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The first gay kiss in a TV drama and other stories: How Ros na Rún broke boundaries in 1990s Ireland

We take a look at the good, bad and the bizarre of Ireland’s TV past every Wednesday in The Tube.

Image: YouTube/Ros na Rún

IRISH LANGUAGE SOAP opera Ros na Rún has been running for almost 25 years, and claims to be the largest independent production commissioned in Irish broadcasting history, as well as the most concentrated production centre outside of Dublin and Wicklow.

Filmed in the Connemara village of an Spidéal in Co Galway, it aired the first kiss between a gay couple in 1996, and has covered a number of difficult topics, including rape, illness, murder and domestic violence.

More recently, it covered the issue of ‘gaslighting’, a form of domestic abuse in relationships, explored through a storyline with two sisters.

Deirdre Ní Fhlatharta has worked on-and-off for Ros na Rún for almost 25 years; she’s directed Ros na Rún, and has been a series producer for the show for eight years.

She told TheJournal.ie that when they portrayed the first gay kiss on Irish television, she remembers the controversy it caused – but stresses it wasn’t meant to be sensationalist.

“Showing that was something that wasn’t done in Ireland at the time,” she said but adds that it was never meant to be sensationalist.

Ros na Rún has always prided themselves on writing story-driven and character-driven parts, so it wasn’t the case that it to took a conscious decision to say ‘let’s air the first gay kiss to be controversial’.

“It was part of life, and producers at the time realised ‘Well listen, this is a couple who are gay living in a small village in the west of Ireland’, and the stories we’re going to tell, will be the same stories that could happen in any major city or country.”

Source: Ros na Rún TG4/YouTube

She said that a lot of the complaints in response to the kiss were from parents.

“They had to answer a lot of questions [from their children, they said], because Ros na Rún was a family show. 

There was a sense of ‘Okay, it might be happening, but I don’t want to see it. We don’t want to see it at 8.30pm when I switch on the TV’. People didn’t want that coming into their sitting rooms.

“But if you fast forward to today’s terms, socially Ireland has changed… Kids probably wouldn’t bat an eyelids about seeing it now.”

Ní Fhlatharta says that the other thing that has changed is the way people discuss or react to the show.

People don’t pick up the phone anymore and complain, they take to social media…  Social media makes it a bit more instant. So it’s easier to sit in front of your TV, or your smartphone, or your device, and write something on one of the platforms on that night’s episode, then sitting down and composing a letter and posting it. That does help us.

“I always maintain it’s really healthy to get the audience feedback,” she says, adding that some advice is taken on board, and some is not.

Ros na Rún used to run a lot of focus groups in the past with its core audience, and stories are developed 12-13 months before they are aired.

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There are also ‘character days’ where the story-team producers sit down and discuss every single character “forensically” before the forthcoming season – this includes character traits, flaws, their likes and dislikes, and how they could interact with other characters.

It made an impact in other ways, too. Ní Fhlatharta said that in particular, she remembers covering the Munchausen syndrome on the show, something she says she had no real knowledge of beforehand, but it’s now something that she is more aware of.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

“That really does stick out in my head, because I remember learning a lot from it… It’s interesting, we hear a lot more about Munchausen now, and certainly Munchausen by proxy,” she says of the disorder in which a person acts as if they have a physical or mental illness when they aren’t sick.

The storyline centred around two characters: Caitríona, who is still in the programme, and her sister Jo, who was suffering from a lot of different illnesses.

“It was really a lot to do with Caitríona’s journey as well, looking after her sister, who took her a while to get her diagnosed with exactly what was wrong with her.”

She was hospitalised for a while to get better, and she did get better – it’s important for us to have a positive spin on journeys like that. It’s not that it’s all positive, but [to show] that there is hope. 

She said that they’re very careful to handle certain stories sensitively and that the show is always “very careful” to put out a warning or a helpline at the end, “for anything that might bother people”.

I certainly do [think Ros na Rún is innovative]. It’s just taking the risk, and just not having the fear. Go for it, whether a story is light or heavy – make it interesting, entertaining and intriguing.

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