Question Time: Radio and the Liberalisation of Irish Public Discourse after World War II

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 2001), Volume 9

In an article published five years ago, journalist Fintan O’Toole mimicked the resentment in certain quarters of the Republic over the recent direction of public discourse: ‘a lot of what we have had to talk about has been very unpleasant indeed, and we are tired of listening to it. We wonder if it would not be better if, after all, the worms were to crawl quietly back under the stones’. Yet in many other quarters freeing the worms—or, to use another metaphor, releasing the skeletons from the closet—remains a courageous act worthy of commendation. Consider, for example, the appreciative reception throughout Ireland of three texts published in 1996, the same year as O’Toole’s article, that pushed the envelope of public discourse by examining traumatic social and historical experiences: Louis Lentin’s documentary Dear Daughter, Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins, and Nuala O’Faolain’s memoir Are You Somebody?.
While opinions diverge over the worth of broaching painful or embarrassing topics—and by extension over the extent of the nation’s progress beyond the shame and silence of the difficult post-independence years—considerable consensus exists about the origins of the contemporary culture of confrontation. Indeed, with remarkable consistency two developments in 1962—television and The Late Late Show, the popular talk show hosted by Gay Byrne—receive credit for enabling national dialogue about issues avoided in conventional discourse, particularly sex and contraception, and for challenging authority figures closely identified with traditional Irish values. The medium and the man have been celebrated, in broader terms, for facilitating the cultural adjustment required as Sean Lemass opened up the economy for international trade. As Douglas Gageby explains, Byrne’s show helped modernise Irish viewers’ perspectives: ‘what at first seemed blasphemous or obscene, very soon was taken…[by the] public as ordinary tea-time chat’.

Rethinking the received view of Irish broadcasting

Television and its celebrities have had a tremendous impact in the Republic; however, the medium was not quite as revolutionary as scholars and journalists have made it out to be. Its technological precursor, radio in many ways prepared the ground for television by gradually loosening the strictures on Irish discourse. The received view of Irish broadcasting does not recognise this debt; rather, it uses early Irish radio as a foil, casting it as the retrograde antecedent of television. This diminution of radio is evident in the contradictory but equally derogatory monikers attached to the national radio service—‘the old lady’ and ‘the child which refuses to grow up’. Indeed, whereas scholars routinely link Ireland’s transformation in the past forty years to the flip of the television ‘on’ switch, they dismiss Irish radio prior to the 1960s, when television supposedly pushed it forward, as the tool of conservative ideologues and, therefore, as an agent of repression rather than social development. Tim Pat Coogan, for example, claims Ireland’s radio service—known from its launch in 1926 to 1932 as ‘2RN’, as ‘Radio Athlone’ from 1932-1937, and thereafter, until radio’s merger with television in 1966, as ‘Radio Éireann’—‘helped to form part of the intellectual network of censorship that the nationalists…attempted to ring around the thought of…the island’. He concedes ‘the wireless was central…to the [national] picture’, yet insists ‘it didn’t by its very existence change the picture, as did television…[rather] it provided a background for a way of life’.
This widely reproduced characterisation commits the fallacy identified by Luke Gibbons in the essay ‘From Megalith to Megastore’: it overlooks how all media, not just television, transform the material they transmit. Gibbons’s analysis goes a long way toward explaining the received view of early Irish radio, for it demonstrates how cultural revivalists passed off radio’s innovations as mere extensions of traditional Irish culture. Yet radio’s modernising effects became even stronger at a later phase, the World-War-II-and-after era, when Radio Éireann’s programmes became more interactive and controversial, and Irish radio began, therefore, to achieve more fully Bertolt Brecht’s ideal of serving as ‘a system of communication’ predicated on audience response rather than being merely a uni-directional ‘distribution system’. In particular, programmes as different as the beloved quiz show Question Time and the erudite Thomas Davis lectures transformed radio into a forum for charged public exchanges and challenges to traditional thought, and, thus, anticipated television and the present-day culture of confrontation.

