Telefís Éireann was launched on New Year’s Eve, 1961: so this year marks its diamond jubilee. Thirty years after the launch, I was working as a producer in RTÉ, as the station was renamed in 1966, and was asked to address some of those who had taken part in its birth at an anniversary celebration. That led me to check out the station’s early archives to see what had been offered to Irish viewers on the very first night of transmission.
I thought that the story of the first night would not only cast light on the social, religious and political culture that existed in Ireland at that time, it might also reveal the distance that the country had travelled on most of those fronts since then. It soon became apparent to me that the conflicts that would shape and characterise the subsequent history of RTÉ were present at the very beginning ‑ albeit in embryonic form.
That first night of transmission featured a remarkable collection of individuals. It involved those who had played a critical role in the recent history of Ireland, and those who would play a similar role in the decades that followed. They included leading politicians, princes of the church and celebrated actors, as well as representatives of some established institutions that would later be discredited and disgraced. What is also remarkable is the number of close connections that existed between many of the central players in what became a national drama.
Telefís Éireann kicked off, so to speak, with the Roman Catholic archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, being taken on a tour of the spanking new television centre at Montrose in south county Dublin on the evening of that first broadcast. Several members of the station’s senior management were photographed in the corridors of Telefís on their knees before the archbishop, waiting to kiss his ring.
For many, Archbishop McQuaid seemed to embody an Ireland where politicians still lived in fear of the “belt of a bishop’s crozier”. While it was true that he upheld the strict principles of conservative Catholicism, McQuaid was also capable of a degree of foresight and pragmatism. Some years earlier, he had helped to establish the National Film Institute of Ireland. This was not done because he was a fan of popular movies, or because he was attracted to the medium of cinema: it was, rather, designed to promote those films that conformed to what McQuaid believed to be the correct moral standards, and to censor and condemn those that did not.
The archbishop’s suspicion of the medium of cinema extended to some movies that would have been regarded by most audiences as explicitly Christian in their ethos. He claimed, for example, that the movies Ben Hur and King of Kings, which both told the story of Jesus Christ in reverent and fairly literal-minded terms, had been made by “Jewish film producers” whose real purpose was “to alter the sacred history of the Gospel” by emphasising that Jesus was “a member of the Jewish race”.
In anticipation of the launch of Telefís, McQuaid had funded the creation of a Catholic film unit. It was called Radharc (“vision” in Irish) and was made by a production company that was staffed by Catholic priests. Radharc provided the first independently produced series for the new station, delivering more than 400 documentary films over subsequent decades before its long run ended in 1996. It should be acknowledged that these films were often very well-made, with an international compass, and were relatively liberal in their editorial approach – particularly when dealing with issues or events that took place outside Ireland.
Of course television was no longer regarded as a new form of technology in 1961. Indeed, the launch of Telefís might be considered to have been long overdue since the Irish Republic was one of the last countries in Europe to establish a national broadcaster. A civil service committee charged to investigate the feasibility of an Irish television service had been set up as early as 1950. Due, in part, to internal conflict between the Department of Finance and that of Posts and Telegraphs, and, in part, to the government’s wish not to risk offending influential lobby groups such as the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), or the Catholic church hierarchy, its progress was sclerotic.
This was, after all, a state in which one of the first acts of Dáil Éireann in 1922 had been to establish a “Committee of Enquiry into Evil Literature”. This led in the coming years to the banning of work by such celebrated authors as Balzac, Sylvia Plath, JD Salinger and Edna O’Brien. This was also a country where the GAA had demanded that any “motion pictures extolling idleness, extravagance, superficiality and depravity of all kinds” should be banned. The GAA claimed that such movies “carried a deadly, creeping poison” that threatened the spiritual health of the Irish nation.
Against that background, it may not seem so surprising that it was not until 1958 that a special commission was established to make recommendations to the Irish government regarding the introduction of a domestic television service. Part of the reason that this goal was revived in the late 1950s was the evident impact that British channels were making in Ireland. Indeed, the history of television on this island is also, in part, a history of British television. In May of 1953, for example, a chartered Aer Lingus flight packed full of television aerials left Cardiff airport for Dublin. The aerials were needed to meet the demand from citizens of the Irish Republic who wished to view the BBC’s coverage of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
There were many other aspects of British popular culture that appealed to Irish viewers, and, during the 1950s, a forest of tall aerials sprang up along the length of the east coast of the island to capture TV signals from the UK. By the end of the 1950s, there were tens of thousands of TV sets in the Irish Republic – considerably more than there were in Northern Ireland ‑ and all of them were tuned into British TV channels.
