Presidential reserve trumped by performer’s emotion

John Bowman’s radio portrait of Mary Robinson was detailed but lacked the impact of the Aslan singer’s heartfelt interview

Sat, Apr 6, 2013, 06:00

We may be losing our religion, but many of us clearly still believe in saints. The idea of the national broadcaster devoting four hours of airtime to the selfless deeds and virtuous beliefs of an inspirational figure sounds like a relic from our more pious past, but such was the case last week. For all that she was a trailblazer for a secular society, the tone and duration of Mary Robinson, Talking To John Bowman (RTÉ Radio 1, Tuesday-Friday) exuded an air of reverence bordering on the beatific.

Over the course of four nightly instalments, the life and achievements of Ireland’s first female president were detailed in an overwhelmingly positive fashion, her career framed as an arc of struggle against repression and ignorance. The earnest template was set within the first five minutes, with Robinson telling Bowman how as a child growing up in a relatively privileged Mayo family, she had “this great sense of fairness and equality”; later, at boarding school, she found herself “instinctively drawn to those who tried to change the world”.

This slightly self-regarding retrospection didn’t bode well for the marathon slog to follow, but while the programmes didn’t exactly fizz with candid revelations, a more rounded portrait of the former president did emerge. She told how she had aspired to be a nun, only to lose her faith after spending a year in Paris: she wryly noted that, in thrall to the Gallic melancholy of authors like Francoise Sagan, she then fell into a “French depression”.

But her interior life took second place to strangely dispassionate accounts of her battles for justice over women’s rights, contraception and conservation. Though she cut a crusading figure in taking on the conservative establishment then ruling the country, Robinson betrayed little emotion as she recounted incidents such as her frosty meeting with a dismissive Cardinal Conway. She opened up more as she remembered the historic 1990 presidential election campaign – “People wanted a president who was in touch with their lives, which I hadn’t been, in the same way, until that campaign,” she admitted – as well as describing the extreme stress she felt during her first months as the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights. But overall, she maintained a forensic focus on facts rather than feelings.

The most charged moments came from the audio clips that dotted the programme, not in itself a surprise given Robinson’s interviewer also hosts the excellent archive show Bowman: Sunday (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday). Here we heard just how memorably emotive Robinson could be, whether excoriating Fianna Fáil in the 1970s or choking back tears after visiting war-torn Somalia as president. There was also a jolting reminder of the loathsome opposition she encountered, in the form of Padraig Flynn’s oleaginous assertion during the presidential contest that she had found “a new interest” in her family.

Such evocative moments brought home the depth of Robinson’s moral probity and the scale of her accomplishments far more than, say, the worthy but dull overview of human rights issues which dominated the final programme. In fairness, Bowman’s distinguished guest was aware she sometimes appeared distant: as president, she said, “it was difficult to be as open as I sometimes wanted to be”.

Then again, her attempts to convey her more relaxed side were even clunkier. Asked how she let her hair down, she replied that “I love to dance – my African women friends know this.” Cue cringe. On balance, reserved dignity is the best option for the former president.

Life and death
Compelling interviews about issues of life and death have recently become something of a fixture on The John Murray Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), imbuing heft to a programme that had threatened to float off on a sea of cheery froth. Last week it was the turn of Christy Dignam, the singer with the Dublin band Aslan, to talk about matters of mortality, as he spoke of having recently been diagnosed with cancer.

It was an uncomfortable item, partly due to Dignam’s audible ill health, despite his assertion that he was “fantastic”. “It’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said, “because it really makes you focus.” Dignam’s reflective mood centred less on beating cancer than on making peace with his troubled past.

He spoke, in detail as foreboding as it was harrowing, about being sexually abused as a six-year-old – “That’s when this blackness came into my life” – adding that his well-documented heroin habit stemmed from the shame he subsequently felt. But his illness had changed matters, causing him to see his life in a different light: “I’ll be a new man when I get out of here.”

Nevertheless, it was difficult not to detect a valedictory note in Dignam’s voice, from his realism about his situation – “I’m taking it one minute at a time” – to his tearful aspiration to be present at his daughter’s wedding in June. “You’re making me cry now, John, stop,” he concluded. For all the interview’s dark hues, it was riveting listening. On radio, emotion goes a long way.