My grandmother was born in Moylough, Co Galway, in 1890, and when I knew her she projected an image of Irish Catholic propriety. She went to daily Mass, and stopped to say the Angelus at noon and 6pm. She was generous with the price of a jacket or a ‘smart’ pair of shoes if she felt that I looked a bit shabby. She’d make my mother jealous by making the best chocolate cake ever!
As a young women she was a mighty worker, raising hundreds of pounds for the St Joseph Nursing Society from the sale of her cakes and jams. She dug and turned the ground in her large garden, growing such delicious delicacies as big black grapes in a long greenhouse. When the race cards had to be on the streets at 10am on race day, she would descend on the family printinghouse like the multi-handed Goddess of Kali. The list of runners was only declared late the previous night. It was a long job, but one of the highlights of the year. She would make and serve trays of sandwiches throughout the night, and work along the collating bench, or in the despatch, if required or not. She was matriarchal and bossy, and Edwardian in her clothes sense. She certainly gave the appearance of being deeply conservative in her views of social behaviour, her religion and politics. In her later years she drove a grey Morris Minor at 10 or 15mph. It was agony sitting beside her in the car.
I called to see her one morning in February 1984, a few days following the truly dreadful story of Anne Lovett’s young death on a cold January afternoon at a grotto in Granard, Co Longford. Gay Byrne had a very popular two hour morning radio show at that time. He has a unique perceptive style. He began to read out letters from listeners shocked and upset at what happened.
Many readers will remember the Ann Lovett story. It appears that as a 15 -year-old pupil at the local convent school, she went through her full term of pregnancy without anyone noticing. Then on the afternoon of January 31 she gave birth to a baby boy in the cold outdoors in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. When she was discovered the baby was already dead, and Ann was in a state of shock from blood loss. She died later in hospital. I can honestly say that the country, or at least everyone that I knew, stepped back in horror and sadness. The letters poured into Gay Byrne. Soon they became too many. In the following few days he, and two actors, read them out without comment, and a whole visceral underbelly of Ireland became exposed. The letters were deeply personal, and in the main from women. They told of lives spent with husbands who hadn’t spoken to them for years, the loneliness of living in parts of rural Ireland, the abortion trail to England, orphanages, emigration, spinsterhood, widowhood, pregnancy, abuse in all its manifestations, wretched childhoods, rape, run aways, unfulfilled lives, frustration, and anger. It was a extraordinary outpouring of hidden lives. Gay Byrne always denies that he was a catalyst for change in Ireland, but he did open doors, and allowed voices to tell their story. My grandmother sat, sometimes with her hand to her mouth, listening to every word that was read out. She was deeply moved, and kept saying that every word (she emphasised ‘every word’ ), that was said was true. “That’s the Ireland you never see,” she said, “ God help us but you only see the smiles.”
One of the family
But most of us in those early years of RTE television ( I am rolling radio and TV into one here as so many of its presenters moved effortlessly from TV to radio, that to my mind at least, the visual and the spoken became one ), looked upon RTE as a welcome visitor to our homes. We didn’t get a TV set in our house for years after its inception 50 years ago last January. But our neighbours, the Smiths, had one. When my mother had tea ready (yes, we had ‘dinner’ around 1pm and ‘tea’ at 6pm ), I’d be sent to find my sister. I knew she was at Smith’s watching Mr Ed. I am embarrassed to say that this was the adventures of a troublesome talking horse, and its eccentric owner Wilbur Post. I loved it. There was no point in getting my sister till it was over. I never minded waiting.
We eventually got a black and white TV set from O’Connor’s, and its sad to say that for quite some time we’d wait patiently watching its blank Bridget Cross station signal before it started its evening programmes at 6pm.
We got to know and love its presenters. Charles Mitchell, Éamon de Buitlear, Gay Byrne, the Wanderly Wagon crew, the Lyons tea minstrels, David Thornley, Danny Kaye, Brian Farrell, the mischievous Mike Murphy, and ‘the lady who loves Milk Tray’. But the programme that we’d all talk about the next day, and the one that many of us felt actually were family, was The Riordans with John Cowley as Tom, Moira Deady as Mary, and Tom Hickey as Benjy. It was a must see programme. Written by Wesley Burrowes, and superbly directed by Lelia Doolan. It was a humorous and warm family soap. It often had a serious farming message such as safety, succession rights, old age, and planting times; but it bravely explored social issues as they naturally arose. We all nearly died when Benjy’s wife Maggie ( Biddy White Lennon ) could not risk having a second pregnancy. They decided to use contraception. All sorts of people were shocked. Questions were raised in the Dáil; the rosary was said outside Montrose from where the programme was transmitted even though it was filmed on location in County Kilkenny. People actually worried about poor Benjy married to ‘that one’.
It was always a satisfying end to a Sunday evening.
The prom echo
The success of any broadcasting service is how well it reflects the lives and aspirations of its viewers. Jim Fahy was ‘the voice of Galway’ for 37 years. He retired with news broadcaster Anne Doyle just as the station celebrated its 50th anniversary on January 1. I liked best his Looking West interviews, where some 450 people told their stories of success and failure, loves, music and life in the West of Ireland. Rarely was the tapestry of our corner of Ireland more elegantly exposed.
Desmond Fennell, an articulate philosopher, would launch a scud missile at RTE every now and then from his eyrie in the Galway Gaeltacht, accusing it of dolling out ‘consumerist liberalism’, which did not reflect our religious values and traditions.* But if feel that despite having the BBC Leviathan on its shore RTE has reflected our island life, and all its changes and challenges, very well indeed.
RTE excels in its sports coverage, and the personality of its sports presenters. It is a pleasure to watch a GAA final on the TV while listening the Michael O’Muircheartaigh cavorting all round the pitch and the world, calling out listeners names while giving the show-down on the players, their families, and their county’s sporting history. You feel you are part of a bigger picture than what you see on the screen. His predecessor was Michael OHehir. I remember as a boy walking along the Salthill prom on an All Ireland final Sunday. Cars were parked at various intervals. Their radios turned up full volume broadcasting the match to a small crowd listening outside each car, enjoying the game, gesturing and smiling at each other as their team progressed. As you walked Michael O Hehir’s distinctive voice echoed all along the sea front.
NOTES: Quote from Window and Mirror - RTE television: 1961 - 2011, by John Bowman published by The Collins Press 2011.