The Borrowers: ‘The Healy-Raes are keeping this country going’

In RTÉ’s new programme about credit unions, we get a rare thing: a series of loans with very little interest

The Borrowers: a frugal affair

The Borrowers: a frugal affair

 

Most of the action in The Borrowers (RTÉ One, Tuesday, 8.30pm), a new factual programme about modest loans, and not an extremely loose adaptation of the children’s book series, takes place in one of a handful of credit union loan offices.

The show describes this transcendentally dispiriting place as “the most private room in Ireland”. I can think of one or two rooms more private, and little reason to introduce a camera into either of them.

With a twinkling Pauline McLynn voiceover and a jaunty soundtrack that make the undertaking seem no less invasive, an innocence on behalf of the participants – real people in need of real money – that seems frankly concerning, and such indifference on behalf of the credit unions they do nothing to spruce up their interchangeably drab offices,

The Borrowers somehow manages to serve up something otherwise elusive: a series of loans with very little interest.

Beginning in Tralee with good-natured loan officer Maurice O’Donoghue, whose taste for colourful socks marks him out as the show’s maverick, we first meet Thomas, a man in his early 70s in need of a cataract operation.

An interminable wait on the HSE means he can’t get acess to treatment before permanent damage takes hold (“As good as this country is, there’s a lot of improvement needed,” commiserates Maurice).

Thomas borrowed money to get a cataract operation, with a little help form the Healy-Raes
Thomas borrowed money to get a cataract operation, with a little help form the Healy-Raes

But in the meantime, help comes from local fixers, Michael and Danny Healy-Rae, who advise on a private procedure in Belfast and organise a bus to bring him there. “It’s never a surprise,” smiles Maurice. “The Healy-Raes are keeping this country going.” They sure are. Just ask John Delaney. (Actually, don’t bother.)

Another applicant, aspiring country musician Michael, has guitar, will travel, but for the small matter of €3,000 necessary to bring him to Nashville. Here, his loan officer Derry Fleming holds all the cards. “Was there a sparkle, like?” he asks Michael of the woman who invited him. “I only want to get the loan back,” he explains. Later he requests a song, and sings along flatly to Ring of Fire. And it burns, burns, burns.

You could base a series on Eugene and Gary, a Mullingar father who brings his son to the credit union so he can reimburse him for the cost of a car. With a fondness for colour (or at least purple) that would make Maurice pull his socks up, Eugene also has a vaudevillian range of facial expressions, from swivel-eyed disbelief to wincing apprehension, when discussing the subject of Gary’s driving. Such skills come a distant second place to the young man’s badinage. Eugene agrees to go guarantor on the loan, and the show itself could benefit from a similar kind of security. If their double act could stick around, The Borrowers would be forever in their debt.

Yet the matter of repayments are not discussed nearly as candidly as the hopes and dreams the officers speak proudly of enabling. Thomas, granted €2,000 for his eye operation, will have the guts of it reimbursed by the HSE, and agrees to a €20 a week repayment. Michael, made to sing for his supper, is offered only his flights instead: just €700. He seems happy to get it.

The programme, a very frugal affair itself, does show us the fruits of their borrowings: Thomas up North, Michael down South and Eugene and Gary still stuck in the Midlands. “It’s about helping people, really,” explained the kindly Maurice. Maybe. But the show is a humbling display. Would you credit it?

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