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Ireland's 30-year love affair with Home & Away: A shot of vitamin D in our poxy winter

The Australian soap has become a must-watch in many households. But what has given this Aussie rollercoaster such a warm place in Irish hearts? Emer McLysaght investigates ahead of the show’s 30th birthday tomorrow.

Emer McLysaght
Source: river4ever/YouTube

THE NAMES AOIFE and Siobhán Dowling should be written into the Irish history books.

The sisters might not ring a bell with you now, but maybe one day they’ll be remembered for a noble and heroic deed; bringing Home and Away to Ireland.

“Mum worked at RTÉ and we teens were shown a few episodes to see if it had any appeal,” Siobhan Dowling recalls.

“We totally wanted to know what happened next… and the rest is history.”

Aoife Dowling chimes in, “Except we tried to convince Mum not to schedule it as competition to Neighbours, because we would be forced to choose. We didn’t win that one. Something about that being the whole point of buying it.”

The sisters are now in their 40s, and have moved on from Summer Bay, but their involvement saw Home and Away written into the RTÉ schedule, and into the nation’s hearts.

RTÉ was the very first international broadcaster to buy the soap from the Seven Network in Australia, and began showing it in the late 1980s.

(Here is Ian Dempsey discussing with actor Greg Benson why Home & Away is actually better and how Kylie Minogue’s sister was due to join the show. Subtle from RTÉ.)

Source: killianM2/YouTube

Today, it’s still going strong, with the national broadcaster screening it in the early afternoon on RTÉ One and then again in its traditional 6.30pm slot on RTÉ Two.

It remains one of RTÉ’s most popular dramas and is particularly sought after as “catch-up telly”; it was streamed 5.6 million times on the RTÉ Player last year, second only to Fair City.

Home and Away has a place deep in Irish popular culture. It’s been there for almost 30 years.

This week I posted a tweet, interested in people’s memories of the show.

The responses came in a deluge that could rival one of Summer Bay’s many, many, many natural disasters. A floodgate of characters and storylines and recollections opened and is still going.

Tweet by @EmerTheScreamer Source: EmerTheScreamer/Twitter

One recalled “being terrified of Alf’s sister Morag, confused at the new Pippa, and devastated at the loss of Shane”. Another remembers “when Tasha arrived in the Bay”.

Washed up on the beach like a mermaid with amnesia and speaking Pig Latin.

And another would spend school holidays playing on the street but “at 6.25 everyone would rush in to watch it and then come back out at 7 to discuss it”.

This went on all summer, they said.

But what has given this Ozzie rollercoaster such a warm place in Irish hearts? What catapulted it into so many homes and left such a lasting legacy and memories people can conjure up in an instant, like “when Ailsa saw Bobby’s ghost in the fridge” or “when Sophie couldn’t read and everyone only found out when she electrocuted herself in the Surf Club”?

I give you two words: The Channels.

Ireland of the late eighties (and well into the nineties, to be fair) was split into the Haves and the Have Nots; those who had access to the opulent worlds of BBC and Channel Four, and those who made do with RTÉ One and Two (joined later by TG4 and TV3).

For those in the latter category, here was an exciting, exotic world of danger, romance and foster kids. It didn’t really matter if you didn’t have BBC One to watch Neighbours, Home and Away was better anyway, so there!

Tweet by @Jane Source: Jane/Twitter

Author Anna Carey did have The Channels, and was still more drawn to Home and Away, perhaps because it was seen as “cooler” than Neighbours.

“I think because of Tom and Pippa’s vast foster family caravan park and the school stuff it felt more like a teen drama.”

It became a staple in many lives and households. Long-time fan Mary-Kate Murphy started watching when she was eight or nine.

“It meant dinner time in our house. We would all beg Mum to bring our dinner to the sitting room to watch it.”

Louise Keegan still watches to this day but remembers “sneaking in to watch it on the crappy portable telly in my parents’ room when I was supposed to be studying. My Dad asking me and my sister did we watch ‘that bloody rubbish’ and sounding very like Alf Stewart when he did it”.

Some of the parents of Ireland were more than a little perturbed by this high-octane drama. Home and Away was the only show I ever remember my own Dad expressing concern over me watching, having walked in during a racy moment between Blake and Finlay.

Others recall being forbidden to watch because Bobby had uttered the word “bitch”.

Another was told to turn it off because there was “too much fighting” in it.

Source: SummerBayJournal/YouTube

Of course, all this did was make it more appealing. In its heyday it influenced so many aspects of young Irish life.

One fan tweeted that “we named two new calves Shane and Angel”.

Another said “two girls in primary school took Angel and Finlay as their confirmation names”.

Hazel O’Toole recalls every pair of 16 year olds in 1996 fighting over who got to be Shannon and who got to be Selina.

Schools were breeding grounds for Home and Away fandom.

A number of schools even allowed students to watch the lunchtime episode on the premises.

