The Riordans

by Henry Farrell on July 26, 2008

“Tyler Cowen”: evidently doesn’t realize that he’s touched upon a significant cultural phenomenon when he praises Biddy White Lennon’s “Irish Food and Cooking,” co-written with Georgina Campbell, and remarks that BWL has “a great name to write a book like this, no?” Biddy White Lennon was one of the mainstays of Irish rural soap opera, _The Riordans_, which did as much as anything to help shepherd Ireland into modernity. The “Wikipedia entry”: on _The Riordans_ is a gem, providing a really nice encapsulated history of the show and its relationship to social debates in Ireland.

The Riordans tackled many ‘conservative versus liberal’ issues from its very start. Its start coincided with the coming into force of the Succession Act which for the first time granted to the wife of a farmer an automatic right of succession to the family farm, so removing the danger that after her husband’s death she could be left with nothing, with the property being willed to a total stranger. The issue was at the time controversial; banks until the 1970s would not allow a wife to open a bank account except with the approval of her husband. Conservatives suggested that the new Act, which had been pushed through in the face of opposition by then Minister for Justice Charles Haughey, would undermine the traditional family and lead to the sale of a farm owned by a family, were a farmer’s marriage to break up. Liberals argued that the reform was one of social justice and a long-overdue recognition of the rights of farmers’ wives. …

The show also focused on a range of farming issues, from the promotion of new farm technology to safety on farms. (In the 1970s Tom and Benjy featured in a television advertisement urging farmers to have metal framed cabs put onto their tractors to protect themselves from serious injury should the vehicle overturn.)

Other issues were also raised, such as illegitimacy, poverty, the problems of old age, marriage break-up, sexual activity, the dramatic changes in the post-Vatican II Catholic Church, and most famously contraception, when it was revealed that Benjy’s wife, Maggie, for medical reasons could not risk having a second pregnancy. The decision of the couple to use contraception (the Pill) caused considerable controversy and criticism from “family values” organisations and some in the Catholic Church. The show was on many issues both praised and criticised in the national media and even in Dáil Éireann while civil servants in the mid 1960s criticised the image portrayed of a ‘farm advisor’ sent out to advise farmers on new advances in farming but who in the series was seen drinking in the pub and gossiping.

Of course, as was the usual course with good Irish shows which touched on social and political controversies (see e.g. _Scrap Saturday_, _Nighthawks_), the show was axed without warning.

I’ve a particular fondness for Biddy White Lennon’s cooking books (although I haven’t seen this one, which Tyler describes as a ‘revelation’), being a graduate of _Biddy White Lennon’s Leaving Home Cookbook_, a volume which I received when I first went to college and couldn’t fry a rasher to save my life, and which contained recipes for such then-exotic foodstuffs as pita bread.



P O'Neill 07.26.08 at 7:17 pm

On the topic of RTE shows getting the ax too soon, I was never clear on why Hall’s Pictorial Weekly disappeared when it did.


Cryptic Ned 07.26.08 at 9:04 pm

Blind Biddy White Lemon Jefferson?


EWI 07.27.08 at 2:10 am

(In the 1970s Tom and Benjy featured in a television advertisement urging farmers to have metal framed cabs put onto their tractors to protect themselves from serious injury should the vehicle overturn.)

A more difficult task to accomplish than you might expect. I can recall two Major tractors held on the matrilinial side of the family which were without roll-bars for the entirety of the Eighties…


Bruce Baugh 07.27.08 at 2:02 pm

I just wanted to say that “Tyler Cowen evidently doesn’t realize” is pretty much a complete post on its own. But that I enjoyed the rest of this one.


mollymooly 07.27.08 at 4:06 pm

I read a piece by Wesley Burrowes describing a script of his for The Riordans that was vetoed for hinging on the postmistress’ gossiping out the contents of some portentous telegram. RTE’s P&T colleagues felt this libelled the entire cadre of postmistresses. The disgruntled Burrowes, to prove the point, sent a honeypot telegraph to himself, purportedly offering him millions from Hollywood, and waited for the whispering to start. It never did.


vivian 07.28.08 at 1:38 am

Wait, Ireland made it to the 1970’s without basic inheritance for women? And into the 1990’s without pita bread? But you all didn’t mind because you had Father Ted and the Riordans. Does this explain Henry’s and Kieran’s interest in sociology – cause now I’m fascinated :)


ajay 07.28.08 at 9:50 am

Was this programme a) a deliberate copy of the BBC’s “The Archers”, anotherlong running and periodically informative soap about a farming family b) the inspiration for the same c) completely unrelated?


toby 07.28.08 at 10:13 am

“The Riordans” probably was slightly influenced by “The Archers”, but that was a radio soap. Radio Eireann had its own radio soaps in the 1950s like (and this goes back) “The Kennedys of Castlerosse”, scripted by Hugh Leonard. “The Foley Family” was another.

Before “The Riordans” was “Tolka Row” set in Dublin… one of its actors (who was the teenage son of the family in the soap) is now a mainstay on a current soap “Fair City”.

So I think RTE had plenty of its own experience in scripting soap operas. “The Riordans” was a phenomenon because it was at a time just when the transition from mainly rural to mainly urban or suburban dwelling was just beginning. it caught the conflicts youth vs age, settled vs traveller, town vs country fairly well. It did outstay its leave and was a crashing bore by the time it finished up (but then, arn’t they all?).


John Smyth 07.28.08 at 12:42 pm

The axing of The Riordan’s might have been a shock to the cast but not to the audience – it was looking very tired by the time it ended.

Still, Wesley Burrowes managed to recycle most of the scripts when Glenroe was commissioned.


pjk 07.28.08 at 3:32 pm

Sorry to dissapoint you, the Succession Act was enacted in 1965. I am open to correction on this but I think there was opposition to dividing farms given that many were small to be begin with.
The pita bread was used to serve the ‘kebab’ (or ‘gyro’ to you) that was consumed ‘post -pub’ in the early 70’s at the local Abbakebabra, if you lived in Dublin.
I will confess to the study of sociology but only because one had to go to Belfast to study social anthropology. However, in the early seventies it was n’t hard to dissuade one from moving to Belfast.


mollymooly 07.28.08 at 9:28 pm

pjk @10:

The first Abrakebabra restaurant was opened in Rathmines in December 1982 . Whatever you ate after the pub in the seventies, it wasn’t one of their kebabs.

The Riordans started in 1964, before the Succession Act.


Tony 07.29.08 at 8:55 am

Possibly thinking of the kebab stand opposite the Baggott Inn.


pjk 07.29.08 at 8:11 pm

I stand corrected. I had an idea the Abbakebabrara was one of the early kebab joints. Evidently, my ‘post pub’ recall is not so good. I can’t imagine why.

I’ll let the remark about the Succession Act stand.


Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 07.30.08 at 9:40 am

Also, the Succession Act actually came into force on the 1st of January 1967.

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