never employed papists, family tradition. They all cheat, lie and thieve, careless, superstitious, stupid. When you hear this from the nursery onwards, right or wrong, it tends to stick.”

Going one better, Canon Plumm insisted it was right, citing a study proving “they’ve a lower IQ than negroes.” Another guest, an American academic, Professor Stuart Caldwell, who shared Col. Armstrong’s interest in military history, felt obliged to remark that the study was controversial. Pursuing the argument, Canon Plumm, full of rotund gravitas, displayed the full force of his bigotry:
“To the Irish, no one else. What they’ve done down there in 60 years is not in doubt: ruined Dublin, painted pillar boxes green and produced more lunatics and alcoholics per square mile than other country in the world. This is a proven fact.”

There were also two women present, the wife and daughter of Col. Armstrong. Harriet, the wife, was a cultured woman, who had turned to drink in her despair at her inability to cope with her situation. She had found marriage to be a cruel trap. She thought military history a subject indistinguishable from pornography. She loved poetry and she hated all that reeked of blood and empire. Her daughter, Millicent, pregnant with her first child, was educated, but lacked empathy. She was less vulnerable than her mother.
In a series of exchanges between the captured and their captors, there were various forays into exploring the ground that united and divided the assembled company. There was first the shock of recognition between Millicent and Isabel who realised they had been at Trinity College together. The dialogue between them quickly passed from awkward recognition to sharp accusation:

Millicent: “Impassioned at debate, I remember. I listened then, I’ll listen now.”
Isabel: “This is not a college debate”
School days over, each adjusted to what company the other was keeping. Millicent remarked on the faces of Isabel’s IRA comrades and said she could imagine them doing anything, but not her.
Isabel: “I find their faces less horrific than the painted ones round your walls.”
Millicent: “You can maim, cripple, blind the innocent. For what?”

Isabel: “You’ve never been colonised. You wouldn’t understand.”

Millicent: “I can try if you can explain.”

Isabel: “I don’t have to.”

Millicent: “You can’t. You’ve had your student pub crawls, your bedsit affairs, hitched about and got stoned. So now you’re a graduate. Work’s a bore. What next? Backroom politics with mindless killers. A taste of terror before you die. It’s beyond contempt.”

Isabel: “When you stop killing us, we’ll stop killing you. It’s as simple as that.”

Millicent: “What have I – we – got to do with killing you?”

Isabel: “Everything.”

Although there were moments of confused compassion, particularly between Isabel and Harriet, it was mostly mockery and hostility. Gallagher was compulsively taunting. Using Boyd-Crawford’s hearing aid like a microphone, he asked loudly:

“Do you think there’s any hope for peace in our time, sir?”

Prior to pistol whipping the face of an oil painted brigadier on the wall, he lashed out at those present, their ancestors and their contemporaries:

“When we look for common rights the way you got your empire, all your lackeys in the press and commons yap: hang them, hang them. Mother of parliaments? A fat knacker’s wife who’s flayed half the bloody world. Your mock monarchy and zoo-keeping dukes and public schools, all stiff upper prick and regiments of back-street rats and buggering horatios. You have deported, degraded, starved and tortured us and still do and no apology and never will, but smirk and snigger at stupid Paddy, dirty Paddy.”

When Pascal played the tin whistle, it neutralised the creeping terror, at least for his comrades, as each note not only carried its own sound, but evoked centuries of racial memory. It had a different effect on the hostages, however, especially on Canon Plumm. In response to an assertion that the Irish language was the key, he let loose:

“To what? Chicken in the rough? Non-stop reels of jig-jig trash? The great, great show with endless whining lamentations manufactured by jackeens for plough boys and shop girls. “
Reflections on the role of women came into play as well. A news report on the kidnapping listed the men involved, but made no mention of the women. Harriet felt it acutely, not only for herself, but for her daughter who was, after all, a bachelor of arts. This then provoked further thoughts:

“Bachelor? Should it not be spinster of arts? Sounds miserable. Dog’s nice; who likes bitch? Bulls are magnificent; cow’s stupid. Boars fierce; sows eat their young. The language itself is perverse to the female. Men only. We re under sentence and the BBC don’t know we exist.”

So it went, through a long night which most present feared would be their last. Come morning, one hostage shot and two released, the British Army arrived ‘full of beans and bitters’. The crunch time had come and the hardest choice had to be made. The terms had been decreed: the three specified IRA men would be released from Long Kesh, but there would be a three-for- three exchange. It was decided that two bombing technicians and a suspect propagandist were the most expendable. And so the hostages were released, Gallagher and Leonard took off by helicopter with their three comrades from Long Kesh, the five deemed least expendable to the movement, as Pascal and Pacelli McAleer and Isabel Lynam went to their fates.

Although the scripts in the trilogy were richly-textured and multi-layered texts, with nuances not always adequately captured by the production, the trilogy was nevertheless a most impressive contribution to creating a culture true to its time and a fine achievement both for the author and for RTE. Michael Garvey, the head of drama at the time, regarded it as a “gothic achievement”. 43 Wesley Burrowes, who played a part in initiating the project and editing the work of his fellow writer, considered it one of the best things RTE ever did and felt it confirmed McCabe as the “best writer we have”. 44 Cancer won the script award for the author at the International Film Festival in Prague and a Jacobs award for the director, Deirdre Friel.

British Television Drama and Northern Ireland

It was to RTE’s credit that, whatever its limited resources, it gave such emphasis to dramatic treatment of the northern conflict. British television, in contrast, did not, at least not in the 1970s, nor were they interested in buying in the McCabe trilogy. Considering the estimable resources of British television and the sheer amount of television drama, home produced and imported, dealing with so many other problems, both near and far, there would seem to be a certain dereliction of duty in this regard. It took until the 1980s for British television drama to come through in this respect.

Addressing himself to this situation in 1980, Richard Hoggart wrote in The Listener that only nineteen plays in twelve years had dealt with the ‘troubles’, whether about Northern Ireland itself or about the effects in Britain. Anything on the troubles, he pointed out, was regarded as very sensitive and involved reference upwards, discussion, delay, denial of repeats or relegation to late night slots. Most drama that made it through, in his opinion, used stock characters and stock attitudes, with the result that the audience was denied the help of drama in coming to terms with the complexity of the situation. There was not so much direct censorship as indirect censorship, arising from the fact that Northern Ireland was considered a switch off subject or a dangerous one.45

Northern Ireland did occasionally get a look in. For example, in the 1976 Thames series Bill Brand on the political and personal life of a left-wing Labour MP, there was an episode giving a fair degree of attention to the passage through parliament of a further prevention of terrorism bill. Although a government backbencher, he put forward an amendment to reduce the period in which a suspect could be detained without being charged from ten days to three, bringing him into conflict both with his own party and with the opposition who wanted to raise the period from ten days to fourteen. In a wide ranging attack on the erosion of democratic freedoms and on the capitalist system itself, Brand stressed that the politics of terror was a bankrupt politics, but challenged those heckling him and going on about ‘men of blood’ to consider all men of blood, including currency speculators who murdered by telephone. As to what to do about Ireland, Brand insisted:

“The problem of Ireland will not be solved by passing anti-democratic laws in Britain. The problem of Ireland will be solved by the Irish, when the British government, acting on behalf of the people, relinquishes the imperialist role it has exercised these last three centuries.”
This speech was made against the political background, both within the fiction and in real life, of a wave of IRA bombs in Britain. The speech brought forth threats from a neo-fascist group, an attack on his family home and demands from within his constituency that he resign. It was a brave effort by its author Trevor Griffiths to show the capacity of a television drama series to deal convincingly with ideological conflict in an up-front way.
Among the other British television companies in the ITV system, there was occasionally a play of relevance to Anglo-Irish politics, such as the STV production Just Another Saturday, a 1975 play by Peter McDougall, showing the sectarian rivalry in Glasgow as not unlike that of Belfast (as Hector McMillan had also shown in The Sash). Thames 1979 production of Stewart Parker’s I’m a Dreamer Montreal gave a light-hearted treatment of the heavy scene that was Belfast at the time, which some reviewers felt conveyed the embattled essence of Belfast life better than many a heavy treatment of it. The play went at the subject obliquely, by honing in on the dream world constructed by a music librarian by day and show band singer by night to cocoon himself from the harsh reality of Belfast life. However, any such cocoon was shown to be exceedingly precarious in the face of such pervasive turmoil.

As to the BBC, its 1976 production, Your Man from the Six Counties concerned a 12-year-old Belfast boy, whose life had been so pervaded by turmoil that he had never known what life was like without the constant presence of bombs and bullets and sectarian hatred until he was sent to stay with an aunt and uncle in the 26 counties. The BBC was responsible for producing the drama relating to Northern Ireland which generated the greatest controversy. The Legion Hall Bombing was a 1978 Play for Today production. It was a drama-documentary reconstructing an actual trial in September 1976 in the Diplock courts under the emergency powers act, in which the Belfast youths were accused of planting a bomb which went off at a British Legion whist drive. As it came out, the viewer was left to make up his or her own mind whether the accused was guilty or not. What did come through was that, in the conditions of Northern Ireland, witnesses and jurors were often too frightened to identify defendants or to find them guilty, but also that dispensing with jury and normal rules of evidence also set justice at risk. Problems, which put those involved in the production at odds with the BBC, caused transmission to be delayed for six months. When it did go out, it did so without the names of Caryl Churchill as author or Roland Joffe as director, who had taken their names off the credits, because of modifications which they did not approve. The play has often been cited as evidence of direct censorship in British television, as has Brian Phelan’s Article 5 in 1975, which made passing reference to the use of torture in Northern Ireland at a time when British interrogation techniques were under investigation by the European Commission for Human Rights. Although the play had been commissioned by the BBC, it was never screened.46 There was also Kenneth Griffith’s biography of Michael Collins, Hang Out Your Brightest Colours, which was banned by the IBA.

Drama of Rural Life

Drama need not always deal with bombings, kidnappings, legislation, elections or overt expressions of political allegiances in order to be political. Much of RTE’s drama of the 1970s focused on contemporary Ireland in a way that showed how individual lives were shaped by presumptions and pressures stemming from larger structures of power, making it political in a broader and deeper sense of the term. Much of it, even if only subconsciously, registered the psycho-social consciousness of the shifting nexus of power relations and the displacement of traditional customs and values. Some of it, quite consciously, presented a forceful critique of the authoritarianism of the old Ireland or of the pretensions and false promises of the new Ireland.

The drama of rural life became much tougher and probed further into the bleak side of country matters. Apart from The Riordans which continually explored the problems and possibilities of life as experienced in the context of rural Ireland, there were a number of single plays which highlighted particular aspects of country life. The Irish language plays Saolaiodh Gamhain, An Carabhan, Teangabhail and An Taoille Tuile presented vivid pictures of the poverty and arduousness of the way of life of those who had to engage in back breaking labour in harsh conditions to eke out even a subsistence existence. Each of these in their different ways showed the effect of such conditions on vital relationships. In the case of Teangabhail and An Taoille Tuile, the effect was tragic in blighting young love in fragile relationships. In the case of Saolaiodh Gamhain and An Carabhan, the effect was to make the old, who had lived all their lives in such circumstances, unfit for any other.

Emigration was quite naturally a recurring theme. Some plays focused on the drama of the decision to emigrate or not to emigrate. The Country Boy explored the roots of emigration in the economic structure of rural Ireland and the exercise of patriarchal authority on the family farm. The problem was refracted through the experience of two brothers, both facing the same dilemma, each in their time considering emigration as the solution, but coming to different decisions as to what way to go. The Emigrant showed a family in a dwindling community still attempting to scratch out a living and resist emigration. In the end, a widow determined to hold her family together had to pay the price of severing it from its roots. Although the note in the RTE Guide attempted to back away from any considerations of the social context or solutions to the problem of emigration and presented the play as simply about human nature,47 this was setting up an unreal and unworthy dichotomy.

Other plays looked at the effects of emigration and followed into foreign parts the lives of those who left rural Ireland. Taking a light hearted look at the acute form of Irishness characterising those who huddled around such expatriate centres as the Wild Harp of Erin All Ireland Social Recreational & Workingmen’s Club Birmingham was Ron Hutchinson’s If You’re Irish.

Giving a more sober view of men emigrating to find work in Britain to support the family back home was Maeve Binchy’s Deeply Regretted By, in which an emigrant’s death brought to the surface the hidden complexities of the double life he had been leading for so many years. It gave an insight into the difficulties of both those who left and those who stayed, both facing the responsibilities of married life without any of its comforts.

Showing the severe isolation and remarkable human resources of a ‘grass widow’ left behind on the very edge of civilisation for months on end every year, while her husband went to work in Scotland, was Mr. Sing, My Heart’s Delight. There was a peculiar sense of the mingling of joy and sadness in these sort of plays, particularly in Mr. Sing, My Heart’s Delight, a play of great lyrical beauty, despite the bleak presence of acute poverty, both material and cultural, and extreme loneliness. There was a certain mythic, elemental quality to it, rising above the specificity of its setting, in its portrayal of the power of the human spirit in an isolated illiterate old woman, whose soaring imagination and irrepressible joie de vivre triumphed over all economic and cultural constrictions of sexual and social repression.

Whether as text or subtext, whether in its old or new forms, emigration was a persistent presence. The plays of this period threw up a number of memorable images of the deep psychic dislocations it forced on simple people, most of them ill fit to cope with its complexities. Sometimes it was those leaving like the landless labourer in King of the Castle. Other times it was those returning, like the older brother back on his holidays with his American wife in The Country Boy, or the young woman back to be married, after earning her dowry in America in An Taoille Tuile, or the failed actor, seeking to recapture what he had left behind in Conversations on a Homecoming. The lingering feeling was of uprooted branches blown in the wind, of elements never to be firmly grounded, of people who were neither here nor there. There were moments of acute awareness of the drift of rural decay and depopulation. There were revelations of the layers of madness and viciousness resulting from it. Going a long way towards illuminating the offensiveness of those on the defensive and explaining why Maguire in King of the Castle constantly behaved like a threatened animal was his perception that:

“There’ll be nothin’ here soon but Scobers, tinkers and tourists”.

King of the Castle

King of the Castle was far and away the outstanding play for cutting through the layers of pretence to the lacerating tensions and brutish realities of life on the land. For its author, Eugene McCabe, it represented “a disquieting revelation of the second face of Cathleen Ni Houlihan”, 48 Originally a stage play, first presented at the Gaiety Theatre during the 1964 Dublin Theatre Festival, it won the Irish Life award for new plays. One critic predicted at the time that it would never be shown on RTE. 49 In proving this prediction wrong in 1977, RTE went as far as it has ever gone in presenting in dramatic form an uncompromisingly honest and devastatingly unflattering picture of Irish society. In this production, RTE also pushed to the limits of what it would dare in its raw and explicit exposure of the darker side of human sexuality and all the predatory and vulnerable emotions surrounding it. It was a play the Daily Telegraph had characterised as having “the obvious, naked, unambiguous impact of an animal in heat”. 50

The critics and professionals generally heralded it in the superlatives, even if the audience found it difficult to accept. Louis Lentin, who directed the RTE production, considered it “the best Irish play for a quarter of a century”, 51 Christopher Fitzsimon said that it gave a more honest and uncompromising view of Irish society than any other play of its period. Of all the works of the decade, it was the one which best expressed the viciousness and rapacity of the affluent, but spiritually impoverished, new middle class in the period of economic expansion which occurred under the government of Sean Lemass. 52 However, its very truthfulness was its problem. As Hilton Edwards observed, there were more in Ireland who wished to disbelieve it than to accept it. 53

King of the Castle was set on a large Leitrim farm at the beginning of the Lemass era, The big house, once inhabited by the local gentry, was now occupied by Scober McAdam, the new man of the era, the self-made, prosperous entrepreneur, and his young wife Tressa, who was in miles over her head in her attempt to play the role of the new lady of the manor. Typifying in their opposite ways the barrenness of the nouveau riche, each occupied the big house differently. She had a desire to do and decorate in the old ways of the gentry, but still had a peasant perception of people of ‘quality’ and knew she hadn’t the ‘breeding’ to fill their shoes. He, however, had no regrets about their passing and being replaced by those who made their way by buying and selling. In a scene capturing their different attitudes to the big house, they said to each other:

Tressa: “You don’t ever fit it right”
Scober: “If you can pay for it, you fit it.”

The play opened with the hired men working on the land during the annual threshing. Their speech was overflowing with both class antagonism and sexual innuendo. In the matter of the inequality of wealth, they seethed with the impotent resentment of the dispossessed. In the matter of sexual fertility, however, they conspired with peasant cunning to take their consolation and their revenge in their perception that here the tables were turned. The play was permeated with a sense of the legacy of centuries of famine, poverty, serfdom and cultural constriction. It was also suffused with the symbolism of harvest and of fertility.

