A Great Feast of Light: Growing up Irish in the Television Age, by John Doyle, Aurum Press, 320 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1845131951
The entertainment technology in my house in the 1950s was fairly limited. There was an old radiogram in the sitting room that used to play 78s. It worked when I was a small child but then it stopped, never to go again. The radio part did continue to function, and on a Sunday night after the rosary we would gather around the fire and listen to Opportunity Knocks.
I remember sitting and looking at the face on the wireless and all the exotic places I could tune into – Paris, Rome, Stockholm, Moscow. In vain I used to twiddle the knob back and forth along the bands, hoping to hear something more than hiss and crackle, a voice from out there in the distance. I might as well have been praying to God. And yet I was continually drawn to the machine. It was my main hope of escaping the dreariness of my everyday life, of being excited and stimulated. That radio was the tardis of my childhood, a global mind machine that never really worked.
Then came the transistor. The first one brought into our house was a rather cumbersome Bush that my mother kept with her, mainly in the kitchen. What was great was that she was able to bring it up to her bedroom to “put on her dial” and to do the ironing listening to Music While You Work. At lunchtime, when my brother and I came back from school, we tuned into the sponsored programmes, particularly The Kennedys of Castleross. In the afternoon she would bring the radio back into the bedroom for Woman’s Hour and other programmes from the BBC. We were Anglo-Irish in our house. I remember listening to The Goon Show and Round the Horne. Yes, there were great Irish comedians too, like Jimmy O’Dea, but they were never as clever and funny. Now while it is nice to share some of these nostalgic memories, there are not enough to fill a book.
Then came the Japanese and really cheap technology. We got this tiny bright yellow machine that was twice as good as the Bush. On Sunday evenings my brother and I were allowed to take it into our bedroom and listen to Radio Luxembourg. It was the first nail in my Catholic coffin. I still said my evening prayers, but the sense of remorse and guilt began to give way to anticipation of the pleasure of hearing the Top 20. The actual practice of tuning in, of being self-indulgent, was as important as the message: Mick Jagger reminded me that I was not getting any satisfaction. I was now being constituted as a subject by the culture industry and consumer society, and I was loving it. There was a new sense of self, of choice, of new lifestyles and identities. But it was mostly about self-indulgence. It seems to me that the difference between writing self-indulgent nostalgic memories and a memoir that says something culturally significant is that the author has to become sufficiently detached to see and understand himself and yet, at the same time, be able to get right into himself and the significant others in his life.
There were televisions in those days, but they were few and far between. Those who had them were very popular. In my case, the “have” among the “have-nots” was Fanny Greer, who lived half a mile away. As a young boy in the late 1950s, I was allowed to toddle up to her house for an hour or two and watch my favourite programmes. Again my favourite programmes were comedies, particularly Hancock’s Half Hour.
Then came the rented television, and like thousands of other people, we took the plunge and all hell broke loose. The box in the corner may have seemed innocuous, but slowly but surely we were sucked into the tube. I developed an ability to watch anything and everything. I became enamoured of British politics. I stayed up until all hours watching the election results. I detested the Tories, particularly Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas Home, so stiff and formal. I grew to love Harold Wilson and poor old George Brown. But it was television that made British politics more interesting.
But what were the other influences of television on me and on Irish people in general? The most obvious one was sex. Of course there was sex in Ireland before television, but it was hidden away. It was a source of pleasure but also of enormous guilt, shame and embarrassment. Of course there were jokes and lewd innuendos but you rarely got to see anything genuinely sexy, sensual or erotic. These were the days of pursed lip pecks, of the camera fading away and what happened next being left to people’s imagination.
But there was titillation, even though it came in odd forms. Sexy women were never real. They were always strange caricatures. There were the buxom blondes on the BBC and then my Dad’s favourite, Eva Gabor in Green Acres. She played the blonde bimbo who was uprooted by her lawyer husband from her cosmopolitan life in New York to go and live in rural America. The story line was as flimsy as some of her dresses. But whatever else she was, she was not a chaste, shy, pious, demure Irish colleen. She oozed sex.
The idea of my Dad oozing sex is difficult to imagine, but for half an hour Dad could sit in the comfort of his living room and, without any sense of shame or embarrassment, look and perhaps fantasise. If someone is going to write about the impact of television on the everyday lives of ordinary people then it is necessary to go beyond the surface images, and to try and look into what was happening at the level of feelings and emotions, in people’s minds and bodies, in the way they saw and understood themselves. Such a history is about capturing moods, feelings and atmospheres. It would have to go beyond standard description and analysis. I have only begun to scratch the surface of what went on in my own quiet suburban Catholic middle class home. In the absence of critically self-reflective memoirs, I can only imagine – or perhaps fantasise – what happened in others.
