Friday 15 November 2019

Television review: Hidden gem from Connemara

  • Aisling Ghear (TG4)

Virtuoso concertina player Noel Hill emerges as a man of unbreakable integrity. Photo: Andrew Downes
Virtuoso concertina player Noel Hill emerges as a man of unbreakable integrity. Photo: Andrew Downes
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

They showed it again last Sunday night on TG4, this Aisling Ghear, the programme described last week by Eoghan Harris as "the best documentary film of the past 50 years".

I wouldn't argue about that. I would argue about other things, to do with the state of the TV world and of our own version of it in particular, which decrees that "the best documentary film of the past 50 years" is almost guaranteed a small audience - indeed I would probably start not with the man featured in Aisling Ghear, the traditional musician Noel Hill, but with the golfer Nick Faldo.

When he was a boy, Faldo found himself watching The Masters on BBC2. He had never played golf, but something about the beauty of Augusta and of the nature of the game, persuaded him to give it a try. Faldo would eventually win six Majors, including three at Augusta.

Such a thing could probably not happen today. It was one of the great triumphs of public service television, that it changed the lives of many people who would come across something by accident on a main channel - it could be a golf tournament, it could be Sir Laurence Olivier in Long Day's Journey Into Night, whatever it was, it would be some kind of vision of excellence that was not hidden away in some niche channel somewhere out there on the digital wasteland, but was accessible in the mainstream.

In Ireland there is the added complication of the status of the Irish language, that great fiction which must be maintained by the allocation of vastly disproportionate resources to the making of programmes for TG4 - which means that you probably have a better chance of getting your programme made, if it's in Irish, with the downside that if it happens to be very good, it will not be seen by the large audience which it deserves.

So we find ourselves in this ridiculous position of writing about "the best documentary of the last 50 years" in the knowledge that very few readers will have any idea what we are talking about. For TV's executive class, there is the advantage that they don't have to make brave decisions any more, they don't have to make time on the main channel for a programme of exceptional quality, they just put everything in its allotted place, and then head off to Elm Park for a swift nine holes before lunch.

Indeed one of the main attributes of Aisling Ghear is its bravery in telling the story of the virtuoso concertina player Hill, who brought his family to Connemara and found the "broken dream" of the title when he was brutally attacked in the toilet of a pub by a local builder with whom he was having a dispute.

So severe were his head injuries and the trauma of the event in general, he stayed in his bedroom for a year, fearful of the magical landscape which now seemed to contain such badness. And he found that some of the locals were hostile to him, as if he and not the perpetrator had brought all this trouble on himself and on them.

Directed by Paddy Hayes, the film was a beautifully told essay on the darkness which can be found if you dig deeply into these idyllic places, and it went against the obligatory Official Ireland vision of Connemara as being inherently inspiring. The fact that Noel Hill began to restore his spirits though the music which had drawn him to these wild places, was portrayed as a personal discovery, which owed little to "the community" or to any other Gaelic values.

Moreover he was not presented to us as being particularly loveable - some of us recalled that Hill had dissed The Pogues many years ago, which marked him down as a "purist" in the dubious sense of the word - but from Aisling Ghear he displayed a higher virtue than mere loveability. He emerged as a man of unbreakable integrity.

So let them throw out their formats and their categories and their niches, and let RTE show this on the main channel at prime time, where it belongs.

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