The tie of sex to land and livestock and to buying and selling was strongly emphasised. It came piercing through, over and over, on level after level, in the multi-layered and richly-textured narrative of its superbly constructed text. The woman, played with a suitable brooding edginess by Fionnuala Flanagan, was constantly referred to by means of the imagery of farm animals, whether horses, pigs, dogs or cows. She needed to be ‘the right breeding sort’. She was ‘chewing her cud’. She was ‘a bitch in heat’. When the metaphors were mixed, it could as often be down the evolutionary ladder as up. It could even drift into the realm of mechanical and technological artifact. “Bonnet never lifted,” her husband was assured when he got her. When more human terms were used, it was more often generic or patronymic than individual. Her husband often addressed her as ‘woman’, just as she addressed him as ‘man’. Alternatively, all around, including her husband, called her ‘Mullarchy’s daughter’. Even in direct address, her husband often called her ‘daughter’. She was never addressed by her individual first. name, although the men frequently were. Any intimation of individuality was dismissed with the assertion “She’s a woman, like any other”.

Not that the imagery the men drew upon to express their perception of themselves or each other rose very far or very often above the level of the farm animals. They spoke of themselves as stud to the mare, as dog to the bitch. Occasionally, there was a feeble effort to articulate something rising above this. In his effort to persuade a journeyman to impregnate his wife in order to provide him with an heir to stop the mockers, the conversation turned to the nature of sex:

Scober: “What men and women do. An itch. A scratch. It’s gone. It’s nothing unless a growth comes from it.”
Matt: “It’s more than that. I’m not a dog.”

This was an assertion quickly discredited by the action. Despite the previous refusal to oblige on the part of both Matt and Tressa, the only two voices even trying to contest the barnyard mentality in relation to human sexuality, when sexual intercourse did happen between them, it was violent, atavistic and brutish, not unlike the manner of animals in heat. It followed a cruel and ugly encounter between them, in which she taunted him about not having the kind of licence they have for bulls, boars and stallions and he called her a bitch. She derided his masculinity and scoffed at him for being landless, for labouring on someone else’s land and for having only himself to blame for having to emigrate. She lauded her husband’s superior masculinity in his ownership of land, in his power to buy and sell. She gave her definition of the difference between a man and a messer. It was all this that brought them to blows and then to sex. The only distinctively human elements were the emotional cruelty and the market forces.

It was a far cry from cute anecdotes of laughing leprechauns and lovable lads and lassies. It was an even longer way from sublime stories of an isle of saints and scholars. It did not speak well for those who would be the first to defend the prescriptions and prohibitions of catholic moral theology and for the elements who might be first to come down hard on anybody challenging it all as a matter of principle. All but Scober were practising catholics.

Maguire, the most malicious mouth at the table, was the least likely to forget to bless himself before and after meals. It was even a long way from The Riordans. Whatever the grievances and gossip between neighbours, the rural community of Leestown was basically benign. People more often helped than hindered one another. Good loomed larger than bad, all things considered. It was the opposite in King of the Castle. The community was so permeated by tension, greed, hostility and ill-will that the overriding feel was one of malevolence. Even the woman, who in the beginning had seemed most the victim of greed and hardness, came through by the end as the hard and greedy victimiser. Enquiring about the crop, the tons and tons of what had been harvested by the labours of others, she tensely proclaimed herself and her husband set for the winter and let the rest be dammed:

“Let the criers cry outside the gates. We can shut our ears.”
And yet in such an atmosphere, no one could be home and clear. The oppressors were oppressed as much by their own oppressiveness as that of others. All were both victimisers and victims in this intricate web of victimisation. Taking little consolation from all that had been gathered to the big house or from the gatherers being shut out of its gate, Tressa realised:

“Only it’s a dark time…winter … and lonely…the garden’s like a graveyard.”

Despite the fact that all the outward structures of the rural community and traditional religion were intact, the reality was that every individual was ultimately alone and living by codes that were more an odd blend of pagan primitivism and capitalist competitiveness than those of the official catholic nationalist ideology.

It was not a picture of the rural community that the rural community was prepared to accept. Whatever controversy was generated by the play in the theatre audience was nothing compared to that sparked off in the television audience. During transmission, there were a number of calls to RTE, mainly from women, saying the play was ‘filthy’. The television columns of the provincial papers were scathing. They vied with each other to find terms negative enough to express their revulsion. The papers insisted that they were being inundated with calls and letters, indicating that their readers were up in arms. The critic in the Cork Evening Echo heaped scorn on theatre people and what they regarded as great theatre. Whatever this elite thought of King of the Castle, he told his readers:

“you and I and thousands of others know full well that its theme is crude and vulgar and very much foreign to our way of life.” 54

The reaction in Leitrim was particularly vehement. People had allowed their children to stay up in their provincial pride at a play being set in their county, despite the fact that RTE had made it very clear that it was to be regarded as adult fare. The next meeting of the Leitrim county council was overflowing with outrage. Councillor Joe Mooney declared the play to be “a slander on the people of Leitrim.” It “made dirt of the women of Leitrim”. He asked why Eugene McCabe “hadn’t the guts to locate this filth in his own county”(Monaghan). He warned that the play could lead to a “new wave of permissiveness”. It was the sort of thing that might have gone down well with the “so called intelligentsia in Dublin”, but country people were “shocked, annoyed and appalled”. 55 It was also discussed at the Castlebar urban district council. Councillor Richard Morris was to the fore in voicing his disgust at what he described as ‘filth’ and ‘trash’. In his opinion, the majority of people working in RTE were “depraved minds, dropouts from society or winos”. He thought the director-general should be asked for a public apology. 56 Such an apology was not forthcoming. The RTE authority, according to Bob Collins, who was its secretary at the time, sent out many letters defending the production. 57

The White House

The reaction was similar in the case of Tom Murphy’s The White House, another RTE production of controversial theatrical material in the same year, which also gave a very sharp-edged view of rural life. The White House, originally a 1972 Abbey Theatre production, consisted of two plays, both set in a pub in an East Galway town, involving the same set of characters, separated by the lapse of a decade. (A later version, re-written and produced by Druid in 1985, collapsed the two plays into one under the title Conversations on a Homecoming.)

Although Tom Murphy was inclined to consider himself as not consciously political or sociological, 58 his realisation that the writer must transcend what is merely autobiographical or purely local gave his plays an organic political and sociological significance. The White House was a work of striking social relevance in the way it registered the crises in personal and communal identity resulting from the political and sociological shifts in Irish society in the 1960s and 1970s. It gave forceful expression, as Fintan O’Toole perceptively put it, to the confusion and disorientation of

“an Ireland caught between one failed dream and another, between a gaelic rural idyll and a modern industrial paradise.” 59

Speeches of Farewell, the first of the two plays, was set on November 22, 1963, the night of the assassination of John F Kennedy, in the pub called the White House. The pub was owned by JJ Kilkelly, a man totally caught up in the Kennedy mystique. JJ presented himself as a man of flair and initiative, a man of advanced ideas and rationalist rhetoric, very much in the Kennedy mould. He even contrived to make the most of his physical appearance, which bore a vague resemblance to that of JFK. Full of the high-flown rhetoric of the new frontier, JJ was the man who would blow away the cobwebs of bigotry and insularity of traditional small town Ireland and lead the way into the fresh air of the liberal, cosmopolitan era of Lemass, Kennedy and Roncalli. Drawn into the world of his brave new pub, swathed in pseudo-Kennedy charisma and a mythic Camelot aura, were his self-effacing supportive wife and a group of younger acolytes, who shared his battles and his dreams.

As the play unfolded, the chinks in the armour of the king and his bold knights could be glimpsed. Despite all the surface confidence and clarity, there were mounting revelations of just how vulnerable were their characters and how confused their vision. Underneath the bold rhetoric of a new cultural world, there turned out to be only a collection of vague notions, shallow opinions and rag-tag prescriptions. Their great confrontation with clerical authority was over a nude painting. They believed that the country-and-western system itself was unyielding and uncompromising in its drive for total sentimentality. They thought that there should be no division between bar and lounge. Such was their analysis of the system and programme for an alternative. Indeed, so shaky were the foundations of this ramshackle edifice that the death of John F Kennedy, and JJ’s total collapse in the face of it, were enough to bring the whole lot tumbling down for all concerned, with their very identity, individual and collective, exploded to bits.

In the second play, Conversations on a Homecoming, the full weight of the vulnerability of the characters and the tenuousness of their beliefs came into clearer view and sharper relief. Gathering for a reunion ten years later, on the occasion of the return of one of their group who had emigrated, the characters progressively disclosed the changes the ensuing years had wrought in them. The play consisted essentially of pub talk, beginning in sobriety, moving to inebriation and then back full circle to sobriety again. In the course of the cycle, the layers of pseudo-sophistication and self-deception were painfully peeled away to reveal each character in disillusioned nakedness. Their former guru, JJ, whose character was the centre of focus in the first play, was only a haunting off-stage presence in the second. While he was on the tear in a pub that in their heyday was referred to as the opposition, the focus shifted to those he left high and dry when he went under.

The dialectic forming the centre of dramatic tension was the confrontation between the two characters at the extreme ends of the spectrum between illusion and disillusionment. Michael, the returned emigrant, was a failed actor still clinging to a rose-coloured view of their glory days and an inflated estimation of JJ and the White House. Tom, a teacher who stayed in the town, was, in contrast, the most bitter and cynical of the lot. It was he who took it upon himself to be the agent of interpretation of the past and to be the instrument of dismantling others fond illusions regarding it. As the night proceeded towards full revelation, it became apparent that the two were meant to be alter egos, two sides to a whole person, whose interaction might produce some sort of resolution to the dilemma of them all. At one point, another character remarked of them:

“The two of ye together might make one decent man”.

The effort to move from confusion and self-delusion to clarity and sanity was short-circuited somewhat and stopped short of going the whole way, at least by the end of the play. For the time being, a frustrated search left only numbness in its wake. As one of the characters admitted, he was “not able to feel anything anymore”. As to whether some sort of healing and a sadder but wiser wholeness might come in time, the possibility was left open, at least for those still somehow striving. Others were write-offs in one way or another. JJ would continue to descend into alcoholic disintegration. “Mrs”.would continue to put on the brave face on the downward spiral of self-effacing degeneration. Liam would take control of the White House, in the way of the new breed of the old gombeen, who were taking control of much else in the country.

Like other works of Tom Murphy, The White House dealt with confrontation between the brutal realities of modern life and the efforts of people to find solace in faiths and fantasies and to construct sanctuaries and places of refuge for themselves. In the first play, the White House, such as it was, was shown to be functioning as a sanctuary for a collection of characters in their glory days, as a place where they found moments of vulnerable union against the long loneliness of their individual lives. In the second play, they confronted each other and their own shattered dreams, standing in the ruins of their dilapidated refuge. In so doing, they stood for much more than just their individual characters in their individual place. Their predicament, and their words in articulating it, somehow spoke with the weight of the expectations and losses of so many others. The shabbiness of the White House, both in its rise and in its fall, was a suitable symbol of the sham of lreland’s preening itself in the reflected glory of the Kennedy mystique in its hour upon the world stage. Constructed in such a way that two evenings in the lives of a small set of characters in a single pub could create resonances of so many days and nights in the lives of so many other people in so many other places, it was bound to set off reflections on the social history of its times in anyone serious enough to think upon its meaning. The force of the contrast between the one scenario and the other was lost to a considerable degree in the later Druid version, arguably to its detriment, giving ample cause for a preference for the RTE version. In any version, however, it was substantial and searching drama. Even the minor images of the play, like the cutting down of trees to make Easter egg boxes, were the sort to stay in the mind and to stir reflections on proportions and priorities and the way things were ordered in the world from one era to the next.

Not that large sections of the television audience were inclined to such reflections. Head of drama, Michael Garvey, saw it as a production that would have its audience fighting against it, but felt it was RTE’s contribution to their growth. 60 Unfortunately, perhaps, those who might have been engaged in such growth preferred to do it in relative silence. Those who were not, however, were anything but silent. There was uproar in a number of local government bodies. It was the occasion for a resolution condemning “the recent permissive trend in RTE programmes,” which received the unanimous support of Midleton urban council and for a resolution protesting against the “scandalous filth of RTE programmes” passed unanimously by Youghal urban council. 61 At Cork county council, there was criticism of The White House as ‘obscene’ and ‘absolutely disgraceful’ and there was a unanimous motion deploring the ‘low standard’ of RTE programmes. 62 At North Tipperary county council, there was also a unanimous resolution condemning it. 63 At Castlebar urban district council, it was considered ‘scurrilous and filthy’ and Councillor Frank Durcan called upon the RTE authority to remove those involved in putting it on air. 64 For their part, the West Donegal Fine Gael executive protested against it as blasphemy and a gross insult to christian principles. 65 Agreement on this point seemed to form the basis of ecumenical harmony in Cashel. Soon after a notice criticising the moral standards of RTE was read out at all catholic masses at St. John the Baptist Church, 66 the protestant dean of Cashel declared it was “time to cry halt to the grossly offensive programmes on RTE”. 67 In the provincial press, television columnists, editorial writers and letter writers gave out about the ‘profanity’ , ‘vulgarity’ , ‘ depravity’ , ‘ obscenity’ , ‘irreverence’ and ‘blasphemy’ they attributed to The White House. A line that gave the characters a laugh over a book entitled The Life Story of the Little Flower being catalogued under horticulture in the local library even had viewers taking offence on the basis of their devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux. One irate letter writer to The Irish Independent was disgusted at what he called “disrespect to the Little Flower” and suggested it was “time such sick people got out of RTE”. 68 Other correspondents called on RTE to “clean up its dirty mess” .69

Coming to the defence of his work, Tom Murphy responded to Limerick city councillor Thady Coughlan, who had called it ‘unadulterated filth’ 70, with the suggestion that the filth might be in the mind of the beholder, rather than in what it beheld. Tomas MacAnna considered Coughlan’s remarks as ‘absolutely silly’ and prompted more by electioneering than any other motive. 71 Reviewing the production in The Irish Times, Ken Gray was of the opinion that the Irish public found it embarrassing to hear on television the sort of talk that went on in their pubs. Whatever the problem, he insisted, the solution was not to pillory the playwright. The play might have been depressing, but it was strong and powerful and uncomfortably accurate in its observations. It was also full of compassion. As far as he was concerned, it was a credit to the resolution, courage and integrity of the drama department of RTE that it was done well enough to provoke such cries of shame an disgust. 72 Tom O’Dea in The Irish .Press felt he dialogue was a bit too polished and left some questions hanging in the air, but there was enough hard truth in it that he “could hear the sound of approaching vigilantes, diverted temporarily from their pursuit of Niall Toibin (during the run of Time Now, Mr.T) to go after Tom Murphy. 73

In an interesting reversal of the point periodically put by people within RTE regarding its audience’s double standard, in accepting in imported programmes what they refused to accept in home produced ones, an editorial in the Cork Examiner accused RTE of having a double standard that worked in the opposite way. It cited, as evidence for this, RTE’s taking off the air in mid-run the US serial Executive Suite for less than what it allowed to go through in The White House and other home produced dramas of the era. 74

Law and Order, Class Conflict and Rural Life

Not all the rural drama with any sort of critical edge got the audience’s back up to the same extent as King of the Castle and The White House with their raw revelations and shattering emotional catharsis. Other plays shed their own sort of light on the problems, but with a lighter touch and a less threatening challenge to their audience.

Niall Sheridan’s A Dog’s Life dealt with the comic side of life in a remote garda station, but also gave cause to consider something of the serious side of the struggle for survival of men who were trapped, both by habitual attitudes and socio-economic facts. Showing life on the other side of the law was Bob Quinn’s film Poitin, with its acute observations, not only of poitin makers, but of community life in Connemara, where traditional ways were being threatened, not only by the forces of law and order, but by poverty, unemployment and emigration. It got a showing not only on RTE, but abroad, where it played its small part in breaking the force of stage-Irish stereotypes of west of Ireland life.

Drama which put a strong emphasis on class antagonism in the rural community did much to undermine these stereotypes from within. Apart from King of the Castle, which took a hard and clear approach to it, and The Riordans, which went for a softer and more ambiguous treatment of it, there were a number of other productions taking it on, each in their own way. Jennifer Johnston’s The Gates focused on the barriers of prejudice and poverty between those born of the landed gentry and those born of their hired labour on a country estate. A young girl, whose father had been banished for marrying outside his class, came into the family estate which her uncle had let run to seed. In enlisting the help of her uncle’s odd job man, in her efforts to bring the place back to its former glory according to plans her father had been unable to carry out, she misjudged the barriers of class standing in the way.

