The Den was the long-running children's television strand of Ireland's public broadcaster Raidió Teilifís Éireann. First broadcast on 29 September 1986 on RTÉ1, it moved to Network 2 two years later. Initially a continuity strand for weekday afternoon programmes, The Den later expanded during the late 1990s and the 2000s until it became synonymous with RTÉ's children's output. At various times during its run, it was known as Dempsey's Den, Den TV and Den2.
The Den is considered to have pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable viewing for children and young people, often employing irreverent and occasionally satirical humour within its continuity links. It also introduced anthropomorphic puppet characters to Irish culture, including Zig and Zag, Podge and Rodge, Socky the Sock Monster, and Dustin the Turkey. Zig and Zag later transferred to Channel 4, Podge and Rodge moved onto adult comedy programming on RTÉ (including their own talk show), while Dustin ran for President and achieved global notoriety by representing Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest.
In later years, The Den took up much of Network 2's schedule, airing for over 11 hours each weekday and on weekend mornings. It also acquired a reputation for airing new episodes of imported shows before other television networks in Europe.
Following on from the success of a Children's BBC strand in the UK, RTÉ launched its own bespoke strand for children's programming, Dempsey's Den in September 1986 – initially as a two-hour strand each weekday afternoon on RTÉ 1 and featuring nearly all of the broadcaster's youth output (the main exceptions being Bosco and Jo Maxi).
Taking a cue from CBBC's Broom Cupboard format, Dempsey's Den was broadcast live from a tiny, single-camera Presentation studio at RTÉ Television Centre, used mostly for in-vision continuity. Upon its move to Network 2 in September 1988, Dempsey's Den gained an extra hour of airtime each weekday.
Ian Dempsey fronted the strand until the summer of 1990, although he continued to present the music feature Pop Goes the Den for a number of years. Ray D'Arcy took over The Den until 1998, and was later replaced by Damien McCaul and in 2003, Francis Boylan Jr.
The Den format changed little over its first decade on air – generally consisting of several cartoons and music videos, at least one RTÉ production, a daily Birthday Slot and on certain days of the week a viewers' quiz. Occasional features included location inserts, interviews and sketches.
The studio set changed frequently – various themes included a treehouse (1995), a chip-van, a hair salon called On The Noggin (1999), No. 10 Celebrity Square, a UFO and a newsroom – the presenter tended to be sat behind a desk (or counter in the chip-van), with any puppets perched between desk and the locked-off studio camera.
Upon D'Arcy's departure, the format changed significantly. The annual Christmas special was dropped (though old specials were occasionally repeated) and an hour of morning programming was introduced, presented by Geri Maye (with Soky).
The 1998 relaunch saw The Den renamed Den2 (in keeping with Network 2's revamp the year before) and gained more of its own presentation along with extended hours, from 6 am to 5 pm. From 2003, a further strand aimed at older viewers, iD, aired from 5 pm to 7 pm.
In-vision continuity was confined to the morning and afternoon strands, fronted by Geri Maye (who was once engaged to Ray D'Arcy), Damien McCaul (until 2003), and Francis Boylan Jr. (until June 2005). The strand re-adopted The Den name in 2002 before McCaul's departure. Despite the format changes, much of The Den's original spirit remained intact, including quizzes, birthday greetings and puppets.
The Den was revamped again on 17 September 2005 with a new graphics package designed by Dunning Elley Joans (now Dunning Penny Joans).
By now, the strand had been split into several daily shows, including Wakey Wakey, Den Tots and The Club, alongside the existing news2day bulletin at 5 pm.
This final revamp removed much of the cast (bar Dustin, Socky, Charly and Zuppy), with the launch of their own programme (DDN). It also refocused the breakfast slot away from pre-school children and towards older viewers, with one continuity presenter, Kathryn McKiernan, fronting both morning and afternoon shows. Further changes in September 2008 saw the separate shows axed and in-vision presentation replaced by out-of-vision announcements.
|Presenter||Term of office|
|Francis Boylan, Jnr||2003–2005|
Ciara Carroll served as a regular assistant during D'Arcy's time as presenter. She would arrive at the studio to announce new competitions, provide observations from behind the camera and her laughter could often be heard in the background as Zig and Zag accused her of being responsible for breaking winds. She would also include herself during many other features throughout the day. During the Dempsey years, The Den assistant was Celine, who would later present Jo Maxi when D'Arcy departed that programme to succeed Ian Dempsey.
These included programming such as Echo Island, The Grip and The Works.
The television special, Best Bitz From Back Den, returned to Zig and Zag's origins on The Den. Broadcast on RTÉ One on 27 October 2008, it was compiled to celebrate the 21st anniversary of Zig and Zag and released on DVD a month later. Presenters D'Arcy and Dempsey featured heavily in the special; other highlights included assaults perpetrated by Ted - a malicious panda - on the presenters, Christmas specials of The Den, footage of other characters such as Captain Joke, Captain Pillowcase and Cousin Nigel and Ireland's 1989 Irish Film and Television awards at which Zig and Zag "accidentally" mistook then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds as actor Burt Reynolds and addressed him as "your majesty".
A television special and DVD Dustin: 20 Years a Pluckin' was released in November 2009. Broadcast on RTÉ One on 8 November 2009, it was compiled to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Dustin the Turkey.
[...] RTÉ Television will soon be announcing [...] the launch of two completely new schedules of Young People's programmes in September. This [...] will be broadcast in two brand new channel blocks, commissioned to cater specifically for [...] the nation's younger viewers as they develop from pre-school through to teens.
Damien McCaul has spent five years in the Den chair, helped along by Dustin and Soky and is due to step down at the end of May.