The year is 1990. David O’Leary, the ageing Irish defender, steps up to the penalty spot as he stares down a swarthy, be-mulleted Romanian goalkeeper. As the opening bars of There She Goes by The La’s play out, O’Leary slots the ball into the top right corner of the goal, a beautiful end to a tense penalty shootout that secures Ireland’s place in the quarter-finals of its first ever World Cup. We see images of an old man crying tears of joy, crowded pubs exploding with unadulterated happiness as the drama plays out on the big screen, and young men and women driving through the streets manically waving tricolours in celebration.
This moving sequence from Reeling in the Years is the main reason I count the summer of 1990 as one of the best of my life. And I was born in 1993. Viewed within a half-hour episode of neatly curated nostalgia, Italia 90 seems like a national triumph that signaled an end to Ireland’s grim 1980s, and the opening salvo to our perceived dominance of international pop culture in the 1990s – Riverdance, the Corrs, the Cranberries, Sinead O’Connor, U2, four Eurovision wins in five years, Boyzone, Westlife, B*Witched – accompanied by our ill-fated economic boom.
The fact that I know more about Ireland’s performance at a tournament that took place three years before I was born than I do about any major sporting event since then shows the show’s ability to shape our perception of the recent Irish past. Along with Indiana Jones and Horrible Histories, it’s probably one of the main reasons I went on to study history in college. Originally conceived as a cheap, in-house method of filling our TV screens during the summer months while the casts of Nationwide and Ear to the Ground took a well-deserved break, a couple of RTE producers unknowingly created a phenomenon in Reeling in the Years. The concept is devastatingly simple: each episode covers a single calendar year, in which major domestic and international events – political, economic, cultural, sporting, serious, light-hearted – are spliced together from RTE’s archive footage. These events are tersely explained by onscreen subtitles, while hit songs play throughout the episode, matched with the events on screen.
Played in chronological order, every weekday of every summer after the 6.1 News, RITY is how many of the generation who came of age after 2000 first learned about the Troubles, endless waves of emigration, our erstwhile ability to win Eurovision on demand, and every other cultural and political trope built up in the national psyche over the last few decades. In short, it’s one of the main ways we first learned about recent Irish history (and certainly the only one that has spawned a drinking game – I can confirm that the Junior Cert textbook The Past Today is nowhere near as popular when produced with a flourish at pre-drinks). Because of this, it’s interesting to note how the show’s interpretation of the last two decades was shaped by the subjectivity of its creators, who are as prone to bias, intentional or otherwise, as anyone else is when they create historical material. This is particularly true when we look at the differences between the 1990s episodes, produced in 2000, and those from the 2000s, produced ten years later in a drastically different Ireland.
The narrative tone of RITY’s interpretation of the 1990s is understandable, since all episodes from 1962 (the year of RTE’s first TV broadcasts) to 1999 were made together in 2000, when Ireland was riding the plentiful waves of the early Celtic Tiger. The producers had reason to feel optimistic about the most recent decade, because Ireland was in the middle of an unprecedented boom. The economy was skyrocketing, a lasting peace settlement had been established in Northern Ireland, and Richard Curtis apparently couldn’t make a romantic comedy without including at least two fiddles-and-flutes infused Irish pop songs on the soundtrack.
But while the 1990s are portrayed as a joyous period of Ireland finally coming into its own, nationally and internationally, the 2000s have a much darker tone. Aside from the obvious international tragedies – most notably 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terror – the Irish-specific content is filled with a quiet sense of impending doom as each episode of the decade moves ever closer to the economic crisis, the unspoken crash hinted at throughout the early episodes. Again, the darker tone of this decade is understandable, since these episodes were made in 2010, when the sunny outlook of a decade earlier had been replaced by a grimmer mood in the midst of yet another serious economic crisis.
