Book Review: A Great Feast of Light by John Doyle

A good book can draw us into a world far removed from our own, or shed light on our own experiences. A Great Feast of Light: Growing Up Irish in the Television Age by John Doyle is a good book that demonstrates television can accomplish the same thing.

Doyle is the television columnist for The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s national newspapers, where he writes about his subject with the same degree of affection and analysis.

A Great Feast of Light is a memoir of the social awakening of a boy and a country. Doyle grew up in tiny Nenagh, County Tipperary, where the church and rigid social hierarchy made sure citizens knew their place in the world.

“We were tucked away in a country town that was comfortable, almost entirely Catholic and ignorant of the outside world, and we’d fit into our assigned places as easy as we sat in our assigned desks in the schoolroom.”

In 1962, when he was six, Doyle’s father brought home their first television set, and suddenly the world expanded, getting even bigger as his family moved to larger towns – finally to Belfast – and his TV got more channels.

The six-year-old Doyle recognized his Irish hometown of Nenagh in the American frontier world of Bat Masterson at the same time as he realized Bat’s who-cares attitude and suspected Protestantism would make him an outcast. He watched Gaelic programming that connected him to his country’s past and heritage. Talk shows and news reports connected him to the present, and British and American comedies predicted a future when the Catholic church didn’t have such a stranglehold on the country.

Most poignantly, Doyle talks of the horror of seeing footage of Bloody Sunday on the television, interspersed with his memories of the anti-establishment bite of Monty Python. It’s a technique he uses throughout the book, juxtaposing real-life events with his young self’s thoughts on television, until the culmination, when J.R. Ewing and the Pope fight for the soul of Ireland. Doyle isn’t exactly on the side of the pontiff.

You can almost hear the lilting Irish accent in A Great Feast of Light, with the eejits and fellas and culchies and acting the cods. The book is specific to Irish history and social conventions. But it’s universal in its depiction of television’s role in documenting and even precipitating social change, and the wonder of seeing a new world onscreen, or a new take on our own world.

John Doyle is no cousin to Frank McCourt and his brethren. This isn’t a tale of hardship and family secrets, and rarely dips into deeply personal matters, creating only the barest sketches of Doyle’s family. Instead, it’s the portrait of a quiet, studious boy (“I could have been mistaken for a houseplant”) and his education at the hands of his schools, his church, and his television.

A Great Feast of Light is available in hardcover or trade paperback.

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