A Loss of Innocence? Television and Irish Society, 1960 – 1972

A Loss of Innocence? Television and Irish Society, 1960 – 1972


Well, I’ve always been
interested in this sort of transition that took place
in Ireland in the late 1950s into the early 1960s. And this book really
evolved out of that interest in the late 1950s Eamon de
Valera, the taoiseach who had dominated post-independent
Ireland was finally stepping down from his position
as prime minister and was replaced by Sean Lemass. Sean Lemass became taoiseach,
or prime minister, in 1959 and would really help
open up Irish society by developing a number of
initiatives that encourage foreign investment that began to
dismantle the tariff walls that had protected Ireland. And so there was this
period of engagement that I’ve always
been fascinated by. And Sean Lemass has always
been associated with that. He would encourage Ireland
to engage with the Atlantic community, with both North
America and Europe, especially. And television would
emerge in the early days of Lemass’ tenure as taoiseach. And it would help
modernize Irish society. And that has always been a
really kind of interesting part of contemporary Irish history,
the sort of transition between the old guard, the
sort of de Valera period, and the advent of Sean Lemass
as taoiseach or prime minister. Ireland would emerge from
a period of isolation once Lemass became
taoiseach in 1959. The post-war period from,
say, 1945 to about 1960, would witness an Ireland
that was struggling. Its economy was not growing. There was high levels
of unemployment and tremendous
levels of emigration. In fact, it’s been estimated
that upwards of 500,000 people would leave Ireland between
the end of the Second World War in 1960. And this would begin to
change in the early 1960s when Lemass became prime
minister because he would encourage
foreign investment and open up the Irish economy. And television would be part of
this process of modernization. Television which would challenge
this sort of status quo. It would undermine the
influence of the national press. It would challenge
the Catholic church. And it would also
challenge a number of very conservative cultural
organizations such as Gael Linn, which was of course
devoted to bringing back the Irish language
as an important part of Irish culture. Leon O’Broin is one of the
more interesting characters in this story. He is a senior
civil servant that was involved with the Department
of Finance as a young man and he would make the
transition to a Department of post and telegraphs. Now the name might
sound rather bizarre, but in fact post and
telegraphs would later become the Department
of communications. And it would be
the department that would be responsible for
radio and television. Throughout the
1950s, there would be debates about television
and what form it might take, how it might be structured. Ireland was one of the
last countries in Europe to have a native or
indigenous television service. And O’Broin was very interested
in what form that might take. He would look at the BBC
and really appreciate its public service
commitment and would be sort of the prime
mover for television to embrace this
public service role. He regarded
commercial television, whether in the United States
or in the United Kingdom as entertainment and
was much more interested in seeing a public service
network develop in Ireland. And throughout the 1950s he’d
be in a very important position. As Secretary of
his department, he would be the one
that would be looking at all the different proposals
that would be coming across his desk about how a service
might be established. There were a number
of foreign companies interested in building
a television service for the Irish government
if the Irish government was willing to enable these
companies to establish a commercial radio station that
could broadcast into the United Kingdom. O’Brien was looking at
these proposals that were coming from American
and continental entrepreneurs and was dismayed at the
commercial character of those proposals and would
be pushing the government constantly to embrace what he
regarded as the best model. And that would be the
public service model. And again he would look at
the British Broadcasting Corporation and
argue that that was the service that the Irish
government should look to. That television should be more
than simply entertainment, that it should uplift
and educate the masses. He always believed
that communications should serve the people and that
a public service should develop programming that would be
culturally viable, that would be interesting and educational. One of the most
fascinating characters to emerge from this story would
be a native of Boston, Edward Roth. Roth grew up here
on Mission Hill, a man who was educated
at Boston University. He would serve in the Marine
Corps in the Second World War and become interested in
radio and television while in the South Pacific serving
as an intelligence officer. He made his way back
to Boston and ended up taking additional
courses and studying at Columbia University,
hoping to gain a PhD. However he had a young
family and realized that he had to find
work and quickly began to look at television and
the communications industry as a place where he
might make a career. He ended up working for NBC and
