Inside Penneys: A starry-eyed love letter to one of Ireland’s great success stories

Television: For an Irish business to bestride the world is not to be sniffed at, but tough questions are left unanswered

Penneys is an Irish success story and it is understandable the producers of a new documentary about the fast-fashion chain would wish to portray the company in a positive light. But there is positive and then there is puffery, which is the zone into which the watchable but calorie-deficient Inside Penneys (RTÉ One, 8.30pm) too often strays.

In that regard, it is part of a wider trend in factual television. Your favourite streaming service brims with “authorised” valentines to A-listers David Beckham and Ed Sheeran. Now RTÉ gives us the home-grown equivalent with a starry-eyed love letter to the popular retailer, which paints a rosy portrait while steering clear of anything remotely resembling a tough question.

Irish people have a long-running love affair with the company, founded by the indefatigable Arthur Ryan in 1969, which has become a huge player internationally, trading as Primark.

For an Irish business to bestride the world is not to be sniffed at. It is enormously encouraging, moreover, to discover that it has remained true to its roots by maintaining its intentional head office above a store in central Dublin.


Those headquarters are the beating heart of the company. Here, we meet John McCormack, who has the Zoolander-esque title of head of future trends in women’s wear. It’s always inspiring to see an Irish person with a globally significant job. Especially when that position is based in Ireland.

Still, there are moments when the patter at Penneys sounds like Kendall Roy pitching a new start-up in Succession. “I used to say our job is to join the dots – now our job is to find the dots,” goes one line.

McCormack is likable and has a zingy personality. Elsewhere, though, Inside Penneys fails to shine. In Dundrum, the director of store development looks out over a semi-completed shop floor. Meanwhile, in Cork, head of sales Damien O’Neill laments the cramped St Patrick Street premises preventing Penneys from offering its customers “concessions such as nail bars”. How thuddingly ho-hum.

The problem ultimately isn’t what the film includes – it’s what it leaves out. Primark has been accused of contributing to the growth of the environmentally unsustainable fast-fashion sector. The company is guilty of “promoting overconsumption, which massively contributes to its significant environmental footprint”, said environmental news and data platform last year.

It has also been criticised over links to unethical third-world manufacturers. In 2008, Primark cut ties with three clothing suppliers in India found to be subcontracting labour to child workers. There is no suggestion that anyone featured on Inside Penneys has any involvement in such practices. Yet these controversies are part of the Penneys story and should have been referenced, if only in passing, in the first of six episodes. What ends up on screen is a watchable puff piece but a puff piece nonetheless.