Question Time and audience participation

Histories of Irish broadcasting inevitably emphasise radio’s difficult first two decades as an underfinanced, resented appendage of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. 2RN also lacked the support of the public, which regarded the new service with scepticism, perceiving it either as an alien force altogether, or, equally damaging, as a weak imitation of its model, the BBC. Brecht’s description of the uncertain circumstances of radio in other parts of the world sums up the situation in Ireland as well: initially, there was no clear purpose for radio. When the technology arrived, ‘society was not sufficiently advanced to take it up’ and ‘raw material was not waiting for methods of production based on social needs but means of production were looking anxiously for raw material’. Yet despite its inauspicious beginnings, through music, sports, and religious broadcasts, Irish radio did gradually gain an audience in the 1930s.
The most widely listened to programme, according to successive audience surveys, was Question Time, the general-knowledge quiz show launched in 1938, which toured Ireland for its Sunday night broadcasts, promoting Radio Éireann and its summer-sponsor, the Irish Tourist Association, until war restrictions on travel confined it largely to Dublin. The popularity of the show might tempt us to conclude that Question Time merely provided diversion for a nation cut off from the outside world by its choice to remain neutral. Indeed, so strict was the Irish government’s censorship of media that even weather reports could not be broadcast for fear of inadvertently aiding one side or the other. However, the findings of so-called ‘gratification’ studies conducted in 1940 by Paul Lazarsfield, then-Director of Radio Research at Columbia University, impute a much greater social significance to early radio quiz shows like Question Time that put their audience in a ‘semi-active situation’. Specifically, the studies revealed that by enabling listeners to play along at home, without fear of failure or judgement, such shows boosted confidence and alleviated class and other social frustrations.
Question Time became compulsive listening in Ireland because it offered these individual gratifications and also encouraged a sense of unity—of participating in a national audience. But perhaps more important than either of these benefits, Question Time took audience engagement one step farther than the American shows Lazarsfield analysed by luring many listeners from their homes to the broadcasting site. The ‘custom’, according to Maurice Gorham in Forty Years of Irish Broadcasting, was ‘to broadcast the programme from a local hall, follow it with a concert, and make a charge for admission, the [sizeable] proceeds of which went to local charities’. Question Time also inspired other programmes involving an even greater degree of audience participation, for example the mid-week quiz show Information Please, on which ‘questions sent by listeners were put to panellists and any question that stumped them earned the sender a half-crown’. Thus, rather than simply a war-time entertainment, Question Time was in some respects the bell-wether of modern broadcasting: it showed radio’s possibilities as an interactive medium, and subsequent Radio Éireann programmes capitalised on its success by making Irish citizens an integral part of the production process.
Question Time’s second innovative feature, its ability to elicit and air impromptu political remarks from contestants, suggested the consequences of directly involving the audience in broadcasting: namely, the likelihood of exchanges becoming livelier and more controversial than those taking place on other programmes. The reason for this was simply that prior to 1951 all other shows, including talk shows, had to be scripted and approved in advance, a process which reduced debate, in Francis MacManus’s phrasing, to ‘a form of drama production with…plotless plays and amateur actors’. Question Time faced no such rules, and thus at times became a public platform from which individuals made incendiary remarks. For example, when the show visited Belfast, the host asked a competitor ‘who is the world’s best-known teller of fairy tales?’ The anticipated answer was ‘Hans Christian Anderson’; however, the contestant replied ‘Winston Churchill’, a breach of neutrality that delighted nationalists in the audience but perturbed officials in Belfast and London. Gorham implies the incident had fairly serious repercussions: ‘questions were asked in the House of Commons at Westminster, formal representations were made from Belfast, and it was a long time before a Radio Éireann team crossed the border again’. The show would again inspire outrage, only this time from audience members, when a competitor made a ‘slighting reference to [nationalist and UCD professor] Tom Kettle, who died fighting in the British Army’. Uttered in the course of a quiz program, such comments were unlikely to develop into sustained debate, but they nevertheless demonstrated radio’s power as a site for transgressive discourse and public controversy.

