Blood of the Irish; Christianity…

by John Boland

Ninety minutes into Blood of the Irish (RTE1), a two-part investigation into how our ancestors got here, presenter Diarmuid Gavin sat in an ocean-tossed  currach and was suddenly convinced that these early migrants must have “come by boat.”

This was probably news to anyone who’d assumed that they’d arrived on a Ryanair flight, but to the rest of us it merely confirmed that, like Sybil Fawlty, Diarmuid’s real subject was the bleedin’ obvious. Or was I the only viewer who had long taken for granted the substance of Diarmuid’s overall thesis – that the human race probably originated in Africa and that, for whatever reason, some of these people had travelled to the European mainland and from there to England and Ireland?

This, though, was so new and exciting to Diarmuid that he repeated it every five minutes during the course of the opening instalment and every ten minutes during the concluding part. “Just who were the first Irish?” Diarmuid kept asking as if we’d been constantly nodding off every time he’d previously put the question – an understandable assumption on his part, especially given the film’s tedious unrelenting and tedious reliance on flashy editing and on dramatic reconstructions that involved actors dressed as stone-age hippies traipsing morosely through bogs.

In the end, after some genealogical experts had taken DNA samples from a group of Irish schoolchildren, Diarmuid summed it all up – our original European ancestors, driven to more clement climes during the last ice age, had probably arrived here from northern Iberia. To demonstrate the point, Diarmuid whipped out some photos he’d recently taken of Basque people and, what do you know, they looked just like us. So it’s not just the sun and the cheap booze that draws us all to Spain – they’re also part of who we are.

So where does our Christianity come from? That wasn’t in Diarmuid’s brief, but it mightily exercised Howard Jacobson in the first instalment of Channel 4’s Christianity: A History. Actually, the series is not so much a history lesson as a sequence of personal essays, with future instalments to be presented by Michael Portillo and Ann Widdicombe, among others.

Jacobson focused on the jewishness of Jesus, arguing that Christianity had its origins in devout Judaism and that for Jews this appropriation of their basic beliefs had been a “calamity” – not least because this hijacking of their faith has always been Christianity’s “guilty secret,” the guilt leading to a vehement persecution and spurning of Jews.

Over on RTE2, Richard Dawkins wasn’t bothering his head with such inter-faith battles. For Dawkins, any sort of religion is a Very Bad Thing, and in The Root of All Evil (first seen on Channel 4), he lets believers of all hues have it with both barrels. “Irrational faith,” he raged, “is feeding a murderous intolerance throughout the world.” Given the level of ill-will on our planet and the contribution of religious hatred towards this, it’s hard to argue with his thesis, but one can’t help baulking at the intolerance with which he expresses it.

Having dismissed last week’s edition of The Great Escape (RTE1) in half a sentence, I found myself warming to this week’s story, primarily because it featured people about whom it was possible to care. It began with the attempts of Barbara and her Welsh partner Lee to sell their Knocklyon house – not easy in an economic downturn. When they finally accepted the only price on offer they set off for the Costa Blanca with their two young daughters and with Barbara’s 16-year-old son Marti, whose cystic fibrosis had been crucial in their decision to settle in a warmer climate.

The boy’s unhappiness at being separated from girlfriend and schoolpals was touchingly evoked, but you also got the real sense of a loving family who, happily for the viewer, were also very likeable. As the film ended, the parents and little girls seemed to be making a real go of their new life and one wished them well. The son, though, was still intent on returning to Ireland. You wished him well, too.

Five Women Go Back to Work (RTE1) does exactly what it says in the title, sending five women who’ve been out of employment for the last few years back into the workforce – in this case, a publishing firm where their attempt to set up a magazine is being monitored by a couple of smug know-alls in charge. So far the viewer has learned that it’s not easy to return to work when you’re middle-aged and have been out of the loop for some time. This isn’t exactly an astonishing revelation and not exactly a compelling series, but the chosen women make for agreeable company.

TG4’s Eochair an Chra is a reality show in which a prospective suitor takes a look around the houses of three candidates and, from the evidence of what’s contained in their abodes,  chooses one of them for an assignation. In other words, it’s Blind Date meets Through the Keyhole, but it’s winningly overseen by presenter Eibhlin Ni Chonghaile and psychologist Kevin O hEadhra and I watched it with pleasure, while reflecting that on RTE such a show would be so overloaded with gimmickry and so dependent on a pushy host as to be unbearable.

There were no gimmicks, either, in the first instalment of TG4’s Craiceann Geal Croi Marbh in which Dermot Somers is following the first expedition through Australia in the 1860s led by Irishman  Robert O’Hara Burke, whose “good breeding” and military background didn’t qualify him for the task. The quirky Somers is an enlivening and informative guide and the photography is stunning.

Countdown (Channel 4) is back, this time with Sky’s soccer moutermouth Jeff Stelling in the chair and with leggy blond mathematician Rachel Riley doing Carol Vorderman’s chores. They seem an agreeable duo, and Rachel will certainly have her male admirers, but I’m afraid Countdown died when Richard Whiteley passed away and there’s no use pretending otherwise. Perpetuating the show with newcomers is like Morecame and Wise without either Eric or Ernie.

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