proved a very talented manager. He really enjoyed traveling
and spent a good deal of time in South America
and Latin America where he worked for NBC
setting up television stations, first in Lima, Peru, and then
in Guadalajara and Monterrey, Mexico. In fact, he was working
in Guadalajara, Mexico when he read an advertisement
in a trade journal called Broadcasting. And the advertisement
came from Dublin. It was an ad looking
for a director general. What the Irish government
was looking for was a key individual
that could help build a national television service. Roth applied for the job and was
interviewed and hired and spent over two years working
in Dublin helping to get the Irish television
service off the ground and on the air. He’s a fascinating
character, a technocrat, somebody that really
didn’t understand the complexities of Irish
culture or politics, but was hired basically to
get a service organized, to make sure that the right
kind of hires were made, and to see that the technical
infrastructure was in place so that a national
service could develop. He was the first
director general of what was then known
as Telefis Eireann. And he was controversial in many
ways because a lot of people criticized his emphasis on
television as entertainment. I had mentioned
before Leon O’Broin, who was the Secretary of
the Department of Post and Telegraphs. O’Broin was horrified
initially with Roth, because he believed
that Roth was really the antithesis of public
service broadcasting. What he hoped for was a service
that could, again, uplift and educate the Irish people. And when Roth arrived,
he was in charge of a television service
that was supposed to be both a public service
as well as a service that would entertain the viewers. And many argued that
Roth wasn’t doing enough to sort emphasize the importance
of the Irish language, of Irish culture,
of Irish history. And that’s one of the reasons
why Roth was so controversial. I suppose one of the
real problems for Roth was that when he was
hired as director general he was not brought in to run
a public service television station. It was not the BBC that
he was taking over. He was beginning a
commercial public service, what was really a hybrid. He was given a sort of
confusing set of instructions. He was told that the new
television service had to both educate and
uplift the Irish people as well as entertain them. And so he was challenged in that
he was going to try and build a service that could
be viable, that could be successful
and find an audience. And he believed that
to find an audience and to hold that audience
he had to provide entertaining programs. And he looked to the United
States for those programs, and especially to
westerns and crime dramas. And these became tremendously
popular in Ireland. And for Roth, when I mentioned
this was a hybrid service, it was a service
that was dependent on commercial revenue. So he was selling
airtime to advertisers. And he always argued that
advertisers were simply not interested in
cultural programming that might emphasize the importance
of the Irish language. But they were interested
in popular programs that would find a wide audience. And Have Gun Will Travel,
Wagon Train, Perry Mason, these are the programs that he
brought to Telefis Eireann in the early 1960s. They were popular. They were somewhat dated
in an American context. But again they succeeded
in finding and building an audience. And in that way
he was successful. His tenure was a
controversial one. It lasted for two years. But by the time
he left in 1963 he had put in place
the infrastructure for a successful service. Well the new
television service did really upset the political
establishment of the day. They were used to a
national press that was deferential and found
it difficult to deal with a television service that
employed many young, university educated men and women who
were oftentimes aggressive in asking questions about
policies and decisions. This was something that was
hard for many of the old guard to countenance. Many of the sort of
revolutionary generation that had been members of
the Irish parliament or Dail for many years found
it unsettling to be asked questions by
young men and women who would not let these
parliamentarians off the hook easily. Many political elites
of the day were used to Radio Eireann, the old
radio service, that functioned really as part of the Department
of Post and Telegraphs that issued news bulletins,
that reported on debates that were taking place in the Dail
or in the parliament, that reported on international
events but did not produce investigative programs. And that’s what took place
as the 1960s progressed is that many of these
young men and women that were, at first, training
about how to make programs were really influenced
by the programming that they were
seeing on the BBC. Programs such as Panorama were
really pioneering documentary endeavors that were emulated
by many of these young men and women. And as they developed
programs that were hard hitting and really
questioning policies, the political establishment
found this unnerving. And it took a while
for political elites to realize that television could
be used to their own benefit if they were smart enough to
realize how to use the medium to get their own message out. Television posed a real
