Helena Sheehan
Dublin City University

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There was a sense of a yawning gap in the picture of Irish society emerging from RTE drama ever since the demise of Tolka Row(1964-1968). For the next two decades, there was talk of the need for a new urban serial. When RTE announced Fair City in its autumn schedule for 1989, it was at the centre of anticipation. Much effort and major investment had gone into its development.

The opening sequence evoked Dublin with an aerial overview of the city. The pilot opened with a succession of breakfast scenes in a number of houses with a running thread of various characters commenting on the story on the front of theNorthside People featuring the first anniversary of the local community enterprise centre. As the day went on, these characters all converged on this centre. In between there was much happening: people coming and going, phone messages being conveyed, characters gossiping about other characters, rows about relationships and money. There were a flurry of reviews and a vox-pop on the streets of Dublin. The consensus was that it had got off to a frenetic start, that it was not clear who was doing what and why, but that it should be given a chance.

The pace slowed somewhat, sometimes to the point of the pedestrian. All sorts of things were tried, but the audience fell and the critics became harsher. Inside RTE, there was consternation, but also commitment to do whatever it took to fix it.  Sometimes it seemed that the desperation to make it better only made it worse. It was trying too hard to be something without being too sure what that something was. It was too bitty. There was too much happening for too little reason. It was too imitative. It was looking too much to Eastenders and not enough to contemporary Dublin.

By the end of first series, the centre was burnt down and characters had to find alternative employment. The emphasis was more on personal relationships and less on community activities. All through the series there has been much recycling of soap opera clichés: much pairing and triangulating, long lost parents and children, rape, abortion, kidnapping, sexual harassment, blackmail, murder. There were comings and goings, births and deaths, windfalls and debts, rows and reconciliations, but there often seemed to be insufficient reason why.  It has often seemed to be soap opera by the numbers.

Although most characters were supposed to be of working class origins, not many were wage labourers and they worked primarily in the local businesses. It often seemed that Carrigstown was more like a 1950s rural village than a 1990s city. Everybody lived in each other’s pockets and knew each other’s business. This was soap opera convention, but it was not urban life.

As the years moved on, Fair City evolved. By 2001 it was going out 4 nights a week. The new opening sequence in 2005 is a stylish evocation of the tiger city, showing the Luas, the boardwalks, the cafe bars, but also the old flats, terraced houses and fruit stalls. It is the look of a city that has come up in the world, as indeed it has. It shows too in the characters. They are less downtrodden, but not fabulously rich, reflecting the rising tide lifting many (if not all) boats.

It has come to have more of a feel of the city about it with characters moving through the larger city, although there are still too many of them who own and work in local businesses. Suzanne and Sarah went to university. Location shooting opens out into shopping centres, night clubs, city streets. There is also more of a sense of the wider world in the way the script refers outwards even when the cameras don’t go there, although it is intermittent and it varies with scriptwriters. Sergei, a Russian immigrant, even gave the locals a lecture on perestroika. Suzanne arrived back home from Borneo to scrutinise Carrigstowners on their use of fair trade products. Kay and Charlie, like much of the rest of the world, read and discussed The Da Vinci Code.

The no politics or religion rule of earlier years is no longer in force, although there is still a certain caution in dealing with politics and the north is an area that is avoided. Now politicians are regular characters. They belong to “the party”, which is never named, but is unmistakably Fianna Fail. There have been references, even if only in passing, to the tribunals and the political corruption exposed in them. Sometimes there have been storylines that situate the local community and its characters in relation to power and property, such as those about the closure of the local library, a pirate radio station, a rent strike and a proposal to re-site the homeless shelter.

An important story reflecting the evolving relationship of Ireland to the politics of the wider world was the entry of a refugee into Carrigstown. Ashti was a Kurdish teacher who fled to Ireland, feeling caught between the Turkish authorities and those in armed struggle against them.  At first, the only work he could find was selling The Big Issues on the streets of Dublin. It highlighted the difficult lives asylum seekers left behind, in this case including torture, the ruthlessness of those who profiteered on their transit and the suspicions surrounding them on arrival.