Liam O’Flaherty’s Teangabhail also dealt with the matter of relationships formed in the shadow of rural class structure. When a young landless labourer and the daughter of the man for whom he was working fell in love, their home was caught in the stranglehold of class distinction, with cruel consequences coming as if by some kind of historical inevitability. A similar storyline, though away from the agricultural division of labour on the land and into the industrial division of labour in the country town, was developed in James Douglas’ Too Short a Summer. In the summer before he was to enter university, a young lad went to work at the local brickworks, where his father was also employed. Upon becoming involved with his employer’s daughter, all sorts of problems emerged. Reaction to their impending marriage and the change in his career plans served to expose the unyielding class structure of the town, both in terms of the bitterness from below and the snobbery from above, explored particularly in terms of Carmel’s mother, who was living on her status as queen of small town society, and Conor’s father, whose son was the focus of his own frustrated ambitions.

In a yet sadder story of the suffocating effects of life in a small town, Eugene McCabe’s Roma showed how the solace taken even in a highly repressed relationship was crushed in the cruelty thriving in the constricted lives of those at the margins of the social structure. Looking at the society from the point of view of those for whom it had no respectable place, a bleak picture emerged. Benny, the odd job man in a chipper, living in a loft with a drunken beggar, sustained only by his religious faith and secret love for his employer’s daughter, delivered a hard verdict on local life, even before the little he had was taken from him:

“This town is rotten, like the bad end of a city. Sometimes it seems God’s deaf or blind or gone asleep. Sometimes it seems there’s no cure”.
Even those for whom he worked were near enough to the bottom of the heap. An Italian family running a fish and chip shop, they had moved from one part of Ireland to another, trying to find a place for themselves in Irish society. The wife was still clinging to pathetic hopes of social mobility, at least through her daughter. Inciting Maria to study hard, Mrs. Digacimo explained why:

“With education, maybe you marry a doctor. For you, cara mia… a good life… you no want this?”

For her husband, however, there were no more illusions. The life they had was the only sort of life they would ever have. No matter where they went, it would be the same. Their lot, as he sadly saw it, was to realise that:

“we belong nowhere, Gina, we belong with louts and drunks and half-wits and… there is nothing else, but now and tonight and tomorrow and the next day ’till we die…”

Perhaps the most marginalised elements in the social structure were the travelling population. Various plays dealt with the class tensions between the travelling community and the settled community, whether in a serious vein in Voices in the Wilderness or in a comic romp in God’s Gentry. The Riordans gave extraordinary attention to such tensions during the whole course of its run. As a serial, there were both regular and transient characters who were travellers past and present, whose lives shed light on various aspects of the situation from various angles. As a series, an episode called The Outsider gave it tighter treatment and took it on from an unusual and ironic angle. Although The Riordans exposed all sorts of attitudes to travellers in the community, the scripts were invariably written in liberal sympathy for their plight. It was never in rose coloured hues. However, this particular episode specialised in the shades of grey. In it, a rogueish traveller and his family came to squat in the home of Eamonn Maher, a settled traveller and a long established and respected character. This, naturally enough, caused considerable disorientation in a whole range of characters. There were all sorts of interesting reversals. As one character expressed it:

“I’ve been at evictions before, but never before where everyone was on the landlord’s side”.

Playing on the reversals he set in motion, the traveller told the story of the good shepherd in reverse to the priest. He accused him of:
“guarding the church to be sure the black sheep doesn’t get in and contaminate the other ninety-nine.”

Posing the issue in a black and white way that belied his canny sense of the greyness of it all:

“There are two classes – those that get moved on and those that do the moving. You’re one or the other”.

Using every device to play upon residual guilt in the community, he brought all the mythlcal imagery he could muster to bear on the confrontation, from the bible:

“I’m not going through any agony in the garden for you”
To Hollywood and the wild west:
“There’s a stage at noon… Don’t worry, I’ll be on it”.

Even after it had finished as serial and series, a once-off special called On the Feast of Stephen featured the Riordans facing Christmas season, with a case of two traveller kids and a missing turkey.

Although The Riordans dealt with the ambiguities, the thrust was towards clarifying the situation and sorting out the issues. The opposite was the case with Traveller, an independent film directed by Joe Comerford, written by Neil Jordan and shown on RTE. There were some revealing moments in the film, showing aspects of Irish society through the alienated eyes of two young travellers. It punctured some of the glossy balloons of both religious observance and republican ritual. The emptiness of the relationship between catholicism and the everyday lives of its adherents came across with particular vividness in the church presiding over the arranged marriage of Michael and Angela, in a farcical wedding ceremony in which both questions and responses were uttered in the most perfunctory way, underlining the huge discrepancy between the words and the reality.

In their smuggling sojourns north of the border, there were incidents indicating something of the weight of dead heroes upon living non-heroes and the shallowness of the routine singing of rebel songs. However, long sections of the film were opaque, unfocused and incoherent. Indeed, the film itself, in its overall impact, was opaque, unfocused and incoherent. This endeared it to the avant-garde critics, who stretched flimsy material to its limits to find hidden meaning in its fabric or acquiesced in its incoherence by praising it for not subordinating image to plot and for not prioritising narrative over circumstance.75 There might have been those who found some inherent value in minimal dialogue, inaudible speech, a non-synchronous sound track, disconnected images, dark to black lighting, long static sequences and diffuse to disappearing narrative, but others did not. It also provoked an alienation of boredom, impatience or even hostility that did nothing to enhance understanding. Traveller might have been a film about characters who had little to say, who were inarticulate in relation to themselves, to each other and to their world, but this did not demand or excuse a film that had so little to say, that was itself so inarticulate in relation to them, to their relationships, and to their world. There was nothing in it remotely striving for explanation or reaching for an overview.

McCabe’s work, by contrast, did reach forward in this way, even though there was never any smug bottom line. Though it was most often done in subtle and intricate ways, sometimes it was carried in a more overt and direct device. In Roma, for example, Mr. Digacimo peered at his daughter’s copybook and enquired:

Paulo: “Physical and psychological terrain. Fancy. Do you know what it means?”
Maria: “Yes.”

Paulo: “Tell us.”

Maria: “Where you live determines how you think and behave.”

Paulo: “Does it?”

Maria: “Partly.”

So, the implication was, it was more than individuals moving within what scope there was for free will that stood indicted for the way things were.

Drama of Urban Life and the Rural-Urban Interface

Of course, the way things were was changing. The physical and psychological terrain was shifting. The trend towards rural depopulation and the movement to towns and cities accelerated with increasing industrialisation. While the main trend continued to be in this direction, there was a countervailing trend to disillusionment with urbanisation and industrialisation and to counter-cultural romanticisation of rural life. The trend was strongest in the most highly industrialised countries. Hippie and quasi-hippie types fantasised about return to the land and alternative lifestyles. Armed with the Whole Earth Catalogue and Mao’s Little Red Book, they dropped out of MIT or UCLA or UCD and headed off to Vermont or New Mexico or Connemara to set up communes and to grow organic sunflower seeds. The natives, particularly in the west of Ireland, were naturally somewhat puzzled and bemused by the influx of exotic refugees from the city lights. It would seem a subject crying out for dramatic treatment, both serious and comic, though it has received surprisingly little. It was not left untouched, however.

Thomas Kilroy’s Farmers took on such a scenario. Set in a run down farmhouse inhabited by two couples, one pair Irish and the other American, Kilroy probed beneath the flight from urban life and explored the uncertainties and insecurities motivating the four central characters. Playing the characters off against each other, the Irish couple came over as the more conventional. Between the women, Nuala’s intolerance was set against Judith’s resilience. As to the men, Sean was more positive, seeking the simple life to aid his work as a poet, whereas Peter was more cynical and in flight from the pressures of American life. Of the two other characters who came into the picture, one was a child, the daughter of Sean and Nuala. The other was a local farmer, symbolic of the indigenous community in which the farm was set. The inability of the four refugees to respond appropriately to his overtures underlined their position as outsiders and the irony of their playing at being farmers.

Eugene McCabe’s treatment of the flight from urbanisation brought further complexities into a consideration of its incongruities. It was not so simple to retreat to the agricultural realm as a haven from the industrial world, when confronted with the growing industrialisation of agriculture. In The Apprentice, a wealthy builder’s son, disillusioned with his father’s lifestyle, opted to go to agricultural college, in search of an alternative lifestyle closer to nature. Upon discovering that the policy of the college was to fertilise every inch of land, to pour feed into animals to fatten them fast and to make maximum profits by whatever means, he in turn became disillusioned with the alternative.

The interface between rural and urban life was constantly surfacing in Ireland’s indigenous television drama in a way that distinguished it from imported material and that reflected the growing pains of the socio-historical transitions, co-incident with and integrally tied to the introduction of television.

With all that the televisual picture of rural life revealed of its dark side, what the counterpart of urban life offered was anything but a contrasting brightness. Its dark side was darker still and loomed much larger in the total picture of the city as a form of social organisation.

Bringing the rural-urban interface immediately into play was one of RTE’s most prominent urban dramas, the award winning A Week in the Life of Martin Cluxton. Young Martin De Porres Cluxton was first seen walking the green hills of the west of Ireland, along with a group of other boys and a christian brother in charge. It soon became apparent that the boys were juvenile offenders, whose school outing belonged to a borstal type of institution. Sent away for theft, his third offence, Martin had got to the point where he no longer remembered Dublin or even what his parents looked like. The rationale behind his sentence seemed to be that rural retreat under religious supervision was suitable treatment for unhealthy symptoms of urban disease.

The play was concerned with the week in the life of Martin Cluxton in which he was released from the reformatory and returned to Dublin. It traced the transition from country to city, from inside to outside, from school to dole queue, from institution to home. It quickly became clear that Martin would never be at home, even at home, in the off-hand and even threatening reception given him by his own family. His status as a no-hoper, not only in the past, but in the present and future, was underlined everywhere he went, in his encounters with friends, neighbours, priests, social workers, delinquents and dropouts, in his signing on at the labour exchange, in his fruitless job applications, in his sense of having nowhere to go and nothing to do.

Influenced by the social-realist trend in British television drama in the 1960s, especially the more radical work of Ken Loach and Tony Garnett, the play, the brainchild of Brian Mac Lochlainn who co-authored, produced and directed it, employed the innovatory techniques of drama-documentary to give a realistic and closely observed picture of the culture surrounding chronic unemployment. Particularly interesting were the devices used to carry the striving for meaning and explanation, arising out of the narrative. A series of authority figures would periodically turn from playing their roles in the story to direct address to camera commentary on the situation and offering various interpretations of causes and consequences. Also on the sound track were voice over pieces, embodying the reflections of Martin and others on what was happening and why. Various bits of dialogue, pub talk and radio interviews in the background, as well as the whole thrust of the narrative, embodied a strong drive towards elucidation. Throughout the play, there were strong undercurrents rejecting catholic authority or charity, on the one hand, and rejecting 1960s style radical opposition, on the other. Priests and brothers spoke as realising that their resources were inadequate to the tasks. The pub revolutionary discoursing on class struggle and the philosophising drop-out were portrayed as impotent in the face of the problems they raised. The one may have realised that:

“Babies don’t get bit by rats in Foxrock”.
and the other may have come to see that:
“The whole society is based on waste.”
but the viewer was left with a strong feeling that neither could or would do anything about it. What then was the bottom line, as far as the motivating perspective underlying the play was concerned ? According to Martin McLoone:

“Throughout the play, then, what is highlighted is the lack of professional state-funded support systems, again the social democratic structures which would alleviate the problems… In the end, therefore, A Week in the Life of Martin Cluxton rejects Catholic charity, socialist organisation and rural escape as solutions to the problems of contemporary urban society. In doing so, it calls for the development of a caring welfare state reinforcing the message of Tolka Row and anticipating the message of Strumpet City.” 76

While this analysis may have over-stated the degree of conscious communication of message across a range of productions, it was a reasonable enough reading of the deep structure underlying this production, as well as others of the period.

Another project of Brian MacLochlainn’s, who was very committed to the dramatic depiction of Dublin working class life, was an urban six hour serial, The Burke Enigma. It was cops and robbers Dublin style, an indigenous version of the imported television crime series. It adopted many of the conventions of the genre developed elsewhere: the use of film, authentic locations, rapid cutting; action-adventure sequences full of fisticuffs, car chases, arrests and interrogations; a plot structured around crime, investigation and solution. It was particularly influenced by British versions of the genre, such as Z Cars and The Sweeney. It was intended to be more than just a crime thriller with a Dublin setting, however. It was meant to engage in an exploration of certain themes beyond what the genre normally allowed. It set out to be a dramatic investigation of such matters as the nature of urban crime and its relation to legitimate business and to political power, the role of the matriarchal family and the existence of contrasting approaches to police methods.

The story was triggered by the murder of Mrs. Burke, the matriarch of the Burke family. This was the enigma, the mystery to which subsequent investigation was to find the solution. The plot developed by looking into the lives of each of the suspects, ie, the various members of the Burke family. The Burke family was described as:

“Your old Dublin family with the rosary beads in one hand and the hatchet in the other.”
They were a mafia type family modelled on the Dunne family, who had built an empire based on various types of racketeering, prostitution, and money lending. Their rackets had spawned various legitimate businesses in an intricate web in which the straight half fed off the bent half and vice versa. Their accumulated power and possessions had also won them the protection of people in high places. Each of the big and bad Burke family had their own story. Willie Burke particularly embodied the tie-in of criminal activity to political and business activity. An up-and-coming politician, he was also a night club owner, as well as being implicated in pornography, prostitution, arson and fraud. His wife, Sandra, was a younger and perhaps even tougher version of the deceased matriarch, up to her eyes in various rackets and not reluctant to call upon her husband’s connections with senior gardai. In the course of following them and the rest of the family, all sorts of aspects of the black economy came to light, as well as such matters as emigration, homosexuality and suicide.

The dominant point of view running through the serial was that of the police, more specifically that of the two detectives investigating the Burke murder. It was through their eyes that Dublin, the Burke family, the Garda Siochana and all else was seen. The differences between the two detectives were central to the serial. McGettigan, the older of the two, representing an older type of cop, was a Dublin detective with a Donegal background. His basic approach to crime was psychological, empirical, methodical and patient. It was to investigate, to accumulate evidence and to draw upon a shrewd knowledge of human behaviour gleaned from years of experience. He was liberal and humanitarian. He was cultured and interested in the arts. Hannon was a younger and a newer type of cop. A tough, streetwise jackeen, his inclination was to punch first and ask questions later. He was impatient and violent and aggressive. Although representing the official forces of law and order, he was disposed to use whatever methods he thought appropriate, whether within the law or not, and not only in the pursuit of justice. He was not beyond the pursuit of private vendetta either. At one point, he was suspended from the force for insubordination. At another point, he was on the verge of resignation. Both were highly individualist characters, more than willing to fight their corner against bureaucratic authority, but in very different ways. In terms of the genre, one was more in the mould of Maigret, Friday, Kojak, Columbo or Furillo, while the other was more in the mould of Regan, Starsky and Hutch, Bodie and Doyle, Dempsey or Crockett. In one episode, McGettigan himself described their divergent approaches:

“When I went into the guards in ’43, it seemed to be the simplest job in the world. Now it gets more complex every day… Take me and Hannon – we’ve different attitudes to the same job. Hannon looks at Dublin and sees all the things wrong -all the rot. The only way he thinks of curing it is with tough arm stuff. To be in the guards for him means a clean ticket to mop up the city. Stamp out any smell of trouble. To hell with the pimps and the winos and the prostitutes…l’ve no romantic notions about the city. The prostitutes are as much a part of it as the bishops. I wasn’t employed by the force to change history, just to do me job, use me brains, do me best and go home and forget about it. That’s what I think.”

Reviewers generally praised The Burke Enigma for the realism of its portrayal of contemporary Dublin and for the stylishness of its methods of production. Some qualified their general approval with complaints that came down to the rhythm and pace of plot development. It was in many cases compared favourably withThe Spike which had preceded it earlier in the same year, 1978.

