Radio: Why Sean Moncrieff’s never short of ammo

The Newstalk host’s irreverent approach shed new light on a lethal subject while Marian Finucane heard a troubling hidden history

Guns for hire: Thompson sub-machine guns and other weapons being fired in the US in the 1930s. Photograph: Vintage Images/Getty

Guns for hire: Thompson sub-machine guns and other weapons being fired in the US in the 1930s. Photograph: Vintage Images/Getty

Sat, Nov 2, 2013, 01:00

Given the national propensity to celebrate the landmark achievements of anybody with even a trace of Irish blood, it was a surprise this week to hear of an event from our past that was truly trailblazing yet has been totally overlooked. On Tuesday the editor of History Ireland, Tommy Graham, was talking to Sean Moncrieff, on Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays), about the Thompson sub-machine gun, the famed firearm so beloved of Chicago gangsters and US marines alike, when he casually mentioned that it was in Ireland that the weapon first saw action, during a 1921 attack by the IRA on a train full of British soldiers in Dublin.

Only the most self-loathing Irish person could fail to swell with patriotic pride at the revelation, surely deserving of a national holiday or at least a plaque, that it was on our small island, not the Prohibition-era US nor the sands of Iwo Jima, that the tommy gun was first fired in anger.

Okay, that’s overstating the case. But the item showed Moncrieff’s ability to take unpromising subjects and end up with radio that is both stimulating and entertaining.

The piece may have appealed to firearms fetishists – Graham spoke about the “suppressive fire” from this “trench-clearing weapon”, albeit in a tone of wry scepticism rather than drooling delight – but far more notable was the way Moncrieff and his guest used this ostensibly murderous subject to look at familiar events in an intriguing light.

When Graham compared the weapon to a hand-held device, the presenter dubbed it the iPad of killing. On one level it was a flippant way to approach an invention that slaughtered thousands – it seems doubtful that holding a tommy gun is really “every schoolboy’s dream”, as Graham suggested – but this rueful humour made a welcome change from earnest analysis when it came to examining a troubling subject.

If Moncrieff has any problem, it is that he rarely deviates from his signature style of intelligent irreverence. This week, as he moved easily from the role of women in 1950s Britain and the stubbornly lowly position of African-Americans in Obama’s US to the high rate of book authorship in Iceland, he came across as informed yet curious without ever quite shaking his tendency to slip into archness. But for those who enjoy viewing the world through the distinctive lens of Moncrieff’s show, it’s a small price to pay.

Producing radio that is both offbeat and arresting is no easy task, something underlined by The History Show (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday). Presented by Myles Dungan, whose accessible style belies his formidable knowledge of his field, last weekend’s programme covered a commendably diverse range of topics, from conventional political history to more unusual aspects of our social and cultural past. The results were, however, mixed.

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