If I told my four-year-old son that Irish television only provided one channel at the time of his father’s birth he would probably laugh, thinking the very notion as being inconceivable. In contrast, his generation will grow up with a multitude of portable devices on which to watch TV and movies. Consequently, the television set has lost its monopolistic control over our personal entertainment, impressionable thoughts, and consumer behaviour. Public trends and industrial production, or perhaps vice-versa, have moved on and may never return this way. Though it is far from dead, it is not that long ago since the television set was the internet of its era.
Television was first received in Ireland in 1949. The first transmissions were Northern and British in origin, a point that worried the newly independent and Catholic, Republic of Ireland. By 1955, sets in Ballina, Castlebar, and Ballaghaderreen were reported as giving satisfactory viewing from the Northern station. American Catholic bishops, already partially used to colour picture, had forewarned television users to be vigilant for unedifying, un-Catholic material. In response, the Government hesitantly tasked Leon Ó Broin, secretary at the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, with examining the viability of providing an indigenous television service. Westport man Owen Hughes was a member of Ó'Broin’s exploratory group. As a result of Ó'Broin’s research, the State established Telefís Éireann in 1961. The phenomenon of television spread tentatively through Mayo with the help of rural electrification which had begun in the 1940s. Murrisk was connected to the national grid by 1948, Knock and Ballycastle by 1949, Castlebar and Achill by 1953, and the network kept extending into the county through the sixties. Local media frequently reported on the advance of television with a sense of progressive pride. A certain generation will remember the name of Robert Kilkelly, the man who brought TV to the county capital in 1953. Can anyone remember the name of the person who brought the internet to Castlebar? Exactly. The arrival of television was celebrated. A ham for the reader who emails in with the name of the first Mayo Garda station to connect to the internet. You may well struggle, yet we know that the first Mayo Garda station to have a TV set was Castlebar and the year was 1962.
Television had taken off and the sale of sets rocketed. In 1955, there were 4,000 sets in Ireland. That figure increased five-fold within three years, and two years into the life of Telefís Éireann there were 237,000 sets in the country. One Mayo newspaper excitedly foretold that, “the years to come, in all probability, will witness the installation of a television set in every Irish home”. Despite the reluctant acceptance of television by some in official Ireland, the benefits of the medium quickly became apparent. Television, it was understood, could be used to influence Irish viewers and could equally portray the country as the Government preferred it to be seen. The Croagh Patrick annual pilgrimage was first televised in 1956 by Bavarian and BBC crews. The images of strong Irish Catholic devotion were now being beamed to international audiences. GAA games were pumped into households for all to watch. North Mayo GAA secretary Seán Duffy spoke eagerly about the importance of utilising television “as a means that will further interest in the native games”. Today, the television set is in a titanic global battle for our attention/money with the PC, the laptop, the smart phone, the tablet, the iPad, and every other gadget out there. Whatever of its future, the humble television set’s place in Irish history as an important vehicle of modernity is very much certain.