The move to establish an Irish TV station gained impetus when Ulster Television – the local franchise of the UK’s Independent Television Network ‑ went on air on October 31st, 1959. At first, the channel’s programmes could be received only by viewers within range of the Black Mountain transmitter near Belfast. However, on its opening night, there were reports that a large number of irate Dubliners had called the station to complain about poor reception. Reception improved, and UTV’s output could soon be viewed in several parts of the Republic. Indeed, from an early stage, Ulster Television had almost as many viewers south of the border as in Northern Ireland. The Independent Television Authority in the UK was aware of the political sensitivities involved and instructed TAM – the Television Audience Measurement agency – not to include the Irish Republic in the station’s viewing figures.
For many living south of the Irish border, it seemed unacceptable that the Republic of Ireland, a sovereign independent state, should be without its own television service while the six attenuated counties in Northern Ireland should now have two of their own – if one included BBC Northern Ireland. The arrival of Telefís could, therefore, be viewed by some as a form of cultural resistance against the British dominance of Ireland’s national airwaves.
The first director-general of the new station was an American called Ed Roth. He had worked for the American network NBC, as well as for Paramount News, and he understood the commercial realities of broadcasting. He also had some recent experience of starting up new television stations from scratch in South America. When he was interviewed by the new Telefís Authority, Roth made an immediate and positive impression – particularly with its first chairman, Eamonn Andrews, who would spend much of his own career working in the UK for British television.
Andrews believed that Roth would bring a fresh American perspective to the new station that would help to differentiate Telefís from the BBC and other British channels. Andrews later identified Roth’s major weakness as his “lack of knowledge of Ireland” – which he had only visited briefly on one prior occasion. That might have been considered a significant weakness, but Andrews also drew attention to his perceived strengths. Apart from his previous experience, Andrews believed these were “his academic qualifications, his Catholicism and his Irish ancestry”.
The brief that Roth was given by the new station’s governing authority might have seemed somewhat contradictory. The authority’s atatement of policy demanded programmes that would “reflect traditional values”, but which would also have a “very high popular entertainment content”. Roth was expected to deliver “the maximum possible amount” of home-produced programmes, while required at the same time “to import a great deal of programme material”. The new station would receive revenue both from a licence fee and from advertising. This was a recipe for what Robert Savage has accurately described as “a hybrid entity”, and one that combined some features of commercial channels, such as Ulster Television, and public service broadcasters, like the BBC.
Roth was open and unashamed of his personal preference for popular television programmes such as Perry Mason, Gunsmoke or The Bugs Bunny Show, and all of these soon featured in the Telefís schedule. This material did not appeal to all of Ireland’s cultural apparatchiks. Some television critics, more used to reviewing the latest earnest drama at the Abbey Theatre, were quick to express their personal distaste. But these programmes proved extremely popular with Irish viewers, and for several years Telefís was notable for its frequent broadcast of Western serials – of which Roth was especially fond.
No doubt, Archbishop McQuaid was reassured by the image that had been selected for the new station’s first logo, which was a symbol with an explicitly religious meaning. This was the cross of St Brigid. According to legend, the saint had woven this cross out of reeds in order to convert a dying man to Christianity. Brigid was one of Ireland’s national saints – second only in precedence to Patrick ‑ and was, by all accounts, a very formidable woman. However, by 1961 her cross had become closely associated with those themes of female domesticity that were (and are) also enshrined in the Irish constitution. This logo would be used in various forms by RTÉ for more than three decades and was only dropped by the station in 1995 – by which time it had lost much of its symbolic meaning.
In the months leading up to the launch, around thirty recruits had been trained to work as television studio crews. All of those recruited were men, and their training had taken place in an improvised studio in the main hall of the Marian College, not far from the new television centre in Dublin. This school had been established by Archbishop McQuaid in the Marian year of 1954, and he had personally authorised its use by the new station. The recruits were trained in all the studio disciplines – cameras, sound, floor managing, lighting, and vision mixing – since it had been decided not to assign them to specific roles until the course had ended.
