Burrowes created many of TV's most memorable characters
An outsider with a keen eye, Wesley Burrowes wrote many masterful serials including 'The Riordans' and 'Glenroe'
Published 01/01/2016 | 07:00
It was only last Sunday night, at the close of RTÉ1's hour-long documentary on 'Glenroe', that viewers learned of Wesley Burrowes's fragile health - the end credits stating that he had been too ill to participate in its making.
This left the programme, which was titled 'Well Holy God It's Glenroe', resembling a documentary on 'Citizen Kane' without any contribution from Orson Welles or - staying in television land - a film about BBC wildlife programming in which David Attenborough wasn't interviewed.
That may seem like overstating the importance of Wesley Burrowes, who has died at the age of 85, but it's impossible to overstate his impact on RTE serial drama - an impact eloquently expressed in the 'Glenroe' documentary by 'Glenroe' co-creator and producer Brian MacLochlainn.
It all began 51 years ago when the then 34-year-old was drafted in to replace Maura Laverty as scriptwriter of RTÉ's first soap opera, 'Tolka Row'. The show, which ran from 1964 to 1968 and was based on Laverty's stage play of the same name, concerned the working-class Nolan family and their neighbours in a northside Dublin housing estate.
A Protestant from Bangor in Co Down and a graduate in French and German from Queen's University, Burrowes may have seemed an unlikely choice to catch the idioms and speech patterns of ordinary Dubs, and an even unlikelier candidate as the main scriptwriter of Ireland's first rural soap, 'The Riordans', which initially aired in 1965 and then ran for 14 years.
The enormously popular show was actually the creation of James Douglas, who wrote the first batch of scripts. Burrowes was soon enlisted, and quickly became the show's chief scriptwriter, writing more than 300 of the weekly scripts and editing most of those that were produced by other writers.
When 'The Riordans' was terminated in 1979, Burrowes had proved himself so much the master of serial drama and of all the juggling of plot strands that the form entails that RTE happily accepted another rural soap from him.
This was 'Bracken', which he conceived and wrote and which first aired in 1980. It's mainly remembered now as the serial that both revealed Gabriel Byrne's star quality and that introduced the characters of Miley and Dinny Byrne, later to become the pivots of 'Glenroe'.
Not much later, though, as 'Bracken' lasted for only three seasons, to be replaced in 1983 by 'Glenroe', which ran until 2001, when it was controversially axed by RTÉ - though RTÉ was probably correct as the show had degenerated into a contrived soap in its last years.
Not, however, at the outset or throughout much of its long run, for which the main credit must go to Burrowes. His own background and the geographical and cultural detachment it afforded him probably had a lot to with the show's success and with that of its predecessors, too.
Thus, even though he had deliberately chosen to live in the Kilkenny area when 'The Riordans' was being filmed there, you got the sense of a man observing and listening while remaining a neutral outsider.
Indeed, while not avoiding such national issues of the time as divorce and contraception, the scripts for 'Glenroe' remained scrupulously apolitical - there was no grinding of axes, no ideologies being espoused or causes being furthered. Instead, his concern was with unremarkable human beings in all their contrariness, whether endearing or infuriating.
He was, if you like, the television equivalent of his near contemporary William Trevor, creating characters whom everyone could recognise and whose foibles, failings, aspirations and yearnings could be found in everyone.
He was that good - the characters he created remain some of the most memorable in Irish drama, whether they be on television or stage.
Burrowes himself, after an early stint working for the Irish export board, Córas Tráchtála, had begun his writing career for the stage with sketches created for the then very popular revue shows of Des Keogh and Rosaleen Linehan.
He left his job for the challenges of a full-time writing career in 1963, co-writing the stage musical, 'Carrie' with Michael Coffey and James Douglas, and later winning the Irish Life drama award for his play, 'The Becauseway' in 1969.
But his true métier was television, where his talent won him three Jacob's Awards - in 1965, 1974 and 1976. His mastery of the serial drama was such that he should have won a lot more.
A modest, courteous man not given to self-promotion, he was nonetheless very articulate about his craft and was always interesting in his observations and insights. But his natural reticence, along with the often-derided medium in which he chose to work, tended to make some people undervalue him.
Here, though, was the man who gave us Gabriel Byrne's Pat Barry, Niall Toibin's Edward Daly, Joe Lynch's Dinny Byrne, Mick Lally's Miley Byrne, Mary McEvoy's Biddy and a host of other characters who still seem as familiar and vivid to us as most of our friends - which indeed they became throughout the decades.