Hard-hitting documentaries

Documentary may not be the most popular genre, but done well can have quite an impact.

Powerful and well-made as it was, it’s hard to see what effect The Disappearedwill have (RTÉ 1 Monday, BBC 4 Tuesday, last week). Darragh MacIntyre certainly re-opened the controversy about the people were ‘disappeared’ in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, mostly by the IRA it seems, and mostly for alleged informing. 


The stories were heartbreaking – the most high-profile and most politically sensitive being that of Jean McConville, mother of 10 from Belfast. According to the programme there was a team of 20 involved in her abduction and execution. And her offence was never clear – informing or being in the wrong place at the wrong time or being Protestant in a mixed marriage or helping a wounded British soldier – whatever the case nothing could justify the callousness of what happened. In this case as in the others, part of the ‘torture’ (as one contributor put it) was that people never knew for years what had happened to their loved ones. Some were ‘lucky’ enough to get the bodies back and have belated funerals, others still wait.

The archive footage was disturbing – Jean McConville’s children interviewed shortly after the disappearance, very young children rioting, gun battles in the streets … in our country and not that long ago. I hope one of the effects of the programme will be to get people of influence to redouble efforts to ensure we don’t end up back in that particular space. Also it is to be hoped that if there’s anyone left with the knowledge, better information might be revealed as to the whereabouts of the still missing bodies.

While listening to interviews with former IRA leaders was rather chilling, especially the older man talking too casually for my liking about executions, with holy statues in the background, the real dignity was with those relatives who have suffered over the years. We saw them visiting a house where the victims were held, praying at a possible burial site, imaging those final lonely moments of their loved ones, reflecting sadly at what they had been put through. Throughout, the programme was graced with the poetry of Seamus Heaney and excellent cinematography, all of which added to the impact.

Facing Cancer

Another hard-hitting documentary was Aine Lawlor: Facing Cancer, shown on RTÉ 1 last Thursday. It’s one of those personal stories that RTÉ does so well – I was reminded of that programme about Colm Murray from a year or two ago. Lawlor’s battle with cancer is pretty well known, but lots of important and telling details were added in as she retraced her difficult steps from diagnosis through treatment to being back to work at RTÉ. Her personal struggle formed the centerpiece of the story, but two other impressive women, Rhona Nally and Marie Loughney, also got to share their stories – shock diagnosis, hopes and fears and promising new treatments.

So in a way it was also the story of the disease and those dedicated people who fight it and save lives – most prominent were Senator and oncologist John Crown and Dr Denis Slamon whose research led to the development of the revolutionary new drug Herceptin.

Saint Isidore’s: An Róimh (TG 4 last Friday) was a more modest but quite appealing documentary about the Irish Franciscan College in Rome. There was a touching nostalgia for the good old days and the college’s long history, but also a sense of hope for the future as the college takes in more international students. 

Also worth catching up on from the week gone by is Tonight With Vincent Brownefrom Monday of last week when there was a cheerful and thoughtful debate on the referendum proposal aimed at taking the blasphemy laws out of the Constitution.

Same-sex marriage

Meanwhile in other referendum news the same-sex marriage debate got several outings during the week with the government deciding on a vote in 2015.

The best diversity of views was on the new Sunday night Marc Coleman Showon Newstalk, while Drivetime(Wednesday of last week) featured two gay men on opposite sides of the argument.

News reports showed Taoiseach Enda Kenny has bought the ‘equality’ argument, though no gay or lesbian person is currently or has ever been prevented from marrying, subject to the laws that apply equally to everyone.


Pick of the Week


The God Slot

RTE Radio 1 Fri Nov 15, 10.01 pm

Bible stories retold through the 'chic lit' genre, and God v Particle Physics.



Channel 4 Mon Nov 18, 7.55 pm

Nightly reflections on what faith can do for prisoners.


Unreported World

Channel 4 Fri Nov 22, 7.30 pm

Katmandu: children with impoverished parents being put into orphanages to attract Western funding.