Radio: Brenda Donohue finds the sunny sound of the suburbs

Review: ‘Like Family’, ‘Inside Culture’, ‘Neil Delamare’s Sunday Best’, ‘The Ian Dempsey Show’

Brenda Donohue: her natural outlook is so positive one suspects she could see the bright side of a tenement slum

Brenda Donohue: her natural outlook is so positive one suspects she could see the bright side of a tenement slum

 

Living happily in a commuter- belt town seems akin to leading a hipster lifestyle: many thousands do it, but virtually no one admits to it. Compared with the thrumming energy of the city or the bucolic bliss of the countryside, the suburban developments that multiplied in the boom years have a reputation for, at best, dull functionality. As Brenda Donohue says in Like Family (RTÉ Radio 1, Wednesday), such places are supposed to be faceless and soulless. And that’s coming from a sympathetic observer.

For the first episode of her new series on contemporary Irish family life (the clue is in the title), Donohue visits Ratoath, Co Meath, to investigate whether swollen suburban towns are good places to live. Given that she has built her broadcasting career on her open and upbeat style, that the programme isn’t a searing indictment of short-sighted planning failures shouldn’t come as a shock. Still, it’s an instructive portrait, if not always intentionally.

Donohue’s interviewees seem to fit the stock image of commuter-belt dwellers: new parents craving small schools and big gardens, struggling families who moved to bigger houses just before the crash, impulsive souls who bought their dream house without actually knowing where it was. If the stories have a common thread it is the community spirit that people have found in Ratoath, despite the population swelling tenfold.

That, at least, is Donohue’s theme. As she visits fundraising dances, workout classes and GAA clubs she mentions the “strong sense of community” at every opportunity, as well as such dread phrases as “chat” and “banter”. It’s such a sunny picture that even the presenter muses that it must come at a price.

The most obvious downside is the commute, in which 2,000 Ratoathians drive to Dublin every day. But despite the traffic, fatigue and truncated family time, people say they are happy to make the trade-off.

There are other, more ominous clouds. One Dublin-born resident remembers walking with his children to school alongside countless other fathers who had lost their livelihoods in the crash, “whose pride was destroyed”. But this snapshot of atomisation is qualified with the consolatory statement that “family values came back”.

Such honest interviews are testament to Donohue’s ability to connect easily with people, which remains her greatest strength. But her natural outlook is so positive that one suspects she could see the bright side of a tenement slum.

She concludes that “Irish families seem to have an emotional connection to suburban living”, but she may be confusing correlation with causation. If Like Family highlights anything it’s what one guest academic calls “the resilience of family” in Ireland, not an inherent inclination for town, village, city or in between.

Fionn Davenport, presenter of Inside Culture (RTÉ Radio 1, Monday), marks the Fourth of July with a programme devoted to New Orleans, a place with a near-mythical reputation for its distinctive heritage. There are enlightening discussions of the reasons for the city’s cultural importance, not least as the birthplace of jazz, but Davenport doesn’t shy away from New Orleans’s dark underside.

A local historian and musician, Michael White, describes the city’s perennial racial tension as “like the heat: you don’t see it but you definitely feel it”. Davenport also goes out to discover how the 19th-century influx of Irish labourers was driven by brutal economics. Apparently slaves were deemed too valuable for the dangerous, disease-ridden work of building riverside channels.

Meanwhile, the legacy of Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, remains everywhere. Zoe Comyns, the programme’s producer, tours a cityscape of abandoned homes, schools and hospitals so bleak it makes the average Irish ghost estate seem like a Mardi Gras parade.

As well as being arresting reportage, these items place the culture of New Orleans in a tangible context. Rather than presenting the city’s music, writing and even food as mere spectacle, Davenport imbues the listener in the history that shaped this remarkable outpouring. The trick is to regularly repeat the same feat with Ireland’s cultural output. On this showing the omens are good.

A chatshow hosted by a comedian might seem an unlikely forum for avant-garde culture, but Neil Delamare’s Sunday Best (Today FM, Sunday) serves up interviews with not one but two of Ireland’s most original artists. True, when he talks to Fergal McCarthy about rowing a raft made of plastic bottles along the Grand Canal – which McCarthy writes about on the opposite page today – Delamare eschews poststructuralist theory in favour of jokes about “the world’s biggest Blue Peter project”. But his affable guest also explains the evolution of the endeavour in accessible language.

Delamare takes a similarly light approach to his talk with the novelist Kevin Barry, but his gregarious guest has the best lines. Describing how he turned the fact that John Lennon owned an Irish island into a book, Barry recalls trying vainly to forget the idea, before giving into it: “I call it a trapped wasp.”

Delamare’s show can be uneven, but when he gets the right guests there’s quite a buzz to it.

Moment of the Week: With friends like Gift Grub . . .

Media in-jokes are rarely the stuff of good comedy, but on The Ian Dempsey Show (Today FM, weekdays) Mario Rosenstock uses his Gift Grub slot to skewer the new schedule at Newstalk, Today FM’s sister station. Whether presenting George Hook as a freebie-grabbing phone-in host, portraying the youthful-sounding Chris Donoghue as a giggling baby lost without his departed sidekick Ivan Yates, or lampooning Pat Kenny as a patronising Latin speaker, Rosenstock produces a memorable skit, full of meta-references and, yes, funny jokes. He might need to avoid the Newstalk studios, though.

radioreview@irishtimes.com

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