Media studies were the big thing back in the 1980s and 1990s. They belonged to the wider genre of social and cultural studies. Instead of treating the media as an ideological state apparatus constituting individuals as subjects, researchers began to examine the media as independent social field. They examined its history, the main organisational players, the relationship with the state, the role of the media in the public sphere and, generally, in creating a civil society. Researchers also began to look at the content of programmes, particularly popular soaps, often through a semiotic deconstruction of the messages. They also focused on the intentions of the makers and then, more importantly, on the way the viewers read, understood and made use of the programmes. These approaches were also taken up in Ireland, and we have had some excellent analyses of Irish television soaps, from Tolka Row to Fair City.
The problem with studying the media is being able to decipher its effects. At the level of the individual, the problem is trying to link viewing patterns of television – and more recently video games and other media technologies – with patterns of belief and practice. Indeed the whole issue of the effects of media is still in a bit of a quagmire. While there is increasing evidence that television does influence children’s behaviour, it is always going to be difficult to provide valid and reliable evidence of cause and effect. Some people watching Eva Gabor back in the 1960s may have been aroused; others may seen her as a joke. Did Dad develop a more liberal attitude to sex? Did he do something about his aroused state? Beyond the individual, the question revolves around long-term historical effects. What effect did television have on Irish society and culture? What if there had been no television in Ireland? Would we still be devoted to the Catholic Church? Would we still be poor, frightened church mice instead of self-indulgent, overstimulated rats?
The study of the impact of television can be seen as part of the study of the second phase of modernisation of Irish society. The first phase – the long nineteenth century of Irish Catholicism – lasted through to the 1960s. It was then that Ireland began to open up to the outside world. The pursuit of economic growth, the increase in international trade and the gradual dismantling of the walls of censorship meant that global flows of goods, technology and ideas began to seep into Irish culture and society. The flow of electricity around Ireland was quickly followed by the flow of electrical goods and services – the white domestic revolution. The flow of people was helped by the arrival of cheap cars and motorbikes – the history of the impact of the Honda 50 on Irish rural life has yet to be written. The benefit of a long-term historical perspective is that we can see how macro changes led to changes in culture, everyday life and sense of self. (It will probably take another generation for us to fully understand the changes brought in the wake of the Celtic Tiger.)
However, in terms of knowledge and understanding of the world and in terms of people interpreting and understanding themselves, the machine that brought most change to Irish life during the last half of the twentieth century was the television. Again it is important to realise that it was not just the content, but the practice of watching that was important. It was the way in which the television marked time, the way in which people fitted their lives in and around the television schedule. It was the way it became a topic of conversation, a source of pleasure and excitement. It was the way it became the sacred cow, the god that was adored before all other gods.
The problem, of course, is how can we describe and analyse the impact of television on everyday life and sense of self? This is a crucial aspect to understanding Irish cultural history and yet it is something that ends up beyond the remit of traditional approaches to history. There is no point going to the archives. Official state papers, the recorded history of institutions and the personal reminiscences of “great” people will tell us little about the transformations that took place in the small homes in the small villages and towns of Ireland. One way to overcome this problem and to shed some light on how television changed families’ and individuals’ conceptions of themselves, is to write a critically self-reflective personal memoir that is theoretically and empirically informed and that deliberately links the local and personal to long-term structural transformations.
Memoirs have really begun to take off in Irish writing. Undoubtedly it was Frank McCourt who started the contemporary ball rolling, but there have been many other important contributions which have cast important new light on middle class Dublin (Nuala O’Faolain and Hugo Hamilton) and rural Ireland (John McGahern). Memoirs can be distinguished from autobiographies because of the greater emphasis on experiences and emotions. The autobiography suggests that the author takes the same detached view of himself as the biographer: rely on established facts and ignore feelings as they are more difficult to discern and rely on. In memoirs there is an emphasis on evoking atmosphere and feeling, to capture what it was like to have been there then. There is also an emphasis on emotions. There is a greater attempt to put oneself on the therapist’s couch and delve beneath the surface into the feelings and textures of particular experiences. There is, then, greater emphasis on the writing, on capturing experiences, providing rich, thick descriptions of events. Instead of trying to detach himself, the author is intent on emotional involvement.
