New Perspectives on Irish TV Series

Identity and Nostalgia on the Small Screen

by Flore Coulouma (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection VI, 216 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 74


Within the growing field of television studies, little work has yet been done on the Irish context. This volume aims to fill this gap by offering new and compelling studies of contemporary Irish TV series. Fictional TV series, which constitute an autonomous genre within the broader cultural phenomenon of TV broadcasting, are explored here as paradigmatic representations of Irish popular culture. This book investigates the vast number of series produced in Ireland over the past two decades, focusing on their cultural impact at a time when American and British dominance have led many critics and viewers to underestimate the significance of Irish programming. The essays collected here reveal a distinctly Irish culture of TV fiction series, in both the Irish and English languages, and examine some of its finest examples, from Father Ted to Love/Hate and Sin Scéal Eile.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 Family by Roddy Doyle: Goodbye to the ‘Cosy Homestead’
  • 2 Father Ted: Priests on Screen and Irish Self-Images
  • 3 Prosperity: Dublin on the Verge of an Economic Breakdown
  • 4 Single-Handed: Negotiating Power and the Past in Irish Television Drama
  • 5 Ireland According to The Savage Eye: Shifting Satirical Paradigms and the Reconfiguration of National Stereotypes
  • 6 Post-Tiger Noir? The TV Adaptation of Benjamin Black’s Quirke Novels
  • 7 Moone Boy: Nostalgia, Region and the Elision of Celtic Tiger Aspirationalism
  • 8 Where’s the Love in Love/Hate? Gangster Violence, Irish Identity and Global Television
  • 9 Sin Scéal Eile [That’s Another Story]: Contemporary Screen Adaptations of Irish-Language Stories for TG4
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index

← vi | 1 →



In the steadily growing field of television series studies worldwide, little solid research has been conducted specifically on series set in Ireland or created by Irish writers, producers and directors for Irish audiences. Most English-language television series from Ireland are broadcast to Irish and British audiences, but also, in some instances, to much broader audiences (Neil Jordan’s The Borgias is a good example of this latter phenomenon). On the other hand, Irish-language television series production, despite regularly garnering critical acclaim for its creativity and originality, is only accessible to a limited audience, although most pre-recorded Irish-language programmes carry onscreen subtitles. This significant corpus of work has yet to be fully addressed in academic circles outside Ireland. While the different genres of Irish television series meet the international canon of conventional categories (sitcoms, social-commentary soap operas, police dramas, historical narratives, etc.), they do so against a distinctive and unique background. The goal of this book is to open the field of television series studies to the Irish corpus.

This book is the result of a 2014 conference on these questions that was held at the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre, which brought together scholars from Ireland, the UK and France, and from different perspectives and disciplines: history, cultural studies, media studies and literature. It was the first event of its kind in France, where television series studies are mostly focused on American productions of the past thirty years. It was timely that Irish studies should engage seriously with this theme. Cult television series such as Father Ted have defined a generation of TV audiences and have contributed to a representation of Irish identity that had not been investigated up to that point, while their successors continue to address issues of identity and representation through comedy, drama, current affairs and period pieces. ← 1 | 2 →

Irish television broadcasting was a relative latecomer in the history of European television: while national broadcasting started in 1931 in France and 1936 in the UK, Ireland launched its own national television service (Raidió Teilifís Éireann, or RTÉ) on New Year’s Eve 1961, after several years of multiple debates and hesitations. Opinions were divided amongst government officials regarding the financial viability and the corruptible effects of a national television service – an impression partly fuelled by the scandalous immorality allegedly emanating from British television and its popular ‘kitchen sink drama’ broadcasts.1

In fact, Irish television audiences had already been developing since the early 1950s thanks to the BBC’s high-power transmitters broadcasting from Northern Ireland, Wales and the west of England. As Lance Pettitt notes, ‘In 1956, it was estimated by State sources that some 7,000 television sets were already owned by people in the Republic who were receiving British broadcasting.’2 This contributed to spurring Irish officials into planning a national broadcasting service. Irish national television would counter what was felt as a cultural invasion endangering the ideals of Irish nationalism and conservative Catholicism; to this effect, The Broadcasting Authority Act of 1960 outlined the medium’s ‘general duty with respect to [the] national aim’ in its Article 17: ‘In performing its functions, the Authority shall bear constantly in mind the national aims of restoring the Irish language and preserving and developing the national culture and shall endeavour to promote the attainment of those aims.’3 Then president, Eamon de Valera, launched the newly minted national television service on New Year’s Eve 1961, with a cautious speech: ‘Never before was there in the hands of men an instrument so powerful to influence the thoughts and actions of the multitude.’ Television, he warned, can ‘build up the ← 2 | 3 → character of a whole people’, but can also ‘through demoralisation, lead to decadence and dissolution.’4

