Sunday 26 May 2019

The plough and the stars: how TV's revolutionary Riordans changed Ireland

Andrea Byrne

THIRTY years after RTE's first soap opera introduced the concept of sex before marriage to God-fearing Catholic Ireland, The Riordans is to be dusted off and marked with a documentary celebrating the part it played in Irish television and social history.

The Riordans, which ran for 15 years, portrayed real life in rural Ireland -- but it did so in a controversial way, tackling taboo subjects like contraception long before the government was prepared to tackle the issue itself.

But it captured the public imagination to the extent that the 1973 on-screen marriage of two of its main in characters, Benjy and Maggie, drew a massive audience of 1.2 million -- one third of the population.

"I know of houses where it was as important as going to Sunday Mass,'' recalls former Irish Countrywoman's Association president Mamo McDonald. Comedian Pat Shortt credits it with bringing "a bit of sex to farming".

For scriptwriter Wesley Burrowes, The Riordans, which was set in the fictional Leestown in Kilkenny, succeeded in helping break down the urban/rural divide and provided people with a truer picture of country life.

"New brooms sweep clean," remembers Burrowes, referring to the show's shock axing at the height of its popularity, as revealed in a new RTE documentary. While James Douglas created the show, Burrowes went on to pen most of the episodes.

The Riordans: Tea, Taboos & Tractors, to be screened on Tuesday, explores the reasons for the soap's popularity, the impact it had in changing and shaping Irish attitudes in the Sixties and Seventies and the controversy caused by its removal from our screens.

For the majority of its tenure, The Riordans was the most popular show on Irish television. Character actors like John Cowley, who played Tom Riordan, became household names and a spin-off of the programme called Bracken launched the career of Gabriel Byrne. Michael Riordan, one of the show's main characters, was played by the late Chris O'Neill.

In the documentary his daughter, Aisling O'Neill, best known for her role as Carol in Fair City, acts as narrator as she journeys back, visiting the old set and interviewing surviving cast members including Moira Deady (Mary), Biddy White Lennon (Maggie) and Tom Hickey (Benjy).

"Tom Hickey, God love him, he had to live with Benjy for years and years and years after,'' laughs Pat Shortt. Hickey himself remembers: "You would hear echoing behind you, 'Get up the yard, there's a smell of Benjy off you!' It became a catchphrase."

Such was the innovative nature of The Riordans that it left a legacy for soaps that came after it here and in the far-off Yorkshire Dales.

"Before they set up Emmerdale Farm, they studied how The Riordans actually managed this uncontrolled and really unique location, how they managed animals and the farm and the whole notion of the rural soap," says Fair City executive producer Brigie De Courcy.

"They brought this back with them to Yorkshire and they are still running and still immensely proud of their very early associations with The Riordans."

For many fans, the success of the show lay in the writing capabilities of one man.

"I think the strength that Wesley Burrowes brought to it was the strength of a really great dramatist -- there were topics about life and death, grief and hurt, rage and loss. It was a microcosm which was true of what was happening within the larger society," says Lelia Doolan, producer/director of the agri-drama.

"Wesley understood the oblique nature of the introduction of topics of argumentative issue. He always understood that the full-frontal approach was useless," says

Reflecting the profound changes taking place in Ireland in the Sixties and Seventies, the soap tackled contentious social issues including domestic violence, discrimination, separation, illegitimacy, extra-marital affairs and Travellers (at a time when they were called itinerants). And, most notably, the show tackled contraception -- when it was revealed that Benjy's wife Maggie could not risk having another child due to grave health risks.

"The fact that there wasn't access to family planning was a big issue for a lot of women. You wouldn't like it to be known, generally speaking, that you were taking the pill ... because it was seen as very wicked," says Mamo McDonald. "But The Riordans having it gave us a legitimacy then as a topic to be discussed."

"Raising issues about sexuality, raising issues around contraception -- this was pretty radical stuff," offers journalist Fintan O'Toole.

Of the ground-breaking nature of The Riordans and its plot-lines, Burrowes says: "It wasn't a question of proselytising my own opinions. It was a matter of annoying people and getting people talking about the subject.

"And if they were talking about the subject, they were talking about The Riordans as well. And would sure as hell look in next Sunday.

"Anybody who ever wrote you a letter saying, 'I will never watch The Riordans again', you knew you had them for life."

'The Riordans: Tea, Taboos & Tractors' airs on Tuesday at 10.15pm on RTE One

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