Media Ecology: Ireland, America, and RTÉ

Gay Byrne. Photo credit: Jonathan Ryan (CC BY 3.0)

In August, 2010, I moved to Ireland, to teach and research at NUI Galway as a Fulbright Scholar, for a period 2-weeks shy of a year. For many reasons too numerous to review here, it was one of the best years of my life. I’d been to Ireland before, several times, including a childhood family visit from my native Boston with my Irish-born grandparents, to see my grandparents’ Donegal and Roscommon homes, so my mother would meet her aunts and uncles, and my brother and I could meet cousins for the first time. I grew up, then, with stories about Ireland (reminiscences), stories from Ireland (relatives visited—and sometimes moved to—Boston, by the 1960s jet travel meant the grandparents could go back to visit Ireland, and international calling meant we would get current event updates from “Pound Street”). Still, I was not prepared for how pleasant it would feel to arrive in Ireland in 2010, a feeling I attribute to its media landscape (and the contrast between the Irish and the US media environments). The passing of Gay Byrne, the budget cuts at RTÉ, and sentencing of Boys A and B, all of which occurred within a few days of each other, got me thinking about what Ireland has enjoyed, and what is at stake in the current changes in its media setting.

When I came to Ireland a decade ago, people would ask me how I was adjusting to life in Éire, I would try to explain how nice it was to leave the US 24-hour “news” cycle, and the accompanying continual jangle on the nerves. It was my sense at the time that few Irish interlocutors understood what I was trying to describe. How to convey to those who have not spent some time in the US the deep psychological (and destabilizing epistemological) effects of having non-stop cable “news” and opinion networks such as CNBC, CNN, Fox Business, Fox News, MSNBC, and others being piped to one’s TV set, along with all the online means for existing outlets, and the many new online “news” ventures? Sure, in Ireland there was also SkyNews and the BBC and UTV interfering with the Radio Telefis Eireann bubble, but Irish television largely had the old-fashioned decency—or is it the audacity?—to keep the news to discrete units of time each day. Oh, sure, they didn’t also toll the Angelus at 6PM like RTÉ, but, otherwise, I had a year in which the news arrived in measured tones at certain times, and it was a marvellous experience.

When I left the US, the Tea Party wing of the Republican party was obsessed, ostensibly, with debt (rising because the safety net was absorbing the largest downturn in 90 years) and even more viscerally with the Presidency of Barack Hussein Obama. Prominent New York real estate developer and TV personality Donald J. Trump was falsely asserting that Obama had not been born in the US, a scam literally broadcast by all US media outlets. Everything about that discussion was intense and laden with the worst aspects of American history, including violence, racism, and glib, narrow readings of the War of Independence (aka the Revolutionary War). As awful as it was to say, as I did at the time in Galway, the January 2011 shooting of an elected official—a female, Democratic official, Gabby Giffords—had an air of inevitability about it, reflecting unfortunately the inner logic of the crazy pressures inside the very complicated, fretful nation from which I had arrived a few months earlier. Indeed, it is easy to forget that Gabby was the first of many people shot that day at that event. The sheer number of similar mass shootings by angry white males since then is only part of what makes it easy to forget how many people were shot on that particular day in 2011.

The situation in Ireland was inconceivably calmer by contrast, and not just because of restrictions on gun ownership or the peace made possible by the Good Friday Agreement.

At this point, I can imagine many Irish readers objecting about my apparently clueless portrayal of a calm, peaceful Emerald Isle. After all, between my arrival in August 2010 and January 2011, the Cowan government itself had basically collapsed, taking the usual post-1921 order of political parties with it, and the Troika had arrived in Dublin, effectively putting the country into receivership (while trying to determine just what precisely was the total sum owed, thanks to what seems to have been a very foolish and independently-rendered bank guarantee). All indications were that four million Irish citizens were likely on the hook for €80 billion, and that they would now have to pay for water (the very thing that surrounded them and fell on them nearly every day at no cost at all). It’s true, that last bit did upset Irish voters, and they did march en masse; one even drove a cement mixer through the Leinster House gates. But in the US, by contrast, an elected official and constituents lining up to speak to her had been shot. The remarkable congresswoman who came through that tortuous ordeal was subsequently received as something like a hero, if that’s the right word; but even then, one senses, there was little appreciation of what she had faced, or what the US had faced in her, i.e., partisan shootings of elected national figures (which would happen again when another gunman would shoot at a congressional softball match, with yet another Congressional representative surviving yet another mass shooting).

In Ireland, its government in tatters, the EU in crisis, a member of the Troika walking past someone sleeping rough in Dublin, Luke “Ming” Flanagan was elected—with a funny beard!—to the Dail, and Mick Wallace was elected—with a funny pink shirt!—but there was no pink shirt movement, no fu-manchu party. If anything, their election was a bit of a laugh, maybe not gas, but good craic nonetheless. Indeed, their election spoke—accurately—to how Ireland was different, more flexible, more accommodating. As the Spring semester 2011 wound down, the nation received Queen Elizabeth, the first time in a century that a reigning monarch had visited, and, seems to have largely enjoyed the occasion, despite anticipated anti-monarchist, republican protests. Philip’s joke (it was a joke, right?) in Cork’s English Market to the cheesemonger selling small mozzarella balls, “I see you have the white olives,” went over well. It wasn’t much afterwards that President Obama arrived to meet his 5th cousin Henry, and to sip a pint of Guinness. In Ireland, the surprise was that the visit was overshadowed by the outpouring for the Queen; in America, my friends reported, Obama’s visit to one of his ancestral homes was basically invisible, seeming to have been overshadowed by constrictive ideas about race, ideas that cannot ultimately accord with competing, declining melting-pot narratives.