From these humble and conservative beginnings, RTÉ gradually expanded its coverage so that it extended over most of the country, yet the continuing phenomenon of transmission spillover and dual reception meant that many homes were watching British television with programmes uncensored by Irish policymakers. Within its own borders, RTÉ was threatened by the ‘dissolute’ Anglo-American popular culture so loathed by de Valera: the cost involved in producing its own programming meant that RTÉ soon bought pre-recorded British and American programmes to fill air time, and ‘by 1980, 70% of RTÉ’s television programmes were produced outside Ireland; the highest proportion of imported programmes in Europe’.5 RTÉ Two was launched on 2 November 1978 with the explicit objective of rebroadcasting UK programmes for audiences not receiving British channels. It gradually became the youth-oriented channel that it is today.6 Therefore, despite Church and State censorship, national television both reflected and contributed to the liberalization of Irish society from its inception.

Following decades of economic hardship and under-subsidized national programming, the government changed its modus operandi with two acts legalizing private broadcasting (1988) and deregulating RTÉ (1990), in keeping with European Union policies. In 1989, the ‘Television without Frontiers Directive’ imposed a single market within the European Union and established a funding policy for European projects, to counter the tide of American influence.7 National and European funding was ← 3 | 4 → thus partially redirected towards private broadcasting companies, with an increase in the commissioning of native, independent programming throughout the 1990s. This period also corresponded to the technological shift to cable and satellite transmission, and to the first stirrings of Celtic Tiger prosperity. In 1996, Irish-language channel Telefís na Gaeilge (now TG4) was launched, after years of campaigning for a separate Irish-language channel, by minority activists.8 In 1998 came TV3, the first independent commercial broadcaster in Ireland, which was followed in January 2015 by UTV Ireland. Today Irish television audiences have access to national and independent Irish, British and overseas channels via digital terrestrial transmission, satellite and cable.

Where do fictional television series fit into all this? The 1960s produced Ireland’s first native soap opera, with urban drama Tolka Row (1964–1968), an Irish version of the long-running British soap Coronation Street (1960-), from which it borrowed its premise. Set in a fictional street of Northside Dublin, it depicts the daily life of an urban working-class family, the Nolans. Although the show gave an ‘honest picture of the social conditions surrounding working class life’, it never gave itself a critical or deeply analytical edge; neither did it question the traditional gender divisions in the domestic sphere.9 However, the series was extremely popular, as was its rural counterpart, The Riordans (1965–1979). Ireland’s first rural soap opera, The Riordans was set in the fictional town of Leestown in County Killkenny. It portrayed not just the eponymous family living on the farm – the series was filmed on a real farm, with actors who themselves came from rural backgrounds – but the whole rural community around them. The immense popularity of The Riordans, as Cornelius Crowley notes in Chapter 2, came from the very strong identification of a large part of the Irish population with the series’ characters, and with the fact that ← 4 | 5 → the series did stir controversy and emotions in tackling sociological and domestic issues beyond the scope of agricultural matters, from emigration to land ownership and school violence. Marxist critic Raymond Williams famously praised The Riordans as a successful popular form following in the footsteps of the great nineteenth-century serial novel tradition.10 The Riordans was followed by the rural serial drama Bracken (RTÉ One, 1978–1982), which reprised one of its characters, Pat Barry (played by a young Gabriel Byrne), and introduced Dinny and Miley Byrne (Joe Lynch and Mick Lally), who were to become the main stars of another long-running rural series, Glenroe (RTÉ One, 1983–2001). In the 1980s RTÉ produced another influential urban soap, Fair City (RTÉ One, 1989-). Fair City is currently the most-watched serial drama in Ireland, with about 500,000 people tuning in four nights a week. It depicts the lives of a diverse group of Dublin ‘Northsiders’ – from car mechanic to general practitioner and local entrepreneur – and unlike its tamer predecessor Tolka Row, Fair City has evolved together with Irish society, tackling difficult issues such as abortion and homosexuality, while consistently ‘track[ing] the secularisation of Irish society’ (there are no priests in the main cast of characters).11

The 1990s saw the arrival of Ros Na Rún (RTÉ One/TG4, 1996-), an Irish-language production with English subtitles. Ros Na Rún is based on a fish-out-of-water storyline (an English-speaking Dublin yuppie comes to work in the Gaeltacht), and prides itself on tackling ‘major social issues’.12 Yet the two groundbreaking series of the 1990s were Father Ted (Channel 4, 1995–1998) and Family (BBC One/RTÉ One, 1994), which opened the door to the new, innovative generation of Irish television series that we have today: The Tudors (TV3 Ireland/BBC Two, 2007–2010), Single-Handed (RTÉ One, 2007–2010), Pure Mule (RTÉ 2, 2005–2009), The Clinic (RTÉ One, 2003–2009), Father and Son (RTÉ One/ITV, June-July ← 5 | 6 → 2009), Love/Hate (RTÉ One, 2010-), Prosperity (RTÉ Two, 2007), Quirke (RTÉ One/BBC One, 2014), Scúp (TG4/BBC Northern Ireland, 2013-) and Sin Scéal Eile (TG4, 2008-) – all of which illustrate the richness and scope of contemporary Irish television series.