The emergence of memoirs in Ireland can be linked to the emergence of a new critically self-reflective self that came with the demise of the traditional Catholic self which confined reflection to the restricted discourse and practice of confession, and a new post-modern self which continually reflects as part of continually reconstituting itself. The Irish have discovered a new way of writing about themselves. To have been so self-indulgent in the past would perhaps have been sinful. Writing about oneself may be a particularly bourgeois activity, but even when the Irish Catholic bourgeoisie came to ascendancy during the twentieth century there seems to have been a distinct absence, not just of memoirs and autobiographies, but even of keeping diaries. There was not that same sense of self-worth.
Allowing for the distinction between memoirs and autobiography, there is the problem of accuracy. John Waters (in The Soul of Ireland ed. J Mulholland, 2006) is right. The flush of memoirs is about rewriting collective memory. He quotes Frantz Fanon about the need felt by many men and women to tell their story, to speak to the nation, to express the new reality. It is a new experimental form of writing. It is a creative interpretation of the past that relies on incidents and events that are of historical significance but which cannot necessarily be verified. But where Waters, following Fanon, goes wrong is in suggesting that memoirs are part of the journey of a formerly colonised people towards freedom. The present flush of memoirs cannot be attributed to a rush of cultural nationalism. If that was the case we would have expected that it would have happened much earlier and that there would be a greater emphasis on the colonial oppressor. Agreed this is a theme in Hamilton, but it scarcely appears in McGahern. However, if we were to extend colonial oppression to include symbolic domination or violence, and agree that this could include Irish nationalism and the Catholic Church, we find a common thread of a new generation critically reflecting about the past.
Waters argues that another major problem with memoirs is their accuracy. He points out that it is highly unlikely that someone could remember the details of a dialogue which they heard or participated in as a six-year old. Agreed, but the emphasis in memoir is on capturing the way people spoke and what they said generally. All history is a an arbitrary selection and portrayal of the past. Memoir writers do not have the same duty towards literal truth.
Waters says that although his own Jiving at the Crossroads was primarily about his father and his relationship with him, he did not want to write anything that would disrespect him. Similarly, he avoided writing about his mother because she was alive and he did not want to embarrass her. He then goes on to argue that the attempt by O’Faolain and Hamilton to tell the truth about their fathers is unhealthy. But surely if memoir writers are to try to speak to the nation they have not only to evoke the past but also to try to tell the truth about themselves and those to whom they have been emotionally attached. Waters goes on to cast doubt on McGahern’s decision to write Memoirs, suggesting that his failed attempt to tell the truth about his relationship with his father not only undermined the integrity of the book but that his excursion into autobiography meant he had neither told the truth nor produced a work of art. This brings us close to psychoanalysis and the pain of speaking the truth about the past. It seems to me that to say we cannot write about those to whom we have been close, about those we have loved, is to eliminate a crucial dimension of social history. The problem of course is not so much of accuracy or offending the dead as of overcoming subconscious blockages: painful memories can prevent the truth being told.
Undoubtedly one of the big social revolutions in Ireland during the twentieth century was the rural electrification scheme. This was closely followed in the 1960s by the spread of hire purchase and rental, which in turn brought televisions into homes across the country. John Doyle sets out to capture the television revolution and how it influenced his life, first in Nenagh, then in Carrick-on-Shannon and finally in Raheny in the north Dublin suburbs. He writes with a light, humorous touch.
Doyle is the author of a daily television column for the Toronto Globe and Mail, the main liberal daily paper in Canada. He is one of those columnists who uses his TV review to speak to the nation, and there is a distinct feeling in this book that he is writing for those readers rather than for an Irish audience. (In fact A Great Feast of Light was published in Canada in autumn 2005, a year before it became available here.) The result is another quirky, quaint portrait of Ireland in which his own growing up is seen to correspond to a nation coming of age.
One of the first questions that comes to mind having finished reading this memoir is is this really another light whimsical journey through Irish childhood and young adult life – akin to Alice Taylor’s At Home Through the Fields – or is it a critical reflection about the role and influence of television in the modernisation of Irish society? The reason for posing the question is the index at the end of the book. Normally the presence or absence of an index is the dividing line between academic and popular literature. However, there is little that is academic in Doyle’s book. It is a humorous – and sometimes very funny – hop, skip and jump through Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s. It is a classic middle class story of an earnest hard-working father travelling the country developing his career in life assurance and dragging his ever-so-happy family with him. Television becomes the means through which the young Doyle learns about the world. This is partly through identifying with cowboy characters such as Bat Masterson, in the programme of the same name, special agent Illya Kuryakin in The Man from Uncle, and the content of programmes such as The Donna Reed Show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Liver Birds and The Muppets. It may seem eclectic but I can see the logic of the choice. The programmes mirror the changes in Doyle’s own life. I too was fascinated by programmes like the The Donna Reed Show. It was a eulogy of American domestic life. The house was always neat and tidy. Everyone was always dressed immaculately. It was a parable of the good life. But it was also about relations. American serials were entertaining, but they were also parables of modern life.
