Alison Spittle’s show is a few ‘culchies’ short of a club

‘Culchie Club’ Review: If there’s such a place as the real Ireland, this show does not find it

'Like Alison Spittle, few on her show recognise themselves as ‘culchies’ – there’s always somewhere smaller.' Photograph: Sínann Fetherston

'Like Alison Spittle, few on her show recognise themselves as ‘culchies’ – there’s always somewhere smaller.' Photograph: Sínann Fetherston

 

You can understand Alison Spittle’s confusion. Born in London, the centre of empire, the comedian moved to Ireland at the age of seven and settled in Ballymore – literally “big town”. So how can Spittle, a paragon of urban living, ever identify as a culchie?

In an effort to rekindle Spittle’s connection to the unspoiled land, perhaps – or at least to spin an hour of television out of a few basic questions – Culchie Club (RTÉ Two, Monday, 9.30pm) interviews several young people about life in small town Ireland.

“Well, with my camera crew and my flimsy premise, I’m going to find out what it means to be a proud culchie,” she informs us, characteristically wry, but cutting a little too close to the bone. How much substance is there in her subject?

Spittle’s search begins with her family, in Westmeath, where she wonders briefly about her own feelings of displacement. Yet here is where she seems most at home, joking conspiratorially with her mother about Leo Varadkar and Gerry Adams: “Nothing’s ever been proven, mam,” she says of the latter, falling into an infectious dark chuckle.

That she follows up with a discussion with Kerry comedian Shane Clifford, who speaks frankly of inbuilt inferiority complexes, depression and his reason for getting into comedy – “I find it difficult to talk to people” – suggests that this might have been a documentary on the perspective of comic outsiders.

Because Spittle builds up anticipation for her final encounter, with the less retiring Cavan comedian Kevin McGahern, she might also have found in it a sturdier premise.

What the show turns up, almost accidentally, is that culchies have attained a near mythic status. Like Spittle, few people here recognise themselves as culchies – there’s always somewhere smaller.

There may instead be many Irelands, as a number of fascinatingly placeless accents indicate

A recurring vox pop with a selection of alarmingly insular young Dubliners, moreover, suggests that kids in the capital have never encountered anybody from beyond their own postcode. By comparison, and far more enlightening to witness, few people in rural Ireland seem quite as isolated, not least because of the digital revolution.

We meet Erika Fox, a fashion blogger from Kerry, whose greatest misgivings about rural living is the lack of reliable broadband. Later, a farming family watch the livestream of a cattle auction on their smartphones.

By the time Spittle recognises Gogglebox’s Neal Tully, fresh from a Facebook Live commitment at a Macra na Feirme event, the whole idea of urban-rural division seems obsolete within this restlessly connected world.

Spittle makes the point herself, in a throwaway ad lib, when the farming girls wonder what leisure-addled townies do on their holidays: “A lot of them play Farmville,” she says.

That’s why a Mayo woman in an incandescent green wig seems as good an authority as anyone when she claims, just before the fateful All Ireland GAA Final, that Dublin “is not the real Ireland”. But what is?

There may instead be many Irelands, as a number of fascinatingly placeless accents indicate, and from the resplendent display of the first Mayo Pride parade to the competitive country dancing of Macra na Feirme. There are just as many ideas of culchiedom.

And still the programme feels overstretched, dawdling in each section where it might have hastened along.

At least the much-hyped Kevin McGahern lives up to his trailers, bringing the show to a categorical conclusion. “God, I don’t even know if it’s that complicated,” he tells Spittle, understandably, when asked to define a culchie. “If you can see a field from your house ... ”

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