PastedImage-51447 Clockwise from top left: Selina, Leah, Marilyn, Hayley, Irene, Flathead, Sally and Alf Source: PA Wire

One fan recalls watching on a telly in the school’s religion room, while Cat on Twitter remembers “in my school the older kids would sneak the younger ones in their ‘older kids’ room that had a TV and all silently unite in watching the lunchtime Home and Away. Could hear a pin drop. Even the teachers would ask what happened in the next class”.

Rob O’Hanrahan says people would rush home to catch it too:

Our school lunch was from 1.10 to 2pm. Home and Away ran from 1.25 to 1.50. Everyone who went home for lunch watched it. One week it was delayed by 15 minutes because of horse racing. Over half the school was late back after lunch. It was at the height of the stalker storyline.

Colleges didn’t escape the Home and Away spell either. Former Waterford IT student Michael Corcoran said it was “like mass” for students.

“Our temple was the Dome Bar. So, at lunchtime it was called ‘Dome and Away’. Packed every day and silence throughout.”

DCU also had a Home and Away society until at least the late 2000s, with students gathering to watch episodes, go on Home and Away trips, and share their thoughts on dedicated message boards.

The popularity of the show into the noughties meant that online communities thrived. Katherine Kenny set up the Home and Away Ireland blog in 2007 “partly as an experiment in blogging and partly because we thought our Home and Away chat was so hilarious that it needed to be shared with the world”.

The site is defunct now but had a dedicated fan base at the time.

Home and Away can be remembered in terms of eras of characters or storylines.

Of course, there are the long timers like Sally, Flathead Fisher and, of course, Alf Stewart who is still on the show. But fans tend to remember the past three decades in terms of “the Bobby and Frank years”, or “Selina, Saul and the cult”, or the tragic “Shane and Angel saga”.

There were controversial and groundbreaking storylines, from alcoholism to drug abuse to sexual assault and teen pregnancy.

Source: godjenta66/YouTube

There was Old Pippa and New Pippa.

There was Replacement Selina.

There was an ever-rotating carousel of long-lost siblings (remember Sally’s imaginary friend Milko who actually turned out to be her brother, Miles?), disastrous weddings (Ben and Carly; Stephen and Selina) and paranormal activity (Bobby in the fridge; Stephanie’s ghost in the caravan park).

There was at least one disaster a year to facilitate a bit of cast turnover. Many a beloved character was washed away in a flood, killed in a fire, flung off a cliff or crushed in a car accident.

As fan Kayte O’Malley put it:

I loved the annual purge in the bush and Alf spearheading the rescue efforts.

One storyline that caused renewed interest in the show in more recent years was that of the Riverboys of Mangrove River, who in 2011 brought trouble and crime to Summer Bay led by the handsome and dangerous Darryl ‘Brax’ Braxton.

The popularity of Brax, played by actor Steve Peacocke, caught the eye of Irish man Simon Murdoch.

“I have a broadcasting and media background and around five years ago noticed how big the fanbase for those Riverboys characters was here. So, after some communication with their agent I organised Steve Peacocke’s first visit to Ireland.”

Peacocke’s arrival caused a mini frenzy, bringing crowds to nightclubs and appearances around the country.

PastedImage-41163 Source: Home and Away Fans Ireland

Visits from other Home and Away stars followed. Ray Meagher, who plays the iconic Alf Stewart, was eager to come.

Murdoch says nightclubs weren’t the right environment for Ray, “even though he was well up for it”, and events more like An Evening With Ray Meagher were organised. He even went viral with this appearance at Cork’s Sober Lane:

Source: Sober Lane/YouTube

Murdoch, who now runs the Facebook page Home and Away Fans Ireland, says the stars are well aware of Ireland’s grá for the show, although they’re often at a loss to explain it.

Just last month actor Orpheus Pledger – who currently plays Mason – was in Cork.

Dandy Promotions handled the visit and the company’s Andy Cronin reckons they’ve had 15 or so Home and Away stars in Cork over the past three years.

PastedImage-285 Source: Dandy Promotions

Simon Murdoch says the show’s heritage in Ireland is undeniable. Personally, he thinks it’s down to the soap being the first of its kind to hit Irish TV, and because “30 years ago we started seeing these beautiful people on beaches and it was like a different world”.

Superfan Mary Kate Murphy agrees.

I was kind of dreamy as a kid, and just loved the idea of living in a sunny beachside place.

Louise Keegan says it’s “25 minutes in the day when I eat my dinner, put my phone away and just relax after work”.

It also feels like it’s a shot of vitamin D in the poxy Irish winter, which I crave.

An enduring memory Irish people have of Home and Away is being sick off school, and getting to watch the same episode twice in one day, just in case you missed something the first time.

Well, RTÉ is still showing those two episodes, just in case you fancied a cheeky day on the couch any time soon…

Source: Johnstown Railway/YouTube

Emer McLysaght is a freelance writer and co-author of the bestselling novel Oh My God, What A Complete Aisling

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