Racism gets the green light

Sat, May 19, 2012, 01:00

RADIO REVIEW: AT THE RISK of never being able to hail a cab again, it is probably safe to say that the prospect of agitated taxi drivers arguing about race for an hour is not everyone’s idea of an enjoyable afternoon’s radio.

But, never one to shy away from problematic topics, Joe Duffy spent last Tuesday’s edition of Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) soliciting the views of this stereotypically opinionated sector on whether green lights on taxi signs are racist.

The debate was triggered by the earlier appearance of Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar on Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), in which he expressed the personal view that the trend for unauthorised green lights on roof signs – supposedly signifying that the cab driver is Irish – is inherently racist and xenophobic. This charge brought forth an outpouring of hurt emotions from a succession of taxi workers, though the evidence backing their offended rebuttals was not entirely convincing.

One driver, Paul, said the green signs were actually a Spanish invention, to signify that the taxi was for hire, particularly for visually impaired customers. “If people choose to take a different meaning out of it, that’s entirely up to themselves,” Paul said.

Another caller, John, went further, demanding an apology from the Minister “for calling me racist”. But when Duffy asked whether his guest had seen green lights on cabs driven by “anyone who doesn’t look Irish, to use that awful phrase”, John admitted he hadn’t, though he added that anyone – “I presume we’re talking about Africans” – could get such a sign fitted.

But callers did not deny race was a factor on the taxi ranks, claiming Irish customers often sought out native-born drivers. “You find racism comes out that way, but that’s not the fault of the taxi driver,” said one caller, throwing in the chestnut that “racism is inherent within most societies in the world”.

Such pronouncements suggested, at best, a wilful blindness to the wider racial resonance of the matter. But the callers’ outrage was also fuelled by anger at the financially challenging conditions of their deregulated industry. All were aggrieved that the taxi regulator was highlighting this issue while failing to enforce other rules.

Other callers wondered why vans could advertise “Polish painters” but taxis could not say they were Irish. While not exactly the same thing, it was an interesting point about how multiculturalism works in Irish society. Duffy’s debate was hardly a model of Socratic dialogue, but it raised issues that challenged not just nativist prejudices but also liberal condescension.

Taxi drivers may have an ambiguous collective public image, but they enjoy an exalted status compared with that of the Catholic Church. The entrepreneur Mark O’Callaghan’s appearance on Tom Dunne (Newstalk, weekdays) provided a rare instance of the embattled church being shown in a good light, underlining how clerics could step in where State and even family had failed the vulnerable.

A recent contestant on Dragon’s Den, O’Callaghan (and his siblings) had grown up in orphanages across Dublin after his parents split. He ended up in St Clare’s Convent in Harold’s Cross under the care of one Sr Francis, a nun who provided the maternal presence he lacked. “Everybody called her mother,” O’Callaghan said, “because that’s how we felt about her.” She had rescued him from subsequent homelessness, securing the orphan’s pension the State had failed to pay and even funding his education.

As he sought a memorial plaque for her, O’Callaghan’s gratitude and love were evident from the tug in his voice: “I can’t express what this woman did for me.” Dunne did his bit to play up the emotion, describing Sr Francis as a modern-day saint. Some of his banter was more cringeworthy, however, as when he realised he used to visit the grounds where O’Callaghan had been a vagrant. “God, you could have been sleeping rough outside at the time,” Dunne chirped. “Yeah, quite possible,” came the decidedly unenthused reply.

Ambivalent reputation was at the heart of Drama on One: The Dreaming of Roger Casement (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday), Patrick Mason’s compelling play about the unlikely Irish patriot executed after 1916 Rising. Anchored by the nuanced lead performance of Ciarán Hinds, Mason’s drama used Casement’s last days to re-create his political evolution, from Ulster Protestant-raised knight of the British Empire to rebel leader. Just as crucially, it explored his homosexuality, detailed in the so-called black diaries, which was used against him during his trial and long denied by his Irish defenders.

The narrative deftly shifted between the confabs of Casement’s silken-tongued establishment prosecutors and his own cell in the Tower of London, where he fatalistically recalled his humanitarian missions to Congo and Peru. It was a vividly imagined panorama, never more so than during the homoerotic dreams that feverishly envisioned Casement’s carnal exploits amid the cruelty he saw in Africa and South America, though these may have been a tad saucy for some.

But it was a subtle exploration of a complex man who did not want to be defined by his sexuality alone, as the play’s stirring denouement made clear. Mason and his talented cast created an engaging portrait of a man whose inner life was as ambiguous as his actions were admirable.

Radio moment of the week

Those hoping to hear a tune from the singer and harpist Mary O’Hara during her appearance on The John Murray Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) did not have to wait long. The air in question was unexpected, however. The unmistakable sound of the Nokia ringtone trilled in the background, but O’Hara chatted on, oblivious to the sound until Murray gently alerted her. “Oh, good Lord,” said a startled O’Hara, “it’s mine.”