In an academic analysis of The Burke Enigma, Mary Kelly postulated that the reason why The Burke Enigma was accepted as realistic by its audience and The Spike wasn’t had a lot to do with the degree to which they drew upon the existing conventions of a popular television genre.77 The implication of this being that the audience’s expectations and judgemental criteria were derived more from their accumulation of previous television viewing than from their direct experience of the reality represented or their knowledge of it from other sources. It was probably so and becoming increasingly so. As far as the criticisms of The Burke Enigma went, Mary Kelly put these down as well to the audience’s expectations engendered by foreign examples of the television crime genre. Because the pace of plot development was slowed down by the more detailed characterisation of the criminal elements and by the examination of police methods and because the serial form spread the building of climax and resolution over six episodes, the norm of simple characterisation and fast climax and resolution within each episode was upset. In her more substantive critique of the narrative itself, as it resonated with existing ideological discourses in Irish society, she focused on two central and interrelated themes running through it. The thematic values she perceived as pervading the serial were a treatment of crime, violence and evil as endemic to the city and an ambivalence towards competitive individualism. Regarding the first, her point was that it was simply posited, as if in no need of justification:

“There is no analysis of the social sources of crime, rather crime is presented as part of the very nature of cities.”

Regarding the second, she placed it in the context of the particular stage in Ireland’s ideological development:

“This concentration on competitive individualism as a source of good when represented by the police and as a source of destructive evil when represented by the [Burke] family is interesting. It is an ambivalence which articulates well…with a deep ambivalence in Irish culture and ideology towards individualism and especially competitive individualism. On the one hand, we reject it, it is not part of the romantic image of what it means to be Irish, which has been particularly prevalent in Irish drama and visual culture. On the contrary, we equate it with modernity, with urbanisation and industrialisation, with materialistic values. We counterpose these with the higher values of a sense of community, a belief in the family, a commitment to national (and often rural) traditions. And yet our economic system rewards the successful competitive individualist, such as Tony O’Reilly or Fergal Quinn, and our media delight in recounting their activities and successes; the IDA and government alike proclaim the need for native entrepreneurs.”

She concluded that The Burke Enigma was more questioning than the usual television crime drama, but that it was also more ambivalent. It showed the various shades of grey, rather than the usual black and white stereotypes. Despite these features which upset viewers’ genre expectations, it won acceptance because of its large measure of conformity to established genre conventions and to existing and accepted ideological values. 78
This very acceptance formed the basis of Eoghan Harris’ critique of The Burke Enigma. For him the lack of public controversy surrounding it meant that it had failed to meet the criterion of what he called ‘Dowling’s law’, which he formulated thus:

“No television programme which failed to offend a substantial section of Irish vested interests can be said to have discharged its obligations to Irish society”. 79

Harris, who had an alternative conception of the serial, felt it was too much of a Z Cars type of script and was produced with a great deal of cooperation with the gardai. He believed it could have been done with more originality and bite to it.

For his part, Brian Mac Lochlainn believed that its acceptance meant that it had fulfilled its aims. It helped to make people aware of the existence of the Dunnes and raised public consciousness of the nature of their activities. He insisted that it did not compromise in its treatment of the gardai and exposed the existence of serious corruption in Dublin Castle.80 On the question of the realism of this representation of the gardai, Kevin McHugh, who played Willie Burke and, like Brian Mac Lochlainn, was the son of a guard, expressed reservations. In his opinion, it had the realism of a plausible fiction in the manner of a plot from The Sweeney or Columbo, but it did not have the realism of a drama documentary exposing the true nature of the gardai. The degree and level of corruption ascribed to the force were not credible in the latter sense, nor was it accepted as such by the audience in whom it touched no nerve as revealing something about Irish society. 81 In any case, Brian MacLochlainn had hoped the series would develop into a continuing drama, a sort of Store Street Blues. A second series was actually written, but ran into a situation where all deals were off with a change in head of drama. Plans to do a follow up to A Week in the Life of Martin Cluxton also ran into various obstacles over the years.

Occupying the same territory as Martin Cluxton were the people in Heno Magee’s two plays I’m Getting Out of this Kip and Hatchet. Showing the poverty, claustrophobia, frustration and violence of the lives of those living in urban slums, they made the lot of subsistence farmers, landless labourers, grass widows and other unfavoured rural elements look blissful. In both plays, someone from the area who had emigrated and made good in England returned to provide a point of contrast to a bleak, brutalised, trapped existence in Ireland and to hold out leaving Dublin for another country’s cities as the only conceivable solution to the inexplicable problems of this country’s cities. In I’m Getting Out of this Kip, the only hope to come into the life of no hoper Jimmy Carter, living in corporation flats with his alcoholic father and defeated mother, was the return of his older brother, who seemed to be doing well in England. In Hatchet, the cycle of snarling violence bred by a culture of chronic unemployment, overcrowded housing and general impoverishment was quite forcefully portrayed. It focused on the conflicting loyalties, brought to a point of personal crisis in the life of Hatchet Bailey. He had earned his name at the age of 14 in facing the animal gang and cracking skulls in defence of his father, the Digger, a hard man, long on the dole, illiterate, in and out of prison. Hatchet was caught in the middle between his widowed mother, constantly inciting him to live up to his name and to fight her battles for her, and his young wife Bridie, pulling him in the opposite direction. He began to consider emigration as the means of escape from the environment that had marked him as a man of violence. Unable to analyse his environment, he nevertheless knew there was something drastically wrong with it and with what it had made him. Hatchet recounted a parable told to him by his probation officer and applied it to himself:

“A man went out to find his enemies and he found no friends. Now a man went out to find his friends and he found no enemies.”

Bridie, for her part, wanted little more out of life than a bit of peace, away from the suffocating matriarchal presence and the violence. She wanted to be out of his mother’s home, where she could do nothing “not even dream” and to have a home of their own. She wanted only “no more waking up and hating it”. The strength of Heno Magee’s plays was in their descriptive accuracy, in portraying the problems and pressures of the population trapped in the cultural milieu of Dublin corporation flats. The weakness, however, was in the lack of an analytical power probing further. They were strong on description of consequences, but weak on insight into causes. They assumed that individuals needed to be understood in their environmental context, but focused only on the most immediate environmental context and failed to pursue larger questions of sources or solutions.
Class Consciousness

The same could be said of much of RTE’s drama of the period, both urban and rural, both comic and tragic. There was a strong class consciousness running through it, for example, but it was stronger descriptively than analytically. Much of it had a very light touch indeed. Up in the World, for example, was a ten part comedy series built around a family’s transition from one residential area to another in an up market direction. There was much scope for comic relief in the situation, especially in the actions of the loquacious father of the family, not anxious for his new neighbours to know of his humbler origins. Giving an indication of the spirit running through much of it was an RTE Guide article by Norman Smythe, RTE drama script editor and script writer:

“Life has become infinitely more complex since the spread of democratic ideas and one of our great losses has been the blurring of recognisable differences between classes. In the good old days, there was a clear cut distinction between the landed gentry and the landless peasants, between the people of quality and the rabble, between the bosses and the workers… It was a stable world where the lower orders knew their place and kept to it with the exception of a few dissidents who sought to rise about their station. The world…ran smoothly, governed by gentlemanly principles agreed to in a good-humoured way by both sides… Alas, times have changed and the pendulum has swung over. An Irish emigrant hears the Women’s Liberation Movement marching up Fifth Avenue past Tiffany’s. A Bantu washing dishes in a Wimpy Bar in Tottenham Court Road hears the cry of equality from a Professor of Applied Physics on his way to catch the train to his six bedroom house in Wimbledon. I was born somewhere between the swing of the pendulum and owing to the negligence of my father in not overcoming the inconvenience of poverty, I had to indulge in manual labour from an early age”. 82

Observing and registering the marks of class and ringing the signs of some of the changes, yes. Doing so in witty style and in clever images, yes. But leaving us any the wiser about the nature of class and the real character of contemporary changes, no. Certainly the bitterness of Irish labour history and the legacy of 1913, not to speak of generations of agrarian struggle, played no part in this placid picture.
Nevertheless, out of his own working experience of a world of navvies, barmen, night watchmen and factory workers, Smythe wrote several plays meant to fulfill RTE’s perceived need for drama relating to the world of work in an increasingly industrialised society. The Rag Pickers, The Seamen and The Prison were close-up studies of relationships among men thrown together through their work that simply did this without any wider aspirations.

Whether as a major or minor theme, workplace relationships came increasingly into play. In series, such as Partners in Practice, The Spike and The Burke Enigma, and in plays, such as People in Glass Houses and Oh Mistress Mine, and in RTE-supported films such as Exposure, these were to the fore. In certain domestic drama, such as Up in the World and What Happens When it Snows? , these came into the picture to shed light on how a character’s behaviour at work was related to his behaviour at home. In the latter, for example, the fact that the father of the family, a fitter in a jam factory, was considered a scab by his workmates constituted an important dimension of the overall characterisation.

Along way from the factory floor was the milieu of Kevin Grattan’s People in Glass Houses, which took a semi-serious look at the machinations at the upper echelons of the work force. Looking at the urban nouveau riche thrown up by the Lemass era in their working lives, the play was full of the modern management manual jargon coming to dominate the business conducted in the new high-rise office blocks, the mushrooming glass houses popping up all around Dublin. In this world, career manoeuvering was covered with layers and layers of empty spoof about decision analysis, goal setting, creative feedback, ongoing systems, executive self-starters, quantifying segments. In one moment of truth, one up-and-coming executive, manoeuvering between two rival finance houses, found it difficult to sustain the bluff and abruptly changed key. He put it to his interviewing board:

“All this delegating, arbitrating, quantifying…
I’m surprised you have any time to get any work done…”

It was far from a radical critique of the parasitic character of financial speculation, but it did put a tiny prick into the inflated egos of the lightweights who rose to the top on the high tide of Ireland’s economic expansion. It was only the tip of the iceberg in what called out for dramatic exposure in this quarter, but it has unfortunately been an area left otherwise untouched.

Another look at the nouveau riche of this era was Kieran Hickey’s film Criminal Conversation shown on RTE. It opened on the high-rise world of advertising and projected some vivid images of the ethos of the PR milieu at an office Christmas party. The main focus of the film, however, was the domestic life of the superficially self-admiring, but deeply insecure, new Ireland. In the course of an evening dinner party, the masks came off and the reality behind the public roles stood revealed. Ironically, the truth was told only when pretending. The use of charades as a narrative device was itself a rather cutting comment on the manners and mores of Ireland’s new managerial middle class.

Drama of Suburban Life

The new sprawling suburbs became the locus for several successive, though short-lived, serials of the seventies. Southside was meant to break new ground for RTE, to be a suburban counterpart to the urban Tolka Row and the rural The Riordans. It was meant to be distinguished by the setting, by the kind of people, by the type of concerns and by the adult treatment of these. It was intended to have great topicality at a time when the men in dark suits and slim briefcases seemed to be well and truly on their way in a culture not far removed from its peasant past. Set in the semi-detached suburbia of Cork, it made the point that urban and suburban life was not confined to Dublin. It dealt with the problems of an unofficial parents association, a trade union secretary , travellers, a priest involved in social action being stifled by his superiors. Above all, it took on marital breakdown, not the sort marked by sudden and spectacular crisis, but the much more common sort marked by slow and barely perceptible disintegration. The serial centred on two couples, each of whom had drifted apart and found themselves simply sharing a house with someone they had once married.

The next season brought a sequel entitled Newpark Southside, set on a new housing estate, with the Maher family moved from the foreground into the background. It also brought certain changes in tone, theme and treatment. Believing that Southside had gone too far in its emphasis on social comment and had made comedy incidental, it was decided to reverse the order, so that comedy struck the dominant note. Whereas the aim of Southside had been to say out loud what many Irish people spoke about only in whispers, the aim of Newpark Southside was more to entertain. However, the author of both serials, David Hayes, was anxious to make the point that, while the tone would be lighter, the comedy was to have its serious side and the laughter would have an edge to it. It would no longer have the urgency and intensity of direct social comment, but it would cast a cold eye on the changes taking place in the Ireland of its day and deal courageously with the relevant issues. There was still a concern with such problems as those of men who had worked their way up and were squeezed out by rationalisation and of people who found themselves in marriage that didn’t dramatically break up but simply died over a number of years. Both serials were permeated by the assumption that suburbia created the conditions for a particular brand of social malaise.

Also suburban in setting was Partners in Practice, a medical series set up to give the Irish television audience, long familiar with Emergency Ward 10, Dr. Finlay’s Casebook, Marcus Welby M.D. and Dr. Kildare, an indigenous version of a popular genre. It was also to acknowledge the social importance of the population shifted into the huge housing estates in Ireland’s mushrooming suburbs. The small fictional village of Sallybawn at the foot of the Dublin mountains, which had suddenly sprouted a vast residential growth, was modelled on Tallaght with its endless expanse of ticky-tacky houses and few amenities. One amenity Sallybawn was to have, however, was a new health centre. Sallybawn Health Centre, the central locus of the series, was to be the embodiment of the new medical scheme introduced in April 1972, characterised by a choice-of-doctor scheme, a staff of public health nurses and social workers, and equal health care for every section of the community, whether from corporation or private estates.

Each of the stories highlighted various aspects of life in this sort of seventies sprawling suburb, presenting the new face of working class life. There were suburbs and suburbs. Tallaght / Sallybawn was a world away from Foxrock or Portmarnock. In one episode, a Sallybawn character was saying what many were saying about Tallaght at the time, wondering what sort of planning, or lack of planning, had created such a place, a community with no community centre (in any sense of the term). Then turning around and answering her own question, the social worker saw the explanation in the triumph of market forces over social planning. Or put to it in her terms:

“But, of course, community centres and libraries and playgrounds aren’t as lucrative as shopping centres and supermarkets.”
Various storylines took up such matters as juvenile delinquency, industrial accidents, class differences, professional relationships, emigration, overcrowded housing, illness, domestic strife, children watching television violence, lost souls in the urban crowd and much more. However, like Southside and Newpark Southside, it ran one season and disappeared nearly without trace. In trying to trace the reasons, different people came up with different answers. For Carolyn Swift, the main writer, there were problems with casting and other aspects of production. The opinion of critics probably carried some weight, particularly that of Hugh Leonard who slated it, though Arden and D’ Arcy praised it highly.83 For Michael Judge, another writer involved in the series, the trouble was with the unevenness of the writing and the pace being too slow for the television audience of the day. 84

Later, there were a few single plays set in suburbia, though certainly not as many as there should have been to give due scope to the problems deserving of dramatic treatment at this developing edge of Irish life. Briarsville Forever in 1977, written by Kevin Grattan and directed by Louis Lentin, was the sort of play promoted by Louis Lentin when he became head of drama in 1978 and instituted the Thursday Playdate spot. Believing that the television play should start where current affairs left off, he took the position that the television play could highlight social issues by showing new dimensions to them and by leaving a more memorable impact. Coming out of the author’s own experience of a new estate much like the fictional Briarsville of this play, the dreams and disappointments of those seeking a better life in the suburbs were brought up for consideration. Building the story around a young newly married couple, who had sunk all their savings into a house that had turned out to be damp, draughty and even dangerous, the difficulties of organising a concerted campaign among residents provided further reason for discouragement. Working through the residents association, a plan to picket the show house in protest against the shoddy workmanship ran into resistance from residents, who could think no further than their fear of adverse publicity and its effect on property values.

Collective activity or any sort of community spirit was being progressively eroded by the possessive individualism of suburbia. A second thread of the play was the state of marriage on the new estates and the world of women who got caught up in the world of pyramid selling, regarded by the author as ‘the opium of the harrassed suburban housewife’, though few others would have regarded it as such a central target. The connection with current affairs came, not only in drama taking matters up where current affairs left off, but the other way round as well, with news coming in where the fiction left off. A headline in the Evening Herald not long after read: “residents row is echo of RTE drama”.

Moving a few steps down-market again was Jim Sheridan’s Mobile Homes, an RTE version of a Dublin Theatre Festival play which caused a bit of a rumpus, mainly because of the presence of an outdoor toilet. RTE’s rather infelicitously phrased announcement of the play had “the author playing the title role”. Sheridan, who played, not a mobile home, but an inhabitant of one, presented an extraordinarily bleak picture in this drama documentary of life on a Dublin site. It showed tenants struggling for the most elementary of rights, coping with the cold and the dark after the landlord had cut off the electricity in retaliation, on top of the already intolerable conditions of cramping and lack of proper sanitation, not to mention explosive tensions from other sources. Amidst all this, a child was born and a child died. The death of the child was brought on by the conditions of this most impossible and degrading way of life. This play provided one of the very few occasions on which any character, let alone a central character, was a committed socialist. Sheridan, primarily through his own character of Shay, a painter of other people’s houses with none of his own, showed rather simply how Engels’ writings on housing had helped some at least to see their unhappy lot and their small-scale endeavours as part of a larger process, moving hopefully towards a larger solution. Several scenes raised political questions in very explicit terms. In one scene, Shay’s father asked him:

“Who will organise vagabonds and riff-raff -the communists ”
To which he replied:
“Maybe, but anyway, we are not vagabonds and riff-raff.”
Which was as far as things got before violence ensued and a woman’s labour came on.

