- Channel Paddlers:1950s Irish Drama on the British Airwaves
Critics have frequently characterized postwar Irish drama as stuck in a conservative rut, dominated by kitchen-sink dramas and peasant plays whose aesthetic rested to a large degree on claims to local authenticity. D.E.S. Maxwell, for example, describes the plays of M. J. Molloy as “circumscribed by an intense localism which he never makes more widely comprehensible” (145). Maxwell thus brands Molloy “the least exportable of modern playwrights” (145). This critique, however, fails to account for the ways in which plays such as Molloy’s were actually highly mobile, reaching listeners across the radio airwaves of the 1950s. Works by Molloy and his contemporary Padraic Fallon not only fed tastes for works with local flavor but also proved surprisingly radiogenic for a dispersed listenership. James F. English has shed light on the role of metropolitan institutions in creating a literary marketplace for works from the peripheries. Such institutions, according to English, engaged in a “conscious strategy aimed at honoring writers of world literature who could nonetheless and simultaneously be identified with local roots or sites of production, and indeed whose place within world literature was a function of their particular relationship to those local roots” (303). Focusing on the 1950s, Peter Kalliney describes how literature from Britain’s former colonies became particularly attractive in a climate of increased pessimism about the future of metropolitan culture, and he highlights the role of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in promoting this work. By broadcasting dramatic works that demonstrated “intense localism,” the BBC played a major role in changing the audience for such drama, including an abundance of works from its nearest and only partially emancipated neighbor. The prevalence of Irish plays on the BBC challenges conventional narratives about [End Page 45] the insularity of 1950s Irish drama and allows for an increasingly transnational perspective on Ireland’s “provincial” playwrights.
This essay focuses on the BBC productions of two Irish plays with emphatically local settings, themes, and dialect—an adaptation of Molloy’s stage play The Paddy Pedlar (broadcast on 13 June 1956) and Fallon’s original radio play Steeple Jerkin (broadcast on 11 June 1954). Before their BBC productions The Paddy Pedlar was first put on by the Ballina Players, an amateur regional-theater company, in 1952, and Steeple Jerkin was originally broadcast by Radio Éireann (RÉ) on 6 June 1954—just a week earlier than the British broadcast.1 While the radio productions are not available in sound recordings, archival material such as scripts, memos, correspondence, and audience feedback held in the BBC archives at Caversham brings out the multivalent nature of Anglo-Irish cultural relations at midcentury. While national broadcasting services such as the BBC and RÉ often framed their work within the bounds of national ideologies, they also allowed for the circulation of information across national borders on an unprecedented scale. Michele Hilmes describes the “inherent transnationalism of broadcasting’s cultural economy: constituted by both the demands of the nation and the equally compelling impulse to go beyond, to provide a conduit to speak to other nations, and to let other influences stream into the national space” (2). This is especially true for countries in such close proximity to—and within wireless range of—each other, as was the case for Britain and Ireland. According to Christopher Morash, radio’s transnational networks generated “new, competing senses of Irishness that were no longer bounded by the coastline of the island” (130). Morash’s description of “competing senses of Irishness” not only involves an increasingly global identity but also suggests that radio could also prompt a reconsideration of the meaning of “the local” in an electronic age. Matthew Hart describes literary culture in the 1950s as “half obsessed with folk identity, half drunk on the refined spirits of global modernity” (14–15). BBC productions in the period fit this description, pushing forward works with local flavor while also establishing a global network that would redefine the literary marketplace. [End Page 46]
The close proximity of Ireland and England meant that they shared listeners, producers, and writers, and that Irish programming came to play a significant...