problem for the Catholic Church in Ireland in the 1960s. The Archbishop of Dublin was a
man named John Charles McQuaid. And he was, by all accounts, a
fairly reactionary character. John Charles McQuaid
had been unsettled by the reforms of Vatican II
and had come back from Rome telling his own congregation
that they shouldn’t worry about any of these changes, that
they were really not important at all. In fact they were
very important. And McQuaid was worried
that television would really upset the sort of society. He was concerned, especially,
with American programs and British programs that might
address issues of sexuality, that might look at the
plight of single mothers or address divorce. And he felt that
it was imperative that the Catholic church have
a very substantial say in what might be broadcast. John. Charles McQuaid worked
very hard to see that one of his own appointees
could sit on the television authority that was established
by the broadcasting act in 1960. He worked behind the
scenes for months to try and make sure that
one of his own priests could sit on that
television authority and report to him about
what kind of debates were taking place within
the new television service. In the end, he was unsuccessful. People like Edward Roth,
the first director general, the American that I
had mentioned earlier, and Eamon Andrews, the chairman
of the broadcasting authority, were successful in making
sure that this appointment of McQuaid was not successful. Again, McQuaid was a
bit of a throwback. And he was seen by many inside
of this new television service as a person that could create
real problems if, in fact, he was able to insert
one of his own people onto the television authority. In the end, Edward
Roth and Eamon Andrews, the chairman of the
broadcasting authority, were successful in seeing
that a Dominican was appointed to be the religious
advisor to Telefis Eireann. Now a Dominican would not be
responsible to the Archbishop of Dublin. And when the
archbishop found out that a Dominican had been
appointed, he was furious. But there was
nothing he could do. You know this Dominican
was not somebody that was answerable
to the Archbishop, but he was a Catholic priest
who was a capable advisor. And that satisfied
the authority. But again it did not
satisfy the Archbishop. I had addressed the
controversy about inserting a Catholic priest onto
the television authority. John Charles McQuaid had
paid for the education of two young priests, a man named
Joseph Dunn and another Des Forrestal to gain an
understanding of television. In many ways, John
Charles McQuaid would be a very
proactive archbishop. He was interested in trying
to figure out how television might serve his own purposes. And he had paid for Joe
Dunn and Des Forrestal to study television
broadcasting, both in Britain and here
in the United States. Joe Dunn and Des Forrestal had
studied television in New York and had come up here
to Boston and actually been guests of Cardinal
Cushing in the early 1960s and were interested in
how the American Catholic church was using
television to reach an audience of the faithful. And archbishop
McQuaid was hoping that he could insert
one of these priests onto the television authority. And he wanted to put the man
named Joe Dunn onto authority. In the end Joe
Dunn was not placed onto the television authority. And this was actually
in some ways a victory for the Catholic
church in Ireland. Joe Dunn would go on to start
up his own television company, and it would be called Radharc,
which translates roughly to vision from Irish. Dunn would be a very
influential character because he would begin making
documentary programs that proved very popular
inside of Ireland. Radharc initially addressed many
social issues inside of Ireland that many people
found problematic. Dunn, because he was
a Catholic priest, had a certain degree
of credibility and was really trusted
inside of Ireland. So he made programs about
poverty, about alcoholism, about the plight of emigrants
who had left Ireland and were struggling to
find work in England. Later on Joe Dunn and
a number of priests that worked with him would
use a network of missionaries around the world to make
programs about life in Africa and in Asia. Dunn, in this way, sort
of opened up a window on the world to many
people inside of Ireland. You know because Dunn was
able to successfully exploit this network of missionaries
around the world he was able to travel freely and
rather inexpensively and make programs about life– you know, what the
challenges that peasants in the Philippines were being
confronted with in the 1960s. He would look at life
in Nigerian villages and also look at life
the United States. And many of these programs
found their way onto RTE and they were very popular
on Irish television. And a number of them
would be picked up by other European public
television services. So in many ways Joe Dunn and
this television production company that he
started, Radharc, would open up Irish
society by simply enabling the Irish people
to see what life was like in other
parts of the world. One of the most
contentious issues for the people that ran
television in the 1960s was the Irish language. Edward Roth, the first director
general, and Eamon Andrews, the chairman of the
television authority, were challenged time and again
