It's hard to recall the last time tears were shed on an RTÉ property series. Perhaps it was the Room To Improve episode where Daniel O'Donnell went low-key berserker on Dermot Bannon upon hearing his new kitchen was over budget. But the emotions are altogether more intense on DIY SOS: The Big Build Ireland (RTÉ One, 6.30pm), an Irish adaptation of a shouty UK format in which a community joins forces to work on a big infrastructural project.
The UK original is a bit of an ordeal. It combines the worst of property TV – there are long conversions about joists and load-bearing walls – with the performative emotiveness of telethon telly. It’s loud and ersatz and features lots of interchangeable people in hard-hats being condescending.
The Irish incarnation is entirely different and it is impossible to sit through the first instalment of the new season without feeling your lips wobble. And that is because, pushing past the DIY hokum, it tells a deeply humane story of an average family struck down with terrible luck.
We are introduced to Johnny and Lynn Aylward, a Wexford couple with two young children (and each with grown-up kids from previous relationships). All was well in their world until November 2020 when Johnny was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and given two years to live.
This is devastating for them, but there is the added headache of the couple not having a permanent home for their family. Enter presenter Baz Ashmawy and an army of volunteers from all over the country who, with a deadline of just 13 days, set out to build a house from scratch in the townland of Shanbogh near New Ross.
There is lots of what you could expect from the home makeover genre. An interior designer is unhappy with some of the fixtures; there is footage of people drilling, digging and hammering nails. Yet the real story is of a family confronted with cataclysmic news. “Anger can manifest into self pity,” says Johnny. Why me … why not me?”
He first noticed something amiss walking with Lynn on holiday. His foot buckled; he experienced “something in your leg – it was flickering”. The hope was it was multiple sclerosis, which, if obviously life-changing, is not necessarily life-threatening. It was not to be.
“We prayed for MS,” says Johnny. “Imagine praying for MS. But it wasn’t. It was MND. There’s no messing with MND. It’s progressive, it’s incurable, it’s terminal. You have two years.”
Ashmawy can be a marmite presence on the airwaves. He has just one setting : a Duracell Bunny effervescence that is exhausting if you're not in the mood. He is, however, in his element here, and his empathy with the Aylwards is unforced and authentic.
He wipes away tears as the house – designed to cater for Johnny’s declining mobility – nears completion and it becomes clear how much goodwill is flowing towards the family. Volunteers have come from all over. A women diagnosed with terminal cancer says she is determined to do something productive with her time left.
“Stage four cancer. The treatment has stopped working,” she says. “It’s good to be here doing, something totally distracting”.
This is one of many heart-rending moments in an episode that rises above property TV cliché and tells us something powerful and true about family, community and the human condition.