Remembering 'The Riordans"...

Story by John Donohoe

Wednesday, 4th February, 2009 10:50am

Members of the cast of 'The Riordans", Irish television"s legendary rural soap of the 1960s and '70s, recently returned to the set location, The Flathouse in Dunboyne, for a documentary to be broadcast on RTE One next Tuesday night, 10th February.

Actors such as Moira Deady and Biddy White-Lennon were joined by other members of cast in the visit to the farm of Mick and Lou Connolly.

'The Riordans" was the first rural soap to be broadcast on Irish television, with Ardbraccan native actor, the late John Cowley, starring as Tom Riordan, head of the farming family.

Even though set in a fictional village called Leestown in Co Kilkenny, it was in fact filmed in Dunboyne, as well as in Kilbride village and other locations in the area.

Next week"s documentary was put together by Aisling O"Neill, better known to modern-day soap viewers as Carol Meehan in 'Fair City".

Her late father, Chris O"Neill, played Michael Riordan in the series, and she decided to take a journey back through her father"s role to rediscover the cutting edge drama and social phenomenon that was 'The Riordans".

She visits the Flathouse farm, where Lou and Mick Connolly bring her on a tour of the house and farmyard, which she had memories of visiting as a young girl when her father was filming.

'The Riordans" ran from 1965 until the plug was dramatically pulled on it in 1979. John Cowley and Moira Deady played Tom and Mary Riordan, and Tom Hickey their son, Benjy. Rebecca Wilkinson was Jude Riordan, and Biddy White-Lennon played Maggie Neal, who was to marry Benjy. John Cowley"s wife, Annie D"Alton, played Minnie Brennan, wife of Frank O"Donovan"s Batty.

Aisling O"Neill was destined to make an appearance herself - as Benji and Maggie"s new baby boy, Brendan!

Following the success of 'Tolka Row", the Dublin-based

urban soap, the fledgling RTE channel decided to try its hand at a rural production, the idea of the Controller of Programmes, Gunnar Ruggheimer. The original executive producer was Christopher Fitz-Simon, who contributes to the documentary, and the scriptwriter was James Douglas, with Wesley Burrowes later coming on board.

A search was made for a suitable location within a short drive from Dublin. An advertisement placed in the Meath Chronicle for such a location produced a reply from William Connolly of the Flathouse.

Christopher Fitz-Simons explained that Ruggheimer came up with the name 'The Riordans" after sticking a pen on a name in a phone book.

Over the next 14 years, 600 episodes were made but, sadly, very few were preserved in the RTE library. However, the series still remains as legendary as ever, despite the fact that it is three decades since it was shown, and it has never been repeated.

Unlike modern-day soaps, the actual rooms and kitchen in the Connolly household were used, with the Connollys having to leave the home for a day of filming.

Over the years, as the equipment and cameras got bigger, sets were built in the Connolly barn.

'The Riordans" delivered domestic drama, high comedy, agricultural advice and broached controversial topics like contraception and marriage breakdown. And into the bargain, thanks to farming bachelors and bikinis, it made rural Ireland sexy. A long-running theme was the ongoing battle between Benjy and his father, Tom, over farming practices.

The cast of 'The Riordans" became stars before a celebrity culture existed, and attracted crowds to shop openings and other such appearances.

Among those contributing to Tuesday"s programme are Tom Hickey, Biddy White-Lennon, Moira Deady, Christopher Fitz-Simon, Welsey Burrowes, IFA president Padraig Walshe, actor Bryan Murray and comedian Pat Shortt, with Mick and Lou Connolly also featured.

At the height of the soap, 1.2 million viewers watched Benjy and Maggie get married in Kilbride Church. Afterwards, when Benjy went to Africa as a lay missionary, Maggie"s eyes were turned by a young farmhand, played by a budding young actor called Gabriel Byrne. This character was to go on to 'Bracken", a series which eventually led to another legendary rural soap, 'Glenroe".

Before UK television began making 'Emmerdale Farm", its producers came over to Ireland to see how RTE"s flagship drama worked.

In 1978, a press conference was called by RTE to say the series was ending the following year.

It was also news to the cast at the time, and John Cowley always spoke with bitterness of the way the series was dropped.

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