Radio Review: a week of sadness after Donal Walsh’s death, but one of uplifting insight too

Death and illness dominated the on-air discussions this week, but the presenters managed to deal with the subjects adroitly and empathy

Donal Walsh: died after a long battle with cancer. Photograph: Kerry’s Eye/PA

Donal Walsh: died after a long battle with cancer. Photograph: Kerry’s Eye/PA


Those who view Monday mornings with little enthusiasm – which must cover pretty much all of us – will not have had their mood lifted by the sad news that greeted the start of last week. The death of Donal Walsh, the Kerry teenager who spoke out about youth suicide while battling terminal cancer, was the headline story on the day’s breakfast bulletins, prompting tributes that continued throughout the week. But, amid the sadness, the news also triggered uncharacteristic flashes of poignant reflection.

Nowhere was this more evident than on Newstalk Breakfast (Newstalk, weekdays), with its presenter Chris Donoghue sounding particularly affected as he talked about the “remarkable” teenager’s passing. “Setting off this morning, I forgot about the little things myself, having heard that news,” Donoghue said, opening the programme.

It became clear that his reaction was rooted in more than natural sympathy, as he and his fellow presenter Norah Casey discussed Donal’s appeals for teens not to contemplate suicide. When a worried listener texted that people who had taken their own lives might be unwittingly stigmatised by the notion that they had a choice in the matter, Donoghue demurred, bringing his own perspective to the issue.

“I had cancer,” he said, “and when I was going through treatment you’d get so angry when you’d pass a junkie in the street or hear of something else, because you have no control. You’d get so angry because you weren’t horrible and tried to be nice, so why did you get this?”

Donal was not condemning anyone else, the presenter mused, he was just reminding us that people should treasure life. “I promised myself I wouldn’t let all the bullshit and crap get back on top of me,” said Donoghue, his voice cracking for a half-second. “But it gets back in on you, and you get annoyed about stupid things. I used to think I was in this Zen place, and then life keeps throwing the rubbish back at you.”

It was a deeply personal comment for what is, after all, a breakfast news programme, but Donoghue’s sincerity was palpable and, moreover, stirring. It was one of those moments when the freely editorialising style of the Newstalk show trumped its better-resourced, news-focused RTÉ rival, Morning Ireland .

The rest of the week brought little respite from grim revelations about the ravages that illness wreaks on the body. The news of the Hollywood star Angelina Jolie’s preventative double mastectomy touched a raw nerve judging by the occasionally distressing calls that Tom Dunne (Newstalk, weekdays) fielded when he raised the issue on Tuesday’s show.

One woman, Rose, spoke about her devastation at the prospect of a second mastectomy after learning that she possessed the gene that predisposed her to breast cancer. But she sounded more worried about her daughter, whose impending first labour could potentially trigger ovarian cancer.

Dunne handled these most intimate matters of life and death with unobtrusive empathy. Occasionally, however, his tact deserted him. Laura, another caller at genetic risk, said she preferred constant screening to a mastectomy, a choice that concerned the host.

“If someone told me I had an 87 per cent chance of developing breast cancer and I could remove that risk by having my breasts removed, I’d certainly do it,” Dunne commented. Laura, to her credit, did not respond that this was easy for him to say.

But overall, Dunne – who revealed he had lost a close friend to ovarian cancer – hosted a valuable public conversation with an adroitness that other presenters could learn from.

When it came to musings on mortality, the most remarkable instance came when Bridget Megarry spoke about the prospect of her death with Miriam O’Callaghan, guest host of The John Murray Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). Diagnosed with terminal bone-marrow cancer last September, Megarry had previously written in The Irish Times about facing death, but hearing her talk with unalloyed honesty about her experience was gut-wrenching.

She spoke about her shock on learning the virulence of her condition – “I hadn’t anticipated that this one would be so fast and so quick” – and although a stem-cell transplant held out a faint hope, Megarry was also realistic: “I knew in my case the outcome wasn’t going to be good.” She found comfort in prayer but also admitted that she often had “very dark times”.

“All the categories of grief that one reads about I experience every day,” she said. “Anger, rage, despair, denial and just huge grief that I won’t be there for my grandchildren and family.”

As she spoke, Megarry had a preternaturally tranquil tone, in contrast to O’Callaghan, who bounced between the incongruously upbeat – “You look far too healthy to be ill” – and the frankly self-parodying. “I find you incredibly impressive, even just sitting in front of you and talking to you,” O’Callaghan told her guest at one point. “I mean that.”

For all that, O’Callaghan’s breathlessly hands-on style provided an emotionally conducive setting for an interview that was as unforgettable as it was heartrending. At the very least, it was a jolting reminder not to sweat the small stuff.

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