Programming expansion after the war: the Thomas Davis lectures

Sustained debate did take place on Irish radio soon after Question Time’s transgressions, specifically in the immediate post-war period when the national radio service greatly expanded. Neutrality had made Ireland extremely vulnerable to British aggression, a point underscored by Winston Churchill’s hostile VE-Day broadcast, during which he boasted about England’s restraint in not laying a ‘violent hand’ on the former colony. De Valera’s skilful reply has been described as ‘his and radio’s finest hour’. Yet he turned even more strategically to the medium he had regularly relied on to advance his political views, when in 1946 he furthered plans for a short-wave service that would allow Ireland to contact allies during political crises. The coalition government that succeeded Fianna Fáil in the spring of 1948 scrapped the plan, literally, leaving ‘an array of aerials…over…[many] people’s land’, but the aborted project had already doubled Radio Éireann’s resources. By most accounts the service’s greatest gain was the addition of a full-time professional theatre company, the Radio Éireann players. It was, however, the introduction of new programmes aimed at stimulating debate that most benefited public discourse in Ireland. Some of these programmes, for example World Affairs and its successor, Round Table on World Affairs, hosted by Jack White, reconnected Ireland to the outside world and ensured debate would take place on the air by bringing together guests with conflicting perspectives. The most influential of the programmes launched after the expansion of the radio service, the Thomas Davis Lecture Series (in 1953), sought to stir intellectual curiosity about, and provide sustained academic debate on, subjects of Irish interest (for example, some of the first series focused on ‘Early Irish Society’, ‘Tara’, ‘Irish Monks in the Golden Age’, ‘The Irish at War’, and ‘The Yeats We Knew’.) Intended, in other words, to popularise the best of contemporary Irish scholarship, the half-hour lectures by established scholars nurtured the questioning spirit developing in the Republic. Gerard Victory underscores that this spirit, like Radio Éireann’s resources, grew as a consequence of the war. Most Irish citizens ‘of sensitivity’, he explains, ‘had realised after the great trauma of the Second World War that the older apparently simple and straightforward aims of Irish culture and nationalism would no longer quite suffice’.
The Thomas Davis lectures also resulted from, and exemplified, the loosening of strictures on radio discussions that followed the war. While the Thomas Davis lectures were scripted, their authors’ commitment to re-examining received views made them considerably different from earlier radio talks, described by Anthony Cronin as ‘civilised conversation…informed by the wish to please…listeners’. In fact, the extent to which some lecturers were willing to displease listeners clearly registers in the 1955-56 series ‘The Shaping of Modern Ireland’, which the first contributor, Conor Cruise O’Brien, introduced as ‘an interrogation’ of the national past by fifteen scholars possessing diverse political ‘outlooks’.
O’Brien’s own contribution to the series serves as a case in point for, in less than deferential terms, his lecture debunked many cherished nationalist assumptions. Indeed, delivered nearly twenty years before the controversy over historical revisionism erupted with the publication of two studies in 1972, his own States of Ireland and Father Francis Shaw’s ‘The Canon of Irish History’, O’Brien’s talk ‘1891-1916’ performed three standard revisionist rhetorical moves. First, it questioned the broad base of Republicanism. Not only did O’Brien ask ‘what…did the Gaelic League mean to the working people of Dublin?’, but, more boldly, he surmised ‘there is some reason to believe that on Easter Monday, 1916, the main focus of…[the middle class’s] interest was not the GPO but Fairyhouse racecourse’. Second, the lecture emphasised the failure of revolutionaries such as Thomas Clarke and Patrick Pearse to realise their dream of a Republic. ‘Modern Ireland’, O’Brien insisted, ‘did not take the shape that any of its shapers desired’. Third, the talk discredited the very idea that history could be shaped, characterising it as an ‘ambiguous…process’ and historical interpretation as inherently subjective. ‘Confusion’, O’Brien declared, ‘is the condition in which history exists, as distinct from the way in which we try to tidy it up afterwards’.
Letters to Radio Éireann attested that the talks by O’Brien and the other fourteen scholars who participated in ‘The Shaping of Modern Ireland’ series aroused considerable interest among the Irish public. Not only, then, did the series foreshadow the revisionist controversy and offer debate in the form of divergent historical interpretations, but it also prompted listeners to contribute their proverbial two cents. Thus, together with its less scholarly precursor Question Time, the Thomas Davis lectures showed radio had a vital role to play in facilitating controversial national dialogue. The oft-cited remark ‘there was no sex in Ireland before television’ highlights that television would advance, in particular, discussions of sex and contraception. But radio helped prepare for this expansion of public discourse by staging conflict and broaching thorny political questions, especially after the war.

Recent homages to ‘the lost medium’

Many recent Irish cultural texts corroborate this view by paying homage to Irish radio. Indeed, in texts such as Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire, Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, both of Frank McCourt’s memoirs, and Cathal Black’s film Korea, Irish radio exists in a complex relationship to the past. It interacts with, and even transmits, traditional Irish culture, but it is by no means an agent of nationalist repression. Rather, more often than not Irish radio is portrayed as a modernising force with liberating effects: it stimulates imaginations and enables vicarious experience of foreign cultures in McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes; releases latent desires in Friel’s play, Black’s film, and McCourt’s ‘Tis; and alternately facilitates or provides temporary refuge from difficult communication in Murphy’s play. These tributes reinforce the view that Irish radio, dubbed the ‘Cinderella of the [broadcasting] service’ in the mid-60s because of the attention lavished on television, had long before that performed the thankless task of readying the national castle for the arrival of its more glamorous step-sister.

Eileen Morgan is an Assistant Professor of English, specialising in Irish Studies, at Oneonta State College, New York.

Further reading:

D. Fisher, Broadcasting in Ireland (London 1978).

L. Gibbons, ‘From Megalith to Megastore: Broadcasting and Irish Culture’, in Transformations in Irish Culture (Notre Dame 1996).

M. Gorham, Forty Years of Irish Broadcasting (Dublin 1967).

L. McRedmond (ed.), Written on the Wind: Personal Memories of Irish Radio, 1926-1976 (Dublin 1976).


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