Where do you come from? What have you got?
Ray D’Arcy’s cross-dressing guests highlighted Ireland’s different identities
It was an explosion of colour and pageantry, providing relief from the bleak weather that prevailed throughout the period now apparently dubbed “St Patrick’s Week”. As he surveyed the eye-catching costumes being paraded in front of him, Ray D’Arcy emphasised this, saying the spectacle had cheered up everyone around him, while admitting that words could not do justice to the occasion. “If ever there was a need for a webcam, this is it,” he said. “The girls look amazing.”
The girls in question were not members of some marching troupe but performers of an altogether more outre stripe. As their saucy names and suspiciously male-sounding voices suggested, Davina Devine, Victoria Secret and Sheila Fitzpatrick were drag queens, whose presence on The Ray D’Arcy Show (Today FM, weekdays) was in keeping with the presenter’s stories from the fringes of Irish life.
The item started frothily. “Do I refer to you as boys or girls?” asked D’Arcy. “Just refer to us,” sighed Davina, aka David, in camp exasperation. He went to explain the difference between transvestites – who seemingly strive to wear women’s clothing unnoticed and are often heterosexual – and drag queens, who are “98 per cent gay” and “basically larger than life”.
D’Arcy asked how his guests had started on their exhibitionist path (a love of glitz and performance figured highly), but, with the visual nature of their vocation redundant on radio, the conversation soon drifted to the issue of sexuality. As the trio recounted how they had come out, the tone changed: for all their showy demeanour, they had struggled with declaring their sexuality. “It was the hardest thing to say those words ‘I am gay’,” said Davina/David.
Personally significant as these tales were, it was hardly taboo- shattering, a point D’Arcy implicitly conceded when he asked his guests if they were bored talking about coming out. “No,” they chorused, conscious that it remained a difficult rite of passage for closeted teens.
Questions of identity were also at the heart of Documentary on One: Athy Is the ’Hood, Man (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday). Its producer and presenter, Derek O’Halloran, recalled how, when attending the St Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin last year, he encountered a group of “African young people” who “sounded Irish”. He set out to discover how these teens, “living between two cultures”, saw themselves. The programme yielded some fascinating – and occasionally troubling – glimpses into the experiences of the interviewees, whose relationship with their adopted home was ambivalent.
Kunle arrived in Ireland as a child a decade ago but still saw himself as Nigerian. Somalian-born Abdi had mixed feelings, regarding himself as Irish, if only “because I don’t really have a country to go back to”. Schooled here and active in the local community, he nonetheless thought few would ever accept him as Irish, but added that this didn’t bother him, “so long as I’m accepted by the system”.
Taken alongside anecdotes of frequent racist abuse, their attitude hardly amounted to a wholehearted embrace of Irishness. But the ambiguity cut both ways. Despite feeling Nigerian at heart, Kunle regarded Athy as his home. Not only was he educated there, but most of his friends lived there. Abdi said, “When people hear you speak with their language they can relate to you.”
Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the documentary was the accents of these African-born teens, whose intonation and everyday concerns sounded much the same as those of their white, Irish-born peers.
O’Halloran, whose benignly ingenuous tone occasionally resembled that of a well-meaning social worker, put a positive spin on his findings. The young people he had met were “adaptable and resilient and seem to have a really good handle on things”, an optimistic verdict apposite for a time of year when Irishness in all its forms is supposedly celebrated.
But any liberal backslapping was offset by the story told by South African-born Gugu. She recounted seeing a “half-caste” boy being beaten up in a chipper by an Irish child who lived in the same flats; nobody had intervened. “For that little fella,” said Gugu plaintively, “where’s he going to say he’s from?”
Then again, concepts of nationality do change, as Bono reminded Aine Lawlor as she stood in on Marian Finucane (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday). The U2 frontman recounted how as a teen in 1970s Dublin, he – not to mention the Edge, whose parents were Welsh, and Adam Clayton, who had a British passport – had no sense of belonging to traditional Irish culture. “We were more like the Ireland that has come about now, culturally confused in a good way,” he said. His band’s music, he added, instead came from an empty suburban space: “I’ve learned to hold my head up about that and not feel that makes us less Irish.”
It was, in many ways, a soft-focus interview. Lawlor allowed Bono to talk about his philanthropic ventures without posing awkward questions about U2’s tax machinations. It was telling that the nearest thing to criticism came from the singer himself, who said he understood “how annoying this little jumped-up Jesus can be, the rich rock star on the soapbox”.
When it came to the evolving nuances of Irish identity, however, his voice rang true.