There was much talk in Ireland in the 1950’s about having an Irish Television station of our own. Towards the end of the decade definite plans began to take shape and the outline of a new television station began to emerge.
The policy of the new station was widely discussed. Should the new Authority be completely independent? What should be the attitude towards government and possible church interference?
In order to protect the interest of the Church the Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid decided to try and get a Dublin priest appointed to the new Board of the station so he sent 2 priests, Fr. Joe Dunn and Fr. Desmond Forristal to London and New York for training. However, the Director General Kevin McCourt thought otherwise and he appointed a Dominican Order priest Fr. Romuald Dodd instead. So instead of becoming religious advisors the two Dublin priests became television film makers themselves. And so, the Radharc independent documentary film company was born.
The first films were transmitted on 12th January 1962- just 12 days after the station opened on January 1st. The programme consisted on 3 short 10 minute films linked together to make a half hour programme. The films were about Croagh Patrick, the story of the Mass Rock and ‘Men’s Sodality’ – a group that swelled to a thousand members in the parish of Sean McDermott Street in Dublin.
In the first 17 years, up to 1979, 145 films were made in Ireland and 25 other countries all around the world. Films such as ‘Christy Brown, My Left Foot’, ‘Honesty at the Fair’, Matt Talbot, ‘Down and out in Dublin’ and ‘Fr. Casey of Abbeyfeale’ about the Land War. Abroad they made 12 films in Africa, 9 in North America, 6 in the Philippines and 5 in Australia to mention but a few.
By the late 1970’s Radharc was firmly established as one of the most popular programmes on Irish Television. Press reports were glowing …”outstandingly successful”, “distilled television”…”brilliant documentary reporting” and so on. The programmes ranked with The Late Late Show in the audience Tam ratings charts.
In the period from 1980 to 1996 the remaining 280 films were made, again in countries all over the world. In a period of 16 years a further 50 countries were added to this list. This period was more prolific than the first 17 years. Approximately 1 complete programme was made and ready for transmission every three weeks. Some achievement for a small independent film company! It was done by the employment of lay men and women with experience in reporting and film making and with the help of a number of missionary congregations whose priests and nuns prepared the ground, located the important people to interview and arranged meetings in advance for the team.
Many notable documentaries were made during this period. Films such as ‘When Ireland Starved’ – a film in four parts about the great Irish Famine of the 1840’s, ‘Who is for Liberation’ dealing with Liberation Theology and featuring Archbishop, now Blessed Oscar Romero. ‘Grosse Isle – Gateway and Graveyard’ made in Newfoundland, where up to 10,000 Irish men and women who died from famine and disease on the perilous journey across the Atlantic are now buried. Another significant group of 5 films were those made in 1987 in the Holy Land introduced by Richard Crowley, now of RTE.
As well as political and social subjects the Radharc team also became noted for historical documentaries, especially the series of 17 films researched and directed by Fr. Liam Swords a history scholar and one time rector of the Irish College in Rome. Films such as ‘Michael O’Cleary and the Annals of the Four Masters’ and ‘The Story of the Celtic Monasteries’ both introduced by Cyril Cusack are included in this series.
Thus the subject matter of Radharc Films was always an interesting mixture of themes keeping audiences informed about matters in the worlds of Faith, Spirituality, History and Heritage in Ireland and around the world.
Production only halted when the health of Producer/Director Joe Dunn failed at last in 1996. A final series of ‘Radharc in Retrospect’ programmes was broadcast on Irish television in 1997, presenting edited highlights from the vintage years of Radharc’s output with a characteristic dash of humour; a return of sorts, to the company’s first foray into the magazine style.