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A whole new world for Irish TV viewers: David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Photo Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images.

A Great Feast of Light: Growing Up Irish in the Television Age
By John Doyle
321 pages
Doubleday
$32.95


Books are the supreme social marker among intellectual snobs. You may know their habits: leaving highbrow tomes open whenever impressive company comes calling, carpet bombing conversations with author names and obscure titles at pretentious dinner parties. Of course, the most reliable prop for self-elevation has to be that old whipping boy, television. It’s evident in our slang for the medium: the boob tube, the idiot box. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard otherwise smart people declare publicly how they’ve de-TVed their lives. “I don’t really watch TV anymore” is one salvo you’ll often hear; it’s often followed, and trumped, by variants of the more muscular rejoinder, “We don’t even own a TV.”

The vacuity of these refrains would be far more insufferable if television didn’t give its gainsayers so much ammunition. From poker coverage (excuse me?) to meaningless Idol competitions to chirpy news anchors with plasticized hair and personality implants, television has done much of the work for its enemies. I should know, as I spent seven years as a producer in the medium; I have, occasionally and unintentionally, put unforgivable dross on air. Like the interview with the utterly humourless husband-and-wife team who argued that the real Atlantis was somewhere under miles of Antarctic ice. Or a panel discussion featuring a bear expert who spoke in the halting, staccato rhythms of someone reading prepared statements. At least he wrote his own statements.

I was both delighted and relieved when Globe and Mail TV critic John Doyle published A Great Feast of Light: Growing Up Irish in the Television Age. Finally, someone who obviously loves books but also loves television. Someone who isn’t embarrassed to make the unpopular case that television has the potential to liberate us from the dead weight of convention and oppressive social mores.

Don’t be fooled by the subtitle; this book has none of the predictability sometimes associated with memoirs written by Hibernian expats. Doyle never plays the Paddy, never lapses into sentimentalism and never once hijacks his readers into the Suffering Olympics to exploit Ireland’s tortured past. In fact, the book is deceptively sophisticated — so much so that its readability sometimes conceals the artfulness of his treatment. That sophistication is evident in the book’s first section, in which Doyle discreetly nods towards Yeats and Joyce while going on to describe the day when television first arrived at his family’s home in the small town of Nenagh, in the west of Ireland. “Nenagh was all walls and alleys, a bound-in town and safe for a small boy who stayed inside his boundaries.” In an otherwise innocent-looking sentence, you have the thrust of the entire book. Growing up in the Ireland of the 1960s and ’70s, Doyle’s life was a series of collisions into walls of one kind or another, walls that television helped him scale and eventually make his way to Canada.   

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Courtesy Random House of Canada Ltd.

These social and cultural walls were as unavoidable as they were enervating. There was one between countryside and town, another between neighbourhoods within a town; still others between town and city, North and South, Ireland and Britain and, of course, the Catholic Church and modernity. But TV was a tonic for all these constraints, and its efficacy was almost immediate for young Doyle.

Gene Barry’s Bat Masterson was an early hero, because he was quietly confident and comfortable in his own skin, as Doyle observes. By the end of the memoir, the adult Doyle would find the same traits in Pierre Trudeau, traits crystallized by the famous photo of P.E.T. striking a gunslinger’s pose. Quiet confidence is what also drew Doyle to Illya Kuryakin (played by David McCallum), the fair-haired spy in the series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Doyle observed Kuryakin as an observer — another trait both admired and possessed by the author.

As Doyle describes his adolescent years, his descriptions of TV grow more passionate. Especially when it comes to soccer. True, soccer doesn’t have the stamp of an authentic Gaelic sport like hurling — but that’s precisely the source of its appeal for Doyle, that it wasn’t traditional. Doyle is positively rhapsodic about the star player of the time, George Best, from Belfast. Doyle calls him both a god and a rebel. Best had long hair, babes galore and a penchant for fast living. But it was Best’s ease — one could say the comfort in his own skin — on the field that made Doyle feel a catch in his breath. And why not? When Best — or Georgie, as his fans called him — decided to unleash his spellbinding talents, he made opposing players look anemic.

TV was more than a vehicle of enjoyment. It could also shake the boundaries of your worldview, as coverage of Bloody Sunday did for Doyle. When British soldiers infamously opened fire on protesters in Derry in January 1972, killing over a dozen people, Doyle saw the massacre live on television with his family, who were by then living in Dublin. Outraged Dubliners, including Doyle’s mother, took to the streets and tore the British embassy apart. Here, and in later passages describing bombs going off in Dublin, Doyle’s storytelling is heart wrenching. But it’s also where his sophistication tugs quietly at your sleeve. He threads his family’s revulsion almost invisibly with another TV event: his discovery of Monty Python’s scathing irreverence.

He mentions Python both before and after Bloody Sunday, the result being that his account of one informs the reading of the other. Post-Bloody Sunday in the British House of Commons, Northern Irish activist and politician Bernadette Devlin is listening to Reginald Maudling, the man in charge of the British army in Ulster. Maudling, whose name could fit any character from the Flying Circus, claims that the soldiers reacted only when the crowd threw petrol bombs at them. Livid, Ms. Devlin races across the Commons floor, slaps Reginald Maudling in the face, tears at his hair and screams, “Murdering hypocrite!” The energy is Python distilled, an almost flammable outrage, purified of humour.

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Legendary footballer George Best. Photo Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

The narrative movement of the entire book exemplifies this kind of deftness. Early on, Doyle introduces the word eejit to his reader, an obvious recasting of idiot into Irish vernacular. He then introduces others: culchie (hick), kip (house), sap (Dublinese for eejit). What’s striking is that the reader’s familiarity with Irish argot increases as Doyle ratchets down his own connection to Ireland. We’re drawn in as he draws himself out — something he did permanently after the Pope visited Ireland in 1979, the same year Dallas hit Irish airwaves. Doyle casts the two made-for-TV events as a contest between homegrown repression of the Church and the stylish dysfunction of the modern. In his view, J.R. won, hands down.

Unlike many memoirists (and some novelists), Doyle doesn’t splash the wounds of his childhood across the page. They are there; they serve the story, but aren’t themselves the story. In fact, without trying too hard, he adds the occasional grace note of affection for his mother and respect for his father. No abuse, no incest, no long, dark night of the soul. Why so many writers treat their art as though it’s therapy is a question better left for future historians. But given all that Doyle writes about repressive Irish mores — especially about matters sexual — and his belief in television’s power to liberate, I was curious about the impact television had on the love lives of people around him, as well as the author himself. But that may have been an unfair expectation to foist on the spiritual twin of Illya Kuryakin.

I think Doyle would have agreed with Stephen Godfrey, his former colleague at the Globe, who once said that the problem with television isn’t that there is so much garbage on it; it’s that there’s so much worth viewing that you can’t get to it all. Godfrey made that declaration on a panel discussion I produced for the CBC in the early 1990s. OK, the panel took place on CBC Radio, not CBC Television. But Godfrey is still right. TV’s problem is not its vulgarity and thoughtlessness, but rather its vast — and largely unrealized — potential. We should be grateful that John Doyle has lived out some of that potential and allowed us to share in it. In fact, I think I’ll mention as much at my next dinner party.

A Great Feast of Light: Growing Up Irish in the Television Age is published by Doubleday and is in stores now.

Greg Kelly was a radio and television producer at the CBC from 1989-2005. He's now working at National Public Radio in North Carolina.