- Televising Ireland:Emigration and Remediation in the 1980s*
There are millions in Britain who are Irish. I decided to cater for them. … C4 [Channel 4] did its best to put across to British viewers something of the feel of the politics of Ireland.1
The 1980s were pivotal years for Anglo-Irish relations and for the development of television. It was a decade that witnessed the recurrence of emigration to the United States and Britain. Anglo-Irish diplomatic relations improved in response to the electoral gains of Sinn Féin in the aftermath of the Northern Ireland hunger strikes, and in 1985 the Hillsborough Agreement was brokered between Dublin and London, much to the chagrin of all shades of Ulster unionism. These same years also saw the birth of an innovative broadcasting venture in the form of Channel 4 Television, launched in November 1982, which was charged (among other things) with addressing what was perceived as a new multicultural British audience—including the significant Irish population among its members.
One way to approach the role of Channel 4 in relation to Ireland and the Irish in Britain is through a critical exhumation of the composite episodes of one television series, Irish Angle, broadcast on Channel 4 between 1982 and 1987, albeit within the context of alternative voices in the form of film and video (if not broadcasting as such) from the Activision Irish Project, and addresses to an Irish audience in Britain available elsewhere in Channel 4’s schedule. This [End Page 156] approach will give us a sense of the ways in which this new television initiative captured high political activity, the ongoing war with the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, and the crippling problems associated with emigration, such as unemployment, social deprivation, and crime.
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A number of overarching questions and themes are developed by this study. Firstly, the emigration of the 1980s reveals some of the shortcomings of relying on a simplified modernization thesis to explain contemporary Irish cultural history. Secondly, the use of a moving-image archive itself raises questions of cultural historiography: What representational significance did these programs and films have then, and how do we evaluate them a generation later? Irish Angle in particular, based as it was almost wholly on rebroadcasting already existing television material from RTÉ in Dublin and UTV in Belfast, exposes the limitations of well-meaning executives in London. The economic price of such remediation may have been cheap, as will be [End Page 157] seen, but it could equally be argued that the cultural cost to the intended audience of this series is largely incalculable. Though it was launched as a strand to cater for Britain’s multicultural audiences, there is little evidence that Channel 4 had a fully developed idea of the actual audience that it wanted to address. A generation later, the emergence, definition, and strategic use of multiculturalism remains a current (as well as historical) moot point, particularly as social research within the Irish community and an emerging academic literature show an increasing complexity to Irish demographics in Britain in the 1980s.2 In those years an aging population of emigrants from the immediate postwar period was overlaid with several new waves of younger emigrants from both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, including those from traditional lower-economic backgrounds, but also increasingly including graduates and new professionals.3 The intimacy of Ireland and Britain often meant that at the time such nuances did not seem to feature within the mindset of commissioning editors and well-meaning executives like Channel 4’s Jeremy Isaacs, even if other broadcast media of the period were indeed registering such subtleties.
The idea of transferring television programs across the Irish Sea was not a novel one when conceived by Jeremy Isaacs and his colleague John Ranelagh in 1981. A decade earlier, the Irish minister for posts and telegraphs Conor Cruise O’Brien advocated the sharing of television programs. Amid hotly debated arguments for a second national channel for RTÉ, O’Brien proposed that the bulk of its programming could be...