John Arnold: Farewell, Benjy... you flew the flag for Irish TV — and farming

For those of us who grew up with one-channel black and white television all those years ago, a piece of our youth has gone, following the death of Tom Hickey, so says John Arnold
John Arnold: Farewell, Benjy... you flew the flag for Irish TV — and farming

Tom Hickey with fellow cast members in The Riordans, Moira Deady (Mary Riordan) and Biddy White Lennon (Maggie Nael) in 2009

JUST as the musical version of the song To Whom It Concerns still remains synonymous with The Late Late Show, the Irish tune The Palatine’s Daughter will forever be linked with The Riordans.

Today, the country bids a final farewell to Benjy Riordan, or Tom Hickey, the name he was given at birth in Kildare in the 1940s.

“Will ya get up the yard there,” is a phrase that has stuck with me from many, many years ago, I think ‘twas Benjy uttered it and he chasing a heifer or a bullock half a century ago.

I was nearly eight when The Riordans started and 22 when the series ended.  Growing up in rural Ireland, I remember on maybe ’twas the First Sunday night of certain months we used go to our local church for the Confraternity. We’d wear a big medal with a red ribbon on it.

Maybe it used to be at 7pm for half an hour or so, rosary, hymns and prayers. 

Unlike the chattering outside the chapel gates of a Sunday morning after Mass, we never lingered after the Confraternity because The Riordans would be on the television. I was mesmerised by the programme.

Maybe because, along with Tolka Row, based in Dublin, it was one of the few programmes that at that time was ‘home-made’. We had The Fugitive, The Virginian, The Man From UNCLE and others like that but they were mainly English or American. To see people talking like ourselves was a novelty and we loved it.

Nowadays, the term ‘soap opera’ is used in reference to many programmes that appear week after week, but I think I heard one time that The Riordans scriptwriter Wesley Burrowes never liked that appellation.

Those were great years. RTÉ was new and it was all we had to watch when we got our first television set, and I often ponder on the availability in homes today of 50 or maybe 100 channels! 

God between us and all harm and all farmers, I’ll never, ever know what anyone would want with more than four or five channels. Then again, maybe that rock band might have been called after me, I’ve a Simple Mind!

Benjy was just 20 when The Riordans started, the ‘son’ of Tom and Mary — Tom’s favourite line was ‘Aye’ — and ‘brother’ of Michael and Jude.

Set in Leestown, The Riordans was simply the stories and the life and times of a farming family in rural Kilkenny. Simplicity in itself really, no intricate, devious or cunning plots, but the programme was popular in both town and countryside.

Veteran actor Tom Hickey. File Picture
Veteran actor Tom Hickey. File Picture

That’s no surprise, I suppose, because even in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway, weren’t most of the city dwellers only a grandfather or a grandmother away from the land?

Benjy was involved a bit in the GAA — how could he avoid it in Kilkenny? He joined Macra na Feirme at one stage and was generally a likeable lad. Some said he was written as a bit innocent — will you go away out of that! Benjy was nobody’s fool, though he often acted the gom.

The 1960s and ’70s were a time of change in Irish agriculture. From being a barely subsistent ‘way of life’, farming was modernising and words like ‘income’ and ‘profit’ came into usage. The Riordans reflected this.

Tom was a good, practical farmer, despite the fact he was seldom seen without a collar and tie! Benjy sought change, news ways of doing things, new machinery and new farming methods, and conflict ’tween father and son was often just barely bubbling underneath.

Nevertheless, Tom and Mary were proud of ‘their boy’ and in truth you couldn’t fall out with Benjy — even if you tried.

Of course, the popular series had a wider ‘family too, the people of Leestown. Batty Brennan and the inquisitive but likeable Minnie — “Do you know what I’m going to tell you, Batty Brennan?” was her catchphrase. The Doctor, the Priest, Francie Meagher and his son Eamonn, Johnny Mac, the publican, all played stirring roles. Then came the girl with no surname, or if she had one we never heard it mentioned out loud, Maggie.

Long, loose and lanky, Benjy, with his sideburns where a nest of mice could hide, well, he and Maggie became ‘great friends’. Romance was a bit of a slow burner but eventually the spark was lit and the flowers of love blossomed.

It says a lot for Wesley Burrowes and the other writers that for a decade and a half, 15 long years, they produced great scripts after good scripts to keep the show as one of the top programmes on the telly.

As the years went on, not just farming was changing, Irish society was also, with new views and attitudes coming to the fore. It would have been easier for The Riordans scriptwriters to stick to the tried and tested ‘farming formula’ but Burrowes was never one to shirk a challenge. Issues like artificial birth control — Maggie was ‘on the pill’ — the travelling community, separation and mixed marriages all were woven into different storylines.

Controversy always increase view-ership figures and The Riordans stayed at the top for oh so long.

At the time I was growing up, watching Benjy, I had no ambition to be a farmer but The Riordans certainly painted farming in a very positive light. You could never say Benjy was a cult figure, icon or even a role model, but at the same time there wasn’t an ounce of harm in him, he was truly a likeable rogue!

Then, in 1978, Benjy shocked the Riordan ‘family’ and the nation when he announced he was heading off to do Missionary work in Africa. The Riordans ended the following year.

I suppose all good things come to an end, well, kind of, because Bracken and then Glenroe followed soon after.

Tom Hickey was a brilliant actor and despite the danger of being stereotyped as Benjy forever, he forged an outstanding stage career in his post-Riordans years. I will never forget him starring in Tom McIntyre’s The Gallant John-Joe — a one-man show in which he played five ‘parts’.

With the Focus Theatre, of which he was a founder, Tom starred in so many outstanding productions. He was a great advocate of plays by Tom Murphy, but his ability was vast and roles in several Ibsen and Chekhov productions were grist to his mill. He was equally at ease in a dark Marina Carr play as much as a Bernard Farrell comedy.

Eight years ago, Tom Hickey was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but despite this debilitating condition he kept treading the boards. In 2017, the love of his Leestown life, Maggie (Biddy White Lennon) died — oh yes, she was Maggie Nael actually.

Now Benjy has gone too. For those of us who grew up with one-channel black and white television all those years ago, a piece of our youth has gone with him.

I loved him for the way he smiled and the gentle way he courted Maggie and how he respected Tom and Mary and loved the craic and the banter with the neighbours.

Goodbye ‘Benjy’, you were one of the best and will forever bring a smile to so many of my generation.

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