Friday, March 22, 2013

A SHOCKED & DISTRESSED IRELAND

The arrival of 2RN, The Irish Free State’s entry in the broadcasting world on January 1st 1926 would alter the Irish people and their persona more than the introduction of the telegraph or television. Rural Ireland would be radically altered with the arrival of the station and radio.
Urban areas were already familiar with radio as crystal sets and imported radio sets allowed the listener to tune into transmissions from the UK, Europe and even the east coast of America. Even before 1926 the monetary value of radio broadcasts were being exploited as village fairs, fetes and charity events advertised ‘Dances by Wireless’. These events were ‘paid in’ events with music relayed by a radio set on a stage and people dancing on the main floor, an early form of nightclub or for another generation The TV Club. These events were often organised by the local parish priest to raise funds for local charities, church and school repairs or for the running of the church itself. The parochial organisers often saw themselves as the ‘censor in chief’ monitoring what their flock listened to and protecting the moral fibre of the community.
For many the introduction of 2RN was two years too late as 2BE had begun broadcasting from Belfast in 1924. The problem for many listeners in the Free State was that the wounds of a War of Independence and a Civil War were still raw and listening to a station that promoted events around the Loyalist Twelfth of July and the playing of the British National Anthem at the end of each evening’s broadcast was too much to bear. The clamour for a Dublin station intensified but the battle between state control and commercialism also grew in strength.
The debate as to how radio would be introduced into southern Ireland was intense centered on whether the new station would be State controlled or a commercial enterprise and there had been a number of bidders. The complicated debate which included an atmosphere of fraudulent behaviour delayed the launch of the station until 1926 but getting on the air was the least of their problems. The legislators believed that radio would be a conduit to educate a nation. Farmers could learn about modern techniques, the Irish language could be revived and a nation in the dark could be shown the light but the audience that 2RN was being born into was already knowledgeable about what they wanted to hear and it was not education it was entertainment.
Entertainment was an escape from the trauma of battles, the poor distressed living conditions and the mundane hand to mouth existence of mush of the rural Irish population. In many a home in Ireland late at night the only light in the front room was the light of the Sacred Heart photograph on the wall and in the dial of their radio set. For rural Ireland many of the new technologies of the early part of the twentieth century like the motor car, the aeroplane and even electricity meant little to the Irish farmer, who dominated Ireland ‘industrial’ output of the 1920s but radio was affordable especially with the crystal set. An increase in the number of licences in rural Ireland was not seen until the latter part of the thirties.
Ireland did not produce any radio sets of their own and so importation was the only option but as a financially impoverished Government struggled with the finances of the new State, a thirty percent tax was levied on each set putting quality receivers out of the reach of those unable to afford them. The alternative was the homemade crystal set operated by a crude battery. The reception quality often depended on the technical skill of the builder and the location of the set.
Radio sets required electricity and in 1926 with the ESB only up and running, mains power was limited to Dublin. Rural Ireland would not see electricity until the 1940s/1950s. Even if your set was powered by battery, batteries were expensive and in poor supply. But despite this 2RN, the Dublin station began broadcasting although their power output was not strong enough to be heard on the Ring of Kerry but 6BM in Bournemouth could.
But let us surmise that you are living in Dingle county Kerry and you can receive 2RN in 1926 what difference would it make to your life. Rural Ireland was isolated, it was agricultural based and poorly educated. News of happenings outside your four walls came through word of mouth or the communal newsreader. The communal newsreader was the local who had a better degree of education than most and was able to read the newspaper. This led to a gathering where the reader would educate and entertain their neighbours with the contents of a newspaper that was often more than a week old.
The arrival of radio made this communal reader unemployed as you did not need to read and write to be able to listen to the news and form your own opinions. There was still the gathering, the social third place after work and domestic living. Before radio broadcasts, entertainment centered on a house party. Locals would gather, drink perhaps some locally distilled spirit, sing traditional tunes and sean nos dance on the grey flagged stone floors and maintain the Irish art of the storytelling. But now the radio broadcast was the centre of attention. People listened in silence to the music and the news.
The local traditional music was now not just the only music available to the listener especially the young and impressionable. Marching band music, Operas, Jazz, crooning which was invented for radio and traditional Irish music that was no longer Kerry based but a national identity. Musicians from Kerry could not hear musicians from Donegal.
But now the social equilibrium was broken as a new voice entered the home. This new unseen voice was full of new ideas, ideologies and advancements that produced change faster than the listener could adapt. The radio set was the first piece of twentieth century technology to enter the Irish home. In most houses even before electricity the radio set was the only piece of modern furniture. For many households who bought an imported radio set it was a major investment in tough economic times.
