The queen was in the parlour . . .

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2011), Volume 19

A coronation party on Brithweunydd, Trealaw, in the Rhondda Valley, Wales. In contrast, the London Times reported that coronation day was informally celebrated with ‘covert enthusiasm’ in Dublin. (Rhondda Valley Images)

A coronation party on Brithweunydd, Trealaw, in the Rhondda Valley, Wales. In contrast, the London Times reported that coronation day was informally celebrated with ‘covert enthusiasm’ in Dublin. (Rhondda Valley Images)

Before 1951 only a few people in Ireland owned a TV set. There was no Irish television service and little prospect of one. Some owners were householders with the money to spend and a taste for the latest novelty. There were also some radio and electronics experimenters who built receivers from kits with military surplus radar tubes. Mr Joseph Dollard of Wicklow was reported as experimenting with long-distance television reception and designing special aerials as early as 1946. Other pioneer experimenters were Bill Stapleton of Dublin and David Nolan of New Ross, who founded the Irish Television Society. TV set owners in Ireland had to cope with ‘fringe’ TV reception. The nearest TV transmitters were hundreds of miles away in London and Birmingham.

Expansion of the BBC’s transmission network

The BBC television network expanded northwards from London between 1946 and 1952, first to the midlands and the north of England, and then to Scotland. There was a corresponding small and steady increase of TV set purchase both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. This trend persisted despite repeated ministerial and wireless trade announcements in the Republic that television was ‘a long way off’ and the lack of any direct promotion of TV by the wireless trade. By the end of 1951 the powerful Holme Moss TV transmitter in the Pennines had made it possible to get ‘fringe’ television reception in Ireland along the east coast. But the Holme Moss mast was over 160 miles from the Irish coast—nearly three times the distance for optimum reception. In 1953, following the announcement that the coronation of Queen Elizabeth would be televised, the BBC accelerated their plans to cater for areas of the United Kingdom that still had no TV coverage, including Northern Ireland. Time was too short to build a main transmitter; instead, signals from Scotland were picked up ‘off-air’ and relayed in Northern Ireland. By April 1953, with two months to go to the coronation, a temporary small relay transmitter at Glencairn near Belfast was brought into service for technical tests. One Dublin wireless dealer, anticipating an upsurge in enquiries about sets, sent an engineer with a mobile television receiver and a large telescopic aerial to tour the northern counties of the Republic. The Irish Times reported that ‘some may have picked up a signal as well as householders in Wimbledon, but for very many it has been a case of pretending to enjoy a screen of capering wavy lines’. In general, those living in higher locations received the most reliable pictures.

'Television atlas’ showing the range of the BBC’s various transmitters in 1953. Note the distance from Holme Moss to the Irish coast.

‘Television atlas’ showing the range of the BBC’s various transmitters in 1953. Note the distance from Holme Moss to the Irish coast.

‘Covert enthusiasm’ in Dublin

As the coronation date (2 June) approached, notices about TV began to appear in the small ads columns of Dublin newspapers. Boarding houses and hotels north of the Border promised customers that they could ‘watch the coronation in comfort’. Several Dublin pubs installed TV for the occasion. For instance, the owner of the Sandyford House pub had so many requests to see the TV broadcast of the coronation that he decided to erect the receiver in the garden ‘so that as many people as possible may see it’. A classified ad offered a ‘special arrangement to enable a limited number of persons to view the coronation television programme under ideal conditions in the Dublin Mountains’. The cost was three guineas. Coronation day passed without official recognition by the Irish government. Dublin newspapers concentrated on the breaking story of the conquest of Mount Everest. The inclusion of the words ‘Northern Ireland’ in the queen’s title caused difficulty for both government and opposition; invitations to the British ambassador’s garden party were declined. The following day the London Times reported that coronation day was informally celebrated with ‘covert enthusiasm’ in Dublin. Many stayed home to listen to the blanket radio coverage, and some business houses arranged for their staff to listen to the radio broadcast of the service from Westminster Abbey.

Treasonable aerial removed

In Middle Abbey Street a Union Jack was burned at a Sinn Féin meeting. A small group from the Anti-Partition League picketed the British Embassy in Merrion Square. One placard read ‘British Queen in potato drill all right; British Queen in Six Counties all wrong’. Outside Dublin one amusing battle with officialdom involved a TV aerial. At the end of May 1953 Mr P.V. Egan of Clonminch, Tullamore, had applied to his local council for permission to place a TV aerial ‘for a few days’ on a high water tower near to his house. Permission was granted, but, he later recounted to the Irish Times, ‘on the day before the coronation the ultimatum was issued from County Buildings to have the treasonable aerial removed from the people’s property “forthwith”’. In general TV viewers had a poor day, although the Irish Times assured readers that ‘. . . on the screen in Sandyford at the foot of the Dublin Mountains the precise moment of the crowning was seen clearly’. Probably the most dramatic ‘viewer response’ to the coronation TV broadcast happened in the public house of Hugo Dolan, 98 Marlborough Street, where a customer smashed the television with a hatchet. The following day a man was charged in the Dublin district court with causing malicious damage exceeding £50 to a television set. Although TV reception in Dublin had been disappointing, both the Department of Posts and Telegraphs and the wireless trade reacted to the growing interest in TV before and after the coronation. In August 1953, engineers from the Posts and Telegraphs surveyed 60 houses between Delgany and Howth to check TV signal strength and interview set owners. Their report showed viewer satisfaction and remarkable tolerance of the poor signals. Pictures at the Summit Inn on the Hill of Howth were described as ‘perfect’. Despite the interest in the coronation broadcast in the Republic, many television dealers were still hesitant to promote the sets. In October 1953 Erskine Childers, Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, reassured the dealers at their AGM that no definite decision had yet been made by the government about television. The decision was a long time coming. The BBC upgraded their Belfast transmitter in June 1955; the signals were fairly good over a large area of the Republic. The following November BBC presented an ‘Irish Week’ of programmes, including an interview with Lord Brookeborough, a visit to Dublin to televise a boxing international at the National Stadium [which was shared with Eurovision] and a live concert from the Theatre Royal, Dublin. Following the programmes, substantial debate began between trade, state and cultural interests on how to develop a national television service south of the border. HI Brian Lynch is a retired RTÉ archivist who has published widely on the history of broadcasting.

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