Delayed Transmission

Historian Savage says a decade-long political struggle kept television out of Ireland until 1961

By Michael Seele
Chronicle Editor

Americans may find it hard to conceive of a Western country that did not have television before 1961, but a decade-long political struggle kept TV out of Ireland until the last day of that year, according to a new book by Asst. Prof. Robert Savage Jr. (History).

In his new book, Irish Television: The Political and Social Origins , Savage traces the bureaucratic infighting between Ireland's Department of Finance and the Department of Posts and Telegraphs that delayed Ireland's first television broadcast for years. The battle, Savage said, was not fully resolved until October of last year.

"The debate began in the early 1950s, when Leon O'Brion, secretary of Posts and Telegraphs, started asking the government to think about what lay ahead in terms of television," said Savage, who used newly released Irish government archival records in his research. He began to see the need for an Irish television service that would be available to the whole country and play a part in preserving the island's culture.

O'Brion was opposed by the Department of Finance, which was dealing with Ireland's severe economic problems and viewed television as a "luxury service that would be available only to the wealthy," Savage said. The department even turned down a 180-pound Posts and Telegraphs request for its first television set and aerial.

Asst. Prof. Robert Savage Jr. (History)--"What emerged was a public service with a commercial component. It depends on ads, but the state owns it. It broadcasts programs it buys from the American and British markets, but also has home-grown material." (Photo by Gary Gilbert)

But O'Brion was relentless. He proposed a state-run service modeled after the BBC, which, at the time, was the only television available in Ireland and its reception was limited to the northern border counties and the east coast.

As the debate developed, entrepreneurs from America and Europe began pitching proposals for commercial stations that would not drain the meager resources of the Irish treasury. But, said Savage, they were opposed by political lobbies that saw danger in commercial television.

Chief among them was an Irish-language lobby that feared the native tongue would become extinct if the island were bombarded with commercial broadcasts, which, by definition, would need to be English-language only. Others pointed to the BBC's installation of a Belfast transmitter for the broadcast of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation as example of the "cultural imperialism" foreigners, particularly the British, would impose.

"They worried that commercial stations would offer only the most crude Anglo-American programming and would destroy the fragile native culture that needed to be nurtured," Savage said. O'Brion shared their concerns.

"O'Brion was a wily civil servant who understood early on that the structure of the service would define what would be broadcast," Savage said.

The debate had become highly controversial by 1958, when Sean Lemass became prime minister. Lemass was less concerned with balancing the budget, as his predecessors had been, than with Ireland's long-term economic development, Savage said. The introduction of television was part of his plan.

Lemass publicly endorsed the concept of a commercial service, but O'Brion was able to partially sway the prime minister in a last-ditch appeal before the service's inaugural broadcast on New Year's Eve, 1961.

"What emerged was a public service with a commercial component," Savage said. "It depends on ads, but the state owns it. It broadcasts programs it buys from the American and British markets, but also has home-grown material." Irish-language programs - although minimal - co-existed with "Leave it to Beaver."

The introduction of television, Savage said, was a critical moment in Ireland's transformation of the late '50s and early '60s. The economy grew, emigration ground to a halt and, for the first time since the republic's founding, the population began to grow. "Television became an agent of social change and a window on the world for the Irish people," Savage said.

But the struggle did not end in 1961, according to Savage. For decades afterward, Irish-language activists objected to the lip service they were being paid as English dominated the airwaves. Not until Halloween of 1996 did the service open a small Irish-language station.

Though the long struggle to establish Irish television may finally be over, Savage said, the industry faces looming challenges to its survival from the cable and satellite industries. "The whole debate on the future of TV in Ireland is very current," Savage said.

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