“There was no sex in Ireland before television.”
—Irish MP Oliver J. Flanagan, in the early 1960s
The Globe and Mail’s celebrated critic John Doyle was born in the small Irish town of Nenagh in 1957; his father purchased the family’s first television set in 1962. By day, John was schooled by the Christian brothers in the valour of Irish rebel heroes and the saintliness of Catholic martyrs. But in the evenings, television conveyed more subversive messages: American westerns suggested to a bookish young John a model of manhood that had nothing to do with the rigid boundaries of small-town Ireland; and The Late Late Show, Ireland’s homegrown talk-show-cum-variety-program, brought sex into Irish living rooms, eliciting howls of protest from priests and conservative politicians.
As the 1960s and 70s wore on, television introduced the dreams and the actions of the American civil rights movement to Ireland. When the Catholics of Ulster adopted the practices of marching and peaceful protest, television transmitted their clashes with the police, and later with the British army, directly into the Doyles’ home — and broadcast them far beyond as well. It pointed John in the direction of a wider world, inspiring his hopes for the future just as it yanked Ireland out of its past.
Funny, insightful, and always engaging, this illuminating story of a boy and a country transformed by television is indeed a “great feast of light.”
Unknown to me, on that night there were other forces, unseen, in the air. The Irish Television Authority was already at work, silently sending out signals from a transmitter at Kipurre in the Dublin Mountains. Throughout the country, pioneers and eccentrics were attaching aerials to their roofs and chimneys. In shops where televisions were ready for purchase, a set was occasionally, optimistically turned on to see if there was a signal.
Later that mild summer of 1961, an electrical engineer in Limerick, fifteen miles from my backyard, adjusted his aerial, descended from the roof and turned on the set. A test pattern card was crisply visible, but that wasn’t all — a fly was buzzing around the test card, agitatedly moving this way and that. The engineer sat transfixed. He was watching the first live action broadcast on Irish television. It was reported in the Limerick Leader newspaper the next day.
The twentieth century had come late and in a hurry to Ireland. The Church, the rich, and the old ruled. There was no divorce, no contraception and books and movies were routinely banned. New ideas and ways of living had no route into Ireland, until television came. And when it came, its signal fell everywhere, and even the most insular town of Nenagh would be awakened into joy, fear and confusion.
—Excerpt from A Great Feast of Light
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
A Flickering Signal
On a blossom-bright May morning in 1961, my father took me to school. It was my first day at school and although it was just an experiment to get me registered, sitting at a desk and familiar with the idea of school, it almost unhinged me. I remember tears and laughter. My father, who sold insurance policies and collected premiums, had an inspector working with him that day. The two of them took me into the schoolhouse and they followed as a teacher took me to a desk. Grasping the situation, I looked up at the rafters and howled. Hot tears flooded down my cheeks, but nobody stepped up to wipe them away and murmur something soothing to me. I looked over at my father and the inspector. Dad was frowning, as if he wanted to help me but couldn’t. The inspector was laughing at my rage. After a pause, I stared up at the rafters of the schoolroom again, saw only pitch-black darkness high up in the criss-cross wooden beams, and howled once more.
Whatever else happened that morning is gone from my memory now. But this much I know–at lunchtime I legged it home. Out the schoolyard gate I raced, turned right and ran. Down Church Road, past the girl’s convent school, the high-pitched roar of playing girls ringing in my ears, then with a faster sprint past the arched entrance to the old jailhouse where everybody knew the Cormack boys had been hanged in 1848 for a crime they didn’t commit and their ghosts still haunted the old archway to mock the judges and lawyers who came and went, and turning right again but picking up a stick to clatter along the iron railings of the court house clang-bang-clang-bang to keep all ghosts away, running and panting for the sight of home. I raced across Wolfe Tone Terrace past the new houses with the doors newly painted in bright baby blue and yellow, catching the sun, with the scent of new-mown grass following me faintly from the court house grounds as I ran and ran and ran, heart pounding, looking for the gap in the stone wall that would lead me through long furrows of potato plants and beets to my own back yard.
I found the gap, climbed the big stones, stomped on small nettles growing there and raced in a straight line through the furrows to the gate of our yard. I wanted to call out, “Mam, Mam, I came home!” but I was breathless and stood there, panting. My mother was hanging out the washing on the clothesline and it took a minute before she noticed me.
“In the name of God, John Doyle, what are you doing here?”
“I came home.”
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, did you run across the whole town of Nenagh and tell no one where you were going?”
Mam sighed, took me inside, sat me in a sugawn chair – an ancient country thing made of battered old wood and hay ropes – and told me to keep an eye on my sister, Máire, who was sleeping in her cot. Mam went down the street to ask Mrs. Moylan, who was going over to the school to fetch her son Michael, to tell the teachers that I was safe and sound in my own kitchen.
