A very Irish box of tricks


Telefís Éireann didn’t so much transform our culture as reveal it to be an unsteady mix of inherited values and consumerist aspirations, writes FINTAN O’TOOLE

So far, so banal: a man recognises a young woman who has been on TV.

What’s interesting is that Murphy found the moment deeply shocking. She questioned the Kerryman and discovered he had a television in London and “must have seen thousands of people on the screen since seeing me, three years previously”. He insisted that there was nothing odd about his visual memory – “he was not a freak, but simply an ordinary viewer.”

Murphy – young, intrepid, an inveterate traveller – found this idea, the simple notion that someone could remember her face from the telly, profoundly disturbing. Something that now seems completely unremarkable seemed to her a terrible invasion of memory and individuality.

That sense of television as a strange and frightening innovation hung over the opening night of Telefís Éireann, 50 years ago today, on New Years’s Eve 1961. The most famous Irish TV broadcaster, Eamonn Andrews, made a speech in which he noted that, in the eyes of many, “Cathleen Ní Houlihan . . was in danger of becoming Cathode Ní Houlihan”.

The many he had in mind undoubtedly included the president, Éamon de Valera, whose speech on the same night was openly riven with anxiety. He confessed that “I feel somewhat afraid” and compared the new medium to nuclear energy: “It can be used for incalculable good, but it can also do irreparable harm.”

On the one hand, the new venture might help to build the national character by promoting “sturdiness and vigour and confidence”. On the other, it might “lead through demoralisation to decadence and disillusion”.

It is easy to mock these anxieties, but they were not entirely misplaced. Cathleen Ní Houlihan did, after all, become Cathode Ní Houlihan. And television did prove to be somewhat like nuclear radiation, so prevalent that it was scarcely visible as it seeped into every pore of Irish society and gradually altered its DNA. For the Ireland that de Valera embodied, the long-term effects were undeniably toxic.

Television was unsettling because it is both public and intimate. There was nothing strange about the idea of two-dimensional, lifelike moving images: films had been around for a long time. But TV brought those images into the private, domestic space. It became, as the Catholic primate Cardinal D’Alton warned on the opening night, “entrenched in our homes”. And it did so in a way that undermined certainties about what is or is not “real”.

A man from rural Co Westmeath told me of his grandmother in the early days of TV in Ireland. Her daughter encouraged her to get undressed for bed before the fire, where it was warm. But she wouldn’t do so until the television was turned off: how could her modesty survive the prying eyes behind the screen?

I remember my own grandfather, who came from rural Co Wexford, and who lived with us. He had two heroes: de Valera and anyone wearing the colours of the Wexford hurling team. But he acquired another: Marcus Welby, MD. The eponymous avuncular doctor on the American drama series was, to him, a magical and saintly healer, whose patients always recovered. He did not regard Welby as a fictional character.

This was not just a matter of naivety. Television was a new language that had to be learned. In August 1962, the BBC’s pioneering interview programme Face to Facedecided that one of its subjects would be the Irish playwright Seán O’Casey. The dramatist had been, in his day, a brilliant user of popular culture, mixing vaudeville and music hall with high tragedy. But, as he confided to RTÉ’s director general, Edward Roth, he was baffled by the notion of a TV interview. He wrote to Roth that the BBC “wanted to send down a cohort of magic lantern men to take pictures while I answered questions”.

But the magic-lantern men were coming regardless. Indigenous television came late to the Republic. The technology had been viable since the 1930s: James Joyce was one of the first major writers to notice television, referring to it in Finnegans Wake as the “bairdboard bombardment screen” (after its pioneer John Logie Baird) and astutely defining it as a “verbivocovisual” medium. TV took off internationally in the years after the end of the second World War and firmly rooted itself in British culture with the broadcast of the coronation of Elizabeth II, in 1953. Ulster Television was formed in 1958.

IT IS THUS not quite true that the opening of RTÉ brought television to Ireland. Of those households that had a TV in 1963, nearly half had multichannel viewing. In other words, they had access to British stations. What did happen, though, is that RTÉ drove a rapid expansion of the TV audience, which had been largely confined to those in Border counties or on the east coast who could pick up the British stations.

In 1963, of 690,000 homes, just 237,000 had a TV. By 1971, 536,000 homes had televisions, and 63 per cent of them had RTÉ only.

RTÉ’s main business was the rebroadcasting of imported, mostly American series. But it did do an extraordinary job in ramping up its own output over just a few years. In 1962, it managed just 275 hours of home-produced programmes. By 1966, that had increased to 1,182 hours. By the end of the decade, home-produced TV programmes – the nightly news, The Riordans, The Late Late Show,the GAA match on summer Sundays – were giving shape to the day, the week, the year.

One of the fears expressed in relation to the advent of television was that it would kill conversation and wipe out traditional storytelling. The novelist and activist Peadar O’Donnell complained that, at the firesides of rural Ireland, local heroes were being replaced by American cowboys: “Tales of Micheál Ruadh and Big Willie Boyle are giving way to those of Kit Carson, Vint Bonner and Bat Masterson.”

The critic Vivian Mercier claimed that, under the baleful influence of television and radio, “even the Irish habit of leisurely anecdotal conversation is on the wane.”

Such complaints were surely simplistic. The Irish had long been avid cinemagoers: Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler were better known than Diarmuid and Gráinne, well before there was a television set in Ireland. And television itself was as much a conversation-provoker as a conversation-killer. Talking about what yer woman said on the Late Lateor about the cut of yer man on 7 Daysprovided endless fuel for scandalised gossip at the pub, the post office or the hairdresser.