Class Structure, Social Systems and the Politics of RTE Drama

Even though the possibility of collective action in response to social injustice was only sketchily raised and left hanging in the air, it was at least raised in away that was absent in other productions like A week in the Life of Martin Cluxton, Hatchet, I’m Getting Out of this Kip or even The Spike. The fact was that, even in these productions, which RTE would point to as its strongest contributions in the way of urban drama or in the way of socially conscious drama, RTE had failed to come to terms with the real texture of contemporary urban life and particularly with its cutting edge. Even across the whole range of its drama, it had fallen far short of giving an adequate picture of the real social canvas of its constituent culture. It had been most remiss with respect to its representation of working class life and strikingly negligent in relation to the most socially conscious and culturally advanced elements of urban life.

What RTE has considered its prototypical working class drama has tended to focus on lumpen life, ie, on the culture of chronic unemployment, criminality and social welfare dependency. In other words, its working class drama has tended to focus on people who did not work. Part of the problem has been a lack of clarity about the nature of class. There has been a tendency to identify the working class by shabby clothes, flat accent, rough manners, lack of education, corporation flats, rather than by work. There has correspondingly been a tendency to identify the middle class by decent clothes, posh accent, cultivated manners, education, private housing, rather than by relationship to means of production. The Cluxtons and the Baileys were putatively working class, as were the kids in Down the Corner, a film made by the Ballyfermot community arts workshop co-funded by RTE. The teaching staff of The Spike, the medical staff of Partners in Practice, the detectives of The Burke Enigma and the residents of Southside, Newpark Southside and Briarsville Forever were regarded as middle class.

However, if more historically based and sociologically accurate definitions were to be applied, the profile would look different. Properly used, class is a term for locating a person’s place in the social division of labour and distribution of wealth, for specifying their relationship to the means of production, distribution and exchange. The great divide is ownership or non-ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Defining the working class as those dependent on wage labour for their livelihood and the middle class as those with a stake in the private ownership of the means of social production, distribution and exchange, then even well-dressed, well-spoken, educated and home-owning teachers, social workers, nurses and guards would be working class, so long as they lived by wage labour and they had no stake in the ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Correspondingly, even the most badly-dressed, inarticulate, uneducated person, who owned land, stocks or shares, a shop, a pub, a van or other business would not be working class, however hard working.

Under capitalism, there are two major forces, capital and labour, generating the two major classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie, today the dominant class, originated under feudalism as the middle class between the aristocracy and peasantry, as merchants, who were neither lord nor serf, but made their way by buying and selling. There are also minor classes, such as the aristocracy, which has survived the mode of production which gave rise to it. There are also sub-classes. In terms of ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, there is a huge difference between major shareholders in major multinational corporations and small shopkeepers. The haute bourgeoisie has amassed unprecedented wealth and the petite bourgeoisie may be economically quite marginal and even on the verge of impoverishment. In terms of those of no property (in the productive/ commercial sense), there is a substantial, if shifting, divide between those who work and those who do not. The proletariat is socially productive and has a culture shaped by the structure of work discipline. The lumpen proletariat is the opposite. The chronically unemployed as a subclass tend to have a culture that is unproductive, undisciplined, individualist and even anti-social, while the aristocracy is a parasitic and privileged upper class, the lumpen proletariat is a parasitic and impoverished underclass.

All of the above classes and subclasses warrant dramatic treatment, but the drama of any aspect of life within the social order would be enhanced by clarity about the nature of class structure and the real texture of the spectrum. Lumpen culture was and is undoubtedly in need of dramatic exploration, perhaps more fully and more sharply than what RTE has done. However, an insightful exploration of either working class life or lumpen life has been subverted by the confusion of the two and the pre-occupation with one at the expense of the other. It was certainly inappropriate to set out to give a dramatic picture of working class life and then to put those who did not work on centre stage. It has done scant justice to those whose hands have built our homes, whose brains have advanced our knowledge, whose leadership has pushed forward the struggle for social justice, to make the no-hopers, the spoofers and the ruffians the norm. The working class has been presented, not as a majority class whose labour has made the world go round and whose voice has demanded only what was their right, but as an aggregate of individuals, who were impotently idling or lashing out or chancing their arms.

In a liberal mode, they were represented as in need of liberal compassion and social democratic intervention, rather than in a conservative mode, as in need of criminalisation and authoritarian retribution. They were presented as dole fodder rather than as jail fodder. But these were not the only possible modes of representation of the working class. No matter how far to the right or left of this view individual producers, writers, heads of drama or controllers were, their actual productions embodied the dominance of a vaguely liberal sympathy for the inexplicably underprivileged. It was a tendency to operate on a set of implicit assumptions, rather than to bring them into explicit expression. It did not bring liberal sympathy into sharp conflict either with conservative complicity in class privilege or with a radical critique of the structural inequalities inherent in class society. It was a tendency to hug the ground just left of centre, not veering too much either to the left or to the right.

The best of these productions were characterised by vivid exposure, even reforming zeal. They were distinguished by close observation of local consequences, but not by a clear vision of wider socio-historical causes or alternatives. Whatever may have been intended, what came out was a condescending view of the working class, either as helplessly oppressed and needing middle class handling or as somehow inherently funny, functioning as a foil for middle class manners and calling forth middle class indulgent good humour. There was little sense of the working classes as competently organised to defend its own class interests, to read books, to discuss theories, to articulate its own views of the world. There was little sense of a working class subculture as characterised by work discipline, trade union organisation, adult education, labour songs, stories and rituals, political oratory, campaigns for social reforms, community festivals, sports, dances and a host of other activities that were far from the images of ineptitude, ignorance and squalor that were to the fore.

It was not that there were not corporation flats full of down-and-outs, drug addicts, drunkards, hard chaws, whinging wives, loud-mouthed scrubbers, hard-necked whores, scheming chancers and blundering buffoons. It was that the cities of the seventies also had their labour leaders, their left wing intellectuals, their radical feminists, their political activists in many causes. They were not to be seen in RTE drama, except in the most fleeting and marginal way, if at all. There were Martin Cluxtons and Hatchet Baileys bewildered by it all, but there were no Bill Brands, with ideas about the whys and wherefores of it all, trying to make a difference. The class struggle, the emergence of new social forces, the movements that made these times most memorable for many, were missing from the televised representations of the era in drama. Nor were the powers-that-be, the most strident of the old social forces, the interests that managed to stem the tide of social change, much in evidence either. Nor were their working class defenders, the militant craw thumpers, the catholic actionists and the blueshirt remnants. There was no real Irish equivalent of Alf Garnett or Archie Bunker. There was no dramatic representation, other than fleeting satirical sketches, of any elements with any sort of ideological edge.

It was also that the cities of the seventies were full of ordinary, decent, hard-working men and women whose lives, both at home and at work, threw up situations other than crime, corruption and violence, but more than worthy of dramatic treatment under the heading of urban or working class drama. The changing lifestyles of the times, penetrating to all sections of the population, gave much scope for drama. RTE did give a certain amount of dramatic attention to such people and such situations, but often without dramatic clarity about their place in the class structure of their society as it was relevant to the situation being explored.

Because of the lack of penetration into the reality of class in the lives of characters portrayed, the real structure of the social order shaping the parameters of their lives never came into sharp focus. The existing social order, in its basic structure, was taken as given, however much certain reforms within that structure might have been thought necessary or desirable. Capitalism was taken as given. When its flaws were exposed, the dilemma revolved around the polarity between the human and the inhuman faces of capitalism. The assumption, usually implicit and unexamined, was that individuals making a moral choice could put humanist considerations above commercial ones and solve such problems as were faced, without the necessity of any change in the structure of the social order. There was never a clear sense of the problem of social inequality as being systemic in nature, necessitating a systemic response in solution. Because the system never came into sharp relief as a system, the need to do anything about it as a system never arose. This would go a long way towards explaining why political activism, particularly the radical politics of either left or right varieties, were on the scale of marginal-to-absent in the overall picture.

The same could be said of the drama dealing with class tensions in a rural context. Resentment between landless agricultural labourers and their land owning employers surfaced again and again. It was represented as constructing barriers of communication, as blighting young love, as generating personal hostility and sexual tension. It was not represented as stemming from a historically contingent form of social organisation, whereby one class could appropriate the surplus value created by another. Class differences tended to be accepted as a historically inevitable condition, the abuses of which could be mitigated by mutual understanding and good will among individuals. It posed no structural problems, only personal ones, which could be resolved by everyone either knowing their place or being a bit more flexible about the rules for moving from one place to another.

King of the Castle was perhaps the most bitter expression of class tensions on the land. It showed the impotence of class tensions that did not rise to the level of collective class consciousness and structural confrontation. Class tension seethed and fed on itself and consumed all enveloped by it. It was a disintegrating and destructive force rather than an integrative and constructive force. The Riordans tended to keep class tension somewhere in between. Matters such as the wages and conditions of agricultural labourers were periodically raised and then diffused, as Eamonn Maher, Batty Brennan and Pat Barry all eventually found personal solutions in the way of upward mobility. Along the way, problems which arose gave rise to ineffectual personal resentment or effectual confrontation and resolution. It was always in terms of each individual dealing with it alone on a personal basis, never turning to collective solidarity. Unlike the agricultural labourers on NY Estates in Emmerdale Farm, the Leestown variety never took the path of union organisation, despite the advancing unionisation of rural workers in the country at the time. All the same, the issues were sometimes raised with real bite, even between highly sympathetic and long established characters. At one point, Eamonn Maher resigned, leaving Tom Riordan unable to comprehend what had happened. Farmhands were hired and fired. They did not resign. Trying to understand, Tom asked Eamonn:

“All the time you worked here did I treat you fair?”
Eamonn proceeded to explain that, when Comerford had gone off, Tom had offered to lend him Eamonn for a day or two. Still not seeing, Eamonn explained further:
“Well, you don’t lend things you don’t own…
you’d look after me, all right, the way you’d look after the tractor or the stock”.

It was a revelation of cutting condescension in the most benevolent of characters. Nevertheless, things were patched up on a personal level. Eamonn was soon back working for Tom and eventually acquired his own land.

Exemplifying the pattern noted by sociologists, this sort of social mobility was hostile to class-collective action, because, as David Fitzpatrick put it:

“it encourages queue-jumping rather than conspiracy among frustrated queuers to take over the bus.” 85

Across a range of other social issues raised in The Riordans, Luke Gibbons noted a similar tendency to blur and diffuse class tensions. Remarking on the relative absence of forms of collective action, which transcend familial and affective ties, he cited Jude’s dispute with a rackrenting landlord. Although it coincided with an actual campaign among flat dwellers in real life, Jude’s personal situation was mediated through Tom Riordan’s intervention, acting both as her father and as county councillor. The need for organised campaigns for concerted resistance at a more engaged level was alluded to, but never really developed. 86

Most of the time, it was individuals up against other individuals. The extent to which individuals were differentially placed to be unequal in the struggle was often raised, but never fully explored. Michael Judge’s The Decoy looked at the personal dimension of urban development in the conflict between a property speculator and a shoemaker who was a sitting tenant in a building now marked for other purposes. It was a conflict between one determined to make maximum profits and the other determined to defend his shop to the death. It was a story less about social forces than about personal relationships and the pressures people put on one another. Some pushed. Some resisted. Others got caught in the middle. In the process, each one changed. It did, however, give occasion to think about the nature of the social forces which had set off such changes. An explanation of how different individuals coped with a corrupt society was John Montague’s story A Change of Management, adapted for RTE by Eugene McCabe. Some simply took on accepted values and triumphed. Most blew with the wind. Others discovered they couldn’t beat the system and joined it. A few resisted and were destroyed.

Images of the Family

Choices between acceptance or resistance came much nearer to home for most, in fact, in the home. Conflicts easier to comprehend than those involving class forces and social institutions were those nearest to hand, ie, within the family. In this domain, RTE drama did play its part in demonstrating that the family unit was by no means the unproblematic basic unit of social organisation that de Valera’s constitution and the bishops pastorals made it out to be. Far from being a warm and secure haven from the vicissitudes of the larger world, the family home was shown to be rent with vicissitudes of its own. Far from relieving the pressures of the outside world, the families of Martin Cluxton and Hatchet BaIley only intensified the pressures. The family itself was both victim and victimiser in the face of these social pressures. The family was shown to be less a site of supportive relationships than an arena of threatening conflicts and authoritarian structures.

Alternatively, it was a vacuum of casual neglect and acute loneliness. There were few homes in the dramas of the day that were not riddled with marital, parental or sibling tensions. There were few crowded houses that were not full of very lonely people. There were tensions between husband and wife in King of the Castle, Heritage, The Spike and Criminal Conversation. There were conflicts between mothers and sons in The Burke Enigma, Hatchet and Sons and Mothers; between mother and daughter in A Cheap Bunch of Nice Flowers; between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law in Hatchet; between father and sons in The Country Boy; between fathers and daughters in The Spike, between brothers in Cancer and Only the Earth. There were conflicts between all of these in The Riordans.

Admittedly, conflict is the stuff of drama and placid families leading uneventful, harmonious lives are not. Also the while heritage of post-ibsenite drama was to focus on family conflict. Even so, RTE drama gave a picture of family life at odds with the official ideology. The official ideologues were not hesitant to say so. Drama showed that the placid exterior often hid a muted sort of disharmony, which was very deep indeed, even if it was not loud. From the loneliness of old age in The Cruel Fondness, to the gulf between people who once married in Southside and Exposure, to the isolation of the odd-one-out child in Partners in Practice, there were many who felt acutely alone amidst all the clatter and superficial contact of family life. The urban homes shown, those of the Cluxtons, the Baileys, the O’Mahonys, the Burkes and most others, were major disaster areas. In The Burke Enigma, Joe Burke tried to articulate what he felt about the stifling, claustrophobic influence of the family:

“I mean the whole family thing – it’s like a vice .You don’t get room to breathe, to be yourself… No one gets away. The family has a hold on you… All of us, we’re all caught in the web”.

Other plays too took on the drama of the individual struggling to define him/herself, over against the stultifying weight of the family. Some focused on generational conflict. The Glory and the Dream showed a bright lad from a working class background, wanting to go to university, instead of settling into a dead-end job, as family expectations laid down. Too Short A Summer showed another lad wanting to do the opposite, but meeting the same sort of resistance. What Happens When It Snows? , James Douglas’s play about “that fecund and most frightening of jungles, the family”, showed how thorny things could get, when a son returned home with the girl with whom he’d been living in sin in England. The Apprentice was also about a break with parents’ lifestyles.

These plays generally reflected the social shifts that had opened a new range of options for those at life’s crossroads, which were not always comprehensible or acceptable to those who had no such options. The emerging stress on the rights and needs of the individual, struggling against the demands, not only of the family, but of the larger community, showed the developing displacement of more traditional quasi-feudal values by more modern bourgeois values. This pattern manifested itself in the whole range of productions, revealing the ambivalence regarding individualism that Mary Kelly noted in relation to The Burke Enigma to be deeply rooted in the Irish mentality of the times. The pressure of the demands for individual identity and self-expression upon the stability of the traditional family unit began to show and to play itself out in ever more complex ways. It was evident, not only in offspring wanting to fly the coop and go their own way, but in new dimensions coming into relations between the sexes.

Conflicting Norms of Sexual Morality

It was possible to detect a struggle between old and new norms of sexual morality. Even where the old norms were in force among the characters, there was sometimes a new edge of critical exposure in the author’s portrayal of the characters. Even in stories in which there was no hint of characters questioning the traditional norms in principle, there were revelations of a complexity of experience that nearly compelled a violation of the simplicity of their surface acceptance. It was more than norms and transgressions of those norms due to fallen human nature. It was that there were hints, not so much in the character’s own perceptions of their situations, but in the author’s construction of the scenario, that the problem might be with the norms and not with those who transgressed them. This was rarely taken to its limits and followed through in a really satisfactory way, but even such hints could play their part in puncturing the hegemony of unquestioned traditional norms.

The revelations that things were not what they seemed in what might have looked like the most normal of lives made one wonder. The exposure of an unsuspected complexity in what seemed the simplest of lives gave cause for thought about the validity of trying to fit life’s flow into such rigid bounds. There was the slip of the tongue, revealing a liaison that implied illegitimacy, from the old Donegal woman in Mr. Sing, My Heart’s Delight. There was the illicit and violent intercourse between the religious and repressed Matt and Tressa in King of the Castle. There was the discovery of bigamy in the comings and goings of a west of Ireland man working in England in Deeply Regretted By. Such moments hit a nerve and carried a sort of paradigmatic force that left one thinking about how much more was hidden beneath the surface of even what looked quite traditional.