The way the mams coped with their husbands and the children was the gist of many episodes of The Donna Reed Show, and even that was different. The mams were the smart ones. They needed to be smart and cunning to take care of things and make the husband feel like he was in charge when he really wasn’t in charge at all. So much about the ordinary family was different. Nobody on the show got down on their hands and knees at night to say the rosary. Nobody mentioned the Legion of Mary and how the legion was hopping mad because of some film that was going to be shown in the local cinema. Nobody had bacon and cabbage for dinner on a Saturday. The men never went out for a pint, leaving the women at home minding the children.
Doyle is right. The domestic lifestyle portrayed in The Donna Reed Show was a far cry from that in Nenagh, or indeed in most other parts of the world. The show was a paragon of American middle class virtue.The question, however, is what influence did this have? Was it just entertainment, or was there a message that was repeated in many other programmes that eventually changed Irish mindsets? Did an accumulation of American serials and sitcoms have the effect of making more Irish selfish and narcissistic? Doyle does not engage in this discussion.
As he grew older he obviously began to see through serials. Life become ironic rather than iconic. Meaning was no longer given. It was arbitrary. And, of course, no better man than Python to convey all of this. Then, in due course, his juices begin to flow and he gets interested in skirt. But there is nothing to tickle his fancy on RTE so, like my Dad a generation earlier, he gets his rocks off watching the Liver Birds. When he gets to university, and is getting the real thing, he is able to look at life surreally. The Muppet Show, he tells us, was a cult series among himself and his friends.
During my time at University College Dublin, the top show was The Muppets. The Swedish Chef was much admired and imitated. The two old codgers who sat in the box during The Muppet Show were role models to students. Sarcastic, twitchy and apparently worse for drink, they were like us, endlessly deriding all that passed before them.
I was never really a Muppet man myself but I can see why it was attractive. It was much more subtle than it appeared. The problem, however, is that while Doyle may provide some insights into the attraction of The Muppets to himself and his fellow students, there is no analysis of this attraction. What was the nature of the humour and satire? What subjects were chosen? All Doyle tells us is that “Statler and Waldorf, the two hecklers on The Muppet Show, were ideal for Ireland at the time”. This is not even the stuff of a good television critic. There is no substantial reading or interpretation, no imaginative insight. We never really find out why Irish university students were so captivated by the show.
Doyle is a bit better on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Its main attraction, he tells us, is that it “stabbed at the heart of pretension and snobbery”. It was a relief, he adds, to learn that “other people, even if they were actors and writers in England, working for the BBC and hating it, were just as angered by the snobbery, rigidity and rules that seeped into every aspect of existence”. But this raises more questions than it answers. What is this republicanism that raises its head here? How did he reconcile his Irish republicanism with his fondness for English humour? Why did so many young Irish people at the time find English television much funnier? How is that today we laugh ourselves silly at the comedy of American cartoon figures, particularly The Simpsons, and yet cry for the middle Americans who still support the war in Iraq?
Doyle’s latent Irish republicanism becomes more evident when he switches from light entertainment to news and current affairs. This is mainly in the section of the book in which he describes his life in Carrick-on-Shannon and Raheny. He relates how he watched the conflict in the North emerge through the television screen from the first civil rights marches through to Bloody Sunday and the bombing of Dublin. For some of these, he uses a Forest Gump approach – where I was and what I was doing when the news first broke.
After school and before dinner on a cold day in January of 1969, Mam asked me to bring in the washing from the clothesline in the garden. It was so cold that the sheets and Dad’s shirts had frozen stiff. They felt like they would break if you folded them. I was gathering up the stiff clothes when Mam called me in urgently. “Look at this,” she said, pointing at the news on TV. “It’s like there’s a war going on now.” A crowd of Protestants had attacked the marchers with stones and bottles, and beaten some of them with sticks. Some people were lying on the ground, curled up in a ball as they were being kicked. The screaming was awful.
It did not take me long to realise that there is no point in trying to connect these two events. There is a temptation to see it as the way in which television and the news events of the day can undermine the normalcy of everyday domestic life. There is also a temptation to see the Irish as pure, strong and white, who are beaten into balls by their colonial oppressors. But it is best not to give into these temptations.
