Father of Irish television drama who proudly defended the ‘soap’

Wesley Burrowes: April 26th, 1930 - December 31st, 2015

Wesley Burrowes, who has died aged 85, was the most outstanding TV popular dramatist of the first 50 years of Irish television.

When he was was interviewed by the Irish Independent in 1985 about Glenroe, the TV drama series he created, he imposed just one condition. The phrase "soap opera" must not appear.

Glenroe was social drama about rural life, he insisted, not a vehicle for advertising detergents to American housewives. He also said he had little time for the fast cutting between scenes which was the trademark of Phil Redmond's gritty Liverpool drama Brookside for the infant Channel 4. Scenes needed time to develop, and actors to inhabit their characters, Burrowes told the interviewer.

By the time Eileen Battersby spoke to him for The Irish Times more than a decade later he had relaxed this ban. Television soaps are concerned with creating a form of reassurance, he told her.


“These people become our friends. Nothing too terrible can happen to them, so the audience can be reassured by their continuing presence. Whatever dreadful things befall us in our own lives, they shouldn’t, they can’t, happen to soap characters. In real life, nobody ‘solves’ their problems, their problems just become part of their history. In a soap, problems are solved,” he said in 1998.

Rooted in place

Burrowes’s work was firmly rooted in place and character.


(1983-2001) was filmed in rural Wicklow. An earlier iteration featuring the same county, the TV series


, gave actor Gabriel Byrne’s career “lift-off”.

But it would be for Glenroe and the acutely observed interplay of the easy-going Miley, played by Mick Lally, and his savvier screen wife, Biddy (Mary McEvoy), with strong support from character actors Joe Lynch and Maureen Toal, that Burrowes would be remembered.

Guest writers included playwrights Bernard Farrell, Brian Lynch and Michael Judge. Burrowes, who had oversight of their scripts, encouraged them to push the boat out. Lynch tried to introduce a gay man, played by Peter Jankovsky, but internal RTÉ jitters required that the newcomer be recast as a photographer.

Glenroe offered a realistic rather than a romantic view of rural life, a muddy world of dairy farming and tillage, of sick animals and marauding dogs, filmed with outside broadcast cameras. Real-life incidents occurring within camera range were often broadcast.

Wesley Burrowes was born in Bangor, Co Down in 1930, the second son of a career civil servant. He attended Royal Belfast Academical Institution and later Queen’s University in Belfast.


Cricket and bridge – at which he later represented Ireland – snooker and the pursuit of girls filled his time at university. Nonetheless he graduated in 1952 with a degree in modern languages.

He began working in insurance in Belfast. Three years later, he moved to Dublin, where he wrote comedy sketches in his spare time.

Burrowes and his first wife, actress Liz Brennan, married in 1959. Their daughter, Ciara, was born in 1962. The couple separated five years later.

Burrowes met a Swedish weaver, Helena Ruuth. They set up home in Avoca, Co Wicklow in 1969, had a son, Kim, and later moved to Bray in the north of the county.

Meanwhile, Burrowes had been writing drama and comedy sketches.

His play The Crooked House was staged in the tiny Eblana theatre in Dublin in 1960. A musical, Carrie, written with Michael Coffey and James Douglas, was a major production in the Dublin Theatre Festival of 1963.

The director, Peter Collinson, went on to direct the film The Italian Job, featuring Michael Caine. Burrowes took over from writer Maura Laverty on Tolka Row, Ireland's first urban TV soap. He then went on to write scripts for The Riordans, the infant Telefís Éireann's initial rural drama series, the brainchild of James Douglas. It ran from 1965 to 1979.

Feature films

Burrowes also scripted two feature films.


(2000) featured Pete Postlethwaite as a Dublin drinker who turned into a rat and


(2003) was a comedy about two conmen who pretended to be able to communicate with the dead.

But his greatest achievement certainly lay in the field of TV drama – “chronicle drama” was a term he favoured – a genre he defended zealously and with great spirit.

Literary giants like Dickens, Scott and Thackeray, he pointed out, had published their works serially in newspapers and periodicals in the nineteenth century, while in post-Famine Ireland, Charles Kickham's Knocknagow had introduced many readers to literary fiction – and some even to literacy itself.

Wesley Burrowes is survived by Ruth, Ciara (Ryan) and Kim, his brother Charles and sister Norma. Another sister, Sonia (Downey), predeceased him.