Radio: A shock jock who’s not inured to the horrors of the past

Niall Boylan of 4FM has a personal angle on the Tuam scandal while John Bowman revisits an anti-jazz campaign

Sat, Jun 7, 2014, 01:00

It’s not a profession that invites sympathy, but there must be times when it’s tough to be a shock jock in Ireland. As the catalogue of appalling revelations from our past grows with every passing week, it cannot be easy for a mere radio presenter to stir a public inured to calculated controversy by the horrors on the news. So credit, of a sort, is due to Niall Boylan (4FM, weekdays), who proves that he will not be cowed by collective numbness.

On Wednesday’s edition of his afternoon phone-in show he fearlessly takes a stand against cosy consensus when he asks whether the deaths of nearly 800 children at a Tuam mother-and-baby home merit an investigation or even need an apology. This seems a grotesque attempt at generating on-air sensation, characteristic of a daytime-radio market increasingly coarsened by the influence of late-night phone shows: Boylan also presents a “more controversial” evening programme on 4FM. But, for all the potential crassness, it is an item in which the presenter has far more personal interest than his casually provocative manner suggests.

Boylan mentions, almost in passing, that he was born in a mother-and-baby home, in the early 1960s, before being adopted. Although his biological mother was then in her 30s, “it didn’t matter what age you were, you were put in the home” until “you went back to the village with a nice flat belly”. He wonders whether the State should compensate such women when they “weren’t sent there by society but by family”.

Encouragingly, his callers do not dismiss the enormity of the Tuam scandal. One man, John, expresses shock at the revelations about the mass grave only for Boylan to ask whether he was surprised by the news. “Nothing the Catholic Church would do could surprise me now,” comes the resigned reply.

One by one, callers deliver a verdict of clerical institutions being cruel and abusive in the past. Geraldine, who lived beside the Tuam home, describes the nuns who ran it as “devils”; Linda goes further, calling them “pure evil bitches”. Perhaps mindful that something dangerously close to a consensus is emerging, Boylan says that although he doesn’t minimise the neglect that went on – he recalls a photograph of a dormitory in the home where he was born as resembling “a little prison” – maybe it is time “to say the past is the past: that’s the way things were done in those days”.

For all that this statement is potentially offensive, it also poses an uncomfortable question about the need to revisit the past through the prism of contemporary mores.

The constant need to generate on-air heat means that a satisfactory answer isn’t forthcoming, however, especially when there’s sniggering to be had, as Geraldine recalls the days “when you kissed the bishop’s ring”.

If nothing else, it suggests that no subject is taboo for Boylan. He may on occasion sound raw about church-run homes, but he laughs at a text demanding an inquiry into why the nuns didn’t sell him as an infant to an American couple. “Come on, I have a heart,” he says. “Well, a bit of one.”

Were it needed, more evidence of the heavy-handed hold the church once exerted over Irish life can be heard on Bowman: Sunday: 8.30 (RTÉ Radio 1), when John Bowman looks back at one of the more bizarre episodes in Irish social history, the anti-jazz campaign conducted by the Leitrim priest Fr Peter Conifrey in 1934 – which, incidentally, has become the inspiration for the annual Down With Jazz festival, which took place last weekend.

Using documentaries and interviews from RTÉ’s sound archive with his usual thoroughness, Bowman evokes an era when the hierarchy’s sway over public morals was largely unquestioned, but he also captures the bizarre nature of a campaign that even then was ludicrous.

The readings of Fr Conifrey’s speeches conform to the stereotype of forbidding piety associated with the Ireland of Éamon de Valera, who supported the priest’s drive to defend the Christian faith from the “paganism” of jazz. But the population didn’t always follow the lead of the clergy. Conifrey targeted gardaí as the greatest offenders when it came this heretical music, “carrying on with their pagan dances until all hours of the morning”.

Still, in a society where such rhetoric was the norm, playing or even listening to jazz signified a quiet defiance. Bowman plays engaging clips from the late musician and broadcaster Charles Meredith, better known as Rock Fox. An erudite talker, Fox was one of those who “helped bring jazz in from the cold” from the 1950s on.

It was a small but palpable act of dissent: performing such music was potentially so controversial that Fox adopted his stage name to protect his parallel career as a solicitor from censure by the Law Society. Despite the awful acts perpetrated behind closed doors at the time, people were easier to shock back then.

radioreview@irishtimes.com

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