Incalculable good, irreparable harm: RTÉ, the St. Brigid’s Cross and the significations of domesticity.

New Year’s Eve, 1961 7.00 p.m. and the first words to be heard by a grateful nation on Telefis Éireann were the following read by Éamon de Valera.

“I am privileged in being the first to address you on our new service, Telefis Éireann. I hope the service will provide for you all the sources of recreation and pleasure but also information, instruction and knowledge. I must admit that sometimes when I think of Television and Radio and their immense power, I feel somewhat afraid. Like atomic energy, it can be used of incalculable good, but it can also do irreparable harm. never before was there in the hands of men an instrument so powerful to influence the thoughts and actions of the multitude”.

And accompanying those words was a simple stark image that was to remain the visual signifier for RTÉ for the best part of three decades afterwards.

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This was the St. Brigid’s Cross. This symbol woven from rushes or straw was a feature of Irish houses for centuries. The first record of it dates from the 17th century, although some believe that the genesis of the Cross was in pagan sunwheels. But in it’s more recent incarnation it has an interesting symbolism which links in part to the mythos around St. Brigid who is the second patron saint of Ireland and as a woman embodied a range of significations. According to legend St. Brigid wove a cross in order to convert a dying man to Christianity.

Édith Cusack, head of Women’s Programmes was the one to suggest the use of the Cross as the symbol of Telifis Éireann.. (worth noting that Telifis is in fact a neologism developed by the actor Éamonn O Guallai from tele (from afar) fis (vision).

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Between 1988 and 1989 a new logo replaced it which dispensed with the St. Brigid’s Cross. This generated sufficient controversy due to that feature that it lasted only one year. There was no St. Brigid’s Cross in the next logo used, but in 1993 it was reintroduced as a visual projected against stones from the entrance to Newgrange. This elision of two rather different times from Irish history and culture is interesting in itself, but

Again it vanished for five or six years only to reappear in a similar fashion in 1998.

But this wasn’t the first time the state utilised the symbol. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the Department of Health used it on much of their printed material. In this instance it was a hand rendered illustration of the straw cross accompanied by the Irish name of the Deparment in Gaelic type. In truth the symbol worked well on the printed page, with a clarity that lent itself to black and white printing.

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The use of the symbol in both instances is intriguing. Here was a symbol that combined a wealth of meaning, familiarity, Irishness, a certain form of Celtic Christianity, myth (in the original sense of the term) and arguably superstition. But above all it contained a concept of domesticity. This was a symbol drawn directly from the domestic space, a symbol which embodied that space and all that that entailed. A protected, private family space, one which was safe, almost comforting.

This was an attempt to make the unfamiliar familiar. The Department of Health had seen the controversy of the Mother and Child Scheme during this period, a scheme which directly fed into the idea of activist government. Clann na Poblachta had been heavily influenced by the British Labour government which had come to power in 1945 and found the extension of the state in the economic and social sphere there an inspiration. The Department of Health under Noel Browne, and subsequent Ministers was central to this extension of state activity. And in a society which had long been suspicious of state activity it was necessary, if only in part, to mask this. Of course the great paradox was that only the state could engage in such activities, that private capital was so limited and in any event was either hostile to or disinterested in the idea of socialised medicine.

Now, it’s unreasonable to argue that the weight of meanings, political, social and economic are carried entirely by the symbolism of the St. Brigid’s Cross. But it does allow for linkages to different but overlapping discourses.

Donald Horne, the Australian cultural commentator, in The Public Culture (Pluto Press, 1994), examined the role of ‘myth’ – in a broadly Barthesian sense – in the context of societal change, particularly since industrialisation. He explicitly references the ‘home myth’ when he proposes that it is ‘built up out of one of the most significant transformations of industrialism in which ordinary people developed an aspiration for, and, for the most part, achieved in varying degrees, some of the consolations of bourgeois family life’. But while arguably entirely accurate as an analysis of groups within industrial societies, and particularly those in urban centres, it reifies the process of industrialisation as the major force of social change while underplaying the tenacity of pre-existing ‘myths’ to retain their legitimacy within somewhat atypical societies such as that found in Ireland where industrialisation was piecemeal and an agrarian social structure remained predominant for a considerable portion of the twentieth century.

And this is the curious and intriguing aspect to ‘myth’ as a part of a social discourse. That Janus like it can point in different directions, concealing and revealing. So it is that less than a decade later we see the St. Brigid’s Cross introduced as the primary visual signifier of the most modern medium available at that point in time. The Cross functions almost as a Trojan Horse, or a badge of authenticity, bringing the foreign into the domestic space and rendering it familiar by wrapping it in a web of significations. The broader societal ‘myths’ of the Irish state, religious, traditional, domestic become a container that permits the introduction of new social organisations (a nascent near-socialised health care) and new media. In both instances considered here the function of the visual signifier is identical. To render the new familiar. To permit the state to enter the domestic space (literally in the case of RTÉ) in a manner which was as uncontentious as possible.

De Valera noted the power of the medium of television. He was perhaps correct that “Never before was there in the hands of men an instrument so powerful to influence the thoughts and actions of the multitude”.

But in truth this was only one facet of a rapidly changing structure of relationships between state and citizen. And it is the elision of tradition and modernity which makes the use of the St. Brigid’s Cross so very striking.

Ciarán Swan

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