When former British Media Minister John Whittingdale included popular comedy Derry Girls in his list of ‘distinctly British’ TV shows there was much eye-brow raising from both the cast and crew, and the general Irish public. Taking inspiration from Mr Whittingdale, we’ve created this list of our top ten shows that are distinctly Irish.
Probably the most recent edition to the list, this adaptation of Irish author Sally Rooney’s best-selling novel had everybody daydreaming about studying arts in Trinity College and falling in love with boys in GAA jerseys. Seriously, Gucci even released a pair of GAA inspired shorts that retailed at €550 after leading man Paul Mescal was spotted in the Maynooth Gaelic kit.
Taking place in Co. Sligo and Dublin City, with brief stop-offs in the Italian countryside and Stockholm, Normal People is the coming of age tale of Marianne (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connel (Mescal). It follows them from their Sligo schooldays to university life in the capital, charting the ups and downs of their friendship and occasional romance. It’s a familiar plot, but the tenderness and gravity the subject is treated with makes for moving material. Normal People, which was filmed on location in Ireland, is laden with familiar cultural touchstones such as the Debs, school GAA matches, and bumping into your ex at the local Centra. Although it was made for, and aired first on, the BBC (RTÉ premiered it two days later), it was produced in association with Screen Ireland, shot almost entirely in Ireland, and had a largely Irish cast. Of the three main script writers, one of which was Rooney herself, two were Irish. It was later released in full on Hulu for the U.S audience.
Ireland’s most popular serial, as well as its longest running, Fair City was first aired in 1989. A soap opera produced by RTÉ, it centers on the tangled lives of the residents of Carrigstown, a (fictional) suburb of North Dublin. Throughout the 80s and early 90s Fair City originally focused on the Clarke family, the Doyle family, the Kelly family, and the O’Hanlon family as they dealt with the ordinary joys and sorrows of urban working-class Irish life. In the late 1990s, under new producer Niall Matthews, the show began to tackle darker and more controversial subjects such as suicide, sexual assault, and murder. Since the 2000s Fair City has diversified and expanded its range of subjects to include explorations of prejudice against immigrants and ethnic minorities, and throughout the 2010s has highlighted social issues such as homelessness and LGBTQI+ rights.
With over 4,000 episodes over 30 years, and still going, to watch Fair City is to get an unmatched insight into how Irish life has developed over the last three decades.
Created, co-written, and co-starring Irish comic Chris O’Dowd, Moone Boy is a charmingly whacky comedy which revolves around Martin Moone, the youngest sibling and only boy in a chaotic Roscommon family who live in the small town of Boyle in the early 1990s. Martin’s best friend is his imaginary pal Séan (played by O’Dowd) who is his partner in crime and the giver of much questionable advice as Martin stumbles through his early teenage years. Originally airing on Sky One for three seasons between 2012 and 2013, it won an International Emmy for Best Comedy.
With an excellent supporting cast that features Deirdre O’Kane, Peter McDonald and guest appearances from Amy Huberman and Irish pop-star Bressie, Moone Boy is a laugh out loud funny show with a lot of heart. Set at the beginning of the 90s, the show is a snapshot of a changing Ireland as it begins to exit a conservative and financially difficult past- capturing the optimism surrounding the election of first female President Mary Robinson, and the enthusiasm of Ireland’s success in the 1990 World Cup, along with the advent of home computers and other trappings of modern Irish life.
One of RTÉ’s most successful projects ever, Love/Hate exploded onto Irish screens in 2010 with its gritty portrayal of Dublin’s warring gang underworld. Bold, brash, and topical Love/Hate did not shy away from depicting hard drug-use, sexual content, or graphic violence as it told the stories of Darren Treacy, John Boy, Nidge Delaney, and Fran Cooney. The crime drama explored the consequences for the main characters and their friends and families as they got sucked ever deeper into a violent world filled with back-stabbing and betrayal. However, Love/Hate saved itself from being over the top thanks to its well-developed character arcs and fleshed out relationships, which got viewers invested in the destinies of its protagonists as they attempt to keep their heads above the water in increasingly dark circumstances.
Controversial but wildly popular, the programme ran for five seasons, and was Ireland’s most watched show during its second series. It is notable for starring some of Ireland’s leading acting talents of the last decade, such as Ruth Negga, Aidan Gillen, and Robert Sheehan. Love/Hate stands out from the crowd with a picture of Ireland that differs widely from how it’s often stereotyped in media.
No definitive list of Irish television would be complete without a nod to Father Ted. This sitcom starring an unlikely cast of three Irish priests stuck in a parish on a remote island off the West coast of Ireland is enduringly popular. The show follows the titular Father Ted Crilley, who was exiled in disgrace to Craggy Island after a financial scandal. Ted runs the local Catholic parish with the help (or more accurately, hindrance) of his fellow priests, the childlike Father Dougal and ragingly alcoholic Father Jack. The three men live together and are looked after by their anxious, tea-obsessed housekeeper, Mrs Doyle. Father Ted was a side-splitting satire of Irish rural life that poked sly fun at the Catholic Church, which had culturally dominated the country for years. The show still shines thanks to some excellent comic writing and stand-out performances, which manage to outweigh the occasional cringey outdated gag, and it’s fair to say that it’s now considered a cultural institution.
