Tuesday Noon, June 2, 1953, Dolan’s pub on Marlborough Street in Dublin. The pub was exceptionally packed for a weekday. Many patrons marveled at a snowy picture on the brand new television set high on the wall at the end of the bar.
Lunchtime drinkers at Dolan’s on Tuesday weren’t engrossed in football or running. It was a special day. The Queen of England, Elizabeth II, was being crowned and here she is, rendered magically by a blurry, flickering image on television.
As patrons debated the merits of the new contraption over pints of Guinness and glasses of Paddy, few noticed the arrival of a man in a long white coat.
Just as the crown hung over the young Queen’s head, there was a commotion in the pub. The man in the dust coat made his way through the crowd to the end of the bar, pulled a hammer out of his coat pocket, reached out and smashed the TV screen with it.
Everything was shattered. The blurry image of the queen fades away. Dolan fell silent.
‘Get out of my way!’ cried the TV breaker. “Ireland is still free! “
When he was later charged with malicious damage, TV smasher Gearóid O’Broin described his action as “not malicious, but as a protest against the disparaging influence of this type of thing”.
These early viewers of Dolan’s and elsewhere watched British television for the simple reason that there was no Irish station.
In March 1956, a report by the Irish government on the provision of a local television service explained why this was now of urgent importance. With signals from Northern Ireland and Wales available over about half of the Republic, Irish viewers were becoming addicted to British television programs.
The report explained why these did not suit the Irish viewer: “Some are cheeky, others ‘outspoken’ when it comes to sex, others simply inspired by the desire to exalt the British royal family and the fashion of British life. “
The result was Telefís Éireann, launched by a clumsy president of Valera on New Years Eve in 1961.
To protect the state’s fledgling television station, the government imposed restrictions on the number of single-antenna connections, effectively banning the deployment of cable television. The Dublin skyline has become congested with tall antennas, picking up valuable signals from North and Wales.
The island was divided, with the inhabitants of the Multi-Channel Lands lowering their supposedly more sophisticated, progressive and liberal noses to what they saw as the poor, destitute and naive residents of the Single-Channel Lands.
Popular pressure led to the loosening of restrictions on cable television, so that by the mid-1980s, thousands of miles of homes connected by coaxial cable, expanding the multi-channel territory to include almost all towns and villages. There was, however, a distinct geographic pattern to this deployment of cable television. Villages and rural areas were omitted because it was simply not cost effective to deploy miles of cable to serve a handful of homes.
In the early 1980s, a rival technology was emerging – technology without coaxial cables. Enterprising individuals and community groups began to erect “deflectors” which picked up British channels, amplified them and then broadcast them locally over the air.
The name was somewhat misleading, as a “baffle” was a self-made television transmitter and, like any transmitter, required a license from the Department of Posts and Telegraphs.
While successive ministers have refused to provide such licenses, many backbench politicians were happy to defend the use of deflectors, with Galway West TD John Donnellan telling the Dáil: “I have five children who love to watch such or such program thanks to the deflector system.
“Even though we may despise the British for the amount of things they do, it must be said that they transmit very interesting programs that we would like to see from time to time. Therefore, it is necessary that we in the west have the same access to television programs as people living in the Dublin area. “
The point of debate was no longer on the relevance of British television to delicate Irish sensitivities, but between those who saw the deflectors as a wonderful model of community self-help and those who saw them as perfect examples of anarchy. rural.
The issue was particularly controversial in southwest Donegal, where in the 1997 general election local man Tom Gildea was elected to Dáil with the main objective of retaining the deflector system.
The policy of bringing foreign media to Irish screens was no longer limited to breaking a television in a Dublin pub; it now affected who ruled the country.
The problem of providing multi-channel television across the state was finally solved for the Irish government by the British, in the form of Sky’s satellite television platform. In 2003, almost every Irish household could enjoy crystal-clear reception from major UK networks.
However, satellite did not mark the end of cable television systems. Thanks to physics, coaxial cables offer much more bandwidth than the copper pair used in traditional telephone networks.
As a result, those coaxial cables laid around homes in our towns and cities to channel Coronation Street and Match of the Day now also deliver high-speed broadband directly to 400,000 homes.
Much of this demand for broadband is the growth of streaming services such as Netflix and Disney +. Meanwhile, rural Ireland, though now inundated with TV channels thanks to Sky, is waiting for the deployment of fiber optics to bring broadband to high-speed.
The trend for streaming services accelerated in 2020, when people were confined to their homes for long periods of time thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, giving Netflix an estimated market share of two-thirds of the Irish population. One of the most popular Netflix series during the lockdown was The Crown, a landmark drama series about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
Unlike 1953, however, there has been no press report of broken TV screens due to the appearance of the British monarch.
Connecting a Nation by Deryck Fay is published by UCD Press