The Riordans

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The Riordans
The Riordans title card.jpg
Title card
GenreDrama serial
Created byJames Douglas
Country of originIreland
Original languageEnglish
Production locationsDunboyne, County Meath, Ireland
Running time60 minutes
Original networkRTÉ One
Original release4 January 1965 (1965-01-04) –
28 May 1979 (1979-05-28)

The Riordans was the second Irish television drama serial made by Raidio Telefís Éireann (then called Telefís Éireann). It ran from 1965 to 1979 and was set in the fictional townland of Leestown in County Kilkenny. Its location filming with Outside Broadcast Units, rather than using only TV studios, broke the mould of broadcasting in the soap opera genre and inspired the creation of its British equivalent, Emmerdale Farm (now called Emmerdale) by Yorkshire Television in 1972.


The show was called The Riordans after the name of the central family, consisting of the middle-aged parents, Tom and Mary, and their oldest son, Benjy, as well as the latter's siblings Michael and Jude, who had left farming for other careers and had more adventurous personal lives. Other leading characters included the family doctor, his Protestant gentry-born wife, the (radical Vatican II-oriented) Catholic priest, the conservative Church of Ireland rector, the local pub owner, some nomadic Irish Travellers and others.




In 1964 the fledgling Telefís Éireann had launched Tolka Row, a soap opera set in a working class part of Dublin. Its success was immediate, with its actors becoming household names. One year later, aware that Ireland was still a largely rural country, and of the immense popularity of rural-based radio shows on RTÉ Radio (then called Radio Éireann), notably The Kennedys of Castleross Telefís Éireann decided to create a new rural soap opera, set on a family farm. Located in Dunboyne, The Flathouse, owned by the Connolly family, was the setting for this programme.

Christopher Fitz-Simons was the show's first executive producer.[1] The drama was written by James Douglas and later Wesley Burrowes, who derived much of his inspiration from engaging with and observing the lives of the locals in Kells, County Kilkenny.[2]

Part of the success of the series was because many of the leading actors were themselves from the background they represented. John Cowley, who played the patriarch of the family, Tom Riordan was from real farming stock in Ardbraccan in County Meath and many of the issues his character had to deal with reflected his own life experiences in rural Ireland. Actor Tom Hickey, who played Benjy was from County Kildare in the midlands and also had personal experience of life in the part of the country in which the programme was set.[citation needed]

Among the many series writers were James Douglas (the creator of the show), Wesley Burrowes, Pat O'Connor, Eugene McCabe, and Tom Coffey


The Riordans proved to be a revolutionary television programme, both in Ireland and internationally. Its most dramatic innovation was in the use of OBUs (Outside Broadcast Units) to film most of each episode on location in the countryside. This was a marked innovation. Previously soap operas had all been studio-based, with even supposed exterior filming all done with studio sets built in sound stages.[3]'On location' filming was up to that point avoided for technical and financial reasons; firstly on location filming was reliant on weather conditions, which meant it was difficult to manage costs. Secondly costs of transporting sets, wardrobe, cameras, and film made on location shooting more expensive, while the extra time involved in transporting edited footage back to studio, in the days before satellite links, also meant that on location shoots, unless taking place beside the studio, were avoided. Thirdly, recording sound was thought to be more complicated in an open environment, and much easier on closed studio sound stages.

Telefís Éireann decided however to film most of The Riordans on location given that creating a farm set was not possible around the Dublin city studios at Montrose. Even if space had been available, it would have been impossible to mask the city sounds (traffic, aeroplanes overhead, Garda Síochána (police) sirens, etc.). However to speed up the process of getting the film back to studio for editing, it filmed the programme on a farm near Dunboyne in County Meath, even though it set it in County Kilkenny, which was further away.

