By Jim Rees
For thirty minutes on Sunday evenings throughout the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, the County Kilkenny village of Leestown became the centre of Ireland.
From Dingle to Rathlin, Rosslare to the Rosses, we’d watch the comings and goings of people we never actually met but who were as familiar to us as our own families. We would visit neighbouring farms, drop into Johnny Mac’s for a pint or two and to get the latest gossip about the Riordans, the Mahers, the Brennans and the dozen or so other characters.
Sunday night was The Riordans night.
Looking back at the iconic series, it is easy to remember it with a wry smile as something from a simpler, gentler time. That’s the problem with nostalgia; it gives everything a nice warm glow. But 1960s Ireland was very much a place of change and The Riordans was to the forefront in depicting those political, religious and social tensions.
RTÉ – or simply Telefís Éireann as it still was – embarked on an ambitious undertaking for a broadcaster still very much finding its feet. The station had officially opened on 31 December 1961 and within two years had produced a Dublin-based soap opera called Tolka Row, along the lines of ITV’s Coronation Street.
It proved very successful, but Ireland was still very much a rural country, and it was felt that a similar format with a rural setting would be even more popular, and so The Riordans was born.
The first episode went out on 4 January 1965 and within a few weeks was unmissable television. The setting, the accents, the story-lines all spoke to the viewers in a very real and immediate way.
Few of those viewers, however, were aware of just how innovative the technical details were or how controversial the series would become time and again over what was to be its fifteen-year run.