Cast your mind back to May 2001. Ireland, and the wider world, were very different places. Internationally, we were all focused on an Israeli-Palestinian struggle, and Pope John Paul II’s visit to Syria in an attempt to forge relations. Meanwhile at home, Ireland was in the midst of the foot and mouth breakout, a crisis which shook the agricultural world to its very core. And in terms of our television viewing habits, Ireland was about to say goodbye to a very old friend.
Twenty-one years ago this week, on May 6th 2001, RTÉ’s Glenroe aired its final episode, concluding its eighteen year run. Set in the fictional rural Wicklow town of the same name, Glenroe was a window to much of the rest of the country as to what it was like to live in an agricultural, rural-based setting. The show was a spinoff of the popular series ‘Bracken’ which aired between 1980 and 1982, and featured two of its main protagonists – Dinny Byrne played by the legendary Joe Lynch, and Miley Byrne portrayed by the incomparable Mick Lally. The early years of the programme were mostly focused on the blossoming romance and marriage between Miley and Biddy McDermott, played by the brilliant Mary McEvoy. The rest of the cast was ensemble was also largely a who’s who of Irish stage and screen. The programme aired on Sunday nights at 8.30pm on RTÉ One between September and May each year; its scheduling nowadays often the subject of a joke suggesting that the famous theme tune acted as a reminder to schoolchildren throughout the country that they didn’t have their homework completed for the following morning.
Throughout the lifespan of the show, it enjoyed huge ratings, often second only to The Late Late Show. Although it was sometimes criticised by predominantly urban communities for its lack of diversity, the programme often dealt with a number of issues and topics that were up until that time still considered taboo.
One such example was the affair between Mary McDermott and Dick Moran in the 1980’s; the controversial storyline came at a time when divorce was still illegal in Ireland, and the Catholic church’s role in society was still very much at large. Another storyline which was previously unexplored in any other guise, was that of a traveller wedding occurring in the town. Indeed, even the last episode had its own twist, as the long-serving priest of the series, Fr. Tim Devereux, left the clergy to marry a woman.
By the late 90’s, the show’s average peak audience of over a million viewers had halved, although interestingly this was still a strong enough showing to often remain in the most watched programmes of the week. Following the departure of two of the show’s biggest stars in Joe Lynch and Mary McEvoy in 2000, the show was in an inevitable decline. According to a documentary that aired about the programme in 2015, one of the biggest contributing factors to the decline was the decision taken by the show’s producers in the mid-90’s to make the show more plot-driven as opposed to character-driven, akin to the changing landscape of soaps in Britain such as Coronation Street and Emmerdale. Couple with this, RTÉ’s continuing interest in the urban drama Fair City, it seemed that the drama’s time was wearing thin. On January 19th 2001, the show’s cancellation was announced by RTÉ. The final episode (see below) was broadcast some four months later, as Miley and his daughters drove off into the sunset for the last time. Fittingly, the final line of dialogue from the entire series was Mylie’s catchphrase “Well Holy God”.
As television viewership continues to decline across the board, particularly for soap operas, could a revamped version of Glenroe be a ratings winner in 2022 Ireland? We may never know.