The series examined in this study are fictions originating from Ireland or addressed to an Irish audience, and produced in the past two decades, from Family to ongoing serials such as Love/Hate. Our methodological assumption is that understanding contemporary Irish television requires a look back in time to the classic series that initiated the period, and our corpus exhibits common themes and recurring issues that echo one another, regardless of genre. The book is therefore structured chronologically rather than thematically. This helps us envision Irish television series from a broader perspective than the generic categories of comedy, crime and social realism – categories that are in fact too restrictive to account for the complexity and intertextuality of the series analysed in this book. Chronology finally enables us to monitor the more subtle evolutions of Irish society and its televisual representations; the structure of this book will therefore follow the same logic.

This collection examines fictional TV series as an autonomous genre within the broader cultural phenomenon of television broadcasting. While cultural studies scholar John Storey contends that ‘Television is the popular culture form of the twenty-first century’,13 our focus on TV series raises questions of definition and status: what makes TV series a prime asset – if not the paradigmatic representative – of contemporary television culture? Within the continual flux of television programming, TV series have taken on an autonomous identity that has been reinforced in the past fifteen years by the development of internet streaming and box-set viewing. In the restrictive sense used here – excluding non-fictional serial formats such as talk shows and reality television – TV series are audio-visual forms of serial fiction; their narrative structure sets them apart from the cinema or television film genre, because they rely on complex story-arcs and a long-term ← 6 | 7 → view of narrative development, often combining overarching narratives with shorter subplots in self-contained episodes.

On the one hand, TV series are a direct product of television and internet-streaming media, and are thus tainted with the stigma of a postmodern mass culture marketing its proliferating, self-referential messages to target consumers.14 On the other hand, the detractors of television tend to forget that TV series follow in the footsteps of the very successful nineteenth-century European and American tradition of serialized literature; like Victorian potboilers, their serial structure cannot be solely explained by economic motives and audience ratings. As part of the broader genre of serialized fiction, TV series contribute to the vast network of fictional universes that we engage with in our everyday life, and the ever-growing corpus of sequels and spin-offs in the movie industry also attests to the importance of serial fiction in the overall make-up of popular culture. The overwhelming popularity of TV series on a global scale finally raises the question of genre-literacy: television series create communities around shared cultural knowledge and shared anticipation, as shown in the numerous blogs and fan sites dedicated to television series on the internet.

Our aim in this book is to examine how Irish TV series have provided a mirror to the changing faces of Irish society since the 1990s while playing a major role in the evolution of Irish popular culture itself. The TV series format is all the more relevant here as it echoes Ireland’s ancient relationship with orality and the storytelling tradition. In their seminal 1978 study on television, John Fiske and John Hartley devote a chapter to what they call ‘bardic television’, and explain how television functions as a ‘social ritual in which our culture engages in order to communicate with its collective self.’15 To describe this collective ritual, they refer to features that traditional bardic narratives share with television: topicality (the bard expresses the ‘central concerns of his day’); a collective understanding of ← 7 | 8 → authorship (contrary to the individual author of literate culture, television series and bardic poetry are collective endeavours); the centralizing power of television (it cements a cultural community); its orality; and, finally, the fact that television ‘has to do with myths’ in Roland Barthes’ sense that it communicates underlying, sometimes unconscious, assumptions about the nature and values of the reality it depicts.16 Like its oral and literate predecessors, the TV series genre is a crucial lens through which we can observe the evolving features of a society and culture. Here, Irish TV series capture the evolution of Irish society in time and space as it negotiates its relationship with the past and with the rest of the globalized world.

However, our purpose is also to examine Irish TV series beyond their status of sociological artefacts, as carefully constructed, multidimensional objects in which narrative structure and content, cinematography, staging and acting come together to produce critically and aesthetically relevant works of art. The chapters in this collection examine a sample of the vast and growing production of Irish TV series, focusing on their specificities and cultural impact at a time when American and British dominance have led many critics and viewers to dismiss Irish series as just a subaltern category of either or both geographical and cultural sources. It is not the case: there is a distinctly Irish culture of television fiction series and the chapters in this collection examine some of its finest examples.

