A variation of this post first appeared on TheJournal.ie

31 December 2013

With advanced publicity for Oliver Callan’s New Year’s Eve special promising sketches that would sail close to the wind in their depiction of President Michael D. Higgins and his aide Kevin McCarthy, RTÉ reportedly asked that the satirist tone down his portrayal of  the President and his right-hand man. The political effectiveness — or, perhaps more accurately, impact — of satire has been questioned by politicians on numerous occasions in the past. Perhaps most notable is the association of Hall’s Pictorial Weekly with the defeat of the National Coalition government at the 1977 general election.

Broadcast on RTÉ between 1971 and 1980, the satirical programme was the creation of Frank Hall and it featured a newsroom set in the fictitious village of Ballymagash. The Fine Gael-Labour coalition, formed after the 1973 election, offered Hall and his team much to work with. The cabinet included such larger-than-life and colourful figures as Garret FitzGerald, who famously wore odd shoes on one occasion, and Conor Cruise O’Brien, prone to making remarks that contradicted the official government line.  And with a global economic crisis occurring as a result of the Arab-Israeli war just months after the coalition took power, characters such as the Minister for Hardship, seen in the clip below, were easily created.

The Minister for Hardship, otherwise known as ‘Richie Ruin’ was Richie Ryan, the Minister for Finance, who had the unenviable task of handling the state’s finances at a particularly turbulent time.  He was repeatedly lampooned on the show.  Praised by The Irish Times in 1973 for delivering the ‘greatest social welfare budget of all time’, Ryan found himself the subject of a Hall’s sketch three years later in which he was seen to promise in that year’s budget speech the provision of bowls of gruel to mothers and children, the reopening of the workhouses and the return of the ration book.

The treatment of the Fianna Fáil government formed after the 1977 general election was not as severe.  Critical observers attributed this to Hall’s alleged political leanings towards that party.  Hall rejected these accusations, and instead explained that the difference in treatment was due to the nature of the new cabinet.  Fianna Fáil Ministers were less likely to pursue a solo-agenda, while there was no particular ‘stand-out’ personality around the cabinet table, Hall argued.  He recalled one episode featuring Martin O’Donoghue, the new Minister for Economic Planning and Development, but viewers struggled to identify the politician being satirised.

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Click for further details

While researching the chapter on the National Coalition for A Just Society for Ireland?, I interviewed Frank Kelly who played several roles in the programme.  He recounted how the actors themselves had much input into the sketches: ‘if you characterised a thing a certain way and he liked it, he’d extend that.  He’d go on writing that way’.  Filming for the programme would be done in a single day.  When asked if any politicians ever complained to him about the way they were portrayed, he recalled one particular incident:

I was once accosted by a politician, who shall remain unnamed, on a bridge crossing the Shannon in Limerick and he attacked me over Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, and said that it was disgracefully irreverent and very unkind to politicians, etc, etc and as he walked away he said, “but if there’s any chance of a mention, don’t forget me”’.

On the subject of the differing treatment of the coalition government and the Fianna Fáil government, Kelly’s opinion mirrored that of Hall’s. Though this could be dismissed as the ‘rehearsed narrative’, there is arguably an accuracy to his observations:

Well one of the things about it, of course, they [Fianna Fáil] were a much more uniform group.  They were the be-suited, party line people.  It was harder to breakthrough and find individual targets.  You kept having to have a go at the party rather than at individuals.  This is my view; Frank Hall might say otherwise.  Remember, all individual statements by TDs had to be personally cleared by Haughey.

When Hall died in 1995, his obituary for the The Independent focussed largely on that programme, with the opening line noting ‘His fans claim that Frank Hall had the distinction of single-handedly capsizing the stern-faced Irish government of Liam Cosgrave in 1977’.  Frank Kelly has offered somewhat differing views.  In an interview with Hot Press in 1997 he rejected the idea that a humorous programme could bring down a government, but several years later told the Galway Advertiser (2009) that it may have contributed to a slide in the government’s fortunes.  When I broached the subject, he explained

With the wisdom of hindsight and more maturity, I think that can happen, but it’s an accident waiting to happen, but it doesn’t mean that the agenda of the programme is to bring down the government.  It means that it’s in the right place at the right time to do it.  It just takes something to tip everything over.

There was a widespread expectation among journalists, Fine Gael supporters and other political observers that the coalition would be the first in the history of the state to be returned for a second term.  ‘Coalition are favourites’, the Sunday Independent reported, while the British Embassy in Dublin felt the coalition ‘could well gain a slightly increased majority’.  And at Fine Gael’s Ard Fheis on the weekend of 21 and 22 May 1977, there was a mood of confidence among delegates.  The exception was a young Indian-Irish girl who, in March 1976, used tarot cards for the Sunday Independent to predict Cosgrave’s defeat!

But behind the scenes, there were some warnings that re-election was not inevitable. A memorandum contained within the papers of Brendan Corish that was sent to members of the cabinet in 1975 indicated a level of awareness of the tipping point of which Frank Kelly spoke. Marked ‘top secret’, the unnamed author warned that it was ‘self-deluding to pretend that the possibility of electoral defeat is not a real one’.  Inflation, farmer incomes and unemployment — at peak levels — were identified as the key areas most likely to cause defeat.  It seems more probable that these, rather than Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, caused the defeat of Liam Cosgrave’s government. 

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