Later, Mam stood me on a barrel in the back yard, and I helped her take down the washing. I was happy in the yard, a boy safe inside walls on a street inside an old walled town. From inside the walls of my back yard, and standing on the barrel, I could see the church spire asserting itself high into the sky while the tower of Nenagh Castle stood there beside it, solid as the past in which it had been built. Looking south toward Limerick, all anyone saw, always, were banks of grey clouds stacked on the horizon, usually obscuring parts of the soft-rolling hills of Slievnamon. It was a vista of greys, soft greens and subdued browns, a dull haze of colours from the clouds, the mist, the bracken and the brambles that seemed to cover the hills.
In the countryside around Nenagh, the people called the town “Nayna,” not the proper pronunciation, “Neena,” which was used in town. They said “Nayna” with a shrug and a ghost of an exclamation point beside it. They were amused by Nenagh, its old, insular ways, and they thought it was a peculiar place compared with the countryside.
I’d heard Mrs. Moylan say “God made Nenagh.” And I thought that was true then. I was getting on for nearly four years old and Nenagh was my world. First there was the walled-in world of our back yard and then the walled-in town of the winding streets, the castle, the church, and now the school. All of it was small, by any standard, but I was small too, and safe in its snug embrace. The streets and lanes were as familiar to me as my own knees and elbows. People would say “God is good” all the time, even if it was only because the weather changed and it stopped raining when mammies were going to hang out the washing on the line to dry. God made things nice and he’d made Nenagh nice.
All that afternoon, I played and hung around Mam in the kitchen. I practised lifting a ball with a small hurling stick and hitting it against one of the walls in the back yard. I raced up and down the furrows of potato plants, beets and cabbages, sometimes pretending I was being chased and diving down to hide. There was no fear of that. I could see my back yard from everywhere. If I wanted to see Sarsfield Street outside, I snuck down the alley and peered around the corner. Nenagh was all walls and alleys, a bound-in town and safe for a small boy who stayed inside his boundaries.
There would be nothing to surprise me on Sarsfield Street, anyway. If it was the first Monday of the month, it was Fair Day, when the farmers brought in their cattle and lined them along the street to buy and sell. If it was the last Friday of the month, it was the pig farmers’ Fair Day, and the street would be full of pigs, the air smelling heavily of dung until the county council men came and swept and washed it all away. On any day, Monday to Saturday, Willie Heaney, the writer for the Nenagh Guardian newspaper, would be cycling endlessly around the town, talking to people, taking notes about their doings. Around five o’clock on any day except Sunday, the men who worked at Mrs. Burns’s coal yard across the street would be walking home, their hands and faces blackened by the coal they’d hauled all day. Near six o’clock, the men who worked at the sugar beet factory would be cycling home in twos and threes, and if it was raining and they had no hat, they’d wear part of the heavy paper sugar bags on their head, cut like an army cap, to keep their heads dry.
From the Hardcover edition.
John Doyle, one of Canada’s most popular newspaper columnists, was born in Nenagh, County Tipperary, in 1957. He attended University College, Dublin and escaped to Canada in 1980. He has been a critic for The Globe and Mail since 1997 and has written the Globe’s daily television column since 2000. His writing has appeared in Report On Business magazine, Elle Canada, Books In Canada, The Irish Times, and the Toronto Star, among others. John Doyle lives in Toronto.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
A Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year
“Doyle traces in an idiosyncratic, but always convincing way, the effect that television had on liberating Ireland from the iron grip of the Catholic church. Once Donna Reed was happy, despite never saying the rosary or going to confession, the social landscape changed. Once civil rights and women's rights marched through the living rooms of Ireland the political landscape was forever altered. A Great Feast of Light is the perfect portrayal of the 'global village' and its consequences.”
– Catherine Gildiner, author of Closer to the Falls
“A liltingly written, passionately engaged piece of work that braids three distinct approaches into a tight, furious whole... Doyle's book has the great virtue of being both particular and personal in its details, and broad in its imaginative and nostalgic appeal.”
– Joan Barfoot, author of Luck
“For all its sharp insights into recent Irish history, A Great Feast of Light is as much post-McLuhan fable as Irish memoir, a gifted writer's story – funny, original, compelling – of his coming of age in one small outpost of the Global Village.”
– The Globe and Mail
"A delightful memoir about growing up in Ireland. It’s also a perceptive sociological sketch of how television exposed insular Irish culture to the glamour of the outside world. . . . As a social study or personal reflection, A Great Feast of Light is a provocative and highly entertaining read.”
—The Hamilton Spectator
"It is a delightful and original ramble; laconic, rueful and richly evocative of a time and place long gone and hardly lamented."
– The London Free Press
"When you're small and in a small town people think you're blank, hardly there at all. Doyle keeps the breathless reader close and whispers ample rare sightings as if to... birdwatchers....ghost hunters. The result is a whispering Ireland where enlightenment's a bird and insularity's a ghost and even a boy knows better than to disturb either. A great feast of enlightenment."
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel