Children's TV pioneer made indelible mark on programming

Sat, Jan 12, 2013, 00:00

MÉADHBH CONWAY-PISKORSKI:Méadhbh Conway-Piskorski, who died on January 1st aged 83, was a television executive, educationalist, linguist and placenames scholar who was a pioneer of children’s and educational programmes at RTÉ from its establishment in 1962

She was responsible for the launch of many of the new station’s innovations and original programming in those areas, including Wanderly Wagon, Teilifís Scoile, Teilifís Feirme, Bosco, Siopa, and Let’s Draw with Bláithín.

Erudite, articulate, practical and independent of thought, she never stood on ceremony and preferred the modh díreach in her professional and personal dealings. That sometimes put at her at odds with the status quo and her superiors but her many former colleagues who attended her funeral in Dundrum last week remembered her strong loyalty to colleagues and to RTÉ, her kindness, her humour and her lack of any pretension.

Méadhbh Ní Chonmhidhe was born in Ballivor, Co Meath in 1929, the fourth of 11 children of Thomas and Margaret Conway, both of whom were primary school principals. Three of the children, triplet girls, died in infancy – the remaining eight comprised four boys and four girls. Her father had learned Irish in the local branch of Conradh na Gaeilge and it was a fully Irish-speaking household.

Ahead of his time in many respects, Thomas also believed that in 1940s Ireland his daughters should have every chance to attend university and have independent careers. Her mother, Margaret, was also a noted archaeologist and local historian and in latter years Méadhbh edited her voluminous writings into a number of collections, including the well-received book, Seanchas na Mídhe.

Méadhbh was a boarder at the all-Irish St Louis convent in Monaghan, a remarkably progressive school for its time with an eclectic curriculum not available to the vast majority of girls schools – including higher maths, orchestral work, languages and physics. In a 1993 interview on Cúrsaí she said the standard of education, and the dedication of the nuns, was extraordinary but she showed early signs of rebellion. “I kept the rules that made sense and broke the rules that made no sense,” she said.

Refused a Child of Mary award for two infractions – writing an essay that contained some communist sentiments and reading the Irish Press without permission – a classmate implored her to try again to be a Child of Mary otherwise her mother would be disappointed. Her response was typical: “To be quite honest with you, my mother wouldn’t give a damn.”

At UCD she completed a double honours MA by thesis in French and Irish. She taught French and Irish for a little while at St Louis Rathmines and St Margaret’s Hall.

She then joined the Place Names Commission along with another future RTÉ colleague, Ciarán MacMathúna, and was assigned to Co Donegal, but found she did not have the temperament for research.

She joined Radio Éireann in the mid-1950s as assistant to the head of children’s programmes. When RTÉ was established in 1962, she was appointed as its first head of children’s television programmes.

The new service in its early years saw a huge emphasis on education and children. With funding from the Department of Education, Teilifís Scoile was instrumental in updating teaching methods and curricula. She later recalled many pupils’ only access to a TV set was in school and their only experience of seeing a laboratory was the one they saw in the studio.

Innovations included using actors such as Siobhán McKenna and Hilton Edwards in dramatisations of Shakespeare, aerial footage for geography series and animation for mathematics. She also believed there could never be enough home-made programmes for children.

“Television brings the outside world home. To the extent that it affirms the culture, a child’s self-esteem is enhanced and their grasp of reality strengthened,” she wrote.

A colleague recalled her reputation as a “strong woman”. She once rang director general Vincent Finn (with whom she was very friendly) at home during the weekend and gave him a piece of her mind on an issue. Asked by the colleague on Monday if that call was wise, she replied: “Probably not but I certainly felt much better after it!”

While lecturing in the communications centre in Booterstown, where the Radharc programmes were made, she met her future husband, Ryszard Piskorski, with whom she had a son, Stefan.

When funding was withdrawn for RTÉ programming by the Department of Education in the 1970s, she felt her department was marginalised and the wealth of skills built up allowed to lie fallow.

After her retirement she was very active in Age and Opportunity and Parlaimint na mBan, a forum for women through the Irish language. She also edited many of her mother’s writings and, with her fine voice, could recall at family get-togethers all the verses of obscure ballads and “come all yes” celebrating rural life in Co Meath.

She is survived by her husband, Ryszard, and son, Stefan.