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Ireland: A Television History (1980-81)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Ireland: A Television History (1980-81)
BBC2, 2/12/1980 - 24/2/1981
13 x 50 mins, colour
ScriptRobert Kee
Series ProducerJeremy Isaacs
PresenterRobert Kee
Production CompanyBBC
In association withRadio-Telef√≠s √Čireann

The career of veteran current affairs broadcaster Robert Kee included Panorama (BBC, 1953-) and This Week (ITV, 1956-92), but it was his 13-part series on the history of Ireland that perhaps garnered him the most prestige. Ireland: A Television History (BBC, 1980-81) followed the country's development from pre-Christian times, through various uprisings down the centuries, the famine of 1845 and up to the present, with a specific emphasis on the creation of the modern independent republic and the roots of the Troubles. More importantly, the series presented many British viewers with their first detailed insight into the history of Irish politics, especially the issues surrounding sovereignty and identity in Northern Ireland.

The series proved unexpectedly timely, since its broadcast coincided with rising tensions in Northern Ireland and the start of hunger strikes in the Maze prison which catapulted Irish history back into the heart of British politics. It also scored a notable coup when the Republic of Ireland broadcaster and co-producer RTE screened the last two episodes uncut, despite the fact that they contained statements from organisations banned in that country.

Seven years later the British government took a less flexible approach to dissenting Irish voices when in 1988 it imposed direct political censorship in the form of a blanket ban on the broadcasting of any interviews with representatives of Sinn Fein, the Ulster Defence Association and the IRA. Had Kee's series, with its interviews with IRA veterans, been made at the end of the 1980s, rather than at the start of the decade, it would have been subject to the same draconian censorship, robbing it of its denouement.

No programme that touches on modern Irish history can be completely uncontentious, and the BBC, aware of the pitfalls of ignoring the divergent views on the subject, staged a debate in its Did You See? slot (BBC, 1980-93) which discussed both Ireland: A Television History and The Troubles (ITV, 1981). Participants included the authors of both programmes, alongside Irish historians and politicians.

Kee's aim, however, was not to spark debate amongst historians and politicians but to inform an audience that was largely ignorant of Ireland's past and its bearing on present events. Whether success was ever a real possibility is arguable, as media coverage associated with Ireland quickly reverted to banner headlines with the death of hunger striker Bobby Sands and the restoration of the IRA's bombing campaign in London.

Anthony Clark

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Video Clips
Complete episode: 'Civil War' (51:05)
Extract: Michael Collins (3:55)
Kee, Robert (1919-)
Authored Documentary