Roddy Doyle: The hate mail and death threats started in the spring of 1994

Thirty years after Family aired on RTÉ, Ireland has changed in many ways but domestic violence is still an ugly truth

I remember opening the brown envelope. There was a stamp on it, and my address. But it felt light. Inside I found a newspaper clipping, folded. I unfolded it and saw a black-and-white photograph of a face with the word DEAD hand-printed in red biro, across the forehead. My forehead. This happened in May 1994, 30 years ago. If it happened today I’d walk out the door and bring it to Clontarf Garda station. Back then I stared at it for a while, checked to see if there was anything else in the envelope. There wasn’t. I tore the photo and the envelope and threw them in the bin. Then – probably – I gave the kids their breakfast.

I was reminded of that particular brown envelope a few days ago, when I was listening to Oliver Callan talk about 1994 with John O’Regan, the man who produced Reeling in the Years. They started with Riverdance, which was seen for the first time during the Eurovision Song Contest, in the gap between the songs and the count. We hadn’t watched the singing but we turned over to RTÉ for the count, in time to see Riverdance. It was an incredible moment, musically and visually brilliant. It was a joy. But whenever I hear it or hear reference to it, I think of what happened four days later when the first episode of Family was broadcast on RTÉ.

The following morning it was the second item on RTÉ’s morning news; it was the hot topic on radio talk shows, for weeks; it was the theme of many of the following Sunday’s sermons. And the hate mail and death threats started to arrive.

I wrote Family. It was a four-part series, about a family called Spencer; each episode followed a different family member. The first episode was devoted to the husband and father, Charlo. Played by Seán McGinley, he strutted towards the camera – and into the culture; for years afterwards hard men were often described as “a bit of a Charlo”. Seán’s Charlo was mesmerising and frightening. The camera followed him home, where he terrified his family. The following day, people on the radio spoke about seeing Charlo beat his wife, Paula, on-screen. But, he didn’t beat her on-screen. That was how good Seán and Ger Ryan, who played Paula, were; you didn’t have to see his fists in action, or her blood. Her terror and her children’s terror were on the faces, in the way they sat at the kitchen table, in the way one of the children, John Paul – played by Barry Ward – clutched his inhaler. Domestic violence, a term that was usually whispered, was now being spoken about openly.

Roddy Doyle, who has a new version of Peter Pan, at the Gate Theatre, Dublin.
Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

That day – the day after the first episode was broadcast – going down to the shops for bread and milk was a big decision. I’d spent the day listening to people praising Family, condemning Family, claiming that it had been written to undermine Irish family life, that nothing like this ever happened in Ireland, that it had dragged the country right back down into the dirt only days after Riverdance had made us the sexiest people in the world. Family had been made by the BBC: what would people over in England think of us? The show was praised, the show was condemned. I was praised; I was condemned. I made it to the shops that evening, and back, without comment or incident; it was only down the road but it felt like the longest walk of my life. Normally I brought one of the children with me; that time, I went alone.

‘Ireland has changed since 1994. In some ways the place is unrecognisable. But violence in the home hasn’t gone away. Are some things, some facts, just unbearable?’

I think it was the day after that when I got a call from David Blake Knox, RTÉ’s director of Television Production. David had been very enthusiastic about Family and he’d been keen that RTÉ be involved, which was why it was shown on RTÉ five days before the BBC. He’d phoned me, he said, to tell me that RTÉ’s board had met and had decided to go ahead with broadcasting the remaining three episodes. It was about half an hour after I put the phone down that I began to feel angry. It had never occurred to me that RTÉ’s board would debate whether to keep showing Family or not. There had been complaints: so what? A record number of complaints: so what? It was brilliant drama; it was causing a storm. It should have been exactly what they wanted.

Since winning the Booker Prize the year before, letters had been delivered to my house addressed to ‘Roddy Doyle, Dublin’ and ‘Roddy Doyle, Writer, Ireland’. It wasn’t hard to get a message to me. One of the letters was written in blood. It was short, just a few sentences, and informed me that I was going to die. Another, from a priest in the Midlands, finished with, “This is a Catholic country, Mister Doyle. We don’t want you here. In your own words, fuck off”. One man, his address a five-minute walk away from my home, wrote a four-page letter explaining how, in writing Family, I’d broken the law, and that he’d be notifying the Guards. A boy from around the corner rang the bell: “My ma told me to tell you you’re a fuckin’ disgrace.” My mother was pushed – physically pushed – by a neighbour she’d known since she’d moved to Kilbarrack in 1951, and was told that if I’d been her son she’d have been ashamed.

So, 30 years later, as I listened to Oliver Callan and John O’Regan talking about Riverdance, I thought to myself, “They’ll mention Family”. But they didn’t – at all.

‘Politicians quickly became aware of legislation, or the lack. It seemed that a stone had been lifted, revealing an ugly truth’

As I write this I’m aware that I might seem like Liz Truss when she responded to the news that Queen Elizabeth had died: “Why me?” But why not me? Why didn’t Family get a mention? It was great television. It was a huge event. More importantly, for every death threat I read, I read dozens of letters from Irish women who told me that they were Paula Spencer, that they’d thought that they were the only woman in an abusive relationship, and from people who’d grown up with fathers like Charlo. Their lives were now being spoken about. Politicians quickly became aware of legislation, or the lack. It seemed that a stone had been lifted, revealing an ugly truth.

Maybe that is what happened: someone put – we put – the stone back.

It wasn’t the first time that I’d noticed Family’s absence. A while ago – I think last year, some time – I was listening to Joe Duffy talking with people who’d phoned in to tell him their favourite Irish TV moments. I was driving through town and the traffic was bad on the quays, so I listened to most of the show. I was enjoying it, remembering a lot of the moments that people were recalling – Annie Murphy on The Late Late Show, Packie Bonner’s save in Italia 90 – when I began to wonder if anyone would mention Family, or if Joe would. But no one did. Yet I regularly meet people who tell me, who want to tell me, how Family impacted on them. A few weeks ago I got an email from a man who told me about watching Family with his mother. He’d been a bit young to be watching it, he wrote, but she had wanted him to see what her life had been like before she’d met his father. Recently, a friend of mine described watching Family with her mother in 1994, and how they’d shared the experience of watching their lives on an Irish TV channel, and listened to Irish accents telling their story.

Ireland has changed since 1994. In some ways the place is unrecognisable. But violence in the home hasn’t gone away. Are some things, some facts, just unbearable? Working from home has become the middle-class dream but most violence occurs in homes – including Irish homes. It’s a horrible thought. It’s a horrible fact.

I think, in those four days in the spring of 1994, RTÉ, by showing Riverdance and Family, gave us an extraordinary, complicated, contradictory, brilliant picture of Ireland, a place full of possibilities and urgencies, with things to be celebrated and things to be changed, a swagger to be cheered and another kind of swagger – Charlo’s – to be examined much more closely, with people to be applauded and others to be protected.

But maybe that complicated picture was an accident, or unwanted. Nevertheless, I’m proud of the part I played in painting it, and grateful to the people – actors, director, producer, designers, everyone – who brought it to such huge, difficult life. There are 95 speaking parts – work for 95 actors - in the four episodes of Family, and every line mattered; I wouldn’t let go of a line until I knew that it was worth saying. And knowing that, feeling that – 30 years after I wrote them – makes me happy.