When you think of a Western, a few names and places will always come immediately to mind.
Boot Hill. El Paso. Clint Eastwood. Lee Van Cleef. The Badlands, wherever they might be. John Wayne. Alan Ladd. Sergio Leone. John Ford. Yet, for Irish people, when we think of a gunfight and a saloon, or a guitar twang and a lonely harmonica, one name and one place springs to mind.
It's TG4 on a Friday night.
For several years now, the Irish-language TV channel has turned its Friday night movie slot into a haven for fans of the Western, with choices like Robert Altman's 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller', John Ford's 'The Searchers', and giants of the spaghetti western like 'For A Few Dollars More' and 'Once Upon A Time In The West'. In fact, TG4 has cycled through so many Westerns that it's dug up some truly underrated classics since it first began showing them way back in 1998. Although you might be forgiven for thinking that Westerns aren't in keeping TG4's ideals of content in the language of our ancestors, it's quite the opposite.
TG4 has had some of the most talked-about TV shows in recent years on their screen before others caught on. They had 'The Wire', 'Breaking Bad', and 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' on before anyone else even heard of them. As TG4's Commissioning Editor Laura Ní Cheallaigh explains, it's about making sure whatever's chosen "...sticks to the TG4 philosophy of 'Súil Eile' with movies and drama series that are little more left of field or something the audience isn't getting elsewhere."
TG4's history with the Western began in earnest in 1999 with 'Western An Luan', which saw them programme a Western every Monday, kicking it off with 'The Searchers'. In 2005, the slot changed to Friday night. The first movie to christen this new timeslot? 'The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly'. The choice in classic Westerns is no accident, either. Sure, you could argue that there hasn't been a really good Western since 'Unforgiven', but recent years have seen the likes of the Coen Brothers' take on 'True Grit', the star-studded 'The Sister Brothers', and horror-westerns like 'Bone Tomahawk' break through with modern audiences.
"The Western genre is the ultimate in classic nostalgia TV and it was the most popular genre well into the late 60’s - many Irish people over 50 grew up playing Cowboys and Indians and going to see Westerns such as 'Pale Rider', 'True Grit' or 'Fistful of Dollars' in the cinema or watching serialised Westerns such as 'The Virginian' or 'High Chapparral' on TV," explains Ní Cheallaigh.
"But as well as this nostalgia factor so much about Westerns resonate with the Irish psyche – a strong rural vibe, iconic music, swashbuckling action with themes such revenge, retribution and correcting injustices as well as featuring classic stars, some Irish and some we like to claim as Irish like John Wayne, Maureen O Hara, James Stewart, Richard Harris, Henry Fonda, Clint Eastwood, Audrey Hepburn and so on."
Despite what you might think of Westerns, on TG4 it's a permanent fixture and one that's going nowhere any time soon. Ní Cheallaigh explains that they tried to change the slot a few times since 2005 and, each time, it was met with a reaction as strong as the Duke's left hook. Indeed, the resurgence of interest in the Western brought about by wildly popular games such as 'Red Dead Redemption II' means the slot has appeal for people of all ages.
"There are a finite number of excellent Westerns to choose from and an infinite number of bad ones, as well as sub-genres within it that appeal to different audiences," Ní Cheallaigh explains, "so we do our best to pick the gems with as broad a mix as possible per season to appeal to all tastes and suit our budget." In the times before Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, older relatives of the programming team were consulted for choices based on their expertise and passion for the genre. As the years went on, the audience resonance meant that the programming became more intuitive. "You couldn’t have a season of Westerns on TG4 without at least one Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, John Ford or Sam Peckinpah western," Ní Cheallaigh laughs.
In a time where streaming services proffer endless choices without any kind of imagination or curation, relying instead on soulless algorithms, something like TG4's Friday night Western slot is just the kind of thing that should never be lost.
It is a personal invitation to gunfighters, lawmen, bounty hunters, desperadoes, and outlaws, both young and old alike.