Blarney and Beguilement

A Great Feast of Light: Growing up Irish in the Television Age, by John Doyle (Doubleday Canada, 321 pages, $32.95)
By Brian Brennan
The Globe and Mail’s John Doyle makes a delightful contribution to Canadian journalism. He writes a daily television column for people who don’t watch TV or don’t care about it very much. He refuses to play the role of conventional taste-tester or consumer guide. On some days, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single reference to a TV program in his column. Instead, he brings a free-floating imagination and carefully cultivated Irish persona — sometimes acting as foil to an imaginary brother named Joe Pieweed, Performance Artist — to the job of writing about popular culture in Canada. I read his column regularly, not because I want to know what Doyle has to say about tonight’s episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent but because I want to be entertained by a clever and witty wordsmith who makes his own kind of noise and puts on a great show.
Doyle gives free rein to that patented Irish persona, and serves up a great feast of blarney and beguilement in A Great Feast of Light: Growing up Irish in the Television Age, a coming-of-age memoir that begins in 1961 when Doyle was four years old and ends in 1980 when he “escaped” (to use his word) to Canada. Irish television came of age during the same period. It started beaming its test-pattern picture into Irish kitchens and sitting-rooms during the fall of 1961, and sent out its first actual program — a gala concert broadcast live from Dublin’s Gresham Hotel — on Dec. 31 of that year.
Doyle got the opportunity to watch television regularly starting in May 1963, when his insurance salesman father installed the family’s first black-and-white set on a side table in the living room of their small house in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary. From then on, Telefís Éireann became as much a part of Doyle’s life as Radio Éireann had been for his father’s generation.
Nenagh, with its country fairs and bicycles, was Doyle’s home until 1967, when his father was transferred to Carrick-on-Shannon, Co. Leitrim, a small town in the Republic near the border with Northern Ireland. Two years later, when young Doyle was 12, the family moved to Dublin, where he completed his elementary and secondary schooling and studied English, philosophy and history at University College Dublin.
Each of these places touched his life in a different way. In Nenagh, Doyle learned how to read and write and be a good Catholic. In Carrick, where the ghosts of 1840s’ famine victims still haunt the empty fields and lanes, he discovered that the Protestant shop clerks across the border looked down their noses with atavistic scorn at southern Irish Catholics. In Dublin, where lower-middle-class kids looked down their noses at all people from the country (“culchies”), he discovered that not everyone adhered to the Catholic Church’s teachings on sex, contraceptives, divorce and personal freedoms. And all the while he had television to keep him connected to the wider world.
Doyle is charming and engaging when he writes about his early childhood experiences, though I have some difficulty buying his claim that he lived in a world where nine-year-old boys were TV-influenced savvy and their Christian Brother teachers were dumber than a sack of hammers. I have even more difficulty buying his suggestion that when he first watched such imported American programs as Bat Masterson, Get Smart and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. he was already sophisticated enough to judge them as he would today, when he casts himself with upper-cased brio as a Television Critic.
The memoir, particularly when it deals with 1960s’ Irish television programming, doesn’t read like that of a person re-entering a childish world of innocence and wonder. Rather, it reads like that of an older, wiser, and more cynical commentator reimagining his youth within the context of what he has learned since he grew up and went away to Canada. Much of what Doyle writes about Irish television in the 1960s reads more like the product of what he has recently unearthed from the archives than a remembrance of things past.
Yet, for all that, this book is a terrific read. Doyle is at his best when he dispenses with the book’s guiding conceit that television somehow brought enlightenment to the Irish and gets on with the business of telling how three very different kinds of Irish communities helped shape his young life. Heck, I lived as a young adult in Ireland during the first five years of the television age, and I don’t recall that the box brought much change to the way we thought or lived our lives. We still went to the pub and the pictures and the soccer matches and the rugby club dances, and only gave it any heed when some gombeen politician stood up in the Dáil or some rural bishop stood up in the pulpit and ranted on about how this satanic contraption was corrupting the morals of Irish youth.
If he plans to have this book distributed in Ireland, Doyle should hire an Irish proofreader to correct some of the sloppy spelling errors in the names (e.g. to make sure that the veteran Irish newsreader Charles Mitchel does not reappear as Charles Mitchell or that John Cardinal D’Alton does not appear as Cardinal Dalton) because the Irish tend to notice these things. He should also amend the text to say that The Late Late Show first ran on Friday nights, not Saturday nights, during the 1960s and that Telefís Éireann didn’t become RTÉ until 1966. I could go on and on but the night is young and I feel like a pint.
(Brian Brennan grew up Irish in the pre-television age and escaped to Canada in 1966. Today, he watches television only when Pastor Mansbridge is reading the news, and spends the rest of his time writing books about the colourful personalities and the social history of Alberta. His most recent title is Romancing the Rockies: Mountaineers, Missionaries, Marilyn & More.)