by the Gaelic League that argued that this national
television service was not doing enough to support
the Irish language. Now, you know, both
Edward Roth and Eamon Andrews would argue that
the television service had to support itself, that it
had to sell advertising time and that it had to develop
popular programming that would find a wide audience. And they would argue that Irish
language programming was simply not popular. They would point
to the experience of Radio Eireann that had
conducted a number of studies that illustrated quite clearly
that many people were simply turning the station or
turning the radio off when Irish language
programming was featured. And so the Irish language
lobby was very unhappy with the new television
service in the early 1960s. And this would begin to change
towards the end of the decade when a number of young,
talented producers began to develop innovative
Irish language programs that were a bit subversive, that were
highly critical of government policy, that began to ask
very difficult questions about contemporary
life in Ireland. And they did this through Irish. There would be a number
of Irish language programs such as Feach, which
would become very popular. But this would happen in
the later part of the decade and not in the early 1960s. In 1963 up until 1966 or 1967
the amount of Irish language programming was very small. And this really infuriated
the more conservative members of the Gaelic
League or those that advocated that the
Irish language be featured predominately on
the new television service. In fact, this would
remain a contentious issue throughout the 60s and
70s, into the 1980s. And it would only really be
resolved when an Irish language television service was
established in the 1990s. And that enabled those that
were interested in the language to have a service
that– or a channel that was focused on the language
and focused on bringing relevant and contemporary
programming, that would become popular in some areas,
to an audience that was interested in the language. When television came to
Northern Ireland, initially it did not threaten the
unionist government there. Television came to Northern
Ireland in 1953, just in time for the coronation
of Queen Elizabeth. And throughout the 50s and
most of the 1960s television in Northern Ireland simply
was rebroadcasting signals coming out of London. So the BBC and eventually the
independent service Ulster Television was
simply rebroadcasting programs that were being
developed inside of Britain. However, when the Civil
Rights Campaign began in 1968 this changed things. And television began to cover
the Civil Rights Campaign. And this unsettled the
political establishment in Northern Ireland. What would take place
in Northern Ireland is that many young, university
educated men and women would be influenced by
the Civil Rights Campaign taking place in
the United States. And they’d be
especially influenced by the nonviolent methods
used by Martin Luther King. They would be watching the
American Civil Rights Campaign and looking at the marches that
were taking place in Alabama and other parts of
the American South and begin to follow
examples that were set by those
interested in civil rights for African-Americans. And when the television
news programs began to cover
these marches, that created a great
deal of discomfort in the government
of Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland
in the late 1960s was a place where Catholics
suffered discrimination. And that’s what these civil
rights marchers were trying to argue, is that
there were those inside of Northern Ireland that
didn’t have full civil rights. And as these marches
took place they were– they met resistance
by the police, by the Royal Ulster
Constabulary. There would be one
very famous march that would take place
on October 5th of 1968 in Derry, in Northern Ireland. And in this march a group
of young men and women and parliamentarians, MPs
from the labor government and from Northern Ireland
would be attacked by police. And much of this
would be filmed. And that film would make its
way onto the national network of the BBC and the
independent television, and also onto the national
network inside of Ireland. And this would really
illustrate that there was something wrong inside
of Northern Ireland, that this civil rights
march, which was peaceful, was being attacked by police. And viewers were able to
see, to witness firsthand, in many respects a civil rights
march being attacked by police. And the film clip
would be juxtaposed with a statement issued by the
government of Northern Ireland saying that the police had acted
in a very respectable manner. And the juxtaposition
would be really quite stark and would really help to
undermine the government of Northern Ireland. Because their position
would come under attack. Television would illustrate to
many people inside of Ireland but most especially
in the United Kingdom that there was something
really wrong inside of Northern Ireland. And as British viewers
began to pay attention to what was taking
place, this put pressure on the government
of Northern Ireland to initiate a number of
reforms that would fully enfranchise the
minority population inside of the province.

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