In Chapter 1, Sylvie Mikowski explores Roddy Doyle’s first foray into television with his mini-series Family (1994). Family was groundbreaking both in form and content, and its naturalistic depiction of alcoholism and domestic violence in the Dublin working-class rocked the nation at a time when the ‘cosy homestead’ fantasy of family life was still unchallenged on Irish television. The series gave audiences a story that used its medium as a fully artistic vessel, pairing director Michael Winterbottom’s distinctively cinematic craft with the gritty social realism that ultimately led to today’s Love/Hate. In Chapter 2, Cornelius Crowley’s powerful reading of Father Ted exposes the crucial question of nostalgia in Irish comedy, within and beyond the scope of television. Father Ted presents the figure of the dignified ← 8 | 9 → priest as the last vestige of a changing society and departs from the more joyous tradition of British sitcoms to follow a quintessentially Irish genre in its comedy of despair.

In Chapter 3, Sheamus Sweeney addresses the question of social realism in the 2007 drama Prosperity, a series that has acquired even more relevance since the collapse of the Irish economy just a year after its broadcast. Sweeney analyses the series in its contemporary context of audience and critical reception, and compares it with other series explicitly influenced by social realism. Like Family and Father Ted, Prosperity depicts characters on the edge of society: social, economic and domestic violence are crucial issues here, as well as in the police drama Single-Handed, which is examined in Chapter 4 by Deirdre Quinn. Although similarly focused on the serious social issues of contemporary Ireland, Single-Handed shifts its geographical focus from the urban centre to the rural west, and addresses questions of entrenched police corruption and the continuing practices of silence within a still heavily gender-divided society. The Savage Eye also tackles the ills of Irish society, but from the perspective of black humour and scathing satire, as Thierry Robin explains in Chapter 5. The series’ hybrid format provides a relentless scrutiny of the changing stereotypes of Irishness, and exposes the tensions and contradictions at the heart of Ireland’s collective identity in the twenty-first century. In Chapter 6, Catherine Conan interrogates the logic at stake in the televisual adaptation of Benjamin Black’s Quirke – yet another anatomical representation of the violence and tensions in Irish society past and present. Catherine Conan’s detailed analyses of key scenes show how the series adapts literariness onto the screen, and point out what is lost in the adaptation. Together with the recurring themes of transatlantic relations and Catholic oppression in 1950s Ireland, questions of fatherhood, masculinity and legitimacy loom large in Quirke, and they are equally central in the bittersweet comedy Moone Boy (2012–2015), examined by Anthony P. McIntyre in Chapter 7. The series’ strong theme of nostalgic longing echo throughout its narrative of economic hardship, family life and regional identity in the late 1980s, in what Anthony P. McIntyre defines as the ‘reflective nostalgia’ that is the hallmark of today’s post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. The same issues of fatherhood and family ties take a radically violent turn in Love/Hate, a series infused with multiple ← 9 | 10 → storytelling traditions and backgrounds and catering for an ambiguously globalized Ireland (Chapter 8). Love/Hate has already acquired cult status, not solely because it very successfully indigenizes the acclaimed American model of gangster TV series from the first decade of the century, but also because it puts forward with painful intensity the question of belonging in a globalized country where people’s sense of space and place has been shaken to the core. The transnational dimension of Irish television production, however, makes the question of minority language even more glaring, in an audio-visual landscape massively dominated by the English language. Ruth Lysaght’s study of Sin Scéal Eile [That’s Another Story] in Chapter 9 is the collection’s last essay, and a crucial one. Its analysis of Irish-language adaptations, from a corpus of classic and contemporary Irish (Gaelic) literature is as enlightening as it is rare in the field of television studies. Ruth Lysaght examines the series in the context of Irish-language broadcasting policies and takes a close look at the narrative structure and visual features that bring these varied adaptations to life while maintaining the consistent style and spirit of a unified television series. Sin Scéal Eile finally bring us back full circle to the question of (linguistic) identity and belonging, in a field that is still new and very much waiting to be explored further.


Broadcasting Act (1990), Irish Statute Book <http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1990/act/24/enacted/en/html> accessed 15 September 2015.

Broadcasting Authority Act (1960), Irish Statute Book <http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1960/act/10/section/17/enacted/en/html> accessed 15 September 2015.


VI, 216
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (June)
TV broadcasting Dublin Irish TV series National Irish TV stereotypes
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. VI, 216 pp., 18 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Flore Coulouma (Volume editor)

Flore Coulouma is Associate Professor in the English Department at the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre. She is the author of Diglossia and The Linguistic Turn: Flann O’Brien’s Philosophy of Language and has written on contemporary Irish and American literature and popular culture. She teaches and researches in English linguistics and Irish literature and her other research interests include ecocriticism and the relationship between law and linguistics.


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