The death of writer, journalist and historian Robert Kee who died on Friday January 11th aged 93 is an opportune moment to look back not just at the television series he presented on Irish history, but on other similar series. First I acknowledge the assistance of a very useful article by Cathal Brennan in The Irish Story about how important events in Irish history such as the Easter Rising in 1916 have been covered by Irish television, starting in the 1960s when Telefís Éireann had opened.
“1965 saw Telefís Éireann attempt their first history series entitled The Irish Battles. 1966 began with a new television series called The Course of Irish History edited by F.X. Martin and T.W. Moody. The series dealt with Irish history from prehistoric times up to the present and finished with a debate between the contributors involved” (Brennan).
F.X.Martin was an Augustinian priest who was Professor of Medieval History at UCD from 1962 to 1988. I remember seeing him occasionally in the corridors when I was a student at Earlsfort Terrace and Belfield. He was deeply involved in the campaign to preserve the Viking site at Wood Quay in Dublin. More details about him can be found in Charles Lysaght’s “Great Irish Lives: An Era in Obituaries” p.260. Certainly I remember the impact that the black-and-white televised series had. I only moved back to Dublin in 1967, with little or no knowledge of Irish history at the time, so I found the Martin/Moody book a very useful educational aid. T.W.Moody was a Quaker and was Professor of Modern History at Trinity College.
The eruption of the troubles in the North in 1969 and the introduction of censorship through Section 31 legislation meant a lack of any further series on history on RTÉ until the 1980s. However in 1969/70 I remember attending an hour-long programme about Northern Ireland recorded at the RTÉ studios at Donnybrook and presented by the late Liam Hourican, who was then Northern Editor for RTÉ News, based at Fanum House in Belfast.
Robert Kee’s thirteen-part series on Ireland: A Television History was broadcast in 1980/81 on RTÉ and BBC. It charted the history of the island from the time of Brian Boru up to the struggle for independence. It won a Jacob’s award for Kee, as the BBC obituary noted. Ruth Dudley Edwards has written an obituary for the Sunday Independent which sums up his achievements during a long and successful career.
In 1981 Thames Television produced a six-part documentary series The Troubles, which was shown on UTV. In more recent times there have been programmes on RTÉ such as Hidden History (2007) and in 2011 a five-part series presented by my former colleague in RTÉ News Belfast, Fergal Keane, entitled The Story of Ireland and broadcast on RTÉ and BBC. For those interested in pursuing the subject further, I notice that UCD is running an adult education course starting later this month on “Television and Irish History“. The tutor is David Ryan. I wonder what the tv historians will make of the current flags protest in Belfast and other parts of the North. Will the restriction placed on the flying of the union flag at Belfast City Hall in December become one of the most significant dates in Northern Ireland history since the signing of the Good Friday agreement?