RTÉ television signalled a new, open Ireland

Second Reading
RTÉ television signalled a new, open Ireland

Fr Kevin Hegarty

We are well used to financial experts getting their forecasts wrong. So I was not surprised to read in John Bowman’s fine book on the history of RTÉ, ‘Window and Mirror’, that, in the 1950s, mandarins in the Department of Finance concluded that the public had shown ‘no interest’ and would be unlikely to spend money ‘on such a luxury’.
How mistaken they were. Growing up in Ballina in the early sixties one of my memories is of television aerials, sprouting as quickly as mushrooms on a humid autumn day, on houses throughout the town. I have a vivid recollection of gaggles of people, gathered at the window of the local television store, looking at snowy black and white images of President Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in the summer of 1963.
Most people embraced the new technology with great enthusiasm. Not all were enamoured. An old lady who often visited our house complained that astronauts in space and television had turned the world upside down. We laughed behind her back but she was right. The rural, Catholic ethos which had shaped her life was dissolving in the warm glare of the television screen.
In one of his celebrated poems Philip Larkin telescoped evocatively the social change that happened in England: ‘Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP’.
Something similar happened in Ireland and the establishment of RTÉ television played a significant role in it. Fifty years ago, this coming New Years’ Eve, RTÉ was beamed for the first time into our homes.
John Doyle, who was then a young boy growing up in Nenagh, and later became television critic of the Canadian paper, ‘The Globe and Mail’, has written of the immediate influence the station had.
“Television brought stories into the living rooms and kitchens of the most isolated homes. When people saw ‘The Donna Reed Show’, ‘I Love Lucy’ or ‘Jack Benny’, they saw people comfortable in their skins, untrammeled by Church expectations and traditional pressures. When they heard arguments about sex, sexuality and religion on The Late, Late Show, the arguments did not seem so fantastical. Eyes had been opened, not only by a light but by a lightness of feeling that came from far away, and it was there in the corner, every evening, after darkness fell on the complacent town of Nenagh and a thousand others like it,” he said.
President deValera did the opening broadcast. It is unlikely that he foresaw how crucial RTÉ might be in future presidential elections. It is arguable that debates on the station changed the course of two of them. In 1990, Garret FitzGerald’s forensic examination of Brian Lenihan’s denials that he had contacted President Hillery in the wake of the fall of the coalition government in February 1982 struck a fatal blow to the campaign of its Fianna Fáil candidate.
In the election just ended, the Frontline debate proved a calamitous Beecher’s Brook for Seán Gallagher. Controversy will continue as to when Martin McGuinness left the IRA but there is no doubt about his skill in hitting a target.
President deValera, in his address, welcomed the new station, but with a warning. It had the potential to ‘build up the character of the whole people, inducing a sturdiness and vigour and confidence’. He was afraid of its ‘immense power’. Never before in history was there ‘an instrument so powerful to influence the thoughts and actions of the multitude’. Used wrongly, it could ‘lead through demoralization to decadence and disillusion’.
In truth television was far from deValera’s vision of an ideal Ireland. In his famous 1943 St Patrick’s Day broadcast he visualised a society which would be happy with ‘the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths and the laughter of comely maidens’ and whose ‘firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age’. He did not foresee that the ‘sturdy children’ would have television zappers in their hands. Or the ‘athletic youths’ and ‘comely maidens’ sitting together on comfortable sofas watching the box in the corner.
There was also another brooding elder casting some gloom on the celebrations. In his broadcast, Cardinal D’alton hoped that television would not present viewers ‘with a caricature of Irish life’ which he clarified ‘we have had from our writers in recent years’. He approved of the ‘isolation of former days’ and criticised the media’s presentation of ‘views at variance with Catholic teaching’.
His colleague, Archbishop McQuaid, got an early indication that the obsequious respect given then to the bishops did not apply in the world of television. He arrived to the station on opening night to perform benediction accompanied by his driver who carried the voluminous vestments required for the celebration. The producer, Chloe Gibson, dressed in jeans, greeted the driver with the words, ‘Sweetheart, you can leave the gear down here’.
Bowman’s book is elegantly scripted and beautifully designed. It is decorated with marvellous photographs and images and enriched by lively and telling anecdotes. He has an unrivalled knowledge of the RTÉ archives as listeners to his early Sunday morning programme on Radio 1 know. The book is an excellent evocation of RTÉ’s contribution to Irish life in the last half century.