Class/Culture…Centre/Periphery June 21, 2007Posted by WorldbyStorm in Class, Culture, media.
Reading Conor’s post on Dublin Opinion about representations of the Irish working class brought back memories.
Many of them bad. Many of them centred on RTÉ.
There was Strumpet City which was okay. Then various programs such as the late and unlamented The Spike (set in a school in a working class area) which was pulled as I recall before it ended the run because of episodes which depicted amongst other things students pissing in bottles in class, a life-drawing class for adults and – gasp – the vernacular.
Didn’t much like it, even though I was in my early teens. One of the advantages of going to a primary and then community school in Kilbarrack was that one developed an ear for the plangent middle class tones of many Irish actors and consequently their mangling of working class Dublin accents. But The Spike seemed gratuitous for other reasons. The effort expended hardly worth the result.
I’ve mentioned in response to Conor’s article how I always felt there was something a tad condescending about the way in which life in ‘Barrytown’ was depicted in the Roddy Doyle books and how it was curious that a man who had been through the Democratic Socialist Party of the late Jim Kemmy (good socialist, somewhat raving two nationist), would in a sense present a deeply depoliticised account of working class life quite at odds with the experience of my daily life. By depoliticised I mean that there was no real political activity in the books. Everything from the Commitments onwards seemed to centre on the personal rather than the political. That in itself is no crime. But it seemed odd in a Kilbarrack where Labour, the Workers’ Party and the real hegemon Fianna Fáil organised strongly that this wasn’t reflected by any serious acknowledgement.
But on to the central point. What struck me reading his post, and in particular the way in which he noted that British depictions of working class life were more accurate and representative of anything found on RTÉ during that period (and perhaps even today), was that part of this was due to the commonality of language, the remarkably centrist culture in Ireland (or at least the representations of same in the media) and perhaps the actual quality of the material being produced across the Irish Sea.
But then consider depictions of Northern Irish working class life. Give My Head Peace while in parts enjoyable is hardly an outstanding example, but I’m pushed to find any other example of television that has touched on this. I’m wary of treading on this ground because – I’ll be honest – I don’t follow UTV or BBC NI sufficiently to know for sure, but in some ways the aversion to depicting the working class in the North might have similar roots to that in the South. Class was never the issue. Identity was centred upon national, political and/or (slightly more diffusely) religious affiliation in the North, centred on national identity in the South. Labour could wait, not merely politically, but culturally. Cultural production was restricted – or contained might be a better term – to a fantastically small milieu centred upon television, stage and music and within a rather constrained geographic area. And what representations of labour in cultural production were apparent were reified to an absurd degree…consider the way in which O’Casey’s plays became part of the discourse of official Ireland, their oppositional core sidelined by their status as almost untouchable artifacts of the new state.
And in part this was because Dublin, for all its pretensions was never quite the centre. Perhaps that was because it had once been part of Empire, second city, or was it third after Birmingham? But part of a pecking order whatever rank it had. Elsewhere I’ve written about how the ‘myth’ of the Irish Revolution (and I mean ‘myth’ in the sense understood by Barthes i.e. a societal discourse) was one where the Revolution failed. Consider how Leinster House is never seen as central to the ‘myth’ of Irish nationhood unlike the G.P.O. And that in itself is revealing. The Republic of Ireland was incomplete, truncated. Independence was initially circumscribed by the Treaty, later by the reality of partition.
Emigration meant that often Dublin was a way station on route to the exit. The centre, psychologically was to the East in London or far to the West in New York and Boston. And exemplifying that was a reality which saw all, bar one, of my closest school friends from Kilbarrack and Raheny leave for London between 1985 and 1988. All bar one of my close college friends leave for London and New York between 1990 and 1992. I went too.
That’s not to say that Dublin was the periphery. It wasn’t. But it was failing and failing fast. Articles in the Irish Times seriously argued that the optimum population of this island was two million. Perhaps less. Senior politicians could state, with no hint of regret, that emigration was a social good. It is truly bizarre looking back on that now.
And culturally this meant that the eyes of the bulk of the population were raised beyond Donnybrook as and when British television became available (and note that as recently as 1997 Tom Gildea was elected to the Dáil in Donegal on the ticket of ensuring continuity of supply of the British channels to that region). Cues were taken from Coronation Street and East Enders. This was true in music as well – and in some respects still is. Punk didn’t happen in Ireland, bar small outposts in Belfast. Bands didn’t come to Dublin, except when they had reached the fag-end of their careers. Cheers to the Damned in the SFX sometime in 1985.
No, to get somewhere, to hear something, to be someone, option A was to take the ferry to Holyhead and the train to London, and then disappear into the maw of the metropolis. Generally, it has to be said, disappearing to small colonies of other expatriate Irish working in the council or Underground or wherever. And living in that social context changed people remarkably. Given time paunches developed. Hair thinned and children appeared. Accents and attitudes softened. More settled than returned. And a modern Irish accent was almost always acceptable in business or at a social gathering.
Nor was ‘official’ Ireland unaware of these developments. As far back as the day that RTÉ started transmitting television Eamon de Valera opened the new station with the words:
“I am privileged in being the first to address you on our new service, Telefis Éireann. I hope the service will provide for you all the sources of recreation and pleasure but also information, instruction and knowledge. I must admit that sometimes when I think of Television and Radio and their immense power, I feel somewhat afraid. Like atomic energy, it can be used of incalculable good, but it can also do irreparable harm. never before was there in the hands of men an instrument so powerful to influence the thoughts and actions of the multitude”.
This caution, almost an aversion tells us much about the constrained cultural space within Irish society. In such a context what place for the working class or working class culture?