Radio: Untold stories breathe new life into old myths

Review: ‘The History Show’, ‘Sunday with Miriam’ and ‘Today with Seán O’Rourke’

Never mind the experiences of civilians, children or British soldiers, Myles Dungan’s show recounts the untold stories of those who weren’t even born when the Rising began

Never mind the experiences of civilians, children or British soldiers, Myles Dungan’s show recounts the untold stories of those who weren’t even born when the Rising began

 

Whatever else about RTÉ’s treatment of the Rising commemorations, the network has not been parsimonious in its coverage.

But for those who feel the celebrations have not paid enough attention to the 1916 rebels themselves – such as the indignant Liveline caller who recently complained to Joe Duffy about “that awful word, inclusivity” – The History Show (RTÉ Radio 1, Easter Monday) might appear particularly misplaced in the generosity of its focus.

Never mind the experiences of civilians, children or British soldiers, Myles Dungan’s show recounts the untold stories of those who weren’t even born when the Rising began.

This may sound like a parody of political correctness, but not only is Sinéad Egan’s report for real, it is one of the best items on the programme. Egan visits the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street, interviewing the hospital’s master, Dr Rhona Mahony, to discover how the fighting in Dublin affected expectant mothers in Easter week. It turns out to have been a place of life and death, having been converted into a field hospital while combat continued. As well as hosting 14 births, the staff treated 40 casualties, of whom seven died. The mortuary was also filled to capacity.

But it’s the stories intermingling everyday life with mortal threat that are most memorable. Reading the hospital’s log, Mahony tells of a woman pregnant with her fifth child who tried to make her way across the bullet-ridden city, only to get caught in the crossfire and give birth in the street: “She would have arrived at the hospital with a baby in her arms and a bullet in her foot.”

Far from being sops to inclusivity, such tales breathe vivid life into the events of 1916. Design lecturer Linda King’s fascinating analysis of the typography of the Proclamation poster is another example, as she explains how the iconic document is also a testament to the printer’s improvisational skills. Dungan hosts intriguing discussions with academics and journalists on themes such as the morality of the Rising, but it is the ostensibly niche items that remind listeners of the mundane realities that lie behind momentous events. Which, of course, is what history is supposed to be about.

This wide lens view of 1916 might cause carping in some quarters, but as Colm Tóibín observes on Sunday with Miriam (RTÉ Radio 1), there is now a public appetite for a more nuanced narrative: “Everyone knows this is a complicated story.”

In his interview with Miriam O’Callaghan, the author recalls watching the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Rising in 1966 in his native Enniscorthy with a woman who had taken part in the town’s own rebellious outbreak. “She didn’t talk about it all,” he says, suggesting that while such silence was dignified, it allowed myths to flourish. “Everyone thought these men were heroes, but now we know plenty of other things were going on.”

Not that Tóibín is against reticence. He recalls how he developed a stammer as a 12-year-old after the death of his father. He now sees it as an internalised reaction to the tragedy, but also as a first step towards a “richer imaginative life”.

Mixing honesty and perceptiveness with a wry manner, Tóibín makes for a stimulating foil to the typically expressive O’Callaghan. He dots the conversation with apparently casual asides that nonetheless linger in the mind. Recalling the books that cluttered his well-read family’s household, the writer points out that back then, “literacy meant boys would get jobs indoors”.

Tóibín was blessed to grow up in a home environment that helped him flourish later in life. But those born into less fortunate circumstances at the same time could suffer catastrophic consequences, as listeners are reminded by Brian O’Connell’s report on Today with Seán O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). O’Connell visits the former Magdalene Laundry in Donnybrook, which is being sold by the Religious Sisters of Charity, in the company of a former resident.

The woman, who prefers to remain unnamed, tells how after she was born in a euphemistically-named “mother and baby home” she grew up in various orphanages before spending a year in the laundry as a teenager. Her stories are hair-raising. As a child in an industrial school, she was locked in a press for stealing apples from an orchard. Later, as an unpaid worker at the laundry, she asked the nuns if it was possible to make contact with her mother. “Who’d have the likes of you?” came the reply.

Looking back, the woman says her experiences at these institutions ruined her life. She was forced to undergo electro-shock treatment and suffered mental health problems throughout her life. Her voice echoes with anxiety. “I’ll never forgive them,” she says. “They took away my childhood.” It’s worth remembering that the era she is talking about is the 1970s, not a hundred years ago.

O’Connell hears from independent councillor Mannix Flynn who says the State should buy the Donnybrook site and turn it into a commemorative space. “It’s as important as the 1916 sites,” Flynn says. Some may disagree, but as the last week has shown, Ireland’s story has many sides.

Moment of the Week: Plug pulled on TXFM

There’s been a disappointed reaction to the announcement that Dublin music station TXFM is to close, following the decision by parent company Communicorp not to renew its licence. The news of six redundancies is extremely sad, while off-beat shows such as Under The Influence will be missed. Unfortunately, factors contributing to the station’s demise have been evident for some time. TXFM’s rather narrowly focused diet of indie music ensured it was a niche outlet, and online streaming means radio is not the primary source of new music it once was, particularly for a younger audience. All in all, it is grim news for music radio, particularly given the predictable programmed pop that reigns elsewhere.

radioreview@irishtimes.com

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