Radio: Why Sean Moncrieff’s never short of ammo

The Newstalk host’s irreverent approach shed new light on a lethal subject while Marian Finucane heard a troubling hidden history

Guns for hire: Thompson sub-machine guns and other weapons being fired in the US in the 1930s. Photograph: Vintage Images/Getty

Guns for hire: Thompson sub-machine guns and other weapons being fired in the US in the 1930s. Photograph: Vintage Images/Getty

Sat, Nov 2, 2013, 01:00

Given the national propensity to celebrate the landmark achievements of anybody with even a trace of Irish blood, it was a surprise this week to hear of an event from our past that was truly trailblazing yet has been totally overlooked. On Tuesday the editor of History Ireland, Tommy Graham, was talking to Sean Moncrieff, on Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays), about the Thompson sub-machine gun, the famed firearm so beloved of Chicago gangsters and US marines alike, when he casually mentioned that it was in Ireland that the weapon first saw action, during a 1921 attack by the IRA on a train full of British soldiers in Dublin.

Only the most self-loathing Irish person could fail to swell with patriotic pride at the revelation, surely deserving of a national holiday or at least a plaque, that it was on our small island, not the Prohibition-era US nor the sands of Iwo Jima, that the tommy gun was first fired in anger.

Okay, that’s overstating the case. But the item showed Moncrieff’s ability to take unpromising subjects and end up with radio that is both stimulating and entertaining.

The piece may have appealed to firearms fetishists – Graham spoke about the “suppressive fire” from this “trench-clearing weapon”, albeit in a tone of wry scepticism rather than drooling delight – but far more notable was the way Moncrieff and his guest used this ostensibly murderous subject to look at familiar events in an intriguing light.

When Graham compared the weapon to a hand-held device, the presenter dubbed it the iPad of killing. On one level it was a flippant way to approach an invention that slaughtered thousands – it seems doubtful that holding a tommy gun is really “every schoolboy’s dream”, as Graham suggested – but this rueful humour made a welcome change from earnest analysis when it came to examining a troubling subject.

If Moncrieff has any problem, it is that he rarely deviates from his signature style of intelligent irreverence. This week, as he moved easily from the role of women in 1950s Britain and the stubbornly lowly position of African-Americans in Obama’s US to the high rate of book authorship in Iceland, he came across as informed yet curious without ever quite shaking his tendency to slip into archness. But for those who enjoy viewing the world through the distinctive lens of Moncrieff’s show, it’s a small price to pay.

Producing radio that is both offbeat and arresting is no easy task, something underlined by The History Show (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday). Presented by Myles Dungan, whose accessible style belies his formidable knowledge of his field, last weekend’s programme covered a commendably diverse range of topics, from conventional political history to more unusual aspects of our social and cultural past. The results were, however, mixed.

The show’s main feature, on the Irish nationalist academic and politician Eoin MacNeill, was certainly thorough. After a brief biographical report from Lorcan Clancy, Dungan hosted a discussion with the historian Conor Mulvagh and the former minister (and MacNeill’s grandson) Michael McDowell. This yielded enlightening asides and poignant revelations, particularly about the summary execution of MacNeill’s son by pro-Treaty forces in the Civil War. But it was also traditional history writ large, very much falling in the “great man” school of analysis.

In contrast, an item about Dublin youth cults was potentially rich in content but flat in execution. Liam Geraghty’s report toggled between Garry O’Neill, editor of an acclaimed photographic history of street style, and the original punks and mods featured in the book’s pictures.

But both that and Dungan’s subsequent interview with the museum curator Simon O’Connor were too perfunctory to capture the nuances of its pop-cultural subject, which may have been better suited to the flexible format of live talk radio. The show’s most satisfying piece mixed arcane social history with well-researched narrative verve, during Louise Denver’s fascinating item on Dunsink Mean Time, our unique time zone from 1880 to 1916.

There were more revelations about our past on Sunday, when Marian Finucane (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday) spoke to Dr Damien Brennan of Trinity College Dublin about the history of psychiatric institutions in Ireland. Brennan told how, in the 1950s, the State had the world’s highest rate of institutional residency, with our mental hospitals housing 22,000 patients, at a time when only 400 people were in our prisons.

“I don’t think we had an epidemic of insanity,” said Brennan. Instead, he outlined the social forces that drove this large-scale confinement, from the local economic importance of the hospitals and the occupational security they provided for the medical profession to family complicity in committing difficult relatives.

Brennan provided an unsettling glimpse of our past, all the more so as it was impossible to blame it on the usual scapegoats of Britain or the Catholic church: it was the post-Independence State that oversaw the hospital regime.

It was a forgotten but hugely significant story from our past, with legacy issues that resonate to this day. And, in this case, the historical amnesia was probably deliberate.


radioreview@irishtimes.com

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