Tuesday 6 December 2016

The navel gazers' guide to Ireland

John Boland

Published 26/02/2011 | 05:00

What We Leave in Our Wake (RTÉ1) declared its serious intentions right at the outset with a printed quotation from American author Willa Cather in which she observed that her native land was "not a country at all but the material out of which countries are made".

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This was presented in the manner of a debating society proposition -- only the instruction "discuss" was missing -- and it was followed shortly afterwards by a clip of the late John McGahern, who noted that local customs and manners varied so much throughout Ireland "it was if there were hundreds of different countries".

"Sometimes," he added, "one has a sense of this country as made up of thousands of little republics called families, making up their own system of manners as they go along, even their own psychology."

That was an intriguing notion, though Pat Collins's film didn't really explore its implications, moving on to other considerations, such as the power that the Catholic church exerted over us, the appeal of land, the scourge of emigration and the importance of a native language in our hankering for identity.

An impressive array of cultural scholars, educationalists, psychologists and psychiatrists were on hand to offer insights into these matters and, just in case we weren't persuaded by the film's gravitas, there were lingeringly moody shots of mountains, bogs, city streets and petrol station forecourts -- visual correlatives, if you like, of what was being so solemnly said.

But what exactly was being said in this latest contribution to a familiar navel-gazing genre? The basic proposition seemed to be that we're still the most distressful country the world has ever seen -- beaten down by centuries of invaders, then by the Church and now, even more perniciously, by a godless global capitalism that is eroding the decency, kindness and sense of community that we developed in response to the former woes inflicted on us.

Indeed, the film seemed to be suggesting that there once was a nobler Ireland when, despite all the vicissitudes visited upon us, we somehow had a mystical sense of who we were, what we should be and how we should treat our neighbours -- until a culture of wealth and greed and me-me-me came along to eradicate our essential goodness.

Communications academic Debbie Ging of DCU spoke disparagingly of today's "individualistic culture" and "market forces" and the "superficial, glib rhetoric of freedom of choice", which sounded pretty superficial and glib to me (what's wrong with individualism and freedom of choice?), as did Desmond Fennell's dismissal of "democratic rituals that don't in any way express the will of the people". So this weekend's election has nothing to do with the will of the people?

Still, this high-minded film's essentially ultra-conservative thesis was at least provocative, unlike Fergal Keane's Panorama film, How to Blow a Fortune (BBC1), which was mostly a catechism of cliché about Ireland's recent economic demise.

That's probably because it was intended for an English audiences, but for an Irish viewer there was a wearying sense of déjà vu about such phrases as "property fever", "feeding frenzy" and multimillion-euro deals "served up with coffee and croissants".

Still, there were a couple of arresting interviews. Speculator Bernard Flynn, who bought scores of properties during the boom, tried to argue that his current financial predicament was all the fault of over-generous banks and nothing to do with his own greedy recklessness. And Simon Kelly, a property developer whose companies owe €2bn and who said he has a personal debt of €143m, didn't feel remorseful or even contrite but merely "stupid" at allowing dastardly financial institutions to leave him so bereft that he can now only pay himself a salary of €62,000 a year.

Meanwhile, in the second instalment of Charlie Bird's Election Nation (RTÉ1), our intrepid journalistic hero was outside Dublin's Temple Street children's hospital inquiring whether "the Celtic Tiger, or whatever it is, is working for your family". Well, whatever it is, it certainly isn't the Celtic Tiger, but seemingly no one has told Charlie that it stopped roaring a few years back.

Charlie then found himself in an Arklow tattoo parlour, where, by my watch, he deigned to spend 48 seconds of his time. In fact, he was in and out of Arklow in just over two minutes, after which he accosted people in Cork (four minutes there) and Killarney (180 seconds) before dashing through Ballyvourney, Clonmel, Dungarvan, Limerick and Tallaght.

To call this vacuous nonsense the poor man's Paddy O'Gorman is tempting but it would be an insult to the admirable Paddy, who's invariably more engaged by the people he meets than by the notion of himself.

The title is groan-inducing but the first instalment of From Here to Maternity (RTÉ1) provided an amiable glimpse into the workings of Cork University Maternity Hospital, along with vignettes of the expectant parents who end up there. The tone throughout was feelgood rather than analytic, but there were some genuinely winning moments, especially those capturing the giddy awe of fathers who were present at the births of their children.

TV3's obsession with women who have disappeared manifested itself yet again in Ireland's Missing Mums, which recounted the troubling stories of 19-year-old Fiona Sinnott, who vanished after a night out in a Wexford pub in 1998, and 51-year-old Dubliner Ellen Coss Brown, who went missing in 1999 after visiting her sister in Manchester.

Those who've been pursuing both cases are of the view that the two women were probably murder victims, though we were told that "the Sinnott family still have no idea where Fiona may be", while Ellen's disappearance "remains unresolved". And so, with no new or even recent information provided in either case, the viewer was left wondering why TV3 chose to make an hour-long film on their stories at this time.

BBC1's new drama series, South Riding (BBC1), adapted from Winifred Holtby's 1930s novel, has Anna Maxwell Martin as a feisty new headmistress in a Yorkshire school and David Morrissey as the gruff and troubled local gentleman farmer who has no time for her. The question is not a matter of if they'll get together but when. The period detail is splendid and the acting is tip-top.

jboland@independent.ie

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