‘Love/Hate’ offers the illusion of insight into violence to safe Middle Ireland
Opinion: We have become largely inured to the obscenities of organised crime
Who can remember a single name among the litany of victims of the past decade? Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
RTE needed something like Love/Hate. The station’s record in building audiences around home-produced drama has been patchy. Series like The Clinic and Raw perhaps marked the beginnings of a new direction, with vivid characters and plot lines reflecting contemporary issues. But Love/Hate has left them standing. It will yield a significant commercial dividend.
Stuart Carolan is a talented scriptwriter. He has created a cast of characters who are engaging, complex and even, in places, likeable. His writing is complemented by the abilities of a superb team of actors. There is an abundance of talent here across all the skills.
If it wasn’t so good, I might be less worried about it. If it wasn’t so absorbing, I would be less troubled by its capacity to reduce to riveting, small-screen entertainment a set of realities that are sordid, brutal, depraved and a shameful reflection on a society that considers itself civilised and generally law-abiding.
We have become largely inured to the obscenities of organised crime and gangland violence. Broadcasters and print journalists now get a minute of airtime or perhaps three paragraphs when another young man has had his brains blown out in some housing estate or public house.
Go on, test yourself; try to remember a single name among the litany of victims recorded by the news media, say in the past decade.
There is disturbingly little awareness of the scale of gangland murder in our society. In the 30-year period between 1969 and 1999, by best estimates, about 113 people died violently in this State as a result of spillover from the Northern Ireland Troubles. But in the period since the murder of Veronica Guerin in 1996 there have been almost 300 gangland deaths, the majority by shooting.
It is true that Irish crime rates overall are still low by comparison with many of our neighbours. Our numbers of recorded homicides in relation to population are less than a third of those in the United Kingdom, for example. In some years, many Irish counties have no homicides at all. But the figures become much more disturbing when you realise that almost all the gangland murders are concentrated in two or three clearly identified suburbs.
Journalists and broadcasters faithfully record each killing in its outline details. They rarely now bring us behind the human stories. Sometimes the victims are not nice people, often being involved in violent crime themselves. But each of them is some mother’s son, or somebody’s partner or some child’s parent. Yet one can count on the figures of one hand the number of times this plague of death has been raised in the Dáil or Seanad.
Middle-class Ireland doesn’t want to know. A silent consensus has developed that since this is almost wholly a matter of criminals killing criminals, it can be tolerated, accepted as a fact of 21st-century life, perhaps even subliminally welcomed. It’s “scum wiping out scum”, I once heard a barrister say after a trying day in the criminal courts.
Perhaps it was inevitable that sooner or later the portrayal of this terrible world would be taken up by the dramatists and directors, much as the Northern Ireland Troubles eventually drew the attention of the film makers. It can be argued that it has taken Love/Hate to put a credible, human narrative on the story; that television drama has done what the mainstream news media have failed to do.
Yet there is something deeply disturbing about the representation of many of the main characters. Nidge, Darren, Elmo and their friends come across, underneath their violent, ruthless outer selves, as entertaining characters with their own decencies. You mightn’t want your daughter to come home with one of them, but they’re not all that bad, are they?
They blow holes in their enemies, they are abusive to women, they have no scruples about torture and intimidation. But maybe there’s a bit of Robin Hood about them.
There’s so-called Dublin humour too, interspersed among the gunshots and the sound of spades clanking in shallow graves.
This has happened before on a smaller scale. Martin Cahill, aka “The General”, was a clever, ruthless criminal who used violence clinically and brutally to take what he wanted, sometimes from people who had little enough themselves. But in death, with the help of one or two film directors, he became a charming, quasi-romantic, anti-hero who enriched Dublin life and stood up to the establishment.
Shooting of cat
The undoubted – and deserved – success of Love/Hate must tell us a lot about ourselves as a society. Drama critics vie with each other to identify the artistic techniques that drive it on. Newspapers fill pages with profiles of the lead actors (who, surprise, turn out mostly to be well-adjusted, middle-class young people with south Dublin accents). One Sunday tabloid produced a full-scale supplement about it last week. Perhaps significantly, the only protests against the portrayal of violence have been about the shooting of a cat in last Sunday’s episode.
Watching Love/Hate offers an illusion of insight from the comfort and safety of middle Ireland, in much the same way that people thought they understood the Mafia from watching The Godfather.
The horrors of gangland are physically cordoned off from the rest of us each night by the guards who man the checkpoints of “Operation Anvil”. By converting those horrors to entertainment we can cordon them off psychologically as well.