Ireland’s Greatest?

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.

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7 Responses to “Ireland’s Greatest?”

  1. Fintan Hoey Says:

    I took a look at the shortlist and am underwhelmed. Stephen Gately? Colin Farrell? Really? In what universe could they be shortlisted for ‘Ireland’s Greatest’?

    Does anyone else think they could have found more than three women?

    We have John Hume but not Ian Paisley. Whatever one might think of his politics (and indeed how he might feel to be among Ireland’s greatest) in terms of impact and longevity you can’t ignore effect of Paisley’s political career on the whole island.

  2. Eoin Purcell Says:

    It’s an odd list alright and comes from, or so it seems to me, clashing priorities.

    1) The need to generate publicity and attention for something, thus the strange list and
    2) A need to provide programming that fulfils their brief but that ultimately only a small segment of their audience will really watch and enjoy (history having a turn off switch for the majority of viewers).

    In a sense TG4 is freed by its small audience to experiment more with interesting topics and TV3 by dint of its independence can try something with a controversial edge (which they did and largely succeeded with Taoiseach) to keep an audience. The problem for RTE is falling between the two stools as it were, neither totally commercial nor minority interest satisfying.

    Still, for what it’s worth, I think that trying this is worth something. Even if the list is personally very unsatisfactory.

  3. dfallon Says:

    What I find most tragic about the list is the absence of some key female personalities. Personally, I’d love to see Hanna Sheehy Skeffington there for example.

    I do think it’s very positive progressive figures like Wolfe Tone and James Connolly have been shortlisted, but then again I do hope it is the last time I see either name alongside Colin Farrell. That would be a film I’d avoid 😉

  4. Roisin Says:

    Lets face it, Gately’s only there because he’s recently dead. Same for Joe. But that doesn’t explain the presence of Louis Walsh and Ronan Keating. Why not throw in Westlife while we’re at it? And since when is Colin Farrel a greater Irish actor than Ollie Reed, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole OR Kenneth Branagh? Aside from the most major error which was including BONO, the most hated Irish man of all time, the list has other major flaws- where’s James Joyce, CS Lewis, Ernest Shackleton, Francis Bacon, Bram Stoker, George Berkley (in my opinion the greatest philosopher ever and one time bishop of our own wee diocese Adrian G!), Arthur Guinness, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Becket…? Hell, where’s Saint Patrick? I know he was Welsh or Breton or whatever, but I think we can claim him at this stage!

    From where I stand this list is nothing but a pandering exercise to a nation of people who care more about celebrity than culture and who’s only interest in history stems from the conditioned nationalism instilled in them since birth. Shame on you RTE.

  5. Adrian Grant Says:

    I think Eoin hit the nail on the head here. They had to include some of these unmentionables to create a bit of a stir. People will tune in to see how high up the list someone like Ronan Keating will place. I think they could have had a longer list though. Why only 40?

    Yes, there could have been more women from history included. A striking omission was Constance Markievicz. One of the first women elected to any parliament in the world and the first female cabinet minister in history. A leader in 1916, founder member of Fianna Fail, feminist, socialist….Surely this is enough to get on the list. There are so many omissions that we could on and on.

    The idea for the Limits of Liberty programme seems like an excellent one at this time. Im looking forward to seeing it. At a time when people are seriously questioning how our country has operated looking critically at our history is necessary and very welcome. I just hope we don’t see another one-sided hatchet job.

  6. Mick Herbert Says:

    Never mind the greatest people: look at some of the shit that made the greatest books of the decade list.

    The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor
    Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor
    Winterwood by Patrick McCabe
    Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle
    The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
    Tenderwire by Claire Kilroy
    The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
    Heart and Soul by Maeve Binchy
    Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
    Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden
    Stepping Stones by Dennis O’Driscoll and Seamus Heaney
    Let The Great World Spin by Colm McCann
    The Builders by Frank McDonald and Kathy Sheridan
    This Charming Man by Marian Keyes
    The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton
    The New Policeman by Kate Thompson
    Memoir by John McGahern
    A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry
    The Pope’s Children by David McWilliams
    Back From The Brink by Paul McGrath
    The Gathering by Anne Enright
    Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan
    Should Have Got Off at Sydney Parade by Ross O’Carroll Kelly
    The Truth Commissioner by David Parks
    The Parish by Alice Taylor
    Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd
    Lessons in Heartbreak by Cathy Kelly
    Forgive and Forget by Patricia Scanlan
    The Lovers by John Connolly
    It’s a Long Way from Penny Apples by Bill Cullen
    The Stolen Village by Des Ekin
    Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
    Yours, Faithfully by Sheila O’Flanagan
    The Sea by John Banville
    With My Lazy Eye by Julia Kelly
    Connemara: Listening to the Wind by Tim Robinson
    In the Woods by Tana French
    Tatty by Christine Dwyer Hickey
    A Secret History of the IRA by Ed Moloney
    The Master by Colm Tóibín
    There Are Little Kingdoms by Kevin Barry
    In the Forest by Edna O’Brien
    Keane by Roy Keane
    Havoc in Its Third Year by Ronan Bennett
    Judging Dev by Diarmaid Ferriter
    Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
    That They May Face The Rising Sun by John McGahern
    PS I Love You by Cecelia Ahern
    Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy
    Foolish Mortals by Jennifer Johnston

  7. History, Celebrity, and the Problem of Greatness « History Compass Exchanges Says:

    […] history blogger, at Pue’s Occurences, has viewed the outcome to date of Ireland’s Greatest as placing yet further question marks over […]

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