But these cultural effects contained a paradox. On the one hand, TV helped to create a national community: especially in the days when most people had access to a very limited range of stations, the big shows were watched by everyone at the same time. They helped to shape a shared national space.

On the other hand, though, TV was globalising that space, making it more compatible with the norms of an increasingly homogenous Anglo-American commercial culture. This effect was intensified by the dependence of Irish television on advertising, making it a medium for the expansion of consumerism.

Given this paradox, TV revealed the Irish to be distinctive, but not all that distinctive. Cathode Ní Houlihan had her own peculiar addictions, but she was also easily hooked on other people’s televisual narcotics. Irish children went to bed on Friday nights wondering how Batman was going to escape on Saturday from the Joker’s foolproof trap. Their parents rushed home from devotions or the pub to follow the latest twists in The Forsyte Saga, which RTÉ actually broadcast before it was shown by its maker, the BBC. The desire to know who shot JR Ewing in Dallasturned out to be much stronger than curiosity about the third secret of Fatima.

In this, TV served to strip away the last illusions of cultural nationalism, such as the official insistence that the primary cultural project of the State was the revival of the Irish language. The language was never at the centre even of home-produced programming, let alone of the overwhelmingly anglophone imports.

The successful establishment of TG4, in 1996, was implicit acknowledgment that RTÉ never really bought the notion that the language defined Irishness.

Arguably, TV didn’t so much transform Irish culture as reveal it for what it was: an unsteady mix of inherited values and forms with global consumer aspirations.

This is perhaps equally true of the political impact of television: it revealed much but changed very little. It took nearly half a decade for Telefís Éireann to begin to mount serious political discussion on television. Even then, much of it was of a rather gentlemanly nature.

For example, Mary Kelly has described an interview by the presenter Paddy Gallagher with the then minister for finance, Charles Haughey, on the Division programme in 1966: “They discussed how, in general, budgets came to be formulated, the role of the Civil Service and cabinet, its social and economic functions, the consequences of direct and indirect taxation, and whether Haughey, as an accountant, was especially well qualified to formulate a budget.”

Political debate did become much more robust as presenters such as Brian Farrell established their own authority in public life and questioned even the most senior politicians as equals.

The capacity of television to dramatise moments of political conflict reached its climax with the internal struggles over Haughey’s leadership of Fianna Fáil: Gerard Collins’s “Albert, don’t bust up the party” plea; Brian Lenihan’s “mature recollection”; Seán Doherty’s revelations on Nighthawks.

But it would be an exaggeration to claim that TV in itself radically altered Irish politics. Politicians quickly learned to adapt to the demands of the new medium. Even untelegenic leaders like Liam Cosgrave managed to carry on. And, of course, the political system remained almost exactly as it was. In the long-term, it was the other pillar of authority – the Catholic Church – that suffered much more damage.

WHAT TELEVISION DOES, sometimes in spite of itself, is to elevate one value above all others: entertainment. The American critic Neil Postman has noted the way in which even film of a real horror, like a deadly earthquake, on TV news is entertaining: “Actually to see buildings topple is exciting, no matter where the buildings are.”

But the converse is also true: no matter how important a person you are or how weighty the things you have to say, television won’t love you unless you are entertaining.

This is the big thing that TV did to Irish society. It slowly eroded the idea that certain people – politicians and, especially, bishops – must be listened to because of the offices they hold. Being boring was the new mortal sin, and Gay Byrne was the one dispensing the penance. The most revolutionary aspect of The Late Late Showwas not Byrne’s mild liberalism. It was his utterly ruthless and over-riding dedication to entertainment. This was the great leveller: the show was everything, and if you couldn’t make a show of yourself, Gaybo had no time for you.

He told Ken Gray in The Irish Timesin 1970 that his ideal for The Late Late Showwould be “where you introduce guests or topics or singers, or entertainment, or whatever, and the audience, if they like them, stay listening, and if they don’t they can vote them out”.

This ideal – essentially that of the Roman gladiatorial arena – is startlingly prescient of the way reality television later developed, with the public voting off those who bore them. What’s striking is that Byrne already approved of this ruthlessness and implicitly applied it to his show.

The downside of this new dispensation was that it favoured the smooth-talking hypocrite and the charming chancer over the lugubrious saint and the inarticulate genius. The upside was that status at least had to be earned in the arena. It could not be assumed and, even when earned, it could not be taken for granted.

Those, like bishops, who continued to claim authority by divine right were always going to be the long-term losers in this new world. Cathode Ní Houlihan had no interest in those who insisted that something was true merely because they said it was.

In the end, this ruthlessness of television did for television itself. The idea of everyone watching the same programmes at the same time was the main condition for television’s social impact. It depended on people having relatively little choice.

Technology tore up that idea, fragmenting the audience. There are occasions – presidential debates, big sporting occasions – when the audience seems to reconstitute itself, as if nostalgic for the time when television could turn the nation into a single mass of viewers. But those occasions are rare and those times almost certainly gone.

Your TV moments

Describe your favourite television event from the past five decades on RTÉ, TG4 or TV3 and email it to tvmoments@irishtimes.com or post it to TV Moments, Features Department, The Irish Times, 24-28 Tara Street, Dublin 2. We’ll publish a selection next week