The end of Ireland as we know it?

Irish TV and radio output suggests that a country once famed for rebelliousness, Tayto and talking bollocks is becoming more British every day.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

Much has been written in the last few years about Ireland’s ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy, about how a once-impoverished, insular and Catholic nation has in only a decade become an open, dynamic, multicultural, economic powerhouse. Having spent a week in Ireland, I’m not so sure this is actually true.

To be sure, Irish television does suggest the country’s leap to modernity. One example can be witnessed on the weather forecasts on RTE (Ireland’s state TV channel). When I was a boy visiting my family in Ireland in the Eighties, RTE weather forecasts used to represent Ireland in isolation, as an island floating lonely in a sea of blue. This mirrored not only the consensus that the country was by itself alone, but the notion – and aspiration – that the Six Counties of Northern Ireland were intrinsic to the nation. The Border, as represented geographically, did not exist.

RTE’s weather forecasts have since changed. Ireland no longer exists in isolation. On today’s weather forecasts, one can view on the right of the screen the protruding presence of the Mull of Kintyre, the Isle of Man, plus bits of Wales like Anglesey and the Pembrokeshire coast – in other words, Britain. RTE’s truer geographical depiction suggests Ireland as a whole wants to engage in the outside world, and that it is now at ease with its former colonial oppressor. Ireland is now a country where God Save The Queen is played at Croke Park and greeted with polite applause. My late uncle, who wore a black armband after IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands died in 1981, and who himself had members of the IRA at his funeral, would have been appalled.

But Ireland’s much-documented embrace of modernity has not been as complete as many assume. On RTE One, for instance, they still have the Angelus every evening at 6pm. This involves a minute of silence, interspersed only with the melancholy sound of church bells and, in my time at least, a picture of the Virgin Mary. At this point, you’re supposed to be reciting a traditional Catholic prayer (the aforementioned Angelus). In reality, at six o’clock precisely, a nation changes channel to watch Sky or the BBC instead.

Irish language television and radio is still very much alive, too. But their content also suggests Ireland has come to terms with the modern world in a rather reluctant and strange way. I was listening to RTE’s Irish language radio station on Monday afternoon, heartily enjoying hours of fiddly-dee music, followed by an hour-long lecture of which I didn’t understand a word. I didn’t resent this of course. I just always consider it a duty to listen to the language of my ancestors. What I did object to was the next programme: an hour-long feature on the American pop star Justin Timberlake. I wonder what Patrick Pearse or Eamon de Valera would have thought about this peculiar juxtaposition.

TG4, the Irish language television network, throws up even more bizarre fare. It has a soap opera which one would expect to feature craggy-faced old men in flat caps, sipping Guinness or resting on stone walls, arguing about the price of cows. Except it doesn’t. It features stories of young lesbians with pierced tongues taking drugs. I don’t exactly know which part of the Gaeltacht this is meant to be set in, but I have been to Galway, Donegal and Dingle, and the programme seems to be sheer fantasy. By comparison, it makes EastEnders and Coronation Street look like serious works of television documentary.

But the really striking thing that makes one think the ‘Ireland-modern-dynamic-European-independent’ consensus is bogus, is just how British the country has become. Companies such as Tesco, HMV, Virgin and Boots have taken over the high streets. BT is one of the major telephone providers. The Daily Mail, Daily Star and the Sun are now household newspapers, where once the Irish Press used to be the paper of the middle and working classes. Even Walkers has muscled in on the potato crisp hegemony of the once-sacred Tayto brand. Walking through Tesco in Dublin’s Merrion Row, I was reminded of the character Danny from Withnail and I lamenting how Woolworth’s were now selling hippy wigs, as I noticed that Tesco now had its own brand of that quintessential Irish soft drink, which anyone of a Hiberno-English background will remember with such fondness: red lemonade.

British television has always been popular in southern Ireland, but before the cable and digital age, you could only get it in the Border areas, the east coast, and around Cork. BBC and ITV (or Ulster TV as it is called there, being broadcast from Belfast) have saturation coverage throughout the country, and have been joined by the various Sky channels. The British soaps are even broadcast on the two RTE channels. Even when TG4 attempts to fight back, it does so in its customarily bizarre manner: it is currently broadcasting Wimbledon with commentary in Irish. I can’t see how there’s a market for this, as television sporting commentary is itself redundant, a hangover from the days of radio, when you did actually need a voice to tell you what was going on.

I’ve always been at heart a British Unionist, believing the Irish, English, Scottish and the Welsh are essentially the same people, who share the same language, follow the same football teams, watch the same television programmes, read the same newspapers. But recent shifts have unfortunately brought out the cultural essentialist in me. I don’t lament that Ireland has become rich, that the telephones actually work now, or that RTE Two no longer begins its programmes at four in the afternoon. But do I regret the fact that Ireland seems less Irish.

Perhaps it’s just childhood nostalgia, remembering the days when the parents used to take us to the pub, feed us red lemonade and Tayto crisps, and then ignore us while they drank and smoked (yes, you could still smoke then) and laughed and talked, and argued all evening about absolute bollocks.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

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