- Spiked:Bodies, Power, and Broadcasting
“Inspectors don’t come to the Spike. It has too many problems.”1
“Daddy Is Away”
Since the 1990s audiences in Ireland have witnessed the walls of state and religious institutions being cracked open by notable television broadcasts. While it would be possible to point to this happening across a range of genres, it is news and current-affairs programs, documentaries, and docudramas that have been most prominent in applying pressure on preexisting narratives of official Ireland. In particular, by documenting previously untold histories and a national dependency upon institutions, broadcasting has contributed to the unpicking of any sustainable narrative of an idealized Ireland. Most notable among these broadcast programs have been Tuesday File, Dear Daughter, States of Fear, and Behind the Walls.2 With each broadcast a long history of abuse executed by both church and state was exposed. By illuminating a labyrinth of unrecognized histories, these broadcasts also demonstrated the complex links between abusive power, institutional containment, and the body that developed in twentieth-century Ireland. In documentaries such as these, Irish society was afforded glimpses into institutions ranging from borstals to asylums in which physical and psychological mechanisms of exclusion occluded the unfavored, undesired, and outwardly unwanted [End Page 137] from public sight.3 By at least conferring a level of visibility, broadcasting can be understood as having the potential to counter this exclusionary tendency. Operating within a changing mediascape, RTÉ television broadcasting brought audiences beyond the barricades of official Ireland to confront what was considered the unthinkable and to see those previously unperceived or seen as untouchable.
However, this kind of transformative television was not confined to factual programming. Even prior to the emergence and recognition of reports of abuse in documentaries and government reports, television drama was sending smoke signals suggesting that codes of silence and invisibility encasing some Irish institutions were shielding society from its own harmful underbelly. The Spike was one such drama. Broadcast in early 1978 and set in the 1970s, The Spike, written by Patrick Gilligan and produced by Noel O Briain and Brian MacLochlainn, generated considerable reaction. Indeed, the drama and the controversy it provoked have been found by Eddie Brennan to have passed into RTÉ organizational memory as “infamous.”4 Set in a fictional secondary school, St. Aidan’s (known locally as “the Spike”), in a socially and economically deprived area, the series examined issues of class, disadvantage, and a seething alienation from authority among a growing underclass in Irish society. While seven episodes were made, only five were broadcast before The Spike was withdrawn from RTÉ’s list of programming, and the final two episodes—“Requiem for a Head” and “It’s None of Your Business, O’Mahony”—were never aired. In the heated controversy that followed, RTÉ’s controller of programming Muiris Mac Conghail was removed from his post. The ostensible reason for this outcry was a nude scene involving a character, Norah (played by Madeline Erskine), in a life-drawing scene in an art class in the fifth episode, entitled “Night Class.”5 This scene gave a focus to the sense of moral [End Page 138] panic that surrounded the series in commentary in the print media and led one letter writer to the Irish Times to describe The Spike as having “rocked the nation.”6
However, a closer analysis suggests that there was more to the scandal of The Spike than this one scene. To begin with, as a representation of the Irish educational system, the series was bound to spark controversy. The Spike is chaotic. Poorly managed by acting principal Mr. O’Mahony (played by Geoffrey Golden), the school reverberates with threat even though there is clearly a greater emphasis on maintaining order than on education. Students are regarded with cynical neglect by a number of teachers; in one episode a group of instructors returns from lunch drunk and has to be urged to teach by school management. Power at the Spike operates through a hierarchy of patriarchal structures that are self-perpetuating and ineffective in equal measure. In a moment that can in some sense stand in for an analysis underlying...