The great modernisation

Second Reading

60 YEARS OF TV IN IRELAND Pictured at the launch of ‘Ireland On The Box’ are: RTÉ Director-General, Dee Forbes with Director of the National Library of Ireland, Sandra Collins. RTÉ television turned 60 on New Year’s Eve, and RTÉ is marking the occasion with a special photographic exhibition presented in partnership with the National Library of Ireland (NLI). ‘Ireland on the Box’ is on display at the National Photographic Archive in Meeting House Square, Temple Bar, Dublin. The free exhibition explores six decades of television in Ireland, through entertainment, drama, sport, music, education and news and current affairs programming.

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

RTÉ Television celebrated its 60th birthday on New Years Eve. The landmark led me to re-read John Bowman’s excellent book, ‘Window and Mirror’, on the early decades of the station. As listeners to his Sunday morning programme on Radio One know, he has a forensic knowledge of the national broadcaster’s archive. The book is elegantly scripted and beautifully designed. It is embellished with memorable photographs and images and enriched by telling anecdotes.
Ireland was slow in establishing a national television station. Even Albania was ahead of us. According to Bowman, civil servants in the Department of Finance argued that the public had shown ‘no interest’ in a national station and would be unlikely to spend the money ‘on such a luxury’. How wrong they were.
Growing up in Ballina in the early 60s, one of my standout memories is of television aerials, sprouting as quickly as mushrooms on a humid autumn day, on houses throughout the town. The renting of televisions sets became a lucrative business.
While most people embraced the new station with interest and enthusiasm, not all were happy. An elderly lady who often visited our home complained that television and astronauts in space had turned the world upside down. We laughed behind her back, but she was right. The narrow rural Catholic ethos that shaped her life began to dissolve in the warm glare of the television screen.
In one of his celebrated poems, Philip Larkin telescoped the social change that had occurred quickly in England ‘between the end of the Chatterley ban and The Beatles first LP’.
Similar change happened in Ireland and television was a central agent in the modernisation of our society.
Nenagh native, John Doyle, born in 1957 and later TV critic of the Canadian newspaper, ‘The Globe and the Mail’, grew up with Irish television. In his book, ‘A Great Feast of Light’ he wrote perceptively of the immense impact of the new medium on our lives:
“Television brought stories into the living rooms and kitchens of the most isolated homes. When people saw the ‘Donna Reid Show’, ‘I love Lucy’ or ‘Jack Benny’, they saw people comfortable in their own skins, untrammelled 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.”
President Eamon deValera officially opened the new station. He gave it a guarded welcome: “I must admit that sometimes when I think of television and radio and their immense power, I feel somewhat afraid. Like atomic energy it can be used for incalculable good but it can also do irreparable harm. Never before was there in the hands of men, an instrument so powerful to influence the thoughts and actions of the multitude.”
It had the potential ‘to build up the character of the whole people, inducing a sturdiness and vigour and confidence’. Used wrongly it could “lead through demonization to decadence and disillusion.”
There was also another brooding elder casting gloom on the opening night celebrations. Cardinal Dalton, the Archbishop of Armagh, criticised the media for presenting views ‘at variance with Catholic teaching’. He asserted that RTÉ should reflect high ideals ‘not presenting us with a caricature of Irish life such as we have had from some of our writers in recent years’. He may have had in mind Edna O’Brien’s fine novel ‘The Country Girls’ which had just been banned in Ireland.
His colleague the austere Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, got an early indication that the obsequious deference then given to bishops did not apply in the media world. 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, told him, “Sweetheart, you can leave the gear down here.”
To paraphrase the words of the sociologist, television helped to bring to an end the long nineteenth century in Ireland.