An Irishman's Diary
It's the name, TV3, which gives the game away - rather like a parent introducing his sons in the order of their birth. This is my first born, RTE 1. The father gestures to the next son. Now here is his younger brother, Network 2. The man moves down past the line, ignoring son number three, and gestures to the fourth boy. Here, he says, is my third son, TV3, totally free of any subvention from the taxpayer.
The boy who has been ignored is stammering - but. . .but. . .but (or actually, doing so in the first national language: ach. . .ach. . .ach) - even as his father leads his guest off to dinner, proudly discussing his three sons, One, Two and Three. The son who came third in the sequence of births, TnaG, remains unintroduced, as if invisible. Which, in television terms, you become if you are completely unwatched.
TnaG is the unloved bastard who has been taken into the family home out of duty, but on any major family occasion he is overlooked, unwanted. Money is given to him - for does a man not own up to his responsibilities? But it is done without grace or title: the boy remains outside the sequence to the throne. Such royal sons were called Fitzclarence in England; we should call this offspring Teilifis Mhic Chlaireanse.
For aside from anglophone gimmicks, we now know TnaG is an audience disaster; and predictably so. Indeed, I seem to remember somebody not very far from this space saying that it would be. Yet the continuing debacle has generally been greeted with the respectful ocular aversion which might attend the snapping of Queen Elizabeth's knicker-elastic during a trooping of the colour. Oh look, everybody! Up there! The lovely pigeons!
We have no royal family; but we have a cluster of notions which serve as an enduring national totem to be honoured on state occasions. One is that we have defence forces, though they are nothing of the kind. Another is that our independence and our neutrality are famed throughout the world, though most of the world hasn't heard of us, and that bit which has thinks Belfast is our capital and Gerry Adams is our Prime Minister. Sort of. And another is that the Irish people cherish the language of our forefathers, and though we do not generally speak it in daily commerce, we reserve a respectful and well regarded place for it in our hearts, against the day when we will all be speaking it again.
It's all rubbish. Ireland will be an Irish-speaking nation when it is no longer populated by Irish people. Maybe Israelis, Germans, Swedes will go to the trouble of learning and communicating in Irish, but the real people of Ireland - as opposed to the imagined people who fill our politicians' minds when they speak of the future of the Irish language - will not learn Irish. They certainly aspire to speak Irish in much the same virtuous way that a man might aspire to stop having lustful thoughts about a friend's teenage daughter. But if the man learns that the only way he can finally cure the lust is by castration, he will opt gratefully for the continued thoughts; and when confronted with the effort required to use Irish regularly, the plain people of Ireland plump for effortless, unhonoured aspiration.
Yet we have to be seen to be doing something about the language; and fitfully, every generation or so bestirs itself to ensure that Irish regains the vitality which once made us culturally one of the most vigorous, energetic civilisations in Europe, the envy of. . .etc, etc. You know the coffee-table, soft focus, nostalgic rubbish which departing tourists buy at Shannon. The truth is we don't live in thatched cottages thumbing our Irish grammars. We live in ugly big bungalows, with satellite dishes which can collect a hundred channels; and the desire to watch Irish-language programmes on TnaG amid that multi-channel polybabble is virtually non-existent.
How much money has been squandered on TnaG. £20 million? £30 million? £40 million? And now we hear it officially from Donncha O hEallaithe, a TnaG council member, that audience figures for Irish language programmes rarely go above 10,000. At conservatively £2,000 per viewer that is more than calamitous; with hospital wards remaining closed for lack of money despite the press of literally thousands of patients outside, that is a true scandal.
And it will continue; because as was said - oh, not far from here - it is one thing to start these things. It is quite another to end them. And which alliance of political parties in government will have the courage to admit we are running a television service virtually nobody wants to watch, at vast cost every year? The opposition parties would have a rare old time lynching the government which wanted to destroy our national birthright - or whatever pious and sanctimonious old blather seemed right at the time.
So, the debate concluded, the Dail will disperse, and its members will return home to watch just about everything on their television sets but the one television channel which the taxpayer has paid for - the real TV3, the third-born bastard son, begotten in a moment's thoughtless embrace with Caitlin ni hOulihan, aided by that leering pander, political sanctimoniousness, and now sitting in a bog in Connemara, unwatched, unloved, unseen; poor Teilifis Mhic Chlaireanse.