Women were suddenly not lonely when their men folk were out in the fields or cutting turf on the bogs. They were gaining in independence, more receptive to new ideas. The radio was a window on the world rather than a world that just involved the people and events of the next town land. The Irish had let this unseen stranger into their homes in a very intimate way. There were no formal introductions, their way no way to judge by a man’s looks if he was honest or not. This voice from the box was invading a space traditionally reserved for the man of the house even though that person by the act of purchasing a radio set issued an unwritten invitation. The sense of wonderment that somehow you were listening to a broadcaster or a musician in Paris, France while you sat in your kitchen in Kerry was in itself a complicated concept to accept by a simple man from of the land. If you lived on an isolated farm the only voices you would hear were those of your family, your neighbours and perhaps a few villagers as you attended Mass on a Sunday. This totalled less than one hundred people but by listening to the radio you had doubled that total in one week.
When they heard Birmingham, Manchester, Pittsburgh or New York there was a sense of connection for many of the older generations as these were the cities that their families had emigrated to during and after the famine. Many had lost touch completely never knowing for sure if their brother, sister, son or daughter made it to their new land of opportunity. Even though their was direct personal contact on the radio, the thought that you were hearing programmes from New York at the same time as a family member was in that city brought a sense of peace and understanding. It drew line under some of the hurt caused by the enforced separations.
Radio changed the social activities of the natives. There was no need to leave the house to be entertained. No need to go to the theatre as 2RN broadcast plays, no need for vaudeville as comedians embraced the new medium and the musical hall came to your living room rather than the need to travel or pay an admission fee even though a licence fee was required to listen to the radio but the purchase of licences outside the urban conurbations was slow. The radio also meant that your entertainment requirements were not affected by inclement weather. The way we were entertained and the way we demanded to be entertained reached new plateaus.
Subconsciously the listener was being influenced in changing their political views or nurturing the concepts that the then Fianna Fail publicity and propaganda department were propagating. Ireland was in the midst of an economic slump after independence and an isolationist policy especially with regards to our nearest neighbours the United Kingdom left the nation vulnerable and alone. Radio was now a comfort, a luxury we could ill afford to do without no matter what was aired.
In modern times the public usually waits until a technology has taken a foothold or another human being achieved fame before criticizing and cutting it down to size but within days of 2RN taking to the airwaves the complaints were already appearing in the newspapers. There is an old Irish saying that the first piece of business on the agenda of a new Irish committee is a vote on the split. As a nation we are quick to offer an alternative point of view often not in keeping with an official stance. The complaints ranged from the monotony of the music selection, the standard of the acting in plays or the poor quality of the signal. These complaints often arose as listeners compared 2RN’s output with those of the British stations they had been listening to for the previous number of years. 2RN were also constrained by tight budgetary controls, the Government pulling on the purse strings to make sure that the station broadcast Government approved programming.
Another issue that was affecting the ‘listening public’ especially in an Ireland that was very set in its ways was simply how to tune in and find 2RN. Country people were used to routine. The cattle were milked at the same time, Mass on Sunday was at the same time and planting season was a precise annual event but where to find 2RN on the dial was a moveable feast. In the first four years of broadcasting the station was moved four different times inline with European agreements. As a small low powered station in terms of European broadcasting 2RN were at the mercy of the various ‘Broadcasting Conferences’ that allocated the frequencies.
Radio opened up the world for an insular nation whether the government were ready for it or not. Listeners were suddenly able to access voices and dialects from different countries and even different parts of Ireland. Many Kerry listeners would not have heard a Mayo or Donegal accent. That seems difficult to understand in the world we live in today. Events nationwide and worldwide suddenly became instant. No longer would they have to wait for a two or three day old newspaper or wait for a literate person to come and read the news for them. It was a new empowerment for a nation shattered after war.
There was also a sense of pride. This pride was probably not a nationally felt emotion until 1932 when the powerful Athlone transmitter brought the Irish programmes to an entire Irish audience. Despite eight hundred years of British rule and a bitter hard fought War of Independence the listening public did make much differentiation when listening to British radio stations. Listeners tuned into 6BM (Bournemouth), 5IT (Birmingham), 2ZY (Manchester) or Paris, Toulouse or KDKA and channel surfed seeking out the music or plays they liked as there was little or no programme guides in the early days of radio
Radio in Ireland would struggle until the 1950s. It would never reach the heights of popularity as it did in the United States. It did not create a new army of entertainers who would make their name solely through radio but it did shine a light not on the Irish people but for the Irish people to guide them out of a darkness physically, mentally and emotionally that had blighted the lives of her citizens for the early part of the twentieth century.

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