The top 10 greatest Irish TV characters

With Netflix’s purchase of ‘Love/Hate’ for European audiences further cementing the success of Nidge and the gang, Ed Power looks back at the other great characters of Irish television.

The top 10 greatest Irish TV characters

THE internet cried out in pain earlier this month as the Love/Hate finale concluded with anti-hero Nidge gunned down in his driveway. When the track-suited gangster (apparently) breathed his last – deprived of even the opportunity to enjoy his personalised running shoes – you could almost hear the collective howl go up: having riveted audiences across five seasons of the crime drama could Nidge really leave us this way?

Our obsession with Nidge – which is what it was in the end, really – is testament to Love/Hate writer and creator Stuart Carolan, but also says something about Irish television. Until now, it has rarely, if ever, yielded a character such as Nidge: three dimensional, with all the flaws, contradictions and charm of a real person.

Indeed, it may be argued that Love/Hate captured the imagination because it was a rare case of a domestic drama realistically portraying the Ireland that we live in. Contrast the acclaim heaped on the show with the lukewarm response to RTE’s other big drama of 2014, the missing child four-parter Amber. Here, the film-makers borrowed too consciously from the ‘Nordic Noir’ school, resulting in five hours of very glum TV that, though set in Dublin, did not feel Irish in the least.

“Love/Hate has captured the imagination because it transports an international genre of crime film to an Irish setting and for the most part does it convincingly,” says Dr Conn Holohan of the Huston School of Film & Digital Media in Galway.

It being shown internationally via Netflix, also taps the ongoing vogue for small-screen anti-heroes, which has made pop culture icons of figures such as Walter White from Breaking Bad and Francis Underwood, from House of Cards, as brought slitheringly to life by Kevin Spacey.

“You might condemn some of their behaviour, and yet if you find yourself rooting for them or following them despite that – to me that’s far more intriguing than a character that I want to go get a beer with,” said House of Cards writer Beau Willimon, outlining the allure of the dashing bad-guy.

That isn’t to say Love/Hate is perfect, feels Holohan. As the series has gone on, cracks have started to appear. “For me the problems began with the introduction of the police characters. This was obviously an attempt to widen the scope of the series, a la The Wire. However, the characters have been completely underwritten and are little more than cliches. This may be due to the fact that there are only six episodes per season, but it has led to bizarre moments, such as having a single scene with the detective and his wife, who was never again mentioned for the whole series.

So here is our countdown of domestic telly’s most iconic protagonists.

And yes, it isn’t lost on us that all of the below are men – this, we might argue provides an uncomfortable insight into Irish TV’s attitudes to women. What about Glenroe’s Biddy? Well, the unpalatable truth is that she existed largely to give Miley something to grumble about – she was a foil. And Mrs Brown? Simply too divisive.

1. Father Ted (Dermot Morgan)

At the time, meme-worthy Fathers Dougal and Jack received most of the attention. As Father Ted approaches its 20th anniversary, however, it has become clear that it was Dermot Morgan’s title character who was the true star: a rare example of a straight man providing almost as many chuckles as his compatriots. For anyone growing up in rural Ireland his portrayal of an upstanding-yet-oh-so-faintly-slippery man of the cloth will have rang true also.

2. Pat Barry, Bracken (Gabriel Byrne)

Byrne’s second placing on the list. In his first major role, the former secondary school teacher lit up the screen as a man being slowly asphyxiated by the misery of seventies rural Ireland.

It would have been easy to go over the top with such a character, however, Byrne played within himself, letting the sadness seep through the eyes and via the downturned cast of his mouth. Running for four years, this Glenroe prequel began with Barry reluctantly returning to Wicklow for his father’s funeral – and did not grow much more cheerful.

3. The entire cast of Tallafornia

We could never pick just one. Not when we had to chose between Cormac, the taxi driver with the mysterious American accent, Natalie, the glow in the dark DJ, and creepy Nidge-doppelganger Phil. Billed as TV3’s answer to Jersey Shore, Tallafornia proved considerably more disturbing than your worst fears may have suggested. If this constituted an accurate snapshot of young Irish people, the country was in far bigger trouble than we ever suspected.

4. Scobie from Pure Mule (Garrett Lombard)

A midlands bricky who wondered if there was life beyond breakfast roles and boozy Saturday nights, Pure Mule’s Scobie provided a melancholic snapshot of Ireland before the fall : when an entire nation was suddenly swimming in cash and still weighed down with a melancholy it couldn’t quite articulate.

5. Miley, Glenroe (Mick Lally)

Like a Beckett character marooned in the countryside, Mick Lally’s Miley was both inscrutable and thoroughly everyday. If you grew up in the sticks, chances are you knew a dozen people like him: woolly-haired, grumpy, just this side of incoherent – yet with the soul of a poet. While few missed Glenroe when it ended in 2001, Miley’s absence left a void.

6. Billy Meehan, Fair City (Stuart Dunne)

Soap villains are typically of the two-dimensional moustache twirling type, but Fair City’s Billy Meehanwas different: as brought to chilling life by Dunne, this inner-city sociopath was grotesque and creepily convincing. Few mourned when he was beaten to death with a golf club.

7. Charlo, Family (Sean McGinley)

Before Family, Roddy Doyle was known for his cheerfully stereotypical depictions of working class Dubliners. With this four-part kitchen sink drama, he demonstrated he could conjure darkness as well as ‘ah jaysus’ levity. A chilling chronicling of domestic abuse, the monster at the heart of the show was wife-beater Charlo, brought horrifically to life by character actor McGinley.

8. Judge, Wanderly Wagon and Bosco

Strangely, many of Ireland’s most memorable small screen characters are from children’s TV: we are thinking of Zig and Zag, Bosco and so forth. In the dim and distant seventies, our answer to Kermit The Frog was Judge, a floppy-eared pooch with a useful sideline as the face of the Safe Cross Code.

But arguably, Bosco (left) is the most iconic. For a generation of Irish people, the series served as a backdrop to their childhood.

The squeaky voice, the Magic Door, the plasticine hedgehog with the talking snail side-kick.

9. Paul Spector, The Fall (Jamie Dornan)

50 Shades of Grey is set to make Jamie Dornan a star. But you wonder if his performance in the S&M bonkbuster will be one tenth as convincing as his portrayal of a charming serial killer in Belfast-set procedural The Fall.

Handsome and affable, his monstrousness is rendered all the more shocking by his ability to charm and seduce his way through life.

10 . Nidge, Love/Hate (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor)

Well, we were hardly going to leave him out.

An anti-hero for the ages, we disapproved of all the terrible acts Nidge committed – yet couldn’t help but be charmed by this ruthless ne’er do well. If he truly is dead, Irish television will be all the drearier for his absence.

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