Document Type

Conference Paper


Available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 4.0 International Licence



Publication Details

Shared Histories Conference. The National Library, Dublin. 6-7 July 2016.


The first television broadcasts in Ireland were watched in the 1950s. These initial programmes were British. This history of these early viewers, however, has been ignored. A dominant narrative has addressed the history of television in Ireland as the history of the public broadcaster Radio Telefís Éireann (RTÉ). Thus, the history of Irish television often begins in 1961, overlooking Irish people’s experience of the medium in the preceding decade. This paper breaks with traditional historiography by employing life history interviews to explore the uses, rituals and feelings attached to television in the years before RTÉ.

Irish people who watched television in the 1950s are often passed off in literature as ’enthusiasts’. Connotations of an inconsequential private hobby are misleading. As early as 1953 there were public controversies surrounding the broadcast of the Coronation of Elizabeth II. By May 1954, the Irish Times was publishing BBC television listings. In 1955 there were an estimated 4,000 television sets in Ireland. 1958 saw an estimated 20,000 television sets in the country. Nevertheless the experience of television at this time has gone unexplored.

This limitation in historical accounts stems, in part, from sourcing. There has been a heavy reliance on sources ‘from above’, archives and official documents, and ‘from the side’, memoirs, press coverage and so. British programmes were inside many Irish homes but lay outside the game of Irish politics. As such they left few traces in Dáil debates, national archives, newspaper reports and so on. A dependence on official sources has amplified certain ideas about television in Ireland while silencing others. A focus on the institutional has also encouraged media historians to ignore audiences.

To date there has been little use of sources from ‘below’. Mindful of the limitations of memory work and oral history as a method this work triangulates with sources ‘from above’ and ‘from the side’. It will show television to have been a source of prestige, envy and aspiration. Upsetting the current orthodoxy, for many people, their earliest memories of television are attached to British rather than Irish programmes. This is to be expected since television has always been a transnational media phenomenon. Nevertheless, across the world, historians have insisted on recalling it within national boundaries.