Conversation drags as Ní Shuilleabháin holds back

RTÉ’s new host is a welcome female voice, but could learn from Miriam O’Callaghan’s empathetic style

Miriam O’Callaghan’s theatrical but palpable empathy is something new Sunday morning radio show host Aoibhinn Ní Shuilleabháin could learn from. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Miriam O’Callaghan’s theatrical but palpable empathy is something new Sunday morning radio show host Aoibhinn Ní Shuilleabháin could learn from. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times


Given the phalanx of male broadcasters that dominates RTÉ’s radio schedule, the first Aoibhinn and Company (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday) came as a refreshing change, featuring a brashly feminine persona, hell-bent on blowing away gender stereotypes. The only problem was it was not the presenter, Aoibhinn Ní Shuilleabháin, but rather her guest, Panti, Ireland’s best-known drag queen.

In truth, Ní Shuilleabháin was interviewing Rory O’Neill, Panti’s alter ego, but even in this guise his presence eclipsed that of his genially inoffensive host. A scientist, a singer and a former Rose of Tralee as well as a broadcaster, Ní Shuilleabháin on paper appears the kind of strong female figure capable of filling the key Sunday morning slot currently vacated by Miriam O’Callaghan. On air, however, she struggled to stamp her personality on proceedings.

Given the focus of her programme is the interviewee, this was not necessarily a bad thing. Apart from remarking that she shared the Mayo birthplace of her guest, Ní Shuilleabháin allowed O’Neill the space to tell his story. “Is Panti braver than Rory?” was the closest thing to a probing query.

It helped that O’Neill was an upbeat chap with an interesting tale. A “disconnected” teenager, he came to terms with his sexuality after “a slow-burning realisation that I was different”: in the rural west of Ireland in the early 1980s, he had felt like “the only gay in the world”. He also spoke about his initial shock at learning he was HIV-positive in the mid-1990s, though the news did not bring on the dark funk so beloved of confessionally inclined interviewers. “I amazed even myself,” O’Neill said. “I didn’t super freak out about it.”

Ní Shuilleabháin gamely attempted to bring more shade to proceedings, suggesting she “would have crumbled in that situation”. O’Neill, however, was not swayed from his natural optimism, which he attributed to his laidback father and secure family upbringing. There were more glaring gaps, such as divining what drew him to dressing in drag in the first place.

Being Panti, he said, is like wearing a mask that exaggerates the more outrageous aspects of his personality while inviting others to spill their secrets. “People relate to drag queens in an open way,” he said, “perhaps because they think you’re not going to be shocked or judgmental.”

Ní Shuilleabháin came across as similarly unflappable, but may yet need to reveal her more personal side if she is to get less forthcoming guests to open up on the show.

Neither host nor guest held back on The Business (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday), as the presenter, George Lee, conducted a forthright conversation with anti-austerity author Mark Blyth. A politics professor at Brown University in Rhode Island, Blyth’s Scottish accent emphasised the fact he was not from privileged Ivy League stock, as did his bracing broadside against hairshirt policies.

He acknowledged austerity’s message was seductively straightforward: “You’ve too much debt, stop spending, then you can pay it back.” But, he said, this simplistic notion ignored the fact that “if everyone is trying to save at the one time, as they are in Europe, then all you do is shrink the economy and the stock of debt becomes bigger”.

Blyth was particularly damning about the bank bailout. It benefited a small coterie of bankers and developers by reinsuring their assets through turning private debt into public debt, while cutting spending to finance this inequity.

“It only makes sense to tighten our belts when we’re all wearing the same pants,” he concluded. “And we’re not.”

Not so long ago, this might have been dismissed as leftist rhetoric, at least within an implicitly pro-capitalist business magazine show. Now, anti-austerity is practically the prevailing wisdom.

It was a thought-provoking, unashamedly loaded item, underlining the edge and conviction Lee brings to the show.

Miscarriages were discussed on The John Murray Show With Miriam (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). According to Deirdre Pierce McDonnell of the Miscarriage Association of Ireland, such traumatic events are all too common, yet are rarely talked about in public, with all the unresolved grief that entails. Unfortunately, she knew what she was talking about: in 2009, 22 weeks into her own pregnancy, she went in for a routine scan only to be told no heartbeat could be detected.

The item moved between emotionally shredding and prurient. “What was the car journey back like that day?” Miriam O’Callaghan pried, though her guest could only reiterate that she was numb. The details of the delivery that followed, however, were gut-wrenching, all the more so for Pierce McDonnell’s memory of holding her baby boy afterwards: “Your heart is ripped from your body, I have to say.”

Despite such dreadful events, she felt that few women speak much about the experience afterwards. O’Callaghan, never one to hold back her opinions on personal matters, had her own explanation. “I think the problem with miscarriage is that people try to dismiss it, it’s not such a big thing,” she said.

It was a sweeping statement but delivered with O’Callaghan’s theatrical but palpable empathy. One couldn’t imagine her male colleagues having such an effect.

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