Of course, with the changing times, the surface was starting to look less traditional. There were sexual liaisons outside the bounds for all to see. In The Riordans, there was Jim Hyland leaving Jude Riordan and remarrying abroad. There was Jude taking up with a man with a foreign divorce. There was Paddy Gorey returning home with Shelagh and living in sin in Leestown. There was the unmarried mother from England. Interestingly all these stories had a foreign connection, suggesting that the forces subverting traditional morality were external rather than internal to Irish society or that Irish morality was a hot house plant that could not survive in the open air. In Exposure, there was Oliver’s affair with Caroline, whose presence created an uneasiness and a threatening quality, very tied to the fact that she was not only a professional woman and divorced, but foreign. In time, however, it became more possible to introduce such stories without the foreign influence.

The forces contributing to the disintegrating marriages and adulterous liaisons in Criminal Conversation were quite indigenous, a fact which was given particular emphasis by a character’s involvement in a “Be Irish” television campaign, full of Sean O’Riada music,” I am Ireland “ poetry and lush green scenery. Perhaps the most daring illicit liaison of all, only possible by the end of the decade, was that of the married and much Ioved Maggie Riordan with Pat Barry. By this time too, Wesley Burrowes could introduce unmarried mothers of the home-grown variety in Sons and Mothers.

The weight of the community on such transgressive relationships lay very heavily indeed. Jude was under constant pressure from the Marys and the Minnies. Sheelagh was refused pub service by her own sister, Julia Mac. Caroline was confronted with the furtive nastiness of the women working in the hotel and with the symbolic rape of the rifling of her room by Oliver’s frustrated and repressed mates. Drama raised issues with which the community did not want to cope. Regarding contraception, Maggie Riordan went on the pill and all hell broke loose, even more in the real community than in the fictionl one.

Regarding broken or disintegrating marriages, Helen Diffley in Whose Child? had to stay legally married to a man she hadn’t even heard from in ten years, whether she liked it or not, like her many real life counterparts. No matter what Frank and Margaret and Charlie and Bernadette in Criminal Conversation and all like them might decide they wanted to do, when confronted with the ruins of what once were marriages, they faced the state’s law of criminal conversation and the church’s prohibition on divorce.

The picture of Irish marriages among those who stayed together and might never consider separation or divorce was not very edifying either. The gulf of understanding and sympathy separating Scober and Tressa McAdam or Hatchet and Bridie Bailey was continents wide and oceans deep. The relationship between Jer O’Mahoney and his wife resembled guerilla warfare. That between John Willie and Sarah O’Neill was a veritable wastleland. Of course, there were also Tom and Mary Riordan, in what would have been considered a middling-to-good-marriage, but they at all times related to each other across the gulf of the traditional sexual division of labour, in which the opposite sex was always a semi-alien species. They were not exactly inspiring exemplars of mature sexual passion either. Sex was definitely something for the young. It was impossible to conceive of Tom and Mary in the act. Among the young, sex was something for men. Bridie either let Hatchet “have his way” with her or had a headache, as the case might be.

The overall picture of sexuality in Irish society that came through was, it must be said, somewhat sordid. The sordidity, the kind born of the cycle of sexual repression and illicit indulgence, was there in Irish society and needed dramatic treatment, though it received more enlightened treatment from some authors than from others.

McCabe’s various plays went closest to the edge and did so with the greatest insight. His images struck nearest to the raw nerves of Irish sexuality. There were images of severe sexual repression in Eric O’Neill’s paralysis in the face of Rachel’s emotional and sexual needs; in John Willie O’Neill’s marriage to a woman who hated bodies, both his and hers which he had never seen; in Paschal and Pacelli McAleer, who walked through life as semi-automatons that didn’t smoke, didn’t drink and didn’t ‘interfere with girls’, though they might well blow them to bits; in Joady and Dinny McMahon’s slovenly and spiteful womanless house; in Benny Brady’s praying in a loft while Joe masturbated. There were images of atavistic and bestial sexuality: in the view from Benny’s loft of pissing and puking and gropes and groans from the town’s hot blood; in the predatory sexual parrying of Gallagher the provo gunman, who notched up girls he screwed in ditches in the same way as he did with the targets he made into corpses; in Scober McAdam’s view of sex as an itch, a scratch, a growth; in Maguire’s cocky strut of taunting offers of his services as a stud; in Matt and Tressa’s violent intercourse; in Mrs. McAleer who seemed as if she could give birth to her sons full-grown. There were also more sophisticated, if not respectable, images of modern sexual expression: in Isabel Lynam’s affairs and abortion; in Harriet Armstrong’s experience of marriage as a cruel trap.

Kieran Hickey’s films also cut quite close to the bone and produced some penetrating images of Irish sexuality in the seventies. Exposure and Criminal Conversation, both written by Kieran Hickey and Philip Davison and directed by Kieran Hickey, were made by BAC Films in co-operation with RTE and transmitted by RTE.

Exposure, which won the arts council script award for 1977, was the story of three male surveyors from Dublin working on a government assignment for a week in the west of Ireland and their reactions to an attractive foreign female on a photographic assignment staying in the same small seedy hotel. The three men, who were conceived as in a sense the same man at three different ages, personified in a most striking way the immaturity of Irish male sexuality, what Hickey considered to be “the condition of chronic adolescence in the Irish male”87 The film explored the dynamics of male bonding between the three and the build-up of erotic tension between the four, once Caroline entered the picture and embarked on an affair with Oliver. Oliver, the youngest, was the only unmarried member of the trio. The other two, Dan and Eugene, were married and shown in telephone contact with their wives in Dublin. Both were revealed as achingly lonely within their marriages. Dan, longer married, was resigned to it. He had been lonely for 23 years. He had left his wife years ago, even if he still lived under the same roof and had rows with her over the phone when away. Eugene, not so long married, was disappointed and frustrated, but still held out some bleak hope for the sort of bond with his wife that would ease his loneliness. He reached out painfully for some sort of expression of affection, while she chattered on superficially and insensitively about her mother, the baby, cups of tea, television and mass.

On the Sunday, the three went to mass and then the four went on a picnic, having an idyllic sort of day, full of high spirited joie de vivre, with Caroline taking zany photographs. In the evening, when the two, Oliver and Caroline, went off for an intimate dinner, the other two, Dan and Eugene, sunk into their sorrows. In their frustration and resentment and fear, they broke into Caroline’s room and started throwing her things around, taking particular delight in mocking her underwear and smashing her camera, as symbolic expressions of their fear of her, both in terms of her liberated sexuality and in terms of her professional skill and economic independence. It was meant to be a symbolic rape of her as a woman and repudiation of her as a professional. When Oliver and Caroline returned, Oliver behaved weakly, and faced with the choice, essentially betrayed her for them. Sunday night ended with Caroline left on the stairs crying, as the female victim of male psychological violence.

In a most interesting pattern of narrative closure, there was then a reversal of point of view, which drastically changed the overall resonance of the film. On Monday, the impact of the previous day was first experienced in terms of the re-bonding of the three in a mock-triumphant mood at the bar, deciding “she was bad news anyway”. However, the scene shifted to Caroline upstairs, developing the photographs of the previous day, which had the effect of bringing the preceding events into focus from her point of view. In the final scene, the crucial still of the film, a photograph of the three, all jovial, arm-in-arm and smiling at her, came up before Caroline’s day-after eyes, stirring reflections of how much cruelty and violence lay latent under the most affable and accepting surfaces. Just at the crucial point of exposure, she then switched on the light and watched the photograph fade, in a purposeful act of retaking control over the production of images and enacting her symbolic triumph in mastering the meaning of the story.

Another interesting aspect of this film was the way it flew in the face of personal and professional prejudices about stories with a message in the sense of having a symbolic meaning or carrying an ideological charge. The tightly structured narrative of this film was such that every character, every line of dialogue, every image and every action had an explicit symbolic function. Yet there was not the slightest hint of cardboard characterisation. There was not a word that did not flow naturally off the tongue. There was no esoteric imagery. There was nothing the least bit false or forced in the movement of the plot.

Most importantly, it was a challenging diagnosis of some of the diseases making Irish sexuality the somewhat sickly creature it often was. It was an analysis of male sexual attitudes that gave evidence of a healthy response in the more sensitive among the male of the species to some of the questions raised by the feminist currents of the time. It was not, however, the sort of weak response to feminist fury, whereby men were the evil doers and women were absolved from all evil. It mightn’t have been a very flattering picture of the Irish male, but it wasn’t exactly counterposed to a romanticised view of the Irish female. The Irish women came across as sexually repressed and repressive, in the nastily nagging or busily frigid wives and in the jealous and bitchy hotel landlady.

Criminal Conversation was also a very sensitive exploration of Irish sexuality in the seventies, though perhaps the threads were not quite so masterfully pulled together at the end to make its intended point. The reference of the title was to an old law, still on the books at the time, whereby a husband could take an action in the courts against another man for adultery.88 The film spotlighted the incongruities in the situation of the nouveau riche caught between the conceptually vague new Ireland and the legally persistent old Ireland. It showed them to be floundering in a moral vacuum in which they had no secure guidelines within which to act, nor any credible criteria by which to judge their own actions or those of others. The central issue was adultery: what to do about it and how to judge it when done, especially once it became clear who was and was not doing it. At the outset, there was Frank chatting up every female he encountered and trying to diffuse the tension from his wife Margaret, who was uptight about his carry-on. By the end, after an evening of truth, it transpired that it was Margaret who had been having an adulterous affair and that it was Frank who never had. All he ever did was the chatting-up. All the same, it left him unsure of his moral ground in coming to terms with his wife and his best friend. After all, to say:

“You went too far, Charlie. You don’t mess around with your best friend’s wife”
was hardly to stand the high moral ground. In many ways, they were all shown to have no real ideas or values, whether old or new, that were firmly their own. In the reaction to the two films in Ireland, Hickey was made to feel as if he had touched raw nerves and violated taboos. This was not exactly surprising in view of the fact that he had. In the reaction abroad, there was a certain resistance to its images, which so decisively ran counter to the foreign stereotypes of Ireland. The people in these stories were modern and difficult men and women, far from the archaically simple lads and lassies of their stage Irish expectations. Hickey found Americans to be particularly slow-witted about them, which again was hardly surprising. 89

There were other authors as well, who touched on such areas, but few with the same sort of penetration as Eugene McCabe or Kieran Hickey. Some perhaps felt that the light touch might be more effective or more acceptable to the audience. It was a strategy that went badly wrong in the case of the infamous nude scene in The Spike. Other productions handled the material with a better grip and with greater skill, although no degree of finesse would have protected such forays from the wrath of the prudish section of the audience, which was still formidable and highly vocal.

Joe O’Donnell’s The Lads was highly controversial, first as a stage play, then as a television play in 1972, followed by a television series, a six part sitcom, in 1975. Set in a Dublin flat occupied by four young bachelors whose male bonding involved a common interest in ‘birds and booze’, it highlighted, in a lighter vein than Exposure, the condition of chronic adolescence in the Irish male and the threat posed by the liberated female. In a similar spirit, Wesley Burrowes’ Silver Apples On the Moon, in the same territory as Criminal Conversation, cast a satirical eye on the woes of the womaniser and the double standards of morality, in the face of the discovery that what was sauce for the goose might also be for the gander.

Changing Roles of Women

There was evidence in RTE drama of the seventies of the changing definitions of male and female roles working their way through Irish society at the time. It was more evident in some productions than in others. There were many portrayals of women in very traditional roles. This was hardly surprising, as so many people still played such roles. Such portrayals could in fact be quite insightful. There was Tom Murphy’s character called by no name other than “Mrs”, symbolic of her own annihilation in nurturing the male ego. There was Eugene McCabe’s Mrs. McAleer, the republican mother maccree, counterpointed by the new generation IRA woman, Isabel Lynam, with her own ideas, her own liberated sexuality and her own involvement in military operations. There was Wesley Burrowes’ Mary Riordan, constantly counterpointed by a whole range of other characters with other notions of women’s role.

Other traditionalist portrayals lacked such critical edge. Hatchet’s young wife Bridie and her sister Angela were perhaps more old-fashioned than his mother. In the way of the old adage, women put up with sex for the sake of marriage and men put up with marriage for the sake of sex. All, that is, except those who managed to escape the trap, like the bachelor, Joey, who asked:

“Why buy a cow, if ye only want a pint of milk?”

It was not that it was not true that men worked and women wanted men to sort everything out for them and that women exchanged sexual favours for security and a standard of living. It was that there was more to it and some authors gave little indication of knowing this was so. Females were still being portrayed primarily as daughters, wives and mothers. Young girls’ dreams were of romance, even if experience led time and again to a rainbow’s end in a dustbin, as in Irish Revel and An Taoille Tuile. Their education was geared, not to their intellectual development or employment prospects, but to enhancing their bargaining position on the marriage market. Thus Maria in Roma was told to study hard, so:

“with education maybe you marry a doctor”

and Fiona in The Spike was sent to private school so:

“at least she won’t marry into the flats”.

Marriage was the be-all and end-all of life for a woman, whereas it was one aspect of a fuller life for a man. Thus O’Mahony’s scheme for the rehabilitation of prostitutes was “to make them marriageable”. It was to trade a life where sex was sold to a succession of men who paid her for it one act at a time for a life in which it was sold to one man in exchange for all his worldly goods. It was to put aside a life in which they spread themselves under a jobber for a fiver for a life in which they could take him for all he was worth. Sex was a currency and the market had to be played to get the most for it. Thus there was the maid who tricked her employer into providing her with house and husband by spinning one of the oldest tales in the book in God’s in His Heaven. Marriage was the road to social mobility and wives lived off both a husband’s earnings and his social status. Thus there was the boss’s wife and queen of the small town in Too Short A Summer. There was the principal’s wife making constant demands in The Spike. There was the confidant in her husband’s career moves in People in Glass Houses. When a marriage failed, it left a woman in a limbo, which it never did for a man, because it was never the whole meaning of his life.

Thus the enormous difficulties for women, like Jude Riordan and Helen Diffley, trying to put their lives back together again.

Motherhood was the ultimate fulfilment for a woman in the traditional conception. As Maguire in King of the Castle put it:

“What’s a woman for? To drain a man, make a child, rear a man”.

Otherwise, she was considered good for nothing. When Isabel Lynam became pregnant by the IRA chief of staff, she asked herself, was she
“a mere seed bed for his own image.”

The ultimate task was to give birth to a son. Anything she wanted done in the world, she did it through her sons, like Mrs.McAleer with her three green fields and two brave sons and Mrs.Bailey with her constant incitement to her son to settle her scores.

However, the portrayal of women was beginning to open out and to reflect the new range of options opening to women. There were an increasing number of women portrayed as other than or more than daughters, wives and mothers. There were more and more working women coming into the picture. In The Lads, there was a female researcher. In The House that Johnny Built, there was a female doctor. In Partners in Practice, there was a female doctor, who also had a family, as a central character. There was also a storyline about a woman writer. There were, of course, women working as nurses and social workers, jobs more traditionally open to women, if they had to work. There were also a number of women working as teachers in The Spike, O Mistress Mine, Miracles and Miss Langan and Assault On a Citadel. Teaching was, of course, another profession more traditionally open to women. These seventies teachers were not, however, the traditional types. Miss Corduff (The Spike) challenged Mr.O’Mahony for the job of principal and had higher qualifications. She was also divorced. Miss Toomey (Oh Mistress Mine) was the first female teacher in an all-male establishment. Miss Langan (Miracles and Miss Langan) was far more free thinking than was the norm. Miss Jenny (Assault On a Citadel) had an affair with a priest.

These new women tended to be strong, confident and articulate, sometimes more so than the men with whom they were involved. Miracles and Miss Langan and The Cuckoo Spit both concerned relationships between older women and younger men. These women were not only older, but intellectually and emotionally more advanced. Needless to say, these new women caused problems for the men who had to contend with them. Winnie, the woman researcher in The Lads with a mind of her own and with a shrewd way of assessing those she met, caused the lads to engage in some unaccustomed questioning and soul-searching. Dr.Rita O’Brien in The House That Johnny Built was more than a match for Johnny and defeated the calculating bachelor’s matrimonial plans. Jenny in Assault On a Citadel. brought Ned to a crisis in his vocation. Susan in Miracles and Miss Langan challenged Ben to come to life on an emotional level.

There were institutional problems brought to light as well. With the arrival of the new female teacher at the all-male St. Jude’s in O Mistress Mine, the manners and mores of both class room and staff room received a severe jolt. When told that his plans for the new school in The Spike took little account of the projected female enrolment or the projected female staff, O’Mahony could only ask:

“You want more toilets. Is that it?