The director of the course was Ernest Byrne, a friend and neighbour of Eamonn Andrews. He had been working in a small regional station in Little Rock, Arkansas and was the brother of the soon to be more famous Gay Byrne. The school hall was also used to hold auditions for the roles of newsreaders and continuity announcers. The announcer chosen to appear in front of the cameras on the opening night of Telefis was a young woman called Kathleen Watkins: a few years later she would become Gay Byrne’s wife. (Ernest Byrne returned to the US soon after his attempt to become Telefís’s controller of programmes proved unsuccesssful.)
To prepare its audience for what was to come, Telefís sent Kathleen Watkins and two other “continuity girls” on a nationwide promotional tour. These three young women were all immaculately groomed and fashionably dressed, with bouffant hairstyles. They were also fluent Irish speakers, and, therefore, appeared, for all their modernity, to maintain a direct connection with Ireland’s ancient heritage and its official ideology. The three women were chauffeured in a gleaming black limousine around the villages and small towns of Ireland – where they were treated as if they were visiting Hollywood royalty and mobbed by adoring crowds. (Their driver later became a cameraman with RTÉ.)
The first broadcast on the opening night of Telefís was an address by Ireland’s president, Éamon de Valera: a man who had the capacity to infuse even the most banal of utterances with a sense of the deepest import and gravity. Like McQuaid, de Valera had once taught at Blackrock College in Dublin. The two men had become close friends in the 1930s: McQuaid was then president of Blackrock College and de Valera lived just across the road from the school. They often dined together in the evening, and de Valera had consulted McQuaid frequently while drawing up a constitution for Ireland in 1937. He had also lobbied the Vatican for McQuaid’s elevation to the archbishopric of Dublin in 1940. According to McQuaid’s biographer, John Cooney, both men “had cooperated to control people’s lives in a closed and puritanical society”.
De Valera used the opening night of Telefís as an opportunity to warn of the dangers that he believed were posed by the new medium to the future of Ireland. Although he claimed to have “great hopes” for Telefís, he also believed that the service could cause “irreparable harm” to its viewers. He believed that the arts should reflect the “holiest traditions” of Ireland, and he cautioned the new station sternly against “giving the people what they want”. That populist approach, he believed, would only lead to “decadence and dissolution”.
De Valera’s address was followed by one from Seán Lemass, the then taoiseach. Lemass had played a crucial role in helping to establish the Irish broadcaster. De Valera had resisted the introduction of television to Ireland – for some of the reasons mentioned in his address – and it was only when Lemass succeeded him as taoiseach that plans for the station really got under way. In several ways, Lemass represented the future development of modern Ireland, and this was evident in his opening night broadcast. Lemass recognised that the viewers of the new station would not be satisfied with material that was “restricted to local origins”: a significant and realistic admission on his part.
Following the messages of good will from the taoiseach and the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, poems were read by two of Ireland’s leading actors. Siobhán McKenna read two by Patrick Pearse, one of the leaders of the 1916 Rising. The first of these was “Mise Éire”, a poem in Irish in which Pearse imagines himself as “the Old Woman of Beare”. She was a female personification of Ireland, and this was a conceit that might have revealed more about the poet’s own proclivities than he intended or realised. McKenna also read “The Fool”, a somewhat lachrymose poem in English in which Pearse implicitly compares his sacrifices for Ireland with those of Christ for humanity.
At the time of the station’s launch, the IRA’s border campaign was still in progress, and an RUC officer had been killed just a few weeks earlier in South Armagh. As a result of that murder, Lemass’s government had reactivated the Special Criminal Court, which dealt rigorously with anyone convicted of IRA membership. However, MacKenna had appeared to express some sympathy with the armed campaign when she had described IRA members as “idealists”, so her inclusion, as well as the choice of poems, might be viewed as a genuflection by the new station in the direction of militant republicanism.
