CPB Office of the Ombudsman

Irish Eyes Aren't Smiling

Joel Kaplan

April 26, 2013

Seán Ó Nualláin is an eclectic person. He holds a Ph.D. in computer science from Trinity College of Dublin. He has been a visiting scholar at Stanford University and University of California at Berkeley.

He also has a huge interest in Irish studies and uses that interest to study the role of culture in cognition. Mr. Ó Nualláin has also worked professionally as a musician, having played many of the world's leading jazz and folk venues and festivals. He devised a program in Irish music and song at UC Berkeley. He co-owns a record company.

But what sets Mr. Ó Nualláin off is the portrayal of Irish music and culture on PBS and public television stations across the country.

"Many Irish and Irish-American people feel that the 'Irish' material shown on PBS is in general racist," he says. "In fact, were they African American, shows like Out of Ireland, Celtic Woman and Celtic Thunder would have been banned long ago. We have repeatedly complained to local stations like KVIE (the public television station in Sacramento)."

He was particularly peeved by what he said was a lack of quality Irish programming on public television on St. Patrick's Day.

"Frankly I don't know how to respond to Mr. Ó Nualláin," said Joseph Campbell, vice president for fundraising and programming at PBS. "As to the lack of Irish programming on St. Patrick's Day I would defer to the individual stations, but two points come to mind.

"St. Patrick's Day almost always lands during the March fundraising campaign. This is the most important drive of the year for stations, and their goal is to raise as much money as possible. As a former station programmer, I can tell you the worst day to present Irish programming is St. Patrick's Day! Those who are interested in Irish music are usually not watching TV that day.

"As to his comments about Celtic Woman and Celtic Thunder, I can only say that if these programs were not appreciated by a significant number of Americans they would not be such a big part of station fundraising campaigns. They have raised millions of dollars for stations over the last eight years and thousands of people attend their concerts each year. While these programs may not meet his standard for Irish music, at the end of the day it is a matter of taste.

"As to the portrayal of Ireland and Irish music, over the years we have presented concerts featuring The Chieftains, The High Kings, Enya, The Clancy Brothers, Anuna, The Corrs, James Galway, The Irish Rovers, Clannad and Van Morrison just to name a few.

"We have presented numerous documentaries about Irish history and the struggles of Irish immigrants to the US. And we've produced programs detailing what it means to be an Irish American.

"So I would have to respectfully disagree with Mr. Ó Nualláin. "

In turn, Mr. Ó Nualláin disagrees with Mr. Campbell.

"It's completely disingenuous to say that we have shows about the plague of Irish immigrants, Van Morrison, blah blah," he said. "Over on the West Coast, there's been absolutely no shows like that at all. Had there been we would definitely have seen them.

"We have stuff masquerading as Irish and it's rammed down people's throats. What we need are transparent procedures for getting stuff on PBS."

One of the public television station executives that Mr. Ó Nualláin has been complaining to is Kevin Smith-Fagan, vice president for development at KVIE in Sacramento.

Mr. Smith-Fagan said he has had very little interaction with Mr. Ó Nualláin besides some voicemails and email exchanges. The one phone conversation he had was actually with Mr. Ó Nualláin's partner, Melanie O'Reilly.

"Basically, I have had no conversation with Sean or Melanie about their dissatisfaction with Celtic Thunder or Celtic Woman," Mr. Smith-Fagan said. "Our only conversation was about how programs get distributed throughout PBS. It was very balanced and very pleasant.

"They [Melanie and Sean] play traditional Irish music as defined by them. They watch public television, and they see other music acts whose style they disapprove of get aired a lot. These programs are popular. It's an offense to their music and cultural tastes because they don't think those programs are real Irish. They are. I thought that's what my conversation with Melanie was going to be about, that their music isn't on television. I said to her, 'Melanie, I infer what you're interested in is having your group getting a television program.' And she said, 'Yes, that's it.' This is half about you hating that other music and half about you wanting to be in its place."

In an interview with Ms. O'Reilly it was clear that she would like public television to air her kind of music.

"We are actually big fans of PBS and we care about it and we care about the fact that there is a public broadcasting system," she said. "We see a lot of wonderful programs, documentaries and history and culture and that's why we're disturbed if you like.

"What I do is a new kind of Irish music in that it's rooted in Irish music but it brings in American music as well. It would be great to have PBS open to not just what we do but there are a lot of musicians doing great new Irish music that is also authentic."

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