Obviously some had come a long way and others had not.

These seventies women violated many taboos, both in the pursuit of their professions and in the expression of their sexuality. They got higher degrees. They sought responsible jobs. They spoke their minds. They carried guns. They posed nude. They had affairs. They even seduced priests, They were not to every body’s liking. They were anathema to those to whom the taboos were still sacred and inviolable.

Perhaps some of the ground had been cleared earlier in the seventies in Granada’s series The Sinners. These stories, set in earlier decades, insightfully explored the taboos twisting Irish life into its particular contours and blighting the course of intellectual, emotional and sexual development. The enormous psychological gap between the sexes, tied to the segregation of the sexes in the sexual division of labour, was constantly evident. TJ Mooney, the philosophical philanderer in One Man, One Boat, One Girl, made his considered pronouncement on the matter:

“I have decided that in what is commonly called love man creates woman after his own unlikeness.
In love woman is man’s image of what he is not”.

Of course, once love was gone, the unlikeness proceeded in all its practical consequences. Men worked to pay for the home, but women ran it. As Mr. Lomasney in The Mad Lomasneys surveyed the domestic scene around him:

“I had no say in this. No one gives a damn about me. Except on payday.”

Contrasting Approaches to Religion

A thread running through a number of The Sinners stories was the link between sexuality and religion. The pressure put upon the innocent and natural flowering of human fellow feeling among young nuns and brothers during their summer studies by the stern and sick strictures of the local priest was the theme of The Man Who Invented Sin. The repressiveness of the jansenistic attitude to sexuality, shaping Irish catholicism, was a constant undercurrent. The young Englishman in One Man, One Boat, One Girl asked about the secret of his success with the girls replied:

“I ain’t got no tricks, Alphonsus – Maybe the fack o’ the matter is
I’m not afraid of ‘ern, like all you bloomin’ Irish”.
It seemed to be an effect of Irish catholicism that could survive belief in its doctrines. Rita Lomasney put it to Ned Lowry:
“You may think you’re a great fella because you read Tolstoy and don’t go to mass,
but you’d be just as scared stiff if a girl offered to go to bed with you.”

Rita’s sexual waywardness was put down to a lack of religious fervour. Trying to pinpoint her uneasiness with her daughter, Mrs. Lomasney observed:
“Another girl would have a favourite saint or a favourite nun. Not Rita.”

After she was dismissed from her job as a teacher for trying to seduce a seminarian, who had come home with a breakdown, she was sent off to the care of her aunt Sister Mary Gonzales. Like many who deviated, Rita never challenged the norms. She could still say of Ned:
“I was proposed to by the finest man in Cork –or would be if he had any religion in him. “

The emptiness of unquestioned beliefs and unthinking observance of rituals was a subtext of many stories. In Exposure , Oliver attended mass after sleeping with Caroline the night before and intending to do so again the night after. In King of the Castle, neither Matt nor Tressa would ever miss mass, nor raise the slightest questions about the church’s teachings. In Traveller, Michael and Angela could not go off on their awkward cohabitation and arranged smuggling operation without muttering the meaningless words of the marriage ritual. In Deeply Regretted By, Patrick Healy went through all the same motions – wedding, baptisms, communions, etcetera, in his second bigamous marriage as he did in his first.

Religion on RTE was a frequent presence. Most of it was still reverential in tone and seemed to be based on the assumption that the whole of the audience believed in the same thing and worshipped in the same way. The angelus, the mass, the God-slot talk shows, Radharc documentaries, the extravagant coverage of the pope’s visit and many other manifestations were constant reminders of the place of the Catholic Church in Irish society. So too were such dramas as Inquiry at Knock (for the centenary of the alleged apparition at Knock), Maloney and The True Story of the Horrid Popish Plot (both further treatments of the life of Oliver Plunket). There was also the constant presence of an unchallenged catholicism in a whole range of productions in the characters’ speech, in the iconography of their homes, in their customs and beliefs.

Although perhaps marginal to the overall flow, there were occasional challenges to catholic hegemony on the airwaves. The presence of spokespersons for other religions, whether tame ecumenists or rabid unionists, was seldom very challenging to basic beliefs. The Late Late Show debate on atheism was. So great was the interest aroused by it that it extended into a further session on a subsequent night.

Drama also played its part in reflecting and advancing a more critical approach to religion. It was not so much in challenging basic beliefs. There was not a single production dealing with a crisis of belief, loss of faith or the problems of being an atheist or agnostic in a theistic society, at least not as its central theme. There was very rarely a character who was explicitly presented as an unbeliever. There was Ned Lowry in Granada’s The Mad Lomasneys, for example, but his character was not developed in the direction of an exploration of his lack of belief in the text. Lack of belief, when it was occasionally present, was always present as subtext rather than text.

It was McCabe who gave it its most forceful moments. When asked what he believed in, Scober McAdam at least had a clarity that stood out from the muddiness of the rest. He believed that, when he died, he would be buried and rot in the ground. What he believed in was land:

“We come from it, live off it and go back to it. What else is there?”
He thought that the poor in former times had to believe in what came after, because they had nothing else. He then proceeded to mock those who still believed and the primitive, superstitious nature of their beliefs:
“Croagh Patrick, Lough Derg, Knock – knock, knock, who’s there?”

When asked about her beliefs, Isabel Lynam declared firmly that she did not believe in God. Her intelligent, questioning approach to all sorts of things was counterposed to the rock of ages, uncomprehending resistance of Mrs Aleer to whom all was simple:

“Too much learnin’ is the ruination of the world. All a body needs is faith in God, his blessed mother, faith in your people and faith in your country.”

Wesley Burrowes also allowed the question of belief to surface in scenes in which Mary Riordan worried about her son Michael’s loss of religion. She became agitated at signs of his free thinking and at his challenge to her to give a logical justification of beliefs she accepted on faith.

However, in bringing a critical edge into the treatment of religion, it was more a matter of exploring the contradictions within catholicism, with characters who still basically believed, than in counterposing them to those who did not. There were Niall Toibin’s satirical sketches. There were other storylines in The Riordans. There was exposure of the church’s complicity in class privilege in The Spike. There was a particularly Irish tradition of anti-clericism, which pointed to the reactionary stance of the clergy and to the faults of the institutional church, without ever raising questions about the existence of God or the validity of catholic doctrine. There were numerous examples of the evil done by those exemplary in the rituals of religious observance. There was the harm done to the travellers in The Riordans, whose embitterment was traced back to eviction by a landlord who was

“a good sodality man…gives to the foreign missions”.

There were the criminal activities of the Burkes:
“Your old Dublin family with the rosary beads in one hand , and the hatchet in the other”.

There were the McAleer brothers who blessed themselves as the victim’s body twitched.

There were images indicting catholicism and protestantism alike. Again the sharpest were those of McCabe. Asked if she believed in Jesus Christ, Isabel Lynam answered:

Isabel Lynam: “Not yours”.
Mrs McAleer: “There’s only one Jesus Christ”.

Isabel Lynam: “Dozens, Mrs Mac, and they hate each other”.

When John Willie O’Neill thought of the two traditions, he said to his son:
“Catholics kneel under plaster saints. We sit with Christ under guns and swords”.

Eric O’Neill shared his father’s alienation from these “loving tributes to violent death”, but soon reaped the harvest of his heritage in his own violent death. Nor was it only christianity brought up for such scrutiny. In her reflections at gun point, Harriet Armstrong went further back:
“The old testament…reeks of blood and empire.”

Less negative about the role of religion in Irish society were productions which turned on the differing reactions of the faithful to the post-Vatican II changes in the Catholic Church.

Much of it dealt with the new types of priest emerging out of catholicism’s aggiornamento. In The Riordans, Wesley Burrowes tried to draw Fr. Sheehy, as a priest of the new age, while avoiding the obvious stereotypes of the:
“swinging priests, singing priests, rebel priests, laicized priests” 90

His crisis in his vocation and his departures from orthodoxy in his liberal stress on individual conscience over ecclesiastical authority were very credibly handled. In Legion of the Rearguard, Criostoir O’Floinn’s play, which was originally to be called Aggiornamento, Fr. Hackeen, the new curate in a provincial town, proposed to transform the old St. Patrick’s temperance club into a modern youth club. However, the old guard in the town had other ideas and were determined to protect the status quo.

By the seventies, the decline in vocations had become a problem of major proportions in the church. Not only were fewer and fewer entering novitiates and seminaries, but, among those who did enter, more and more were leaving. The Spike dealt with the efforts of the church to protect its power in the educational sector in the face of this decline. Other productions probed the forces involved and the motives of those who left. Miracles and Miss Langan was a not very mature play by Neil Jordan about a seminarian, who left the seminary and began a relationship with a female fellow teacher in the school where he went to work. It did not leave the audience much wiser, either about the social forces or about the psychological dimensions of ‘vocations’ .It was an attempt to show people frozen, both emotionally and sexually, by their backgrounds, but it never really penetrated into their characters or their conditions with any sort of fruitful insight.

Of course, the most disturbing phenomenon to traditional catholics was not so much the decline in entrants or even the departure of seminarians, monks and nuns. The most threatening development was the laicisation of priests, something quite outside the experience of previous generations of catholics. These priests left for many reasons, but it was no secret that many left to get married. It was starting to seem like a veritable exodus and it was only right that it should receive serious dramatic treatment.

Sean Walsh’s play Assault on a Citadel gave it such serious treatment. As the author was himself a laicised priest, who subsequently married, the play was grounded in his own intimate experience of the milieu. The play revolved around the dilemma of Ned, a country curate having a clandestine affair with the local teacher and coming to a crossroads in which he felt he had to decide whether to stay or to leave the priesthood. In an attempt to resolve his personal conflict and to come to a decision, he went off to a monastery to make a spiritual retreat. However, far from finding the monastery a source of solace from the conflicts besetting him, it was brought home to him that the conflicts were there too and indeed in the church itself. The title of the play was meant to be a metaphor within a metaphor within a metaphor. Ned’s priesthood, the monastery, the church itself: all were citadels and all were under attack. Although for the monastery Vatican II was only a ripple with the waves still well from the shore, the older monks nevertheless felt dislodged and disoriented from what had reached them of the changes. As Brother Senan confided to Ned:

“Well, lately, like, there’s unrest among us where there never was before. The older ones, like meself, don’t take to the changes too well. We mightn’t say it out, but it’s there just the same. Ah, God be with the old days; black was black, white white an’ divil the grey. Time gone by, there were mortal sins – meat on Fridays, a dance of a Sunday, not fastin’ during Lent, goin’ to a service in a protestant church, even for a neighbour’s funeral – and now we’re told they’re not. One year I’m prayin’ to a saint, the next I’m told not to bother. Sure, what way o’ goin’ on is that ? It’s not that long ago devotion to the little flower was all the go; now you hardly hear her mentioned…A priest leavin’ to get married? In my day, Father, unheard of… and you could tell one! Now they wear all sorts – jeans an’ jackets, an’ anoraks. Some with long hair. Mix that much, they do, the people don’t know anymore where it’s safe to use bad language. So I say to meself if there’s a great fallin’ off in the country, what must it be like in the towns an’ above in the city?”

From the garden to the organ loft, it was the same story. In Fr. Cormac’s analysis, television drama came into play as well in eroding the old order:

Ned: “It’s well for ye in ways – out of it.”Cormac: “You think we can’t be got at ? God bless your innocence, Father ! They’re coming at us from all angles. The mass media, huh! They haven’t left us alone since the Vatican council. A full frontal attack! The world we turned away from, right there in the community room! Programmes and plays from pagan England, God between us and all harm ! And make no mistake about it, Father, it’s leavin’ its mark…”Ned: “I can imagine.”

Cormac: “This year, so far, three gone by the wayside, two priests and a brother.”

Ned: “You mean …?”

Cormac: “Gone altogether. To get married. Rudolf’s in London on a two year dispensation – trying’ to make up his mind. Ignatius is gone off with a nun long since. And still no word of Athanasius.”

Ned: “Athanasius?”

Cormac:” Must be three years gone now. Just hung up his habit and walked away. Not so much as a by-your-leave or a note of explanation…”

Ned:” It’s the same story in the diocese.”

Cormac:” Trickle, how are you! More like an exodus!”

Everywhere he went, there was a sense of siege. Even from his spiritual director, the glib Fr. Xavier, came another list of woes:

“Oh, we’re takin’ a bit of a hammerin’ at the present time, I’ll admit that. All this free thinkin’ since Vatican …God, I remember the time when you could hardly blow your nose without permission. And now look at us! The whole world goin’ to Hell, headlong! Terrible things happenin’ – divorce an’ contraception an’ abortion, wife swappin’, communal livin’, people not botherin’ anymore to go to mass or the sacraments, doin’ what they like… Even holy wedlock is goin’ by the board. A few more years, Father, mark my word, and a handful o’ mad priests round the world’ll be the only ones wantin’ to get married.”
In their worries about the church, the monks all sounded much the same. In their attitudes to Ned and his dilemma, they were quite different. For Fr. Xavier, Ned’s anguished story was matched by a string of cliches. Indeed, the loquacious Xavier must have summoned every cliche in the book in his exhortations to Ned. For him, it was simply a matter of temptation and rising above temptation. A bit of effort, a few prayers and he’d be as right as rain. It was as simple as that. It was a tug of war between flesh and spirit and he had to deny the flesh for the spirit.

“Sure all you’re sayin’ is you’re human. And you know as well as I do, you have to be a man to be ordained – and that means a full quota of the basic equipment. The sacrament of holy orders puts an indelible mark on the soul, but it 1 doesn’t take one whit from the body.”

His body was nonetheless the citadel of the holy spirit and, he was told, the devil and his legions would stop at nothing to assault it. As to the woman involved:

“Let her go her own way. If she’s all you make her out to be, she won’t have that much bother getting a man on the open market … You know the drill. No meetings, no messages. A clean break, it’s the only way. Platonic friendship, how are ya! You’d only be tormentin’ yourself, doin’ the devil’s work for him. If you just keep your head, you’re home and dry…”

As to the alternative:
“Out there, it’s dog eat dog… tied to a woman, brats hangin’ out… your mother wouldn’t be able to lift her head…”

For Xavier, there was no real empathy and there was no real decision to be made.
“You are all ifs, buts and maybes. Stick to the facts – your ordination.”

But with Fr. Cormac there was a kind of empathy or at least a respect for the validity of his love for a woman and a recognition that there was a real decision to be made and more than one way to go in righteousness. His last words to Ned were:

“But if you decided to…to… well, I’d hope you’d step out with your head high. Aye, and put out of your head every last word you ever heard about fire and brimstone and the wrath o’ God. If there’s no going back, there should be no looking back, either.”
Meanwhile, there was the woman, Jenny, waiting to hear of his decision. In the television version of the play, Jenny was a secondary presence and her feelings were largely unexplored. In the radio version, Jenny and her feelings were more to the fore. In the television version, it was never clear whether or not Ned and Jenny had actually made love. In the radio version, it could scarcely have been clearer. Indeed, a particular interior monologue dramatising Jenny’s point of view, was an interesting illustration of the gap between what was perceived to be possible on radio, as opposed to what was perceived to be possible on television:

“I stumbled on a hillock, you kept me from falling. I knew what I had always known: that for all that you were still a man. I went a woman’s way then, tempted you, let you think you were tempting me. Oh, say me the ten commandments, when my mind’s not in a whirl, my heart beating like a wild bird in a snare, my secret places moist and throbbing for the relief that only the quivering thrust of a man can bring… Say me the sixth and the ninth when I’m scarfed and on my knees in a cold church of a winter’s morn and I’ll beat my breast, readily enough, and say “mea maxima culpa” but don’t whisper in my ear “thou shalt not” when the weight of your body is pinning me down and you’re…I won’t hear, d’you see. Even-if it’s thundered, I won’t hear… “
It was a powerful portrayal of a woman with her own professional career, her own economic independence, her own emotional force and her own sexual expressiveness. At all events, Ned made his decision, at least his decision to apply for laicisation. Having come to realise that he had left the security of his family for the security of the church and had never had to face insecurity, standing on his own two feet, he decided he had first to face the world on his own to be in a position to decide to face it with Jenny.

Covering some of the same ground was the adaptation of Brian Moore’s novel Catholics as a television film, made as a Welsh/ American co-production by HTV and CBS. It also showed that there was no place too cloistered or too remote to be touched by the intellectual and social changes, which Vatican II both reflected and promoted. It also indicated the resistance put up by those whose world was under siege from the new ways and the contradictory position they found themselves in, holding to conservative traditions based on obedience to authority, once the authority had turned liberal.

