RTÉ’s Seven Ages

Published in Features, Issue 2 (Summer 2000), News, Volume 8

Seven Ages was one of the most ambitious television history projects ever undertaken in Ireland—ambitious not just in terms of its length, but also in its subject matter. The series offered itself as an authoritative interpretation of the history of the modern Irish state since 1920 to the present. Each decade was dealt with by means of interviews with participants and expert commentators, interleaved with newsreel and television archive material. The breadth of the enterprise was staggering and, in the first half of the series, extremely impressive. Sean Ó Mordha, best known for a very well-received series of documentaries on Irish writers, showed remarkable skill at combining archive material and interviews. The result was seven hours of compelling viewing. The highlights of the series lay very much in the treatment of the first four decades of the period since independence. The quality and quantity of film and photographic archive from the early decades of the state has improved immensely in recent years thanks to the dedicated work of archivists, assisted by improved technical expertise and greater levels of public funding for film archives. Also impressive in the treatment of the early decades was the quality of the contributions. Some, such as those of Todd Andrews, were taken from archive interviews, but the gaps were made up by interviewing relatives of the politicians of the period, such as Máire Mhac An tSaoi and Liam Cosgrave. Some experts, notably Paddy Lynch, were also observers of much of the period covered, and gave an especially valuable insight as a result. As a visual record, the series offered some striking images. One which stood out was the sensitive use of the recently restored archive film (in colour) of the harvest campaign of the late 1940s. Striking in themselves, these images were used very well to convey a sense of Ireland in the 1940s which added a vital dimension to the spoken word.
The technique of interleaving spoken testimony, commentary and film archive suggested a documentary that spoke for itself, without an authorial voice. In this way the television audience was given the impression of a history which let the evidence speak for itself, without the intrusion of an authoritative narrator. Of course, there is no such thing as a pure narrative of this kind, even in television where it may seem that the camera cannot lie. Any selection of documents and images is bound to reflect the views of the person making the selection, and Seven Ages was no exception to this rule. Even on so divisive a subject as the Civil War, the impression given was of a consensus of sorts being patiently built up out of the different voices heard on the programme. This is unexceptionable and is, in fact a reflection of the way historians use evidence to arrive at their conclusions. Television simply makes the whole process more immediate to the viewer by using the materials at its disposal. Narrative continuity was provided by Dermot Keogh (UCC), as historian, and John Bradley (ESRI), as economist, among others, but the real narrative was constructed by the way in which the views of the experts were edited into the main body of the series. Having said this, how did the series work as a history of the Irish state since 1920?
The treatment of the period 1920 to 1950 was extremely impressive, partly because the consensus that emerged was reflective and had the virtue of showing the possibility of an objective reassessment of the founding decades of the state by participants, contemporaries and experts alike. The first four decades dealt with the issues of civil war, the Cosgrave and De Valera governments of the 1920s and 1930s and Irish neutrality in the 1940s with admirable lucidity. This may be a tribute to our own maturity as a democracy, but it certainly shows that broadly speaking it is now possible for these questions to be discussed in public precisely because they have become history. Seven Ages made occasional reference to its own predecessors, such as Mise Éire, the heroic film history of the founding period made in the 1960s, with the clear implication that we have moved on to the point where a more objective and less emotional assessment is now possible. Another strength of the series was that it was offering a history of the state rather than attempting a total history of Irish life in the twentieth century. This narrower focus on politics and institutions requires considerable discipline, but it prevented the series from becoming sprawling and diffuse as it covered the founding decades up to 1950.
By contrast, disciplined use of historical focus, and of mature reflection became increasingly hard to sustain after 1950. Strong central themes continued to dominate the account of the period from the 1950s to the 1990s, but often the impression was of a crowded scene, with a narrative increasingly taken over by the sequence of events. Here the whole was less than the sum of its parts. As the narrative came closer to the present, it seemed to lose composure and was borne along inexorably by the tide of events, as opposed to offering an objective assessment. This is stating an obvious dilemma, faced by anybody seeking to explain the history of the recent past, given the degree to which we are caught up in those events. Our views of the 1950s are coloured by the traumatic debates about the place of the Catholic Church in Irish society since the 1980s. Our views about the history of the Northern crisis since the late 1960s are inextricable from the politics of the Good Friday agreement. The final section on the corruption scandals of the past decade allowed of little more than an instant response akin to editorialising journalism. Like Mise Éire, Seven Ages will tell the next generation a great deal about our society’s view of itself in the year 2000.

Eamon O’Flaherty is Lecturer in Modern History at University College Dublin.

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