50 years of Irish television


ONE OF the few certainties in life is change. Because of that, the direct impact RTÉ television has had on public discourse and on Irish cultural life over a period of 50 years is difficult to quantify. What is clear, however, is that its effects have been largely positive and benign. Despite determined efforts by those in authority to maintain censorship and control its influence, they failed in what Seán Ó Faoláin regarded as an attempt to keep the public in a state of perpetual adolescence in an adult world.

Its potential threat to established order was recognised from the outset. Éamon de Valera acknowledged that while television could be used for good, it could also do irreparable harm and lead to decadence and disillusionment. A television commission appointed in 1956 reported the BBC was broadcasting ideas that were “alien to ordinary Irish homes”. Despite poor reception, however, an increasing number of Irish families were buying sets and tuning in. The government had no option but to create its own Pandora’s box.

Context is important. Censorship was deeply entrenched and rigorously enforced at the time. Legislation was designed to protect the public against such unwholesome “foreign” influences as immorality, modernism and consumerism. The sale of contraceptives was illegal and a family planning booklet was banned as late as 1976. Homosexuality was treated as a criminal offence. All these and other controls existed in a rapidly industrialising society.

From the outset, RTÉ’s remit was shaped by the BBC model, which concentrated on public service rather than on purely commercial concerns. Initially, the bulk of output consisted of bought-in US material. But the station went on to develop homegrown material and producers grew in confidence. Government overview of content continued, while members of the Catholic hierarchy also made their objections known. A formal apology resulted when two bishops complained about “filth” on the Late Late Showin 1966. Gay Byrne had asked female guests about wedding night apparel! The government set its own strict boundaries in 1969 when it established a tribunal of inquiry into a money-lending programme, rather than into the activity itself. Three years later it sacked the RTÉ authority because of a breach of censorship laws.

Despite such difficulties, RTÉ television has charted the changing nature of society while trying to promote the positive and expose the harmful. Sport received particular and positive attention. Drama series reflecting rural life were early staples. From the 1980s, politics and current affairs became major elements. Abuse of residents in nursing homes, mental hospitals and religious-run institutions have been exposed along with decades of clerical sex predations and organised cover-ups. As Irish society gradually awakes to its adult responsibilities, it has been assisted in that process by television. Differing views remain about the content of RTÉ programming. But that is the force that drives change.