It was actually set in the future, in the closing years of the 20th century, on an island off the west coast of Kerry. The story concerned the controversy generated by Muck Abbey, where the monks had clung to the Latin mass, private confession and such traditional practices. Pilgrims were coming from all over Europe to their mass on the slopes of Coom mountain, attracting much publicity and television coverage. Following Vatican IV’, moves were underway to come to an understanding between christianity and buddhism, and the threat of a catholic counter-reformation was becoming an increasing source of embarrassment. The Vatican was determined that Muck Abbey be brought into line. For years, the old abbot had stoutly ignored the directives of his ecclesiastical superiors. The film, which made a genuine effort to grapple with ideas, centered on the encounter between the old abbot and a young priest dispatched from Rome, who believed in christianity as the best agent of social change and prayed in the lotus position. Adding to the complexity of the intellectual confrontation, there was the most poignant revelation of the abbot’s own loss of faith after he had been a priest for many years and a disclosure of how he had coped and even carried on as abbot.

Historical Drama

Most of RTE’s own drama, which actually attempted to come to terms with ideas, was set, not in the present or in the future, but in the past. There was the five part series The Treaty Debates, giving a dramatised documentary account of the Dail speeches of 1921-22, which conveyed a striking picture of the assumptions and values of the period. There were also a number of dramatised biographies of Irish thinkers, which tended to have a sharp interpretative edge and to concentrate on conflicting ideas rather than to give soft hagiographical accounts of the facts of their lives. This was particularly true of the Portraits series, giving controversial interpretations of The Dean (Swift), The Chief (Parnell), The Canon (Sheehan) and The Rebel (O’Casey), written by Eugene McCabe, Anthony Cronin, Eoghan Harris, John Arden and Margaretta D’ Arcy. It was also particularly true of Gale Day, McCabe’s probe of Pearse’s character, which touched on many dimensions and challenged the picture many were given at school. Of his attitude to women, for example, the verdict was:

“Their lower, or even their lighter side, he little understood…”

There was also the Wits and Dreamers series, featuring dramatised biographies of various figures of the Irish literary revival, such as Synge, Gogarty, Gregory and Moore, written and directed by James Plunkett. Other biographical productions were: Mr. Joyce is Leaving Paris, a portrait of the artist as an older man; That Rooted Man, a centenary tribute to Synge; A Little Man Dying, the last reflections of Oliver Goldsmith; I Stood Well With All Parties, an aristocratic perspective on the ‘golden age’ of Dublin, based on the memoirs of Sir Jonah Barrington; When Handel Played in Dublin, a picture of Handel’s personal renaissance, coinciding with his visit to Dublin and the first performance of Messiah.

Another biographically-based production was Teems of Times, Dominic Behan’s account of the life and times of the Behan family. The ten part series gave a fair picture of Dublin ‘in the rare auld times’. It encompassed the family’s births, marriages and deaths, the community’s schools, strikes, unemployment, evictions, emigration, politics, pub talk and pawn shops. The 1930s came through as hard times for working class Dublin. Life for the Behans and their friends and neighbours had its distinctive joys and colourful craic, but it also seemed to have more than its fair share of sadness and struggle. The small events of their lives were sketched against such larger events of the nation as the general elections of 1932 and 1933, the eucharistic congress of 1932, the building workers’ strike of 1937, the blueshirts, the slum clearances, the economic war. The material was there in abundance, but the production somehow didn’t quite work. The stage-Dubliner carry-on was laid on too thick and was a bit hard to take. It was not only that the paddy-wacking style of performance and the music-hall type of production seemed inappropriate to the material, but the cardboardy, claustrophobic type of studio settings flattened out and constricted material that called for more expansive open-air treatment.

There was also the fact that, although it was urban, working class drama, it was off the mark in meeting the needs of the contemporary audience for urban, working class drama. It pictured an idealised form of the already archaic urban community of the tenement. It projected a milieu with more lumpen and peasant qualities about it than proletarian elements. It focused more on the rural modes brought into the urban context than the new urban modes of the urban context. It illustrated a tendency in Irish urban writing, analysed by Fintan O’Toole, to make an increasingly urban and industrialised reality palatable by wrapping it up in rural, folksy images. The classic location for Irish urban writing has been the tenement which, in O’Toole’s argument, was essentially an urban version of a rural setting. Tenements were a physical embodiment of decline, being the former homes of the ascendancy fallen into the hands of the poor, imposing a sense of a fall from the past rather than a ground for the future. The tenement came across as an enclosed world, a self-contained community, in which everybody knew about everybody else, more like the rural communities than the constant collision with strangers in city life. The tenement was presented as an urban community, where the main point of contact between people was in the domestic sphere, rather than in the world of the streets and the world of work, the distinctive elements of urban experience. The old peasant women in the rural folk play were transformed into Dublin ‘ould wans’ in the tenement play with little jarring effect. 91

There was a fair amount of historical drama on RTE, sometimes giving the impression that RTE was more comfortable in dealing with Ireland’s past than its present. The drama set in the past tended to be much more explicitly sociological and political than that set in the present, opening it to the sort of charge made by Michael D Higgins:

“The gatekeepers of television and film feel yesterday is safely within the perimeters of the allowable. Today’s structures are without. Nostalgia as a convention prevails. Realism is the realism of the past…they make programmes about dead and dying radicals and movements long gone, rather than the messy and dangerous present.” 92

The programmes about dead radicals and past movements were not only documentaries and drama documentaries based on factual accounts of Irish history. There was also drama based on fictional reconstructions of periods in Irish history. This was often done by foregrounding fictional characters against the backdrop of real historical events. Sometimes real historical figures interacted with fictional characters in the overall scenario.

RTE’s most ambitious project in this mode was the eight part series Kilmore House in 1976, covering a canvas of 150 years of Irish history. It focused on the particular events in the lives of the members of the fictional Walsh family, occupants of the catholic big house, set against the background of the grand events in the life of the nation between 1803 and 1945. The courtship of John Michael Walsh was set against the rebellion led by Robert Emmet. Patrick Walsh fought a duel after being called a coward for not coming out in support of Daniel O’Connell’s cause of catholic emancipation. He was involved in land disputes and new railways, against the backdrop of the famine. Michael Walsh proposed to sell the family business to support the fenians. Dr.Shane Walsh found himself torn between his sympathies for tenement families and his own family’s capitalist interests and capitalist values in a scenario haunted by the figure of James Larkin and the gathering storm between capital and labour. Fergus Walsh, an ardent socialist, found himself in a master-servant relationship that challenged both his radical principles and the fortunes of the family business. A visit from an American cousin coincided with de Valera coming to power, depression and economic war. Finally, Shay and Declan Walsh returned from service in the British forces during World War II to find Kilmore House in danger of being sold out of the family. The series sunk nearly without trace, barely remembered by the audience and entirely wiped by RTE (unusual for drama made in this period). It was generally felt that production standards were not up to scratch.

There were also other productions dealing with particular periods within this larger canvas, ranging from Tom Murphy’s powerful Famine, probing the whole psychological legacy left by the famine, to softer evocative period pieces like Kate O’Brien’s The Last of Summer and Aidan Higgins’ Langrishe, Go Down, both dealing with relationships between foreigners and natives, against the claustrophobia of Ireland at the onset of war.

Aside from RTE in-house productions, there were dramas from other sources shown on RTE and set in Ireland’s past. There was Carlo Gebler’s National and Film Television School (London) diploma film in 1979, The Beneficiary, a reworking of a Chekov story set in Ireland at the turn of century. A dowry-less woman, who married into a prosperous family, plotted her revenge, when denied her inheritance. There was the Dublin film co-operative’s The Hebrew Lesson in 1973, a story of a conflict between a young IRA volunteer and an elderly Jew, who advocated peaceful dialogue as an alternative to violent action.

Verdict on the Decade

All in all, Irish television drama covered an enormous amount of ground in the seventies. Whatever it did or didn’t do as fully as the temper of the times might have seemed to warrant, it still did a great deal. Although it has been judged here as falling short in many respects, the overarching impression left by it was of a series of honest and impressive attempts to come to terms with the temper of the times.

It was an overwhelmingly liberal phenomenon, which was the source of both its vitality and its inadequacy. Liberalism 93 was and is a vital force in Irish society, still fighting for its place against formidable conservative forces. Insofar as Irish television drama captured this liberal thrust, it generated enormous controversy and manifested its continuing vitality. Liberalism was and is, however, an inadequate force for coming to grips with the problems with which it grapples, for it tends to deal with particular factors in a piecemeal fashion and lacks the synthesising power to put things in full socio-historical context and to achieve holistic perspective. Irish television drama has constantly stopped short of full penetration and total vision. Its strengths and its limitations have been the strengths and limitations of liberalism.

Notes to Chapter 5

1. SCLC was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organisation founded by Martin Luther King. NICRA was the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Assciation. The INLA was Irish National Liberation Army, the military wing of the IRSP.
2. Citizens for Better Broadcasting, Aspects of RTE Television Broadcasting, nd (1976)
3. When asked about the connection, co-author and director of A Week in the Life of Martin Cluxton Brian MacLochlainn responded that he was directly and deeply influenced by the British television drama of the time and made clear in his interview for the job of producer-director at RTE that he was impressed by the work of Ken Loach and Tony Garnett within BBC’s Play for Today format and would like to do that sort of thing within RTE. Interview with Brian MacLochlainn, February 25,1986.
4. Interview with Louis Lentin, January 24, 1985. In the 1970s, heads of drama in succession were: Chloe Gibson, Donall Farmer, Michael Garvey and Louis Lentin.
5. Interview with Eoghan Harris, July 17, 1984. 1
6. Wesley Burrowes, The Riordans, Dublin, 1977, p.20.
7. ibid. p.18.
8. Luke Gibbons “From Kitchen Sink to Soap” in Television and Irish Society, McLoone and MacMahon (eds), Dublin, RTE/IFI 1984, p.39.
9. ibid, p.41.
10. Patrick Gilligan, RTE Guide, January 20,1978.
11. Brother Vivian Cassells, Irish Independent, February 23,1978.
12. Tom O’Dea, Irish Press, February 4 and 11,1978.
13. Ken Gray, Irish Times, February 20,1978. ,
14. Irish Times, February 25,1978.
15. ibid.
16. Ibld.
17. Irish Times, March 3,1978.
18. Irish Times, March 7,1978.
19. Confidential memorandum from Muiris MacConghail to department heads, producer /directors, production assistants, reporters and presenters, March 2,1978.
20. Muiris MacConghail, RTE/lFI Summer School, July 6, 1984.
21. Irish Times, February 25,1978.
22. Interview with Noel a Briain, June 21,1985.
23. Drogheda Independent, March 10,1978.
24. Drogheda Independent, March 17,1978.
25. Irish Times, March 3,1978.
26. Interview with Michael Judge, November 14,1984.
27. Irish Times, April 24, 1978.
28. Irish Times, March 7,1978.
29. Irish Times, March 13,1978. 30. Hot Press, March 4, 1978.
31. Irish Catholic, March 9,1978.
32. Interview with Niall Toibin, May 8, 1985.
33. Brian MacLochlainn, RTE / lFI Seminar, July 6, 1984; Niall Toibin, Irish Times, March 11,1977 and interview, ibid.
34. Irish Independent, February 26,1983.
35. Hibernia, April 6, 1978.
36. Southern Star, March 25, 1978; Hibernia, April 6, 1978; Connacht Sentinel, Apri125, 1978.
37. Dungarvan Leader, ApriI28,1978.
38. Intervew with Peter McEvoy, April 17, 1986.
39. Louis Lentin, Introduction to Passing Through, Dublin, Turoe, 1977, p.7.
40. The texts of Cancer and Heritage are published in short story form under the title Heritage and Other Stories Dublin, 0’Brien. 1985.
41. Eugene McCabe’s Victims, Cork, Mercier, 1979, is the Siege story in the form of a novel.
42. Interview with Kevin McHugh, December 5,1985.
43. Interview with Michael Garvey, July 16,1985.
44. Interview with Wesley Burrowes, April 29, 1986.
45. Richard Hoggart, The Listener, February 28,1980.
46. Philip Schlesinger, Graham Murdock and Philip Elliott, Televising Terrorism, London, Comedia,1983, pp.132-136.
47. RTE Guide, November 25,1971
48. RTE Guide, October 3,1977.
49. ibid.
50. cited in RTE Guide, January 18,1979.
51. RTE Guide, October 3,1977.
52. Christopher FitzSimon, The Irish Theatre, London, Thames and Hudson, 1983. p.195-196.
53. RTE Guide, October 3,1977.
54. Pat O’Hare, Cork Evening Echo, October 8,1977.
55. Roscommon Herald, October 4, 1977; Longford Leader, October 14, 1977. Leitrim Observer; October 15,1977.
56. Connacht Tribune, October 21,1977.
57. Interview with Bob Collins, September 12,1986.
58. Interview with Tom Murphy in In Dublin, May 15,1986.
59. Fintan O’Toole, Sunday Tribune, December 8,1985.
60. Interview with Michael Garvey, July 16,1985.
61. Cork Examiner, March 10,1977; Cork Evening Echo, March 12,1977.
62. Corkman, March 18,1977.
63. Nenagh Guardian, March 26, 1977.
64. Western People, March 19,1977.
65. Sunday News (Belfast), March 20,1977.
66. Irish Press, March 14,1977.
67. Nenagh Guardian, March 26, 1977.
68. Irish Independent, March 11,1977.
69. Irish Independent, March 12,1977.
70. Cork Evening Echo, March 9,1977.
71. Irish Press, March 10,1977.
72. Ken Gray, Irish Times, March 14,1977.
73. Tom O’Dea, Irish Press, March 5 and 19,1977.
74. Editorial, Cork Examiner, March 9,1977.
75. Kevin Rockett, IFT News, V, 2, 1982; Kevin Barry, “Discarded Images: Narrative and the Cinema”, The Crane Bag, vol. 6, no.1, 1982.
76. Martin McLoone, Television and Irish Society, op. cit., p.66-68.
77. Mary Kelly, “The Burke Enigma”, paper delivered to RTE-IFI Summer School, July 1984.
78. ibid.
79. formulated by and named after Jack Dowling of Sit Down and Be Counted, cited in interview with Eoghan Harris, July 17,1984.
80. Interview with Brian MacLochlainn, February 25, 1986.
81. Interview with Kevin McHugh, June 19, 1986.
82. Norman Smythe, RTE Guide, March 26,1971.
83. Interview with Carolyn Swift, December 11,1984.
84. Interview with Michael Judge, November 14,1984.
85. David Fitzpatrick, “Class, Family and Rural Unrest in 19th Century Ireland”, in P.J Drudy (ed) Ireland: Land, Politics and People, Cambridge University Press 1982, p.55, cited by Luke Gibbons in Television and Irish Society, op. cit., p.43.
86. Luke Gibbons, op. cit., p.43-46.
87. Interview with Kieran Hickey, July 23,1984.
88. Criminal Conversation is no longer actionable.
89. Interview with Kieran Hickey, op. cit.
90. Wesley Burowes, The Riordans, op. cit.
91. Fintan O’Toole, “Going West: the Country Versus the City in Irish Writing”, The Crane Bag, vol. 9. no.2, 1985.
92. Michael D. Higgins, “The Tyranny of Images”, The Crane Bag, vol. 8, no.2, 1984.
93. Liberalism in the broadest sense of the term refers to an attitude of mind favourable to ecomomic development, civil liberties and cultural progress. In this sense, liberalism indicates support for humanistic, democratic and secular principles in contrast to conservatism, which appeals to traditionalist, authoritarian and religious norms. In this sense, the term liberal embraces all those who oppose conservative values. In Ireland, this tends to be those who take a relatively independent line vis a vis the authority of the Catholic Church or the Orange Order. However, in more precise historical usage, liberalism refers to the political philosophy occupying the middle ground between conservatism and socialism. It emerged as the ideology of the progressive bourgeoisie in a society in the process of industrialisation, struggling for equality before the law and freedom for market forces over against feudal restrictions and inherited wealth and privilege based on blood and land. As opposed to the outlook of the aristocracy or peasantry based on pre-capitalist norms or that of the proletariat based on post-capitalist norms, it is based on capitalist norms of individualism, particularism and pluralism over collectivism, organicism and coherence. Wherever on the spectrum, from laissez-faire to social democratic shades of opinion, the liberal sees whatever reforms may be necessary in isolation and does not call into question the nature of the system. In this sense, liberals are distinguished from both conservatives and radicals, as those who support social reform, but tackle such issues as arise one by one by piecemeal social engineering, which can be accommodated within the capitalist system.

originally published 1987
revised 2001

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