Characters represent interesting dimensions of contemporary Ireland. Although they rarely articulate any sort of ideological self-consciousness, they nevertheless embody a number of ideological positions. Nicola Prendergast is an excellent embodiment of the yuppie mentality, while other characters give occasional expression to a social critique to the left: Charlie Kelly, Tara McCann, Malachy Costello and Barry O’Hanlon. Older characters represent traditionalist Ireland in a society not very respectful of its traditions in a more and more confused way. Mary O’Hanlon, now dead, was closer to the Irish mothers who populated earlier serials. Eunice Phelan’s mind is a dustbin of contradictory half-baked ideas, mixing old-fashioned Catholicism with tarot cards, horoscopes, reincarnation and celebrity gossip.

The women have been relatively liberated. They might not all have glamorous careers, but they do a day’s work, even if it is working behind the counter of a pub, sandwich bar or corner shop. Going against gender stereotypes in their jobs were Robin, a car mechanic, Tess, a taxi driver and Karl, a male nanny.

The kinds of relationships explored have been more various. Inter-racial romance might raise a few eyebrows, but first Nicola and Ben and now Louise and Joshua go with it. Gay Pride too came to Carrigstown. Eoghan Healy first appeared as a DCU student, working his way through university. Carrigstown took it in its stride when he came out. He subsequently became a teacher in the local school. He took up with Andrew, a fellow teacher, who had a partner dying of aids, who wanted help to die. Andrew would not do so, but Eoghan did. Simon’s relatives denounced Eoghan in a crowded school hall. Not only was his career as a teacher in ruins, but he was questioned by the Gardaí and the case was forwarded for prosecution.

The norms of sexual morality have shifted dramatically in both soap opera and society. The dominant point of view in how Eoghan’s character was constructed was that he was a person of high moral character, whereas those who messed with him were not. On abortion, there have been several stories. Niamh became pregnant by Leo and went to England to do what many Irish women have done, without much soul searching. A more maturely explored and morally nuanced story came when Kay and Malachy, who treated the news of pregnancy with joy, found themselves on the horns of an agonising ethical and emotional dilemma after the amniocentesis. The child would be severely disabled. With great regret, Kay went to England and had an abortion. Malachy could not accept it. The edgy painful relationship between them after it was dealt with in a protracted and sophisticated way.

For most of the time, the characters live their lies outside the norms of Catholic sexual morality with very little in the way of moral discourse about it. The adulterous affair between Dolores in an advanced stage of pregnancy with Frank in the house doing work on new baby’s nursery pushed at the boundaries of transgression. So too was Billy’s view that “sex is a commodity to be sold like anything else”. The steamy liason between Sorcha, a secondary school teacher, and her pupil Ross, the object of her daughter’s desire, went far into the breach.

Fair City has tacitly tracked the secularisation of Irish society. It is assumed that most of the characters are Catholic, but it impacts little on their lives. The first time a priest entered Carrigstown as a core character was when Malachy Costello appeared on leave from the foreign missions. He was one of those priests who believed that they belonged with the poor and oppressed. He became involved in a relationship to Kay McCoy and eventually became laicised and married. It was not happily ever after. He could not settle into private domesticity or confine his role in the community to being a publican. He still felt a sense of vocation and a pull to those struggling from below. He has devoted much of his time to running a shelter for the homeless.

The issue of clerical sexual abuse came to the fore in special episodes. The serial in recent years has broken from genre convention from time to time to deal with storylines which foreground a whole set of new characters and background the regular ones. These episodes dealt with a troubled victim, his family, his abuser and priests on both sides of the debate about how the church should deal with it. A Killarney priest made Fair City the subject of his homily, upset that the serial had portrayed a priest breaking the seal of the confessional. The health service was at the centre of drama in another special, but it needed to be a lot more extras to convey how bad conditions were in the Mater hospital Accident & Emergency.

This is not Dublin in the rare old times. It is not the fair city of fish mongers, of cockles and mussels, alive-alive-o. No, this is a Dublin of hotmail and health clubs, of sex in the city, of clubbing and cocaine, of refugees and racism, of crime and compassion, of poverty and property, of books and websites and universities. These Dubliners live in a new millennium, a multicultural milieu. They are open to its possibilities. These are the descendants of Molly Malone.

Dr Helena Sheehan, senior lecturer in the School of Communications at Dublin City University, is author of Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History (1985), Irish Television Drama: A Society and Its Stories (1987) and The Continuing Story of Irish Drama: Tracking the Tiger (2004). Her courses on TV drama can be found at