Micheál Mac Liammóir followed McKenna and recited “Red Hanrahan’s Song”, a powerful incantatory poem by WB Yeats, adopting the persona of a fictional Irish bard and written at the height of Yeats’s infatuation with romantic nationalism. The presence of Mac Liammóir may have acted as a kind of counter-balance to McKenna. He was a founder of Dublin’s Gate Theatre, whose primary focus was on the production of plays that originated outside Ireland, and he brought a more cosmopolitan ‑ and even a somewhat exotic ‑ dimension to the proceedings.
Mac Liammóir’s original name was Alfred Willmore. He claimed to have been born in Cork, but was actually born in London and had no family connection whatever with Ireland. Mac Liammóir had an acute critical mind as well as an extravagantly camp manner, and his long-term romantic and business partner, Hilton Edwards, had just been appointed as the first head of drama at Telefís. Mac Liammóir was also known for his capacity, in Orson Welles’s words, to “cut a withering swathe” through a host of young male actors at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in Ireland. He was given to wearing his full stage “slap” (make-up) throughout the day, but, although he was known to many as gay, it appeared more convenient for his behaviour to be regarded by Ireland’s political leaders as merely “theatrical” and not as an expression of his sexual identity.
For all their differences, Mac Liammóir and McKenna were both passionately devoted to Ireland, and the patriotic themes of the poems they read would have resonated with many of their viewers. The two actors’ readings were followed by the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament by Archbishop McQuaid. This was billed as coming from “the Oratory” in the television centre at Montrose: since the station was within McQuaid’s own diocese, he believed Telefís had a moral obligation to provide a Catholic chapel on its premises.
The action later shifted to the Gresham Hotel in the centre of Dublin where an invited audience had gathered to enjoy a “cabaret night” that included some traditional Irish ballads sung by Patrick O’Hagan (whose son, Johnny Logan, would later feature prominently in Ireland’s Eurovision entries). Outside the hotel, a large and boisterous crowd struggled in freezing weather to catch a glimpse of the local celebrities. Mike Murphy – who later became a major star with RTÉ – was part of that crowd, and told me that he threw snowballs at Gay Byrne when he arrived at the hotel. (He may have been joking.)
Inside the Gresham, the New Year was counted in by the floor manager ‑ who would later become a regular cast member of the station’s soap opera Fair City. 1962 was welcomed by the Artane Boys Band, which made its way around the cramped space between dining tables in the Gresham Hotel’s ballroom. This marching band was largely recruited from a so-called “Industrial School” where destitute or “disorderly” boys were detained, and which was later found to have been a site of widespread physical and sexual abuse.
The night drew to a close with a special message from His Eminence, John Cardinal d’Alton, archbishop of Armagh and primate of All-Ireland. He had been a classmate of de Valera at Blackrock College, (where de Valera had won the school prize for religion). Like his old school friend, the cardinal expressed fears of the impact that television could have upon its apparently hapless and passive consumers. He was particularly concerned that “television addiction” could become a problem for the young people of Ireland.
While there was much in Telefís’s first night schedule of which de Valera would doubtless have approved, there were also some features that might have caused him some degree of concern. The centre piece of that night’s schedule was Céad Míle Fáilte (“A Hundred Thousand Welcomes” in Irish). This was a lively entertainment show that featured Maureen Potter and Jimmy O’Dea, who were then both starring in the Goldilocks and the Three Bears pantomime at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin.
Potter and O’Dea were hugely popular in Ireland, and they were both very gifted performers, but they clearly belonged to the secular tradition of British music halls. This was a form of popular entertainment that did not easily conform to de Valera’s high-minded ambitions for the new station since it ran the risk of giving Irish viewers “what they wanted”. Predictably, such vaudeville acts were more to the tastes of Seán Lemass, who had been best man at O’Dea’s wedding, and, a few years later, would also deliver the eulogy at his funeral.
Perhaps it was because the opening night managed to combine Potter and O’Dea’s broad comedy with themes of patriotic sentiment and religious piety that the launch of Telefís was generally thought to have been a great success. According to The Cork Examiner, the evening had gone off “without a hitch”. The Irish Times believed it had opened a new chapter in Ireland’s social history. There was clearly a sense of genuine pride throughout the country that Ireland could now boast its own national television service. It seemed proof that the country had become a thoroughly modern society and could fulfil at least part of Robert Emmet’s wish by taking its place among the broadcasting nations of the world.
