'You can't afford to take their word for it. The church has tentacles everywhere'

Radio review: ‘Father Ted’ writer Graham Linehan, talking to Newstalk’s Sean Moncrieff, is clear on his opposition to the nuns owning the National Maternity Hospital

Down with this sort of thing: Graham Linehan addresses the  Parents for Choice protest against the Government decision to hand over the new National Maternity Hospital to the Sisters of Charity religious order.  Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Down with this sort of thing: Graham Linehan addresses the Parents for Choice protest against the Government decision to hand over the new National Maternity Hospital to the Sisters of Charity religious order. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

As a cursory scan of the airwaves attests, the decision to hand over ownership of the new National Maternity Hospital (NMH) to the Sisters of Charity is an almost unavoidable topic of conversation, much of it heated. Few ecclesiastical voices are heard on the matter, however, which is strange given that church influence over medical care is the nub of contention. So kudos to Sean Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays) for landing an interview with the man behind the most high-profile Irish cleric of recent times.

True, writer Graham Linehan may not be familiar with the intricacies of canon law – “I’m not up on the ins and outs of what Catholicism does and doesn’t allow,” he concedes – but as co-creator of Father Ted, he helped change our perception of the church, from all-wise guardians of morality to institutional bumblers and chancers. On that basis alone, Linehan’s views on the controversy are instructive, no matter his comedic characterisation of the clergy now seems unduly benign.

Linehan is adamant that the church should have no say in matters of women’s health

Linehan is hardly neutral on the proposal to locate the new Dublin maternity facility on the grounds of St Vincent’s Hospital, owned by the nuns; he has spoken at a protest against the plan. He is sceptical about promises to respect clinical independence. “You can’t afford to take their word for it,” he says, adding that “the church has its tentacles everywhere”.

‘Comfort’

But Linehan isn’t fanatically anti-religious. (He did co-write a sitcom about priests, after all.) He doesn’t feel the Catholic church should be banished from civic life: “It gives comfort to a great many people and that role is important.” He even baulks at his own use of negative metaphors. 

But he is adamant that the church should have no say in matters of women’s health. At Moncrieff’s suggestion, Linehan recalls how his wife had an abortion in 2004 after learning that the child lacked a fully formed skull and would die seconds after birth. Linehan talks tersely about the “horrific” two days that followed, as they prepared for the termination, but he has no regrets: “It was two days.” That his wife would have been denied the same procedure in Ireland crystallised his own views. 

It’s a telling conversation. Linehan confesses he is shaky on those clinical and legal details that supporters of the move say will copperfasten the new hospital’s position. Rather, his opposition seems down to his personal experiences and his secular-minded convictions, not to mention a bruised sense of fairness. “They could have made life easier for themselves if they’d paid reparations to the people they damaged,” Linehan notes, referring to the money still owed to the State by the religious order.

Offbeat voices

The interview is typical of Moncrieff’s approach of late, using offbeat voices to address current affairs. He also speaks to British comedian Al Murray, best known for his xenophobic alter-ego the Pub Landlord, about Brexit. (“There’s more gags in a leave result,” is Murray’s utilitarian verdict.) It’s a tactic that may not yield much factual enlightenment, but it allows fresh perspectives, as well as some levity.

Hearing the whole endgame played out on air makes for undeniably compelling radio

The latter quality is in short supply as the medical experts exchange potshots on the hospital matter. On Tuesday, former NMH board member Dr Peter Boylan appears on the Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, weekdays), describing the plan as “a terrible mistake”. On Wednesday, Dr Rhona Mahony, the Master of NMH, is on Newstalk Breakfast (weekdays) describing the whole affair as “a storm in a teacup”, though her raised voice hints at the emotions involved. She also calls Boylan’s texts to her on the issue as “intimidating”. (By Thursday, Boylan has resigned from the board.) 

Hearing the whole endgame played out on air over the course of the week makes for undeniably compelling radio; these things normally happen behind closed doors or, nowadays, on Twitter. But it is also a depressing spectacle.

As it’s a medical magazine programme, Alive and Kicking (Newstalk, Saturday) has to give some coverage to the NMH affair. Dr Ciara Kelly, the show’s presenter, comes out against the plan in her opening monologue, objecting to the “failure to show remorse and failure of atonement” by the Sisters of Charity to the Catholic Church’s opposition to the likes of contraception and IVF, never mind abortion, the 800lb gorilla in the room throughout this whole dispute. “We are setting ourselves up for trouble,” Kelly concludes.

Fertility treatments

But after her brief editorial, Kelly moves on to less contentious items. She talks to Dr Tim Dineen about fertility treatments for couples unable to conceive. It’s a discussion that, while naturally urgent for those involved, is akin to sitting in on a consultancy session. Meanwhile, a discussion about how to change one’s professional life, with career coach Jane Downes, offers some practical if obvious tips – eg plan ahead rather than quit a job on impulse – but is awash in self-congratulation. 

Kelly, a practising GP, informs us that she is “enjoying a mid-life renaissance” since starting her media career. Slightly alarmingly, she describes herself as “the Sinn Féin of career changes – I play the long game”. Downes, meanwhile, is full of affirmative enthusiasm for her host. When Kelly says that she wants to write a novel, her guest responds, “I know you’ll get to it.” 

The various items highlight the ever-present problem with specialist programmes. Too much technical information, audiences switch off; try too hard to appeal to the casual listener, the item is so lightweight as to float away. Then again, maybe that’s what happens when the church isn’t involved in medical matters.

Radio Moment of the Week: Lillywhite produces the goods

Dave Fanning (2fm, Saturday & Sun) talks to record producer Steve Lillywhite, who regales his host with enjoyable tales from his past, from The Rolling Stones (“I produced their worst album, until the next one”) and Morrissey (“The only artist I know who wears one of his own T-shirts”) to U2, who he has worked with since 1980. His early memories of U2 are gloriously unfiltered, be it manager Paul McGuinness (he expected to meet “a man on a tractor with straw in his hair”) or Bono, a “little stubby young kid”. Lillywhite is perhaps the only man who can talk more than Fanning; it’s a brilliant interview.

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