Echoes of the Sacred –
Interview with Moya Doherty
By Brenda Woods
Moya Doherty sits on the top branch of the broadcasting tree in Ireland. Her creative vision brought Riverdance to our screens for the first time and now she serves as Chairwoman of national broadcaster Radio Telifís Éireann (RTE).
This Donegal native’s first love was poetry, an inkling perhaps of a creative future. Who can forget the thunderous foot-tapping and life-changing seven minutes in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest – when Riverdance exploded onto our screens and was set in our psyches forever? As Executive Producer of this show, Moya has lived with its fame ever since. Now as the Chairwoman of RTE, she has a wonderful vision for the future of television in Ireland.
How has your Irish heritage influenced you throughout your working life?
The issue of ‘heritage’, as with most aspects of identity, is complex; made up as it is of a myriad of influences and experiences. So, while the majority of my influences would be grounded in the culture of Ireland, I am also a product of other cultural influences. For example, world music or literature from other countries affects me.
I also like to think that culture means our everyday lived experience, so I cannot help but be influenced by those I meet, things I see, read, hear, or by the ways in which I interact with culture, for example through Riverdance, or my work at RTE.
I am sometimes surprised by how much an aspect of Ireland might mean to me, even though I may have no memory of ever having been consciously aware of that aspect. I like to think of these as echoes of the sacred, important parts of our understanding as Irish citizens which we absorb from our parents and ancestors without realising it.
But I also believe the best cultures are those which are hybrid, collections of all that is culturally good from across the globe.
How valuable is poetry in your day-to-day life? Which poets do you enjoy?
Poetry is probably the cultural form which I use most to make sense of the world. I can remember, as a child, having this wish that someone would one day write a poem just for me.
I have signed up to various web platforms which ensures that I have at least one poem each and every day, most of which I save and return to on a regular basis. This daily ritual has allowed me to develop a much more profound understanding of poetry and given me the discipline to research interesting poets I have not previously known.
Poetry has the capacity to make the ordinary strange and forces me to consider things in a way I might not otherwise do. And in case this sounds overly precious, some of my favourite poems are those which are humorous, risky, or indeed downright outrageous.
Poets I enjoy would be an extremely long list. Obviously, I return to the Irish names continually: Bolan, McGuckian, Meehan, Cannon, Heaney, Montague, Mahon, Muldoon, Longley. But I also enjoy the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Sara Teasdale or Jane Kenyon.
I especially love those poets who can represent the world through a controlled use of language in short poems. One of my favourite of these is Robert Creeley, most brilliantly in his poem about life, One Day, which reads: ‘One day after another – Perfect. They all fit.’
Riverdance – when it was just an idea and at the incubation stage – did you ever realise how far reaching and successful it would become? What do you think is its most important success?
I would love to be able to say that I knew exactly what I was doing and that there was some kind of grand plan for Riverdance which was rolled out in a measured and managed way. I would, of course, be lying.
Riverdance was a cultural tsunami which took us all by surprise and most of the time we were riding that tsunami like surfers clinging to a runaway surfboard. However, with the value of hindsight, and in reference to the earlier question about Irish heritage, I think what I was doing – even if subconsciously – was bringing together the influences we all carried into a form which resonated with the cultural moment that was the so-called Celtic Tiger.
What was most surprising to me was that this was a form which also had a resonance for other cultures, from Russia to China, and not just with the diaspora. This has convinced me that all cultures share common stories, what we might call mythic stories, and Riverdance managed to catch the essence of these deeply embedded mythic narratives and celebrate them.
There was a moment early in Riverdance history when I did realise that I was witnessing the emergence of a unique cultural production and experience and I have never since then lost the sense of privilege for having been at the heart of it.
There are many things about Riverdance which have importance but, for me, the most important is helping to define, on a global scale, what a modern Ireland is culturally – by bringing together a past and future Ireland in a performance rooted in the present.
How did you feel after being awarded the RDS gold medal for enterprise in 2017? What does this mean to you on a personal level?
Receiving major awards is always a somewhat humbling experience. You look at those who have been given them before you and compare yourself to them, usually unfavourably. So, to be honoured by the RDS in Dublin was a great accolade, particularly as I was the first woman to be given such an accolade.
For me, this is the most important aspect of such awards; the hope that it is an indication that women are no longer invisible in these important public arenas. The politics of these moments cannot be ignored; so often receiving awards is representative of something more important than you being given individual recognition and it is important to be aware of this.
The RDS Gold medal was, I think, one such moment. I realise it is a cliché but you also do hope colleagues and friends know the award is as much about them as it is about you, since success, in whatever form, is always built on a vast range of relationships and friendships.
This is especially true in the arts, where collaboration is crucial for any kind of success and it was pleasing to have a full range of artists and creative industry figures present on the day of the award.
You were quoted in 2017 as saying: “The creative industry’s time has come.” Did you always see this industry as a “solid” industry back in the day when – for example in the 1970s – it was seen as largely irrelevant?
I am not sure I would agree that, even in the 1970s, the creative industries were seen as irrelevant.
What is true is that we did not have an encompassing name for them then but there was always an understanding of the economic foundation creative activity could bring to a city like Dublin.
What changed was that creative practice converged so that those involved in creative practice became more engaged with, and dependent on, each other and – most crucially – governments became acutely aware of the revenue which the creative industries were bringing to the national economy.
