- Should de Valera Have Been Afraid?Broadcasting in Ireland*
On New Year’s Eve 1961 an aging Eamon de Valera squinted out of television screens in the very first Irish television broadcast and confessed to the nation, “I must admit that sometimes when I think of television and radio, and their immense power, I feel somewhat afraid.” De Valera went on to claim that “never before was there in the hand of man an instrument so powerful to influence the thoughts and actions of the multitude. A persistent policy pursued over radio and television, in addition to imparting knowledge, can build up the character of a whole people, inducing sturdiness and vigour and confidence. On the other hand, it can lead through demoralisation to decadence and dissolution.”1 It is tempting to imagine that moment in 1961—with its suggestive symbolism of the new year—as the moment at which the Ireland of “comely maidens dancing at the crossroads,” evoked in de Valera’s famous 1947 St. Patrick’s Day speech, first stepped (or strayed, depending on your perspective) onto the path that leads to the intensely globalized, media-saturated Ireland of the twenty-first century. Indeed, there is a certain validity to that narrative. It is true that many of the policies of the Irish state after 1922 were grounded in the ideal of a small, self-contained communitarian culture. Many of the key pieces of cultural legislation in the state’s first decade—from the Censorship of Films Act (1923) to the notorious Censorship of Publications Act (1929)—were aimed at excluding or containing the forces that de Valera would characterize as “demoralisation, decadence, and dissolution” more than thirty years later.
And yet there is a counterargument to be made that from the very outset the Irish state was being transformed by broadcasting. If we [End Page 7] take the censorship acts of 1923 and 1929 as two landmarks of autarkic cultural policy, it is worth remembering that in the midpoint of those two years—1926—Radio Éireann began broadcasting. While there is a sense in which the establishment of a state broadcaster could be seen as yet another strategy of containment, once the genie was out of the wireless bottle, there was no putting it back. “I doubt if there will be any village in Ireland [or] any valley, however remote amid the hills, where it will not be possible for the country folk to be not only within hearing distance of Dublin, but also London, Paris, Berlin, and even the United States,” wrote the poet George Russell with a sense of wonder in 1925. “Imagination fails in trying to realise the complexities, the myriad changes in the mentality of the country folk which may come within a generation.”2 Fifteen years later, Sean O’Faolain summed up the situation with characteristic acuity: “A natural urge to keep out the alien supported the censorship,” he wrote in The Bell in 1941, “World radio replies night after night.”3 It is important to recognize that what is often taken as the defining statement of an insular, communal Ireland of “fields and villages … whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age”—de Valera’s 1947 St. Patrick’s Day speech, “The Undeserted Village”—was itself a radio broadcast.4
Was de Valera right in foreseeing that broadcasting would bring an end to an Ireland whose values were traditional and collective? Or was the village in fact already deserted by New Year’s Eve 1961, its denizens dispersed to their respective sitting rooms watching reruns of Bonanza? The answer to both questions, paradoxically, could be “yes.” It is possible to see the impact of broadcasting on Irish society over the past century in terms of a series of moments—partly legislative, partly technological—in which invisible waves of radio and television lit up rooms darkened by the closed blinds of Hibernicization. The earliest BBC broadcasts in 1922, the mushrooming of [End Page 8] radio globally, and the founding of Radio Éireann in the 1920s are collectively one such moment. The repetition of this pattern...