In 1975 the programme began to be filmed and transmitted in colour, having been available in monochrome only up to then.[4]

Influence on other shows[edit]

The successful use of OBUs to film The Riordans made international waves in broadcasting, given that all soap operas elsewhere, notably Coronation Street, were entirely studio-based. In the early 1970s, Yorkshire Television, which, aware of the success of The Riordans, was planning its own rural-based soap opera, travelled to Ireland to see how The Riordans was made on location. Its new soap, Emmerdale Farm (in 1989 renamed Emmerdale) was heavily influenced by what its makers had learnt from watching the making of The Riordans.[5] By the late 1970s and 1980s, first Coronation Street, then EastEnders and most dramatically Brookside were influenced in their greater use (or in the case of Brookside complete use) of on location filming started by The Riordans and brought to Britain by Emmerdale Farm.[citation needed]

Recurring themes[edit]

As with all soap operas, The Riordans was centred on various tensions, rivalries and relationships. Among the central ones were

  • generational - conservative parents (Tom and Mary) and radical young son and heir (Benjy); Batty Brennan and his wife Minnie Brennan, as the old people in the community, against everyone else.
  • mother versus son - Mary against Benjy, which some critics likened to John Millington Synge's The Playboy of the Western World;[citation needed]
  • liberal versus conservative - radical priest Father Sheehy versus his older parishioners; conservative parents Tom and Mary against liberal children Michael and Jude; conservative Catholic Tom and Mary versus their contraception-using daughter-in-law, Maggie Riordan;
  • outsider versus insider - the Riordan family, with their middle class farming background, against orphan Maggie, wife of Benjy; members of the nomadic Irish traveller community versus the settled, non-nomadic farming community;
  • Class - well-to-do characters like the Church of Ireland upper middle class wife of the doctor, Mrs. Howard, and the middle class farming Riordans, against farm labourers Batty Brennan and Eamonn Maher.
  • community gossip - as with most soaps, The Riordans contained a 'local gossip' character, Minnie Brennan, who, typically for such characters, proclaimed no interest in gossip at all, but nevertheless became the source of local information on the lives and loves of the community.

One additional twist to the series was that the elderly gossip, Mrs Brennan, though considerably older than all the other characters (and actors) in the series except her onscreen 'husband' Batty Brennan (he had to be written out of the series suddenly when the actor playing him died), was played by the elderly Annie D'Alton, the real-life wife of John Cowley, Tom Riordan, the lead middle aged character. The striking difference in ages of the couple (she was his senior by twenty years, and as Minnie Brennan was made to look even older through make-up) became a source of comment among viewers, as some noted in letters to the show that she was old enough on screen to convincingly play his mother.[6] Local actors included Peter Greene, who played a young boy always in trouble. Many other locals were cast during the many seasons.

Pushing agendas[edit]

Irish broadcasting in the 1960s and 1970s reflected the clash of ideas between elements of traditional rural Catholic society and new liberal ideas coming from the United States, Britain and Catholicism itself through the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Conservatives within RTÉ associated with the Knights of Columbanus clashed with liberals and with Marxists associated with Official Sinn Féin, over the content of programmes, through the extent to which the ultimate liberal victory was a product of one side infiltrating the station more successfully than the other is disputed, with one academic saying that the liberal win represented only the triumph of the 'liberal consensus'.[7] However, then-leading OSF intellectual Eoghan Harris suggests that left-wing radicalism was of crucial importance in shaping RTÉ's output in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.[citation needed]

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.

In the words of academic Dr Finola Kennedy, The Riordans "introduced one of the most sensitive issues in rural family life – the links between property, farm ownership and marriage at the very time of the debate on the Succession Bill".[8]

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.[9] Moreover, 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.[10]

Axing controversy[edit]

The show underwent a number of changes in the mid-1970s, most notably moving from a half-hour to one-hour format, as well as a change in theme tune. The music originally used to introduce each episode was Seóirse Bodley's orchestral arrangement of the Irish traditional tune, "The Palatine's Daughter".[11] The decision of the actor Tom Hickey to leave the series caused some problems. His character, Benjy was not killed off but went abroad "on the missions" (i.e., to work with the Catholic Church in Africa). A new farm labourer, played by new actor Gabriel Byrne, was introduced in 1978 and he played the love-interest for Maggie, Benjy's wife, who had remained after refusing to go to Africa with him. While the show had declined somewhat from its heyday, it still regularly battled with The Late Late Show to top the TAM ratings and was itself surprised when one episode, which unusually departed from the 1970s and focused on Tom Riordan as a young man in the 1930s at a family céilí, was critically acclaimed by the media and many older viewers, who viewed it as an accurate representation of life on an Irish farm in the 1930s and 1940s.[citation needed] With its considerable popularity, large cast of respected actors and high production values, and its central location on the schedules of RTÉ 1, few expected the show to be axed, let alone so suddenly.[citation needed]

