Radio: Brendan Howlin sets the record straight for Miriam O’Callaghan

Review: ‘Sunday with Miriam’, ‘Today with Sean O’Rourke’, ‘The Ryan Tubridy Show’

Brendan Howlin: “I answered that question at that time,” he says when Miriam O’Callaghan reminds him that he once denied being gay to the Star newspaper. “But I’m sorry I did. It shouldn’t be a question that you pose”

Brendan Howlin: “I answered that question at that time,” he says when Miriam O’Callaghan reminds him that he once denied being gay to the Star newspaper. “But I’m sorry I did. It shouldn’t be a question that you pose”

 

As a current-affairs presenter Miriam O’Callaghan rightly assumes that the public figures she interviews are well informed. In her role as host of Sunday with Miriam (RTÉ Radio 1), however, she seems to think that her guests need to be informed what year it is. As the new leader of the Labour Party Brendan Howlin is presumably up to speed on this matter. But, just to be sure, O’Callaghan repeatedly reminds him that “it’s 2016”.

It’s not that Howlin has suffered a severe case of amnesia. Rather, failing to elicit any juicy details about her guest’s personal life with her trademark hushed empathy, O’Callaghan ends up taking a different, ultimately unbecoming approach.

Until then it has been a dull affair. The host opens the show by saying that although she has grilled Howlin the politician many times, “this is going to be a different sort of interview”. In fact it initially seems pretty much the same as any other Howlin appearance. Calling himself a “professional politician”, he sounds animated about the party tussles of the past and blandly circumspect about the tensions of the present, playing down difficulties with Alan Kelly, the thwarted leadership pretender. But Howlin gives away little about his life outside the Dáil: “I don’t want intrusion by the media or anything else into that space.”

Lesser presenters may be deterred by this implicit plea for privacy, but not O’Callaghan, at least in her Sunday-morning incarnation. She notes, in a coyly innocent tone, that Howlin has remained single. She then asks why he hasn’t settled down, if he has ever fallen in love and what regrets he has.

As these emotively pitched queries are met with an increasingly icy reticence, O’Callaghan changes tack, musing that “sometimes society looks at people who are single slightly suspiciously”. Although O’Callaghan is all but nudging and winking as she asks the question, Howlin responds that he doesn’t know what she means.

“There is no stereotype that we all have to slot into, so there should be no musings about it.”

At this stage O’Callaghan gives up all pretence of subtlety. Declaring that it’s 2016 and thus “a different Ireland”, she notes that when Howlin previously ran for Labour leader “rumours about your sexual orientation became an issue”. She then reminds him that he once denied being gay to the Star newspaper. “I answered that question at that time,” Howlin says, “but I’m sorry I did. It shouldn’t be a question that you pose.”

It’s the closest thing to a personal revelation from Howlin, although it’s a wounded sense of dignity he reveals rather than anything more intimate.

Of course, anyone who appears on O’Callaghan’s weekend show should know what to expect. Getting tetchy about personal queries from Miriam in BFF mode is akin to bristling about policy questions on Morning Ireland.

It’s an uncomfortable exchange, if more gripping than usual. But there is something unseemly about O’Callaghan’s determination to, let’s be honest, out Howlin. “We’ve moved on,” he finally says in exasperation. Not all of us, it would seem.

Whatever about it being a new Ireland south of the Border, it is apparently business as usual in the North, at least when it comes to old sectarian habits. On Today with Sean O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) Paddy O’Gorman visits Belfast to sound out people’s footballing loyalties in advance of Northern Ireland and the Republic playing in the European Championship.

O’Gorman begins his journey in the city’s Catholic Ardoyne area. His vox pop is initially predictable, as his interviewees say they will support Poland against Northern Ireland.

“It’s a Protestant team for a Protestant people,” says one man, overlooking its religiously mixed make-up. But, lest he seem implacable, the man adds that things have moved on, noting that he had been injured in a gun and bomb attack that left three dead 25 years ago.

Progress is relative, one supposes: no wonder O’Rourke asks O’Gorman if he feels caught in a time warp.

A bigger surprise comes when the reporter moves on to the Protestant Shankill Road. Although the team of choice is Northern Ireland, a large number say they will also cheer on their southern neighbours. “We’re two separate islands, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be shouting for the Republic,” says one man, clearly as indifferent to the sectarian divide as he is to geography.

O’Gorman’s report turns out to be an oddly optimistic snapshot. O’Rourke, meanwhile, has become more at ease with such offbeat items. Although he still relishes playing the role of inquisitor general when interviewing the Minister for Justice, he also gamely goes with the flow as Brian O’Connell recounts a bizarre trip to the Cooley peninsula, ostensibly to report on a mooted visit by the US vice-president, Joe Biden.

“I’ve difficulty believing what I’m about to read,” says O’Rourke, “but you actually went looking for leprechauns.” This is indeed true, though O’Connell mercifully doesn’t claim to have found any. Instead he plays his interview with Kevin Woods, a self- proclaimed “leprechaun whisperer”.

Rather than mock his guest, O’Connell asks what the leprechauns think of Biden’s impending arrival. “They don’t have any awareness of it,” Woods replies, adding that he doesn’t expect them to meet the VP.

For once O’Rourke sounds stumped: “I’m nearly lost for words.”

Clearly, there are some topics that are best not pursued too far. Miriam might take note.

Moment of the Week: Tubs’s childish side On Monday The Ryan Tubridy Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) kicks off a week-long tour of the Wild Atlantic Way in Buncrana, Co Donegal, where the host mixes with the crowd gathered outside the roadshow bus. Tubridy’s laconic affability works for the most part, but as he moves through the crowd he becomes rather too irreverent. “Get out of my way, you brat – I mean, excuse me,” he quips to another young onlooker, who’s clearly not in on the joke. “Look at the little face: I’m going to make her cry.” Bad Ryan.

radioreview@irishtimes.com

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