Contributed by Adrian Grant
RTE’s output of historical documentaries in recent years has been the subject of some discussion. ‘The Killings at Coolacrease’ (2007) and ‘If Lynch Had Invaded’ (2009) both stimulated a lot of discussion among historians and others alike. RTE is now asking ‘who do you think is the greatest Irish person ever?’ and has provided a shortlist of forty for the public to choose from. The five figures who receive the most votes will have hour-long documentaries produced about their lives before the public is asked to make the call on who was, or is, Ireland’s Greatest. We can also look forward to the fact that these five documentaries will be fronted by a ‘well-known personality’ who will interpret and champion their chosen figure. This is a very similar format to the 2002 BBC show “Great Britons” which was highly popular and notable here for its inclusion of two Irishmen, Bono and Bob Geldof. The two lads are included on the RTE list and there is a danger that Bono might disappear up his own arse if he wins. This is unlikely though since most Irish people don’t seem to like him very much.
A quick glance at the list will anger most Irish historians and anyone with any knowledge of Irish history. They have obviously tried to include representatives from politics, the arts, business and sport but it would appear that there were hardly any great Irish people before the late nineteenth century. Wolfe Tone is the oldest on the list, followed by Daniel O’Connell, Parnell and Wilde. The vast majority are twentieth century figures or the current cream of the crop. So we have Louis Walsh and James Connolly, Michael O’Leary and John B. Keane on the same list. While this may not be a historical documentary series in the strict sense of the genre it does show how lacking RTE is in this regard. The two documentaries mentioned above were littered with errors and questionable interpretation. This shortlist omits Ireland’s real greats and includes unfathomable choices. Does this represent a serious lack of thought in RTE? Is the lack of quality endemic or have they thrown in these wildcards for entertainment value?
Hopefully this post will create a bit of discussion on the state of historical documentary making in Ireland. Is TG4 leading the field at the minute? (‘Bóthar go dtí an White House’ and ‘Soviet na hÉireann’) How about TV3 with its recent series ‘Taoiseach’? I don’t hold out much hope for ‘Ireland’s Greatest’ but maybe ‘The Limits of Liberty’ (June 2010) will give our national broadcaster some credence with a population renowned for its interest in history.
Adrian Grant is in the final year of a PhD at Magee College, University of Ulster. His thesis, which is entitled ‘Irish socialist republicanism, 1909-36’, examines the Irish Labour, republican and communist movements in the period.