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Nationwide Celebrates 100 Years of O’Connell Street review: heart-warming local colour, with emphasis on the positives

Television: O’Connell Street, let’s be honest, has long had a rough reputation. But wallowing in grittiness isn’t the Nationwide way

O’Connell Street in Dublin marks two significant anniversaries in 2024. It’s 100 years since the thoroughfare previously known as Sackville Street received a grand reboot and was named anew after Ireland’s great liberator and the leader of the 19th-century campaign for Catholic Emancipation, Daniel O’Connell. But it’s also six months since it became a flashpoint for the Dublin riots – a frenzy of looting and mindless destruction that shattered the cuddly myth that Ireland is immune to the troglodyte forces of right-wing nationalism.

Not surprisingly, episode one of Nationwide’s three-part valentine to O’Connell Street (RTÉ One, Monday, 7pm) focuses on one of these dates and largely ignores the other. In that respect, it is thoroughly on-brand: Nationwide is a feel-good RTÉ institution that celebrates the wholesome minutiae of Irish life. It sticks to that tone here, even if there are moments when the grin feels forced.

O’Connell Street, let’s be honest, has long had a rough reputation. But wallowing in grittiness isn’t the Nationwide way, and the emphasis is on the positives. It starts with a fascinating tour of the street in the company of historian Nicola Pierce. At the top of O’Connell Street, she explains that the 1911 statue of Charles Stewart Parnell by Augustus Saint-Gaudens was financed largely by Irish Americans – back home, Parnell was far too divisive a figure.

There are also statues of union leader Jim Larkin and temperance crusader Father Theobald Mathew – strange bedfellows in life, but destined to spend eternity together in sculptured form. Pierce also praises the Spire, a glittering monument to optimism in the heart of the city. “It’s like something from a science fiction film,” she says. “Walk up Talbot Street, and if there’s any light, it catches it. It brightens up my day.”

We get some history to go with the sightseeing. Reporter Anne Cassin visits the archives to learn that, in the late 19th century, the well-to-do in Dublin opposed the renaming of O’Connell Street, from Sackville Street at the time, on the basis that it would damage its commercial prospects (heaven knows what they’d think of the street today – they’d probably go up in smoke faster than the window display of a vape shop). Then – well, this is Nationwide – comes some heart-warming local colour as we visit jeweller McDowell’s, best known for the charming kitsch landmark that is the neon Happy Ring House neon sign.

McDowell’s was acquired by another Dublin jeweller, Weirs, in 2020. Its new manager, Noel Kelly, brings up the 2023 riots, but insists the street has bounced back. “There is a resilience in Dublin people,” he says. “Within a few days [of the disturbances], we noticed a huge positive vibe.”

Clocking in at 30 minutes, the film is enjoyably brisk – albeit frothy to a fault. It won’t make you fall in love with a street that could be accused of keeping its charms well hidden. However, it delivers an absorbing potted history of one of Ireland’s most famous thoroughfares while sticking rigorously to Nationwide’s signature upbeat style.

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