In some respects, Telefís appeared to embody the social and material aspirations of an Ireland that was struggling to be born. It seems fitting that, when Eamonn Andrews opened a fashionable dance hall in the centre of Dublin, he should call it The Television Club. It proved immensely popular, and, within months, Andrews could claim that it had become the “Mecca of Irish nightlife”. (Andrews also installed Ireland’s first multi-track recording studio in the same building, and, in the following decade, it was used by an up-and-coming band called U2.)
Watching on the sidelines of Telefís’s first night was a brash young Dubliner called Gay Byrne. He was already working for Radio Éireann and for Granada Television in the UK – where he would become the first TV reporter to interview the Beatles. Byrne had grown up just around the corner from Eamonn Andrews, who was a close friend of his elder brother. Gay later claimed that Andrews was the inspiration for his own career, and his goal was always to be “just like him”.
Gay may have been in the Gresham Hotel on that first night, but he was not part of the official celebration. However, he was already determined to work for the new station, and he got his chance just a few months later when the station introduced an eight-week “summer filler” series that he hosted. It was called The Late Late Show, and merited that title since it was originally broadcast just before midnight, and was intended to appeal to an older and relatively sophisticated audience.
The immediate popularity of the series soon resulted in its move to a prime time slot. Byrne was also the show’s first producer, and, as his plans grew more ambitious, so did the Late Late’s impact on his viewers. In the first full season of Telefís, one of Byrne’s guests was Archbishop McQuaid, and his views were directly challenged on air by another studio guest. To say the least, McQuaid was unused to such confrontation.
Brian Farrell, a wonderful broadcaster and a future colleague of mine in RTÉ, told me that he had been sent to Dublin airport to interview the archbishop on his return from Vatican II in 1962. He wished to question McQuaid about the nature of the reforms introduced by the church council. The archbishop began by reading a prepared statement which was designed to reassure Ireland’s Catholics that they had nothing to fear from any of the decisions made by the council. Brian then asked him an opening question, but he said that McQuaid appeared astonished by his presumption. After a short pause, he simply read his prepared statement in full for a second time before terminating the “interview”.
Nonetheless, it soon became apparent that McQuaid’s influence in Telefís had certain limits. His favoured candidate for the post of religious adviser to the new station was one of his own diocesan priests, but his nomination was rejected in favour of a more liberal candidate who happened to be a member of the Dominican religious order, and therefore less susceptible to direct personal pressure from the archbishop. McQuaid also requested Seán Lemass to remove two senior managers, Jack White and Sheelagh Richards, from their positions in Telefís on the grounds that they were both Protestants, but Lemass refused to do so.
Lemass was soon to find there were limits to his own control of the new station too. When Gay Byrne began to use his chat show to address serious issues, such as the state’s commitment to revival of the Irish language, he invited government ministers to appear as guests. The first responses were negative and frosty, and cabinet ministers were instructed to reject any invitations they received. Byrne was advised through the station’s authority that the view of the government was that there was already adequate provision for political discussion in the existing schedule of Telefís, and the government didn’t believe there was a need for any more. But within a year of the launch, most ministers – indeed, most politicians of all persuasions ‑ would jump at the chance to appear on what had already become the station’s most popular show.
Gay Byrne remained the show’s presenter for almost forty years, and the heated debates that he sometimes staged played a critical role in undermining the traditional deference shown in Ireland to established institutions such as the Catholic church. On the opening night of Telefís that church was close to the height of its power, with almost complete control of Ireland’s health, social welfare and educational systems – and with a great deal of authority in most other spheres of everyday life. In proportional terms, there were then more priests in Ireland than in any other European country, and prelates like McQuaid believed they had a right – indeed, a duty ‑ to exert a considerable degree of influence on government policies.
That may explain why McQuaid intervened so frequently and on such a wide range of issues over the years. Some of his preoccupations may now seem rather strange to a modern Irish audience: he was apprehensive, for example, of the “unnatural pleasures” that he believed were associated with female gymnastics – in particular, the physical sensations that might occur when young women were astride the pommel horse. However, his fundamental belief – that there was no aspect of Irish life where the church could and should not intervene ‑ was shared by many people, including some of those who worked in RTÉ. That assumption was evident in the programmes broadcast by Telefís in its early years, which often included priests expressing their opinions on subjects that had little or nothing to do with religion.
