Radio review: 1913 Lockout documentary was a hit and myth affair
The documentary was weighed down by detail, but ‘Liveline’ brought the cult of Jim Larkin to life
Weighty issues: the record of Jim Larkin’s arrest, which is on display at the Dublin Lockout exhibition at the National Library of Ireland. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
Over the past century the labour movement in Ireland has had an ambivalent, if not hostile, relationship with the dominant political brand of nationalism. But listening to Citizens: Lockout 1913-2013 (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday), one realised that the red and green strands of Irish life share one characteristic. When it comes to their history, both traditions mythologise and even celebrate defeat rather than victory.
As recounted in this mammoth six-part documentary, the bitter industrial struggle fought out in Dublin 100 years ago is portrayed as the defining event in Irish trade-union history, no matter that it ended in ruinous capitulation for the workers and exile for the union leader Jim Larkin. Produced and presented by Helen Shaw, the series may aim to demolish the legends surrounding the 1913 Lockout, but in its scope, detail and tone it leaves listeners in no doubt that this was a landmark event, worthy of a correspondingly weighty series.
Whatever else, Shaw does not dumb down the story. Although Larkin and his nemesis, William Martin Murphy, feature prominently, just as much coverage is given to the political, social and cultural context of the dispute.
In the two episodes so far, a seemingly endless parade of historians and biographers have held forth on topics ranging from the compelling – for example, the historian Mary Daly’s account of slum conditions and prostitution in Dublin – to the academic, such as the extended riff on the lack of union politics in James Stephens’s fiction.
Taken individually, these diverse sequences had merit, but collectively the sheer amount of detail was confusing as well as exhausting. The portentous opening credits, featuring two full minutes of soundbites from the many contributors, encapsulated the problem.
The programme was at its most effective when dealing with the two protagonists at the centre of the strike. Taking a revisionist tack, it questioned the heroic image of Larkin and the diabolical characterisation of Murphy. The latter was described as a personally warm man, a home-rule nationalist who believed Ireland’s future depended on its business sector.
Larkin, meanwhile, was portrayed as aggressive and ego-driven, forever falling out with erstwhile comrades such as James Connolly. Even more controversially, the Liverpool-born Larkin’s speeches were performed in an overdone Scouse accent, making him sound more like a postmatch footballer than a stirring polemicist.
Nevertheless, by the end of part two the confrontation was nicely set up, whetting the appetite for the next episode, which covers the Lockout proper. It will be interesting to hear whether this slice of Irish history remains written by the losers by the end of the series.
One thing is certain: there won’t be any subversion of the enduring cult of Larkin on Joe Duffy’s watch. Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) last week hosted several discussions on the legacy of the 1913 Lockout, to the evident satisfaction of Duffy.
On Monday he glowingly described forthcoming commemorative events for the strike as “fantastic” and “inspirational”. The next day, perhaps troubled by the portrayal of Larkin on Citizens, the presenter was more concerned with the fact that no recording existed of the union leader’s oratory.
Larkin’s granddaughter Stella appeared on the programme to paint an unsurprisingly warm but still touching portrait of the man, only for Duffy to quiz her about her grandfather’s accent. Failing to get a definitive answer, he then spoke to the actor Ger O’Leary, who turned on the full Dublinese for the occasion: “How are you doing, me auld segosha?”
By the time a sparky 87-year-old caller, Evelyn, shared her memories of Larkin bantering with the capital’s fabled mayor Alfie Byrne at a public meeting, one could practically smell the coddle bubbling.
Duffy, needless to say, was in raptures. It was as much living stereotype as oral history, but it made for unexpectedly joyful radio. It also underscored, more directly than any documentary, how Larkin’s reputation resonates to this day.
History of the decidedly lifeless variety was covered last weekend by Áine Lawlor, standing in for Marian Finucane (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday). The exhibits in the Natural History Museum may be preserved and stuffed, but Lawlor’s behind-the-scenes report on the museum’s vast collection crackled with vibrancy.
As she was taken on a guided tour of unseen artefacts by the keeper, Nigel Monaghan, the presenter’s enthusiastic curiosity was palpable.
When Monaghan opened a drawer containing some of the museum’s 17,000 avian specimens, Lawlor gasped. “My goodness, all the little birds!” Looking at a battered stuffed turtle, she lamented wistfully, “Poor little turtle! Poor big turtle, actually.”
And so it continued for the rest of the report. Lawlor’s gleeful exclamations brought just the right air of surprise and discovery to the item.
What with her empathetic interview with the boxer Kenneth Egan and her sure handling of events in Egypt, Lawlor turned in a confident display as a daytime talk-radio host. She made for a refreshing change from some of the relics on RTÉ.