The Late Late Toy Show
The Late Late Show is the second longest-running chat show in the world, first broadcasting on the 6th of July 1962. It’s notable for a lot of things: comedy sketches, musical guests, and shaping public opinion on hot-topic issues for over 50 years. For the children of Ireland, however, it’s most important contribution to Irish society is its annual Christmas special The Late Late Toy Show.
Since 1975 The Late Late Toy Show has been aired at the beginning of the festive season, showcasing some of the most popular toys of the year while also promoting some independent Irish brands. What makes the special episode so charming is that the toys are presented by children hand-picked from across the country, who add considerable humour and often go ‘off-script’ to the delight of the live audience and viewers at home. Host Ryan Tubridy plays off well with his young co-stars- taking their demonstrations very seriously and usually allowing himself to be the butt of some jokes. The Late Late Toy Show is decorated according to a yearly ‘theme’, and also features special guests and performances. Notable celebrity cameos have included Ed Sheeran, Jerry Seinfeld, and The Edge. It is often the most watched show of the year in Ireland and in 2020 was viewed in 138 other countries, mostly by Irish emigrants abroad.
The Young Offenders
Conor MacSweeney and Jock O’Keeffe are two lovable rogues from Cork City who spend their days robbing bicycles and committing other petty crimes in order to distract themselves from difficult circumstances at home.
The Young Offenders began life as a 2016 feature-film, which followed Conor and Jock as they searched for a stash of cocaine that had allegedly gone missing after a drugs bust at sea. The two boys hope to find the missing cocaine, believing that by selling it they will transform their lives.The TV series picks up after the events of the film, following the pair of friends as they navigate life in their disadvantaged neighbourhood and feud with the local police sergeant. The show is largely a comedy, although it does have its more moving moments, such as Conor’s mother’s decision to foster Jock after she realises his abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father.
With consistently good ratings and positive critic reviews, The Young Offenders captures the humour of life in Ireland’s second city.
Broadcasted by RTÉ from 1986 to 2010, and again in 2020, The Den is a cornerstone of Irish childhood for many. Presented first by Ian Dempsey and then by Ray D’Arcy, Damian McCaul and Francis Boylan Jr.,The Den played in segments between children’s programming, with the presenters and friends often introducing and announcing the next show on the schedule. The human host was joined by a cast of now iconic puppets which included Zig and Zag, Dustin the Turkey (who would later run for president and perform in Eurovision), Podge and Rodge, and Socky the Sock Monster.
The Den was mainly made up of quizzes, birthday announcements, art competitions, and short sketches, and it was known for airing new imported TV shows from North America and Australia before other European networks. Its cast of puppets became increasingly popular, with several earning their own spin off shows. The Den is the perfect time capsule of Irish youth from the late 80s all the way through to the 2000s
Ros na Rún
It would be lacking of us to make a list of essential Irish TV without showcasing some of the great Irish-language programming that has been created over the years. Ros na Rún is a soap-opera produced and broadcasted by the Irish language network TG4. Set near the Irish speaking town of An Spidéal in Co.Galway, the soap began its run in 1996 and now has over 26 seasons. It focuses on the personal and professional lives of the inhabitants of the fictional village Ros na Rún. Ros na Rún can be translated in English to mean ‘Wood of Secrets’, and the show certainly lives up to its name as it follows its characters increasingly tangled lives.
Like its fellow Irish soap-opera Fair City, Ros na Rún has tackled several heavy topics over the course of its run including teen pregnancies, infidelity, abortion, drug use, and domestic violence. It also broadcasted the first gay kiss on Irish television during its first year on air. Ros na Rún is an important piece of programming, highlighting modern issues and contemporary life in Irish-speaking Ireland.
And of course, we have Derry Girls. Despite what certain British ex-ministers may think, you cannot watch an episode of Derry Girls without coming away knowing it is Irish through and through. Set during the Northern Ireland Troubles, the show is a coming-of-age comedy that revolves around Erin Quinn, her noisy family, and gang of friends as they try to get on with having average teenage lives during a period of uncertainty and violence. The Quinns and their friends are Irish Catholics, and much of their day-to-day life will look familiar to anyone who lived in Ireland during the 90s: from the St. Brigid’s crosses hanging from car mirrors, to playing hurling at school while dodging sarcastic nuns.
Derry Girls treats The Troubles with a light-touch, only occasionally letting the darkest aspects of Northern Irish history edge into the show to great dramatic effect. The main focus is on Erin and her pals as they go through the normal life milestones of their age: attempting to hold a part-time job, awkward flirting, and keeping out of the way of Mammy’s temper. The show should also be praised for poking fun at and criticising the divide in Northern Ireland, and featuring a number of sympathetic unionist characters.