By the time I started working in RTÉ as a producer in the 1980s, the influence of the Church was in obvious decline. But there were still some signs of its previous hegemony. I remember, soon after I finished my producer-training course, I was asked to film an interview with Fr Patrick Peyton, an Irish-American priest who had become famous (or notorious) in the 1950s and 60s for his religious “crusades” – particularly those in South America. Fr Peyton had claimed that “the Rosary is the offensive weapon that will destroy communism – the great evil that seeks to destroy the Faith”. (It was later revealed that his crusades had been largely funded by the CIA.) Just as we were about to start recording, someone suggested that we should all recite a decade of the rosary. I was a very young and inexperienced producer, and, as the only non-Catholic present, I felt unable to intervene. Instead, I watched while the film crew and the presenter knelt beside the priest and prayed. (In 2017, Pope Francis declared Fr Peyton to be “Venerable” for his “heroic virtues” – a form of recognition by the church that is usually considered a first step towards sainthood.)
A few months after that interview, I had completed one of my first film documentaries. It dealt with prostitution in Dublin and included an interview with a woman who mentioned in passing that one of her regular clients was a priest. She also expressed fears that she would be murdered because she had acted as a witness for the prosecution in the trial of her former pimp. Shortly before transmission, I was summoned to the office of a senior manager in RTÉ. He described the woman in our film as someone whose profession meant that she was “paid to lie”, and he thought it followed that nothing she said could possibly be regarded as truthful. He asked me if I really believed that a Catholic priest would make use of a “common prostitute”. His question was clearly rhetorical, but I could not resist saying that I did. He seemed both shocked and angered by my response, and my film was never screened. (The woman who was interviewed – whose name was Dolores Lynch ‑ was murdered by her former pimp, as she had predicted, a few years later.)
When I was preparing my address to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Telefís, I was anxious to view some of the programmes that had been broadcast in the months that followed its launch. However, it proved impossible for me to access some of the most popular. Recording tapes were expensive, and they were usually wiped of material that was considered disposable and reused for other purposes. While there a definite attempt to keep programmes that had an obvious historical value – such as filmed interviews with veterans of the War of Independence, or the last native speakers of Irish in some remote parts of the country – there was a marked reluctance to keep anything that might have seemed ephemeral or lacking in any obvious cultural significance.
For several years, all recordings of the The Late Late Show were wiped, and the first complete edition that managed to survive dates from 1969. For that reason, I could not view many of the programmes that most intrigued me. These included the youth series, “For Moderns”, where lovelorn Irish teenagers could seek advice from a panel of (supposed) experts. I was able, however, to speak to one surviving member of that panel. He told me that a priest was always included in the line-up: one who was believed to “get” young people but would not offend the ever-vigilant McQuaid.
The church may still have exerted a degree of influence when I joined RTÉ, and the Knights of Columbanus were still rumoured to occupy senior positions in the station’s management, and to exert a discreet influence over its output. But the zenith of any temporal or spiritual power is also, by definition, its turning point, and that is what proved to be the case in Ireland. By the late 1960s, clerical influences on Irish broadcasting were already set on a course of slow but inexorable retreat.
Éamon de Valera and John Charles McQuaid died within a few years of each other in the mid-1970s. By then, they had both lost much of their political and social relevance. But perhaps some of the forebodings expressed by de Valera on the opening night of Telefís have proved in the long run to be prescient.
The type of theocentric society that de Valera and McQuaid had tried to perpetuate in Ireland – where contraception, divorce, abortion and homosexual acts were against the law – could not withstand the profound economic and cultural storms that were to shake and transform the country in subsequent decades, or survive what seemed to be a relentless succession of church-related scandals. In recent years, Ireland has been busy sloughing off many of its former social inhibitions. There have been many factors that have fed into that development, but, by any reckoning, Irish television has contributed a good deal ‑ both directly and indirectly ‑ to the process.
David Blake Knox is an author, a former director of production with RTÉ and executive editor with BBC Television. His independent production company, Blueprint Pictures, was founded in 2002, and has produced a range of TV programmes and films.