There was however considerable surprise, and a lot of criticism, when the new Director of Programming at RTÉ, Muiris MacConghail decided that the show had run its course and so axed it. Part of the justification was cost: it was one of RTÉ's most expensive shows to make. With the launch of RTÉ 2 in 1978 the station believed that it needed to produce more shows for its limited budget as a small station, and it could not do that if The Riordans took up much of the budget.[citation needed] Critics however suggested that RTÉ had failed to market the show internationally and that, given the size of the Irish diaspora internationally, all interested in 'home', it could have had an international market among stations in countries with large Irish audiences, with its sale recouping much of the cost involved in its making.[citation needed]

The public, the media and politicians all criticised the axing of one of the most popular shows on RTÉ. However, notwithstanding the outcry, and condemnation by John Cowley who argued that the cast had been badly treated, the last television episode was broadcast on RTÉ television in May 1979.

Fine Gael TD Tom Enright, during a 1980 debate in Dáil Éireann said of the decision:

"The Riordans", one of the finest programmes that I can remember seeing and was most enjoyable, was dropped from television some time ago. It touched on many important social aspects of not just rural Irish life but all aspects of Irish life. It incorporated many delicate matters and matters which people shied away from and it was an in-depth study of life in Ireland. I am certain that the cost factor had a lot to do with the removal of this programme, but it was a mistake to remove it and this is evident when we see some of the programmes that replace it on the television service.[12]

The show was resurrected for RTÉ Radio 1 as a fifteen-minute daily show where it lasted a few years. The move to radio allowed some of the older actors to retire, while departed characters, such as Benjy and Eamon, could be brought back, albeit not with the original actors but with actors who sounded like the person who played them in the television series, Jonathan Ryan as Benjy and Mick Lally as Eamon. The Riordans was later dropped from the radio schedules as part of a re-organisation of the schedules.

The series was replaced by a spin-off series Bracken, which saw Gabriel Byrne's character move from Kilkenny to Wicklow. Bracken became the second in a trilogy of agricultural soaps/dramas produced by RTÉ, the final such soap being Glenroe.

While occasional media reports have wondered whether the show should return, notably when the independent TV3 was launched and was seeking to capture the audience, something it might have done had it had The Riordans in its schedule, there is in reality little chance of its return, given the death of some of its leading actors, including John Cowley (Tom Riordan), Chris O'Neill (Michael Riordan), Moira Deady, (Mary Riordan), Annie D'Alton (Minnie Brennan), Tony Doyle (Fr. Sheehy), Joe Pilkington (Eamon Maher), Christopher Casson (The Rector), Jack O'Reilly (Johnny Mac), Biddy White Lennon (Maggie Riordan) and Tom Hickey, as well as the unavailability of Gabriel Byrne, now a Hollywood actor[citation needed].


The final 26 episodes of The Riordans( which were cut in 2 which resulted in 52 30mins episodes) was shown From October 1980 on the various ITV regions - for the most part, in most areas, it was shown three times a week, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 12:30 - most regions temporarily dropped Australian wartime drama The Sullivans, which had been aired in that timeslot in most regions, to accommodate The Riordans. In London region, the series was only screen weekly on Monday finishing on 12 October 1981. In the Tyne Tees region, The Sullivans continued to air on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 12:30, but The Riordans aired on Wednesdays only - they gradually fell behind the network as a result. It was dropped from that timeslot after a while - only to continue in the 3:45 slot on Tuesday afternoons (a brief narrated refresher course was provided) and carried on in that slot until the final episode.

The Riordans was a key development in late 20th century television drama, because, as well as giving RTÉ its first experience of how to create a long-running soap opera, its use of OBUs changed the methodology by which later soaps in both Britain and Ireland were made. It embodied the changing Ireland of its period. When it was first broadcast, the reforming Seán Lemass was Taoiseach. When it finished, his son-in-law - the controversial Charles Haughey - was months from becoming Taoiseach. The Riordans covered a period of rapid transition in Irish life, from an agrarian, protectionist Ireland of the early 1960s to membership of the European Economic Community and so a rapidly changing rural economy in the 1970s. In the 1960s, Ireland was still rural, conservative and Catholic, with storylines like a character going on the Pill containing a shock value unthinkable a decade later. By the late 1970s, Ireland was becoming less rural, less conservative and less Catholic. Ironically, one of the biggest shock issues of the early show, the use of contraception, became less of a shock when in 1979 the provision of contraception was legalised, albeit with tight controls, in the very year the show was taken off air.

