To mark the recent broadcast of its 4,000 episode, Páraic Kerrigan pays tribute to Ireland’s longest running soap opera, Fair City, and its willingness to fly the rainbow flag in Carrigstown.
After twenty-seven years on air, and despite regular criticism from some quarters, RTÉ’s flagship show has withstood the test of time – a testament to the large fan base that still remains loyal to the soap.
Undeniably, the show has been at the forefront of tackling major social issues facing Irish society. In doing so, the northside drama has never shied away from representing Ireland’s minorities.
Often the inclusion of characters from such minorities has been reflective of the broader changes taking place in Ireland. In particular, the role of LGBT characters throughout the years has certainly played an important role in bringing gay characters nightly into Irish living rooms.
Interestingly, along with the 4,000 episode milestone, 2016 also marks the twentieth anniversary of Fair City’s first (near) gay kiss.
Two years after the decriminalization of homosexuality in Ireland in 1993, RTÉ, after toying with the idea of having an existing character come out as gay, decided to make the move and introduce a new character for the purpose of flying the rainbow flag in Carrigstown. In 1995, Eoghan Healy (Alan Smyth) was introduced.
The significance of his eventual coming-out, which took place on a New Year’s Eve special in 1995, was evident from the reaction by the Irish public, particularly the watching gay audience.
Following the coming-out episode, calls to a regional gay helpline almost doubled immediately after the broadcast. This public reaction was indicative of the political significance of having a gay character on prime-time TV, while also making huge gains for gay visibility in the Irish media.
As Eoghan settled into Carrigstown life and became a regular fixture, writers were keen to convey Ireland’s new sexual landscape by giving the university student a love interest. Not long after his coming out, drinks promoter Liam Casey appeared in the local pub McCoys, with the plot suggesting that he was to be a love interest for barmaid Imelda (who inadvertently was renting a house with Eoghan) … and so the plot thickens.
Following an invite to dinner at Eoghan and Imelda’s, the Irish nation held its breath as Eoghan and Liam retired to the kitchen to wash the dishes, only to find themselves moving in for a clinch.
However, history was not to be made as Imelda barged in on the pair at the crucial moment. As the gay Irish audience exhaled their disappointed breath, it was clear that RTÉ was still unwilling to go all the way with the gay by depicting a full on same-sex embrace.
A few episodes later however, Eoghan and Liam did manage to hold hands in McCoys bar, while simultaneously turning the heads of soap matriarchs, Hannah Doyle and Eunice Phelan.
Despite the initial reluctance to portray gay intimacy on screen, by 1999 Fair City was to have three openly gay characters and since then, Carrigstown has embraced characters from all sides of the LGBT spectrum (although McCoys has yet to see a trans character cross its threshold).
In 2008, Yvonne Doyle came out as bisexual and had a commitment ceremony to her then partner Connie in the local community centre.
Meanwhile in 2012, Laura Halpin came out as the soap’s first regular lesbian character and eventually hooked up with Sash Bishop, who came out of the closet following a stint in prison.
Although it is very easy to dismiss soap storylines as whimsical, no value can be placed on having the lives of minorities such as Ireland’s gay community reflected on screen.
So, on the celebration of its 4,000 episode, it is important to acknowledge the role that Fair City has had in bringing gay characters and their lives into the living room of Irish homes on a nightly basis.
As well as helping to normalise the LGBT community (and what better way than have to them in Carrigsotwn), Fair City, perhaps for the first time in Irish television history, introduced the first positive representation of a gay person in the Irish media.
Páraic Kerrigan is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Media Studies at Maynooth University, where he is an Irish Research Council and John Hume Scholar. His doctoral thesis, entitled Queer (In)Visibility in Irish Media, 1974-2014, interrogates media representations of gay Irish people and the political significance of media visibility for minority groups.
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