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Grá ar an Trá is better for us than Love Island, and not just because of its sexy-Gaeltacht energy

“HOW DO YOU say ‘Oh my God’ in Irish?”

Virgin Media’s new dating-slash-Irish-language show Grá ar an Trá launched on Monday. The premise is rather simple – five boy-girl pairings are matched up, live together in a house by the beach, and in each couple, one partner is a Gaeilgeoir who has to teach the other Irish while also nurturing a romance. Éasca péasca!

Of course, all modern dating shows are measured against the all-consuming spectre of Love Island, which after 391 total episodes still succeeds in dominating discussion both on social media, at the water-cooler, in popular columns and in dozens of spinoff podcasts. 

Grá ar an Trá’s first episode hits the same beats as you’d expect from an episode of Love Island. B-roll beach footage, mild party atmosphere synths, challenges announced via messages passed to contestants in the “I’ve got a text!” mould pioneered at Casa Amor. We have the wisecracking hosts James Kavanagh and Síomha Ní Ruairc in place of Iain Stirling. They even brought in some bombshells (for those of you not well-versed in the medium, this is when they introduce new, surprise residents to the gaff to shake things up).

More than anything, there are the soundbytes – “I’m competitive, but I’m not here to play games,” says Andrew – though even those have a pleasantly Irish bent. 

“I don’t like people who are shoved up their own hole,” says Saoirse, with a frankness that would remind anyone of Maura Higgins, one of the most widely-adored Love Island contestants in memory. Maybe this will be like a house of 10 Mauras. 

But for many reasons, Grá ar an Trá is not Love Island.  

While some reviews and viewers will focus on discrepancies in the weather, the infusion of the Irish language, and the personalities involved, the true difference between Grá ar an Trá and the show whose success has defined the genre, is its scale. 

As a fledgling Irish production, Grá ar an Trá faces budget constraints that would struggle to keep the Casa Amor pool clean. Instead of lasting an entire summer (and now, winter), we’re looking at a run of five episodes. Instead of dozens of contestants, we have only 10. 

Grá ar an Trá, beamed out just once a week for 90 minutes, fails to create the same kind of cabin fever atmosphere as Love Island. While this is not the recipe for an all-conquering TV show that creates careers, destroys lives and swallows up whole summers. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Instead of a glitzy villa off the coast of Spain, we have the something that looks like its from a high-budget episode of Room To Improve, populated by 10 handsome, awkward, Irish young people stood around a kitchen island topped with a 16-pack of Tayto.

In the evening they drink from plastic cups as they answer anonymous questions about sexual positions — again, the kind of thing you might do at a party when you’ve run out of other ideas. Still, the personalities involved carry it off in a way that is confessional and cute. There is little to no suggestion that anyone is using this as a platform to become a brand ambassador for Pretty Little Thing. They’re sleeping in bunk beds, for God’s sake.

While all of this unfolds, Gráinne Seoige is watching from a little room full of television screens like a bad guy in a Mission Impossible film, monitoring each couple for their use of the language. That is because the €10,000 will eventually go to the couple whose Béarleoir improves their Irish the most over the course of the five weeks. 

This defining element is integrated with the rest of the show for the most part, with subtitles on for anything that might pass the understanding of someone whose own cúpla focal are in need of some severe jogging. But hearing Irish spoken naturally in a casual, conversational setting will almost certainly knock some Gaeltacht, Junior Cert or even Leaving Cert Irish loose for some viewers. 

It is a little jarring when Seoige emerges at the end to review the progress being made by each couple on their Irish, but even that is in service of kicking a couple off – the very necessary impetus for all dating shows. We can quibble over whether this is necessary when they all appear to be having such a nice time, but that’s really a genre issue rather than a Grá ar an Trá issue.

Within that genre, this is the only television programme in which you will ever hear the words: “Damn, tá sí go hálainn” or “What’s tharla-ing over there?”

Virgin Media have not created a show that will pull in viewers the world over, create superstars like Tommy Fury and Molly Mae Hague, or dominate discussion to the exclusion of almost all else for months.

Instead, they’ve created a unique piece of Irish television that could be a nailed-on cult classic as long as they can continue to tap into its weird, sexy-Gaeltacht energy.