The changing nature of Irish society was shown in the soap operas that replaced The Riordans. After the short interregnum Bracken, came Glenroe, another 'rural' show set, unlike The Riordans, on the fringes of a town close to Dublin, with some characters living in an urban housing estate. Even the central characters, a farmer and his father Miley Byrne and Dinny Byrne, blurred the urban and rural worlds in a way that Tom Riordan never did, by turning their farm into an open farm for urban people to visit, and selling their produce in their own shop in the local town. After two decades that show itself was axed, leaving RTÉ with only one major homegrown soap opera, one that has no rural aspect at all, and is set in inner-city Dublin, Fair City.

Missing episodes[edit]

A controversial[according to whom?] policy that was in force for the network in the 1960s and 1970s led to the erasing of previous episodes, so that the expensive video that had been used to record them could be reused. As a result, little remains of RTÉ's 1960s output, with shows like The Riordans, The Late Late Show and others routinely wiped after broadcast.[13]

Later careers of the actors[edit]

Some of the actors had distinguished careers after the axing of The Riordans.

  • After Bracken Gabriel Byrne went to the United States where he became a successful film actor.
  • Tony Doyle, Father Sheehy, who had left the series in the mid-1970s, became a successful television actor with the BBC, starring in among other shows Ballykissangel, before dying suddenly aged 58 on the brink of his biggest television role yet.
  • John Cowley worked largely in films, playing "the auctioneer" in John B. Keane's The Field with Richard Harris and also on stage. Cowley also continued with his lifelong campaign against coursing and other blood sports. He died in 1998.
  • Annie D'Alton, Minnie Brennan, who was Cowley's much older wife in real life, died in 1983.
  • Chris O'Neill, Michael Riordan, worked for some years as agent for Gabriel Byrne. He died in the United States in 1991.
  • Biddy White Lennon, Maggie Riordan, left acting and became a successful author and publisher of cookery books; she died in November, 2017.
  • Tom Hickey was an acclaimed stage and film actor. He died in May 2021.
  • Moira Deady went on to act in Glenroe, the spin-off show that came from Bracken, the spin-off from The Riordans. She also starred in a number of films, including Angela's Ashes.

Spin offs[edit]


  1. ^ "A trip down TV's memory lane -". Archived from the original on 29 April 2014. Retrieved 28 April 2014.
  2. ^ "Camera crew visit Kells to remember the Riordans - Kilkenny People". Archived from the original on 29 April 2014. Retrieved 28 April 2014.
  3. ^ The Independent
  4. ^ "Irish TV The Story of Irish Television" Archived 4 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine Irish
  5. ^ "The plough and the stars: How TV's revolutionary Riordans changed Ireland -". Archived from the original on 21 October 2013. Retrieved 28 April 2014.
  6. ^ "Tradition of family drama dates back to 'The Riordans' -". Archived from the original on 29 April 2014. Retrieved 28 April 2014.
  7. ^ "'Soap Opera and Social Order: Glenroe, Fair City and Contemporary Ireland' by Dr. Dr Helena Sheehan. A paper given at IMAGINING IRELAND conference, Irish Film Centre, Dublin, 31 October 1993". Archived from the original on 7 March 2005. Retrieved 30 May 2005.
  8. ^ Finola Kennedy, Cottage to Crèche: Family Change in Ireland (Dublin: Institute of Public Administration, 2001) pp. 302. Price: €30.47
  9. ^ Dáil Éireann - Volume 220 - 1 February 1966 Private Members' Business. - Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Bill, 1965: Second Stage (Resumed) Archived 23 March 2007 at the Wayback Machine Dáil Éireann - Volume 257 - 24 November 1971 Archived 27 November 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ "Irish Independent report on release of state papers containing file on civil service criticism of The Riordans". Archived from the original on 5 April 2006. Retrieved 31 May 2005.
  11. ^ "Ceolta Éireann CD". Archived from the original on 3 January 2010. Retrieved 19 December 2009.
  12. ^ Dáil Éireann - Volume 324 – 18 November 1980 Archived 27 November 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ "Meath Chronicle - Remembering 'The Riordans"". Archived from the original on 24 June 2015. Retrieved 28 April 2014.

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