Opinion: say hello to the formidable females of family dramas, all turbo-charged characters imbued with a satisfying spice of girl power

Gone are the unproductive, eye-candy bystanders depicted in TV dramas such as the 1982 Bracken. Instead, say hello to the formidable females of family dramas such as Kin, Smother, SisterS and The Dry, all turbo-charged characters imbued with a satisfying spice of girl power. Add to that, the international success of shows like Bad Sisters, created by Sharon Horgan, and Derry Girls, created by Lisa McGee.

Complex, three-dimensional women are emerging on screen, who are not afraid to show violence as well as tears. Derval Kirwin's portrayal of the matriarchal Val Aherne in the three-part series Smother, written by Kate O’Riordan, combines the dual dynamic of a Lady Macbeth, whose excessive hand-cleansing is replaced by Val’s compulsive obsession to protect her three daughters. Not unlike the revered early feminist Catholic martyr and protectress, Joan of Arc, Val ferally forbids any mention of their joint conspiracy in the death of their father, and Val’s husband, Denis.

Smother also stars acting veteran, Fionnuala Flanagan, who, at 81, plays Val’s mother Caro Noonan, a cosmopolitan and sophisticated woman, as far removed as possible from the traditional Irish mammy of Mary Riordan in The Riordans, which ran from 1965 to 1979. As mother and daughter relationships go, theirs is a complex but deeply loving one, not unlike that portrayed in RTÉ's The Dry, written by BAFTA nominated Nancy Harris about her own experience of Ireland’s complicated relationship with alcohol.

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From RTÉ Archives, watch a clip from 'The Riordans', Ireland’s first soap set in a rural background (first broadcast on 4 January 1965)

Roisin Gallagher plays the very believable recovering alcoholic Shiv Sheridan, whose attempts to stay on the wagon are both tragic and comic at times. Shiv's ex-boyfriend Jack, played by Moe Dunford, appears to be the real functioning alcoholic along with Shiv’s mother Bernie. In fact, other than Shiv, no one in The Dry is self-aware and Gallagher deftly helps to unravel all the secrets and sadness in her dysfunctional family, where all is glossed over by alcohol and silences.

Harris’ script allows audiences to focus for a change on the female alcoholic, a figure historically portrayed on Irish television as male and menacing or as a Father Ted caricature. Notably, that menacing alcoholic father is the end product of SisterS, starring Sarah Goldberg and Susan Stanley, who created, wrote, produced and starred in this insightful tragicomic search for belonging and shattered expectations. It is worth reiterating that all three aforementioned Irish dramas, Smother, The Dry and SisterS, are written by women, for women, heralding a golden era of writing and performing for this oft forgotten television audience.

From BAFTA, Siobhán McSweeney wins a BAFTA for her role as Sister Michael in Derry Girls

Nonetheless, RTÉ crime drama Kin written by Peter Mckenna, which has just completed its second run with a third series planned for 2024, also places women central to the action. McKenna adroitly brings audiences on a journey where women negotiate both the family sphere and the world of lucrative crime, in a way that was hitherto unimaginable. Historically, specifically in crime dramas, women were relegated to mere bystander status.

Even in RTÉ's Love/Hate women were invisible in the world of crime, though this may have been an accurate reflection of the masculine nature of gangland crime during post-recession Ireland from 2010 to 2014. Kin, in contrast, reflects an altogether more diverse post-pandemic world. It is a post Me-Too Ireland which is unafraid to fracture and dismantle prevailing stereotypes of women.

Amanda Kinsella, played by Clare Dunne, has married into the warring Kinsella family. TV audiences slowly warm to her character as she moves from innocence to darkness and ultimately to self-awareness. Portrayed as a complex woman, bereft due to the death of her son Jamie in a gangland killing, she evolves into a matriarch who refuses to pay homage to her father-in law Brin, the latter chillingly played by Francis Magee. Brin is brutal, distrusting and disrespecting of women, leading to an inevitable showdown between tradition and the future.

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From RTÉ One, watch a trailer for the second season of RTÉ's Kin

In the world of Kin, women refuse to be pushed around. From Yasmin Seky, who plays Nikita, the girlfriend of Amanda’s brother in law, Eric (Sam Keeley) to Maria Kennedy Doyle as Birdy, Amanda’s sister is law, women are seen in solidarity, not in opposition. Turkish crime boss Nuray Batuk, (Öykü Karayel) to whom the Kinsellas owe a sizeable drug debt, is similar to Amanda, both intent on playing a pivotal role in the male world of crime, both no longer willing to view men as the decision makers.

Kin is ground-breaking in its portrayal of women. Even the formidable females in the popular crime drama, Peaky Blinders, though featuring prominently in the male world of criminality, are all nonetheless controlled by the main character and crime boss Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy). No one controls Amanda Kinsella. She is poised to take over the Kinsella empire. Just think, in 1965, it was pioneering rural drama The Riordans which first allowed women visibility and challenged the prevailing patriarchy. Though it has taken a long time, it was worth the wait to see the calibre of strong resilient woman currently being portrayed on Irish television drama.

Dr Finola Doyle O’Neill is a Broadcast and Legal Historian at the School of History, UCC. She is the recipient of two Irish Research Council awards and author of The Gaybo Revolution: How Gay Byrne Challenged Irish Society

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