Doyle gives the impression that the North weighed heavily not just on his own mind and life but on the minds and lives of the Irish middle classes. It may be that the conflict in the North did weigh heavily on him and that, as he intimates, much of this arose from his time close to the border in Carrick-on-Shannon. He does capture the feeling of the North being another place and of Ulster Protestants being other people. And although he does not reflect critically on it much himself, he captures the contradiction of loving much of what the English gave to Ireland through television with a detestation of their state and the practices of its forces in the North. It may well also be that he drew in the North as he felt it could not be left out of any story about growing up in Ireland. In doing so he may give an imbalanced picture. It has often seemed to me that except for increased security measures after the Dublin bombs and the occasional ranting of Republicans, many of the Irish middle classes, like Doyle himself, watched the North on television in the same way that we watched Vietnam.
It is hard to decide if this book is really another memoir about growing up in Ireland, with some descriptions of what was on television to give it some depth, or if it is an inadequate reading of Irish television made palatable by some revelations about Irish domestic life. But in the end it does not really matter, for Doyle’s failure to give us an insight into the domestic sphere is as abject as his failure to say anything new or different about the nature of television.
His parents come across as kind and loving. He obviously respects them both enormously. His Dad is your standard, well-meaning, decent sort of guy who prospered at his job as a life assurance agent and who did right by his wife and family. He does not seem to have had any major vices, or indeed personality. He hated people who thought themselves superior. He detested snobs. He was an above average golfer. He did not like Northern Protestants. He went to Mass and confession but he had ” . no time for priests who sat on their comfortable behinds in the parish house, drinking wine, eating cake and going out with a cross look on their face when they were called to give the last rites to somebody who was dying”. Thank goodness, his father made it very clear to the young Doyle what he did not like about priests. I suppose the ass, wine and cake might have been acceptable but for the cross face.
His mother seems to have had a typical rural, farm, Catholic background and moved up to become a typical dutiful Catholic small-town, middle class housewife. If Doyle’s book fails as a history of growing up in an age of television, it fails even more miserably when it comes to understanding his parents and family life in Ireland. There is nothing here to match the wonderful insights of Hamilton, McGahern and O’Faolain. It is as if Doyle heard Waters’s injunction before he started writing – what is to be achieved by being disrespectful and telling stories about your parents? So what we get is an anodyne, sugar-sweet picture of family life among the middle class in the middle of Ireland in the middle of the 1960s.
Perhaps Doyle wanted to write a history of the plain people of Ireland. Indeed it could well be that in years to come, when researchers are looking into the modernisation of Irish society, they will be delighted to come across this academic study of ordinary everyday life. I say academic because although there are no references to previous studies of Irish television or the media in general, there is a strange and wonderful index. This lists the various television programmes, places and events to which he refers. It also lists the references he makes to people and it is no coincidence that it has seventy-two page references for his Dad and sixty-one for his mother. For example, the reference for his Mam for page 118 is: “My favourite announcer, and Mam’s, was Thelma Mansfield.”
Doyle does paint a very good picture of his school friends. But the problem is that he can lapse into maudlin out of place descriptions. The one that most stands out is his description of a young girl from the road he lived on in Raheny being forced to call to the door to “borrow” some coal. He obviously felt for her and the shame of having to borrow. But what exactly does this tell us about him, his family and the Ireland he grew up in? That the poor will always be with us?
Although he does shine some new light on the attraction of television and the way it infiltrated his life, this is almost tangential. It is as if reference to television programmes is a way of blowing life into another rather dull, ordinary memoir. Much of what he writes about is safe and docile. Being able to write well and being able to tell a good yarn and then linking this into a description of the influence of television hardly justifies another ordinary reflection on how Ireland came to be the way it is. Doyle does much to confirm the stereotypical view of Ireland. The country he depicts is full of quaint, quirky characters.
I would not normally comment on typos or lack of proper editing or proofing – there are too many skeletons in my own cupboard. But there is one unusual one. The full sentence reads: “Dad said Paisley had a nightmare about Paisley too.” Another curious thing was that sometimes I felt I was reading Hamilton rather than Doyle. Doyle adopts the same voice. If he has not read Hamilton it is a wonderful coincidence.
The failure of Doyle’s descriptions is that they remain surface images. There is little substantial critical reflection about what was happening in Ireland and to what extent it had any real impact on himself, his politics and general outlook on life. It is as if he tried to ride two horses. He does neither satisfactorily, and so his book will be trampled into the road of forgettable publications. What this memoir does suggest, however, is that while the history of Irish television has been well-documented by others, the history of radio, particularly the impact of the transistor radio, has been ignored.
Tom Inglis teaches sociology at University College Dublin. His book Global Ireland will be published later this year.