The Riordans

The Riordans

The Riordans title card
Genre Soap opera
Created by Wesley Burrowes
Country of origin Ireland
Original language(s) English
Location(s) Dunboyne, County Meath, Ireland
Running time 60 minutes
Original network RTÉ One
Original release 4 January 1965 – 28 May 1979

The Riordans was the second Irish soap opera 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.


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] The show was called The Riordans after the name of the central family, who were two middle-aged parents, Tom Riordan and his wife Mary Riordan, together with their oldest son, Benjy and other siblings, including brother Michael and sister Jude, all of whom except Benjy 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.

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.

Series writers

Among the many writers were


  • John Cowley as Tom Riordan
  • Frank O'Donovan as Batty Brennan
  • Tom Hickey as Benjy Riordan
  • Gabriel Byrne as Pat Barry
  • Annie D'Alton as Minnie Brennan
  • Moira Deady as Mary Riordan
  • Tony Doyle as Father Sheehy
  • Johnny Hoey as Francie Maher
  • Mary Kearns as Delia Maher
  • Biddy White Lennon as Maggie Riordan
  • Anna Manahan as
  • Pamela Mant as Mrs Howard
  • Dermot McDowell as Dan Hennessy
  • Chris O'Neill as Michael Riordan
  • Jack O'Reilly as Johnny Mac
  • Gerry Sullivan as Owen Howard
  • Joe Pilkington as Eamonn Maher
  • Ann Rowan as Julia Mac
  • Vincent Smith as Murph
  • Brenda Wilde as Eily Maher
  • as Frank Tracey

Missing Episodes

A controversial policy of RTÉ's in the 1960s and 1970s led to the erasing of previous episodes of old programmes, 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.[3] However some 1960s episodes remain, as do many from the 1970s.


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

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.[4] Local actors included Peter Greene, who played a young boy always in trouble. Many other locals were cast during the many seasons.

Pushing agendas

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'.[5] 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.

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".[6]

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.[7] 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.[8]

Using OBUs

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.[9]'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.[10]

Inspiration for Emmerdale Farm

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.[11] 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.

Axing controversy

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 Seoirse Bodley's orchestral arrangement of the Irish traditional tune, "The Palatine's Daughter".[12] 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. 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.

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. 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.

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.[13]

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, 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. 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), Annie D'Alton (Minnie Brennan), Tony Doyle (Fr. Sheehy), Joe Pilkington (Eamon Maher), Christopher Casson (The Rector) and Jack O'Reilly (Johnny Mac) as well as the retirement from acting of Biddy White Lennon (Maggie Riordan) and the unavailability of Tom Hickey (who does not want to reprise his role of Benjy) and Gabriel Byrne, now a Hollywood actor.


The final 26 episodes of The Riordans was shown in about 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 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.

Rural drama on RTÉ

From the Kennedys of Castleross on radio to The Riordans on television, RTÉ had focused heavily on rural life as a context for its soap operas. The axing of The Riordans was not however the end of rural soaps on RTÉ. A spin-off series, Bracken was launched around Pat Barry (Gabriel Byrne), and which featured Irish actor Niall Toibin, Mick Lally and former Coronation Street actor Joe Lynch (who had played a lover of the Street's Elsie Tanner). After two series, that show was replaced as planned by its own spin-off, Glenroe, which followed the Lally and Lynch characters as they moved from the fictional townland of Bracken to the outskirts of the fictional town of Glenroe. The axing of Glenroe in 2001 brought to an end the tradition of rural soap operas on RTÉ. Since the axing of Glenroe RTÉ have focused on the urban soap opera Fair City, which not only touched on the same themes as Tolka Row thirty years earlier but even starred one of the stars of the earlier urban drama in a new role. However, rural drama remains as strong source of material as seen in On Home Ground (2001–2002), Pure Mule (2005–2009) and the popular detective series Single-Handed (2007 - date).

One of Ireland's most successful screenwriters, Wesley Burrowes, having been responsible for much of the output on The Riordans, was the creator of both Bracken and Glenroe. Some of those associated as writers and directors with The Riordans went on to have successful film and stage careers, including novelist, playwright and screenwriter, Eugene McCabe, playwright Joe O'Donnell, and filmmaker Pat O'Connor.

Later careers of the actors

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

Spin offs


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