Saturday 25 November 2017

Last night’s TV: Groundhog day

Brendan Smyth Photo: Collins
Brendan Smyth Photo: Collins

Diarmuid Doyle

Last night, we were reminded of an older and less pleasant Ireland. Everywhere we looked on the television, we were being tugged back into a past that many of us would rather forget. Even Reeling In The Years was a bit on the gloomy side.

Often suffused with the kind of nostalgia which leaves us longing to return to the good old days, last night it was in a bad mood. Last night, it returned to 1983.

RTE is sometimes criticised for its reliance on repeats, especially during the summer season when most of its staff appear to have fled the jurisdiction and when nothing new, other than the occasional cheap and cheerful reality show, is on the agenda.

Reeling In The Years is the ultimate repeat, of course, going back over stuff we already know and doing so over and over again. And yet it’s managed to become a favourite show of just about everybody.

If you’re old enough to remember the events, and the music that accompanies them, you’re instantly transported back in time. If you’re too young, it works as a kind of popular history.

Last night opened with Garret FitzGerald telling the people of Ireland that they bore a responsibility to get themselves out of the economic gloom. Governments couldn’t do everything, he said.

The country was in the midst of a terrible recession. Thirty-six thousand jobs were lost that year, including 680 in one fell swoop in the Dunlop tyre factory in Cork.

Strokes and protests were common – in the midst of all the worry about our economic future, we even managed to find time to have a big anti-nuclear rally in Dublin.

We seemed more angry them, quicker to rise up and complain. The marchers being dragged away or arrested by the guards weren’t the usual suspects, the professional protestors. They were ordinary people worried about their futures, about losing their jobs, or keeping the ones they had.

There were definite parallels with today. The big difference is that when Reeling In The Years for 2011 is made, there won’t be many scenes of protest.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom in 1983. Christy Moore in his underpants added to the gaiety of the nation in the video for “Don’t Forget Your Shovel”. Phil Lynott was still alive and in the charts. Paddy Reilly had a new song about some fields in County Galway.

There were also the usual controversies about sex, which have been a regular feature of Reeling In The Years and will be again when the story of the 2011 presidential election comes to be told.

In 1983, a highly divisive abortion referendum added a new clause to the constitution, banning terminations. 1983 was also the year when a doctor was convicted of selling contraceptives.

That’s one of the stories that always surprise younger folks about 1980s Ireland – somebody was fined for selling condoms?

They’ll have been no less tickled at the story of The Spike, retold in Scannal (TG4), which took us back to 1978, when the highlight of RTE’s autumn schedule was a 10-part drama about a working class secondary school in Dublin.

Only five parts were ever shown, thanks to a nude scene which scandalised the nation, kept the newspapers in front page stories for weeks, involved the Taoiseach of the time and led to at least one death.

Scannal did a good job of making the point that there was more to some of the protests than mere objections to a naked body. Many people high up in the civil service and in government were horrified by The Spike’s determination to argue that some working class schools were used to take in the “dregs of society”, allowing other schools to get on with the job of educating “the captains and the kings”, as one character put it.

The knives were out long before actress Madelyn Erskine, in her role as a nude artists’ model, became the centre of a national scandal.

RTE’s switchboard lit up with hundreds of protests from outraged viewers. One of the protestors, JB Murray, the head of the “League Of Decency”, had a heart attack while registering his objections, and died six weeks later in hospital.

RYTE quickly caved in to the pressure from viewers and, behind the scenes, from politicians and the department of Education. The last five episodes were never shown.

Taoiseach Jack Lynch later voiced his approval for the decision. Scannal seemed in little doubt that he played some part in making it.

A twisted view of sex and sexuality was also at the heart of Brendan Smyth – Betrayal Of Trust (RTE1).

Shown on BBC to great acclaim earlier in the year, this two-hour film was a powerful account of the sordid life and times and eventual conviction of Brendan Smyth, a paedophile priest, one of the most genuinely evil characters ever to appear in an Irish courtroom.

Its opening scenes showed a number of people, including aFr Sean Brady, taking details of sex abuse from two children who said that they had been raped by Smyth.

Brady then swore them to silence, and failed to report the allegations to the police. That was how it was done in the Catholic Church at the time, and indeed up to very recently.

Fr Brady later went on to become Cardinal Sean Brady, currently the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Brendan Smyth went in to abuse other children.

Like Reeling In The Years, Betrayal Of Trust reminded us that the past never quite goes away, never gets fed up of reminding us of our past sins. Brendan Smyth paid for his, eventually. Sean Brady is still the cardinal.

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