By 2010, the 13-year-old government’s inadequacies had been starkly exposed by the global financial crisis, and our own housing and banking crises, soon followed by the indignity of an IMF bailout in November 2010. These events were exacerbated by a parade of political embarrassments that, in hindsight, made the Fianna Fáil tent at the Galway Races reminiscent of the wedding scene in The Godfather, complete with dodgy requests and shady payments. Revelations concerning the corruption of Bertie Ahern, Charlie Haughey and many others, coupled with Brian Cowen doing a live interview sounding somewhere on the spectrum between drunk and hungover, all made for a much more sombre take on Irish politics than that given in the RITY episodes produced a decade earlier.
The 2007 episode, portraying the year the house of cards that was our economic miracle began to spectacularly unravel, is a case in point. Whereas the production team decided back in 2000 to put Bertie Ahern’s 1994 election as leader of Fianna Fail to the music of a half-forgotten song called Here Come the Good Times (you can’t make it up), Bertie’s 2007 appearances at the Mahon Tribunal regarding corrupt payments play out to the tune of Razorlight’s Before I Fall to Pieces, as the Taoiseach smiles at the cameras and declares “not a bother on me!” to journalists and the guards as he struts into Dublin Castle. The message from the producers is hardly subtle, and it’s a cringeworthy sequence to watch as Ireland moves closer and closer towards the economic cliff edge waiting just around the corner, complete with a reminder of developer Sean Dunne’s never-built Ballsbridge skyscraper.
The producers continue poking fun at our hubris later in the episode, as Fergie’s Glamorous accompanies a piece about the thousands of Irish shoppers who regularly flew to New York City on weekend shopping trips, a particularly Dionysian folly that has inspired groans of collective embarrassment ever since. We’d rather forget the hedonistic atmosphere that led many to believe weekend shopping trips to New York City were not only normal, but almost necessary on an annual basis.
Finally, we watch David McWilliams warn Pat Kenny of our impending doom to the tune of the Killers’ Read My Mind. Northern Rock bank collapses in the UK while our own Central Bank governor confidently tells the media that “we don’t see the same issues in Ireland”, because our banks are strong and very profitable. In fact, the banks do record huge profits in 2007: Brian Goggin warns us not to talk ourselves into a recession for no reason, while Anglo Irish Bank’s Sean Fitzpatrick commends the “pro-business government” on its successes, warning that too much regulation, rather than too little, will cause a recession. Watched in full, the 2007 episode gives the impression that the producers are giving a knowing wink to the viewer, painfully aware of the economic disaster that is about to unfold.
When compared with the show’s treatment of the 1990s, it’s clear how one’s own position in time radically alters our interpretation of past events. How any person views the past is greatly coloured by the present, and Reeling in the Years is a particularly clear demonstration of this historical phenomenon. When we watch the 1990 episode of Reeling in the Years, we’re really watching how a small group of people interpreted that year’s events from the vantage point of 2000, with all the baggage and bias accompanying that interpretation. Similarly, the 2007 episode tells us as much about how we saw ourselves in 2010 as it does about 2007. That year might not be viewed with such irony and regret if the crash hadn’t hit Ireland so hard, if this nation of eejits didn’t need to be reminded of how we let the government burn money while the European Commission constantly warned us to tone it down as early as 2001. Hindsight is 20/20 vision, and so the producers can have something of a laugh at our collective expense in the 2000s episodes, because they know how the story of our economic miracle comes to a crashing halt.
You sometimes hear people wondering what the 2016 episode of Reeling in the Years will look like, or how any given year or event will be portrayed by the producers in 2020 when they will presumably make the next batch of episodes. It’s important to note how our future perception of this decade will also be shaped by how we are presented it, in this case in half-hour episodes neatly and formulaically trimmed and put to music by the same all-knowing producers who shaped the image of the 1990s for a whole generation that can barely remember the decade. Much of this depends on what state Ireland and the world will be in in 2020, but as with any other historical medium, Reeling in the Years is really teaching us about multiple time periods, not just one.
Illustration: Sarah Moloney