Even with yet another great emigration then picking up pace (but changed—by cheap jet travel, by Skype, by FaceTime, by fortress America unwilling to accept Irish migrants, and by more), I saw in Ireland a country increasingly comfortable with painful history (represented by the Queen) and in America a country frenzied by the fear of having to confront its own painful history. There are many reasons why one country was more able to adjust than the other. Some point, for example, to Maastricht guiding Ireland forward to a more tolerant present. But for me the single most important daily factor was the media situation.

By contrast with the advertising-and-ratings-based approach in the US, Irish media were clearly a calming influence, even as they described governmental crisis, collapse, election, bailout, and emigration, etc. The very formats—6:01 and 9PM (i.e., not 24-hours a day)––were already calming. Of course, the context for Irish media is also exceedingly subtle, so moderation can convey extremes effectively. Remember the controversy that followed from Brian Cowen having a scratchy throat when he called into RTÉ Radio 1 from Co. Galway? I know of few other nations in which that admittedly sub-par performance would have constituted a leadership crisis, as it did for the Taoiseach. More importantly, at the time it was very difficult for an American politician to make news by phoning in to a radio show.

The recent passing of Gay Byrne, the budget cuts at RTÉ which followed so closely, and the sentencing of Boys A and B, brought all these experiences back to mind. In the same way that the 30 Irish centenarians in the 2015 film could claim to be Older than Ireland, Gay Byrne was older than Irish TV. RTÉ added its “T”—telefis, television—in late 1961; they added Gay Byrne on the then-new Late Late Show just a few months later, in July 1962. The Irish televisual ecology is now entering what might be just its eighth month, ever, without Gay Byrne around. Commentators have cited his time in London as informing his new approach to broadcasting, but part of his success also derives from his upbringing in and thus familiarity with the Ireland of Dev, aka Irish Catholic Ireland. Gay was born, after all, just two years after the 1932 Eucharistic Congress (and died a little more than a year after the much smaller 2018 version). He knew both the Ireland which needed to be examined, and simultaneously how to speak to it. Through his decades on RTÉ, Gay Byrne helped to transform Ireland. Of course, he was not alone in this; and Ireland was not the only country to undergo dramatic transformation since 1962. But there was still the sense that Ireland of 2010 was the country that Gay built. Here, too, Gay was not alone in this. As Ed O’Loughlin puts it in his wonderful obituary in the New York Times, Byrne was “Johnny Carson, Walter Kronkite, and Oprah Winfrey rolled into one.” But it’s been overlooked that Gay Byrne was also like an Irish-American peer, Phil Donahue, who also hosted a talk show for 29 years, and was the first in the US to involve audience participation (akin to Gay’s taking phone calls from viewers on air).

In Ireland, though, that imagined community was built on a state-sponsored broadcasting infrastructure. With RTÉ, Gay Byrne imagined (or is it that with Gay Byrne RTÉ imagined) into existence an Ireland that talked calmly to itself about sensitive topics (in an Ireland better known for “saying nothing, whatever you say”). Because sensitive portrayals of difficult topics are not easy, they are also not inexpensive, so the budget cuts at RTÉ threaten that vision of Ireland, Gay’s/RTÉ’s vision of Ireland, unfortunately. As someone who has seen every episode of Love/Hate, every episode of Red Rock, several RTÉ 1916 commemorations, Can’t Cope/Won’t Cope, Striking Out, and, all available Dermot Bannon seasons, all in the US, I am surprised to learn—indeed, I find it hard to believe—that international viewing of RTÉ productions does not offset the prospective cuts. RTÉ documentaries are harder to find on this side of the Atlantic, but also unique, and an educational resource some colleges and universities would likely want to subscribe to.

As RTÉ retreats, the Internet awaits. Boy A and to a lesser extent Boy B in the Anna Kriégel story showed us what is now available for all to see, everywhere, and, yes, quite inexpensively. During the 2010-2011 year, I attended mass with my visiting parents in Ballyshannon, and a young priest, who served Mass in Timberland-style work boots, gave a pained homily about how “it’s fine to be Catholic in Ireland, as long as it doesn’t affect what you do.” Or, in other words, he was implicitly saying, the church has no moral standing any more—not that he admitted, confessed, how the church had squandered it. The same year I was teaching at NUI Galway, I went with a group of faculty colleagues to see a then-new film, The Social Network, about the origins of Facebook. One surprising development in that narrative was the convergence of the Facebook developers and the person who had developed the by-then defunct Napster, a free music downloading program which did what looked a lot like stealing musicians’ work when it first burst on the scene. In the years since, it has become increasingly clear that the internet, too, has no moral standing—it’s just a “platform.” Gay Byrne and RTÉ had moral standing, and represented an approach to evidence now receding. The question we all face—the US ahead of Ireland (and Russia ahead of both)—is what replaces the old media approaches. And, if it’s anything like the crazy, fuzzy logic of the competing channels now, will we be able to stand it?

Lee Morrissey

Lee Morrissey, Professor and Chair of the Department of English at Clemson University, is a native of Boston, Mass. He taught English at NUI Galway in 2010–2011 as a Fulbright Scholar.