I was somewhat surprised to discover that nearly sixteen years have passed since RTÉ’s ground-breaking comedy-drama, “Paths To Freedom“, was first broadcast on television in Ireland. Written by Ian Fitzgibbon and Michael McElhatton (who also directed and starred, respectively) and shown in the winter of 2000 the series illustrated the increasingly desperate exploits of two newly released convicts from Mountjoy Prison, Raymond “Rats” Doyle and Jeremy Fitzgerald, through the eyes of a documentary film crew recording their supposed rehabilitation into society. While the former character was a petty thief from inner city Dublin, brought to life with tragic-comic authenticity by McElhatton, the latter was a disgraced gynaecologist from the middle-class suburb of Blackrock, played with impotent fury by Brendan Coyle. The stellar performances of the two leads, ably supported by the comedian Deirdre O’Kane (as the laconic Helen Fitzgerald) and Peter McDonald (as Rats’s befuddled best friend, Tomo), coupled with a vibrant script and recognisable locations made the six part programme a rare comedic success for the network. Unfortunately RTÉ ignored the critical praise, as usual, leaving a time-constrained 2003 cinematic release, “Spin the Bottle“, to meet some of the audience demand for more.
However the original television show continues to provide us with an almost satirically perfect snapshot of Ireland in the nascent days of the Celtic Tiger economy of 1995-2008. For many people it still remains one of the best things RTÉ has done, especially when compared to its otherwise negligible comedy output. Today, of course, Michael McElhatton is rather better known for the role of Roose Bolton in the HBO series “Game of Thrones” while his co-star, Brendan Coyle, plays the character of Mr Bates, the valet, in ITV’s “Downton Abbey“. Both the television series and the movie are available on YouTube, though sadly a new home release of both seems unlikely.