Irish Television: the political and social origins, Robert J Savage. (Cork University Press, £16.95) ISBN 1859181023 Sean Lemass, Robert J. Savage. (Historical Association of Ireland/Dundalgan Press, £5.99) ISBN 0852211392

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Summer 2000), Reviews, Volume 8

New Year’s Eve 1961 may not immediately spring to mind as a significant date in the history of the Ireland. As a phenomenon that has provoked endless debate, argument and discussion ever since, the start of television broadcasting from Dublin on that date was most definitely significant. Loved or hated, television cannot be ignored. Controversy has been its middle name ever since the first European experimental broadcasts began in the UK in the 1920s, and this is as true in Ireland as elsewhere.
Robert Savage analyses the debate and posturing that preceded the start of the service (delayed to allow the station’s employees enjoy their Christmas holiday without interruption). The development of broadcasting is considered, not by reference to the scheduling or programming policies, nor by an examination of programme contents. This book is concerned more with the (sometimes somewhat dubious) practices and discussions of those in positions of power or influence. The key players were not only within the then broadcasting establishment of Radio Éireann, but also included their political masters, and leaders of the religious and cultural establishment.
Early radio broadcasting in the Irish Free State provided the template not only for the character and culture of broadcasting that originated within the country but also as an indicator of the kind of political, social and religious framework within which broadcasting was to operate. Savage identifies in detail these background structures, including official government committees and the power and influence sought or exercised by those operating within them.
The debate about television grew in intensity from the early 1950s, especially concerning the possible development of such a service in the Irish Republic. This debate was not conducted in isolation about the merits or otherwise of television within the state but in the context of a population along the east coast and around Dublin that could already receive the BBC’s television service from Wales and England, and the establishment of a temporary BBC television transmitter in Northern Ireland to broadcast the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. This caused concern in some parts of the political establishment in the Irish Republic. Coupled with the emergence of independent television following the UK’s Independent Broadcasting Act of 1954, these concerns, in the context of political developments within the Dublin government about an opening up of the country to outside influences, led to further consideration of a possible Irish television service. These developments are dealt with in a very thorough and meaningful way in Savage’s work.
The debate about the form television broadcasting should take in the state is examined by reference to the various models of television organisation already existing elsewhere, including Britain’s BBC, other European broadcasting organisations, and the more overtly commercial operations elsewhere. In a similar manner, the attitude of the Catholic Church, and influential commercial and cultural organisations is discussed.
Savage provides an overview of the result of these debates when he notes that ‘in adopting a state-owned and -operated commercial public service, Ireland had retained a certain degree of dignity and independence’ and that ‘it would be difficult to define the outcome as anything less than a victory for the Irish people’. While such a conclusion is open to (informed?) debate, Savage provides an excellent vehicle for further examination of the issues. The ways in which the Irish television service has responded to the challenge presented to it, and the extent to which programming has matched expectations must he a subject for future consideration.
Robert Savage’s other book, a slimmer volume, Sean Lemass in the Historical Association of Ireland’s Life and Times series, is aimed at Leaving Cert and A-level students as well as a more general reading public. It seeks to explain what differentiates Lemass from his predecessors and helped set Ireland on a new economic, political and social course. Four aspects of his work are examined: economic policies, the attitude of the government to the Catholic Church, negotiations with the British government and relations with Northern Ireland. Evidence is provided to support the central theme that Lemass learned that compromise was an essential political attribute in each of these fields. The book argues that, following his emergence from the period of political domination by de Valera, he facilitated the great social and economic changes that were taking place in the Ireland of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In economic policy, the ambivalence of the shift in Lemass’s view from protectionist to free marketeer is discussed, including the way in which, in the 1950s, he began to address the problems that had resulted from the very protectionist policies he had earlier been instrumental in introducing. In relations with Northern Ireland economic co-operation was seen as the way forward, although with little success. Seeking to enhance relations, even small details were deemed of potential benefit, as when Lemass ordered that the Irish civil service substitute the term ‘Northern Ireland’ for the previously used ‘six counties’. Nearly forty years later such detailed considerations of the terminology used in negotiation is still crucial to success in this area.
Savage also reviews the ways in which Lemass sought to influence the British government in both economic affairs, for example through a bilateral trade agreement, and policy regarding Northern Ireland. As regards State/Catholic Church relations, according to the author, although ‘Lemass might disagree with the pronouncements or policies of the Church it did not make political sense to publicly challenge that powerful institution’.
Bill Sweeney


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