That coincided with work being done in academic circles to define and analyse the industries and the creative economy became an established concept. However, there is still much work to be done to ensure governments fully acknowledge, and more crucially, fully support financially, an aspect of the economy which has the potential to be the largest economic sector in the national economy.
Now is the time for government to make that investment since, for what it is worth, I think we are about to enter a new phase for the creative industries with technologies such as VR, AR, and AI heralding entirely new forms of audience experience. We are truly in the midst of what one of my favourite cultural commentators, Jarin Lanier, calls, the dawn of the new everything.
As Chairwoman of RTE, what responsibilities do you think you have towards maintaining the Irishness of this great country and also promoting us internationally?
I think we have seen enough recently to underline the damage that unthinking nationalism can have when in the wrong hands, so I would want to be careful with the idea of ‘Irishness’, and be wary of defining it in too narrow a manner.
If ‘Irishness’ means all that is involved in being a citizen in Ireland at this time then RTE, indeed any public service broadcaster, has a massive responsibility to represent what it is that makes Ireland ‘Irish’. Often – and this can lead to major criticism – this means representing what is bad about the country as well as what is good but RTE has a responsibility to establish an agenda (politics, culture, news, sport) for discussion; not to dictate that agenda, or direct public thinking, but to open these issues for debate at a national level.
It must also represent, as far as possible, all opinion in the country as fairly as possible and where necessary, shield the audience from that which is unfair – or indeed, harmful. When written down like this, it underlines the task involved in trying to manage and steer a public service broadcasting organisation.
How do you handle criticism from some who claim that the RTE licence is not value for money?
I have two, very different, responses to this criticism; which surfaces on a regular basis.
The first is factual. RTE provides 24-hour coverage of news, sport, entertainment and community affairs on a range of platforms; from screen through radio, to online, in a range of languages. It does this for 44 cents per day. Tell me any other cultural form which offers this extent of coverage for the same price.
The second answer is more philosophical and is grounded in the knowledge that RTE cannot sustain these ridiculously small fees and continue to offer what it is offering.
However, this is not merely about asking for more financial support for RTE – support which is both needed and deserved – but about trying to start a more long-term debate about what public service broadcaster (PSB) funding models should look like in a media landscape which has been transformed over the last 15 years.
Every PSB in the world is dealing with the problem and here in Ireland, we have the opportunity to design a model which could not only be the envy of other PSBs, but bring in revenue through new collaborative ventures.
You are quoted as saying originally you wanted to be an actress – does that still apply in some small way?
In the formal sense of being an actor on stage, no. But in our daily lives we are all involved in the process of playing roles and taking on characters in order to both advance projects and survive the rigours of contemporary professional life.
This is not a new idea. The notion of multiple constructed identities has been around from the 1950s but social media has offered the opportunity to both investigate and play with, various representations of ourselves. The important thing is to be aware you are doing it, otherwise we lose our grip on what and who we really are. But that personal reality is, thankfully, known only to a few.
Advice to anyone trying to make their dreams come true in the Irish environment. How to face rejection?
My advice is not to have dreams, but to have goals. Dreams suggest fantasy, a nebulous connection with reality. Goals can be planned, designed and worked on. But do not have rigid goals and be prepared to shift and negotiate with yourself as to the best way forward.
Do not be afraid to act on intuition, since often the first feeling about an issue or opportunity is the most telling. Do not be coerced into a career you do not want. This takes courage but is better than a miserable daily existence which pays a ‘good’ salary.
Be self-motivated and do not wait for others to offer opportunities. Ireland offers much for creative thinkers and practitioners, but the work will not come to you. Find it.
You will be endlessly rejected in this industry. This is because it is an industry steeped in subjectivity and financial ruthlessness. Remember that at some point you will not be rejected. And rejection is not the same as failure. Beckett said to “fail well”. For me, this means not ever getting comfortable with failure. Most importantly, be your own harshest critic – while occasionally being kind enough to yourself to buy the odd glass of bubbles, for success or failure.
How has the image of old Ireland been changed to keep pace with a more dynamic multicultural Ireland?
The Abortion Referendum was, for me, the greatest example to-date of the old Ireland keeping pace with the new Ireland.
What a glorious day to see that the voting figures showed a country at peace with itself and, more importantly, at one with the women in that country. What this illustrated for me was the importance of always filtering history and ‘traditional’ values through the prism of contemporary thinking and ideas.
Doing this will not undermine these ideas but underline them, make them have a meaning for an audience too young to understand where they came from. In this way, we continue to develop what I spoke of earlier – echoes of sacred.
More than two decades on, Riverdance is still touring theatres worldwide. Some fun facts:
- There have been 11,000 performances of Riverdance.
- It has been seen by over 25 million people, in over 465 venues worldwide.
- It has played in 46 countries across six continents.
- The show has travelled 700,000 miles (or to the moon and back and back again!)
- It has played to a global television audience of three billion people.
There have been…
- 1,500 Irish dancers
- 14,000 dance shoes used
- 12,000 costumes worn
- 200,000 gallons of water consumed
- 39 marriages between company members
- 20,000 cumulative years of study in step-dancing by Irish dancers
- 45,000 rolls of self-grip tape used by company physiotherapists