TG4, the Irish Gaelic language broadcaster, faces the same struggle for ratings that ‘normal’ broadcasters do, i.e. going for the least expensive programmes.

Jerry White
Jerry White is a professor in Film Studies at the University of Alberta, Canada, and also President of the Canadian Association for Irish Studies.

Independent productions do find their way into the programming of TG4 and as result of these co-productions, a small independent production sector has emerged in the Irish-speaking parts of Galway, Ireland. JERRY WHITE profiles a minority-language broadcaster and its programming.

It was only in 1996 that Ireland’s state-run television service Radio Telefís Éireann (RTÉ) launched Teilifís na Gaeilige (TnaG), which broadcast entirely in that country’s much-romanticised but embattled minority language (around 1% of the Republic of Ireland can claim Irish as an authentic first language). TnaG reorganised into a service called TG4 in 2000, making a number of changes in hopes of boosting flagging ratings. The reorganisation was about making the station more financially viable, even if that meant broadcasting inexpensive, English-language material, like Australian-rules football or late-night cowboy movies.

But one interesting development as the result of TG4’s continued existence has been the emergence and growth of a small independent production sector devoted to making series and one-off productions in Irish. This is in considerable contrast to RTÉ, which has long been criticised for not being open enough to independent producers (although this too has changed over the last little while). Most of these companies are based in the Irish-speaking towns around Galway City (TG4 is itself headquartered in Baile na hAbhann, in County Galway), and this sudden growth has both helped to stimulate a flagging regional economy and placed considerable strain on housing and facilities in these usually very small communities. Some of this material has been highly innovative; indeed, TG4 co-produces with Bord Scannán na hÉireann / Irish Film Board of “Oscailt,” a series of 35mm short fiction films in Irish. But predictably, a lot of this material has been of limited ambition and merely serviceable quality; Irish-language or no, TG4 still has to make the compromises of a ‘normal’ television broadcaster.

Somewhere in between these poles is the Bealach series, a group of travel programmes directed by John Murray and featuring Dermot Somers. These are hour-long documentaries that feature Somers following groups of nomads, struggling to maintain their traditional journeys. The two I was able to see, An Bealach Ó Thuaidh: Siberia (The Path from the North: Siberia) and An Bealach Siar: Sahara (The Westward Path: Sahara), are excellent examples of the possibility for a station like TG4, both in terms of form and subject matter.

Clearances – Ormaig was once the principal settlement on the Isle of Ulva near Mull.

TG4, like a lot of minority-language broadcasters, has a hard time bringing in viewers, and reliance on recognisable forms can seem a logical decision. And the *Bealach films are, in some ways, Discovery-Channel-esque travel documentaries. Somers is at the centre of the programmes, the narrator; he interviews the people he travels with, offers voice-over commentary during montages of stunning landscape shots, and often directly addresses the camera. It is a particularly well-photographed series, and there is more to recommend it than simply the sound of Somers speaking Irish. But it is not formally eccentric; it is in some ways not unlike other adventure travel programmes.

The subject matter is also particularly interesting in the context of minority-language broadcast. Both episodes follow a ‘traditional journey’; the Siberia show follows the Nenet as they move across the frozen Arctic to follow hunting patterns, and the Sahara show follows the Tuareg people as the head across the desert towards Nigeria, in hopes of selling the salt that they mine. The shows make a lot of how these are both ‘traditional journeys’ with centuries of history, and clearly the semi-folkloric aspect of the cultures is of considerable interest to the filmmakers. And it is precisely the accusation of pandering to sentimental folklore (or nationalism) that dogs a lot of projects to revitalise or preserve minority languages. But the Bealach films take a very detailed look at these traditional nomads. At one point in the Sahara show, Somers explains exactly why a lot of the young Tuareg people want to give up the hunt and emigrate to Libya. And the Sahara show has a very long sequence where we see how the Nenet saw off reindeer antlers to sell in China and North America; one of the men doing the sawing compares it to being in the narcotics trade. The interest in these cultures, then, is genuinely internationalist; we learn both about the fight to preserve distinctive ways of life *and we learn about the complex negotiations with modernity that such fights always entail.

This kind of serious, accessible educational programme would be noteworthy no matter what language it was in. That it’s in Irish Gaelic is itself a clear answer to those who think that small, embattled cultures and languages have no place in a globalised world.

 


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