A feast and a famine


TWO of the four horsemen of the apocalypse rode across 1995's airwaves major anniversaries of war and famine gave rise to a profusion of programming, some of it among the best of the year.

The passing of a century and a half since the start of the Great Famine opened an especially rich lode of material. RTE's Cathal Porteir was particularly busy, producing a series of strong Thomas Davis lectures on the subject Oceans of Consolation, based on David Fitzpatrick's collection of letters from emigrants to Australia and Famine Echoes, an exhaustive and exhausting selection from the UCD folklore archives.

On the BBC, Irish heavyweights Terry Eagleton and Fintan O'Toole entered the Famine arena, and their contributions predictably hit hard at the ideological foundations of elite behaviour in famine periods.

In Hungry Eyes, O'Toole used the "first media famine" to launch a comparative analysis of such behaviour in various times and places, and of the silence of famine's victims.

Eagleton's approach in God's Locusts was probably more exciting. This radio play was set mainly in Whitehall's corridors of power during Ireland's hunger and the playwright used chillingly anachronistic language and devastating black humour to shuddering effect. If the form could be called "postmodern", the content with its clear relationship to awful and awesome Famine reality actually served to skewer pomo irony on its own devices.

The 50th anniversary of the end of the second World War didn't yield anything so ambitious, though goodness knows the satirist's pen could have found material there. The spectacle of Japan being hammered to apologise, without reciprocation, for a war that ended in the incineration of cities full of Japanese civilians was a bit rich, to say the least especially when Peacemaker Clinton backed Truman's A bomb decision to the hilt.

Colm Keane produced, for RTE, a series of more conventional programmes that still hit the spot. My father, Rudolf Hess offered an unusual angle on the events of the 1930s and 1940s, while other episodes on Vera Lynn and George Patton also probed intriguingly into the real lives of mythic, archetypal figures from the war.

Speaking of mythic figures, Joe Duffy carried on in the unenviable role of foil and part time replacement for the amazing Way Byrne who took less than a week to hit top form after his Roseless summer and health problems. Duffy was always going to suffer from odious comparisons and perhaps he invites them with too many Gayboesque schticks.

However, Duffy has also fallen victim to this column's "if you can't say something nasty about someone ..." policy. In the general run of things, I reckon he's brilliant and the colleagues who've seen me laughing from between the radio headphones can testify that this praise is not just a bit of seasonal goodwill.

Mind you, I could have been listening to a tape of Under the Goldie Fish, Conal Creedon's mad bad, wonderful to know daily sitcom soap for RTE. Radio Cork easily the funniest thing I've heard on Irish radio since Scrap Saturday, and among the most inventive. Also making me laugh this year was Andy Hamilton's Old Harry's Game on BBC Radio Four, a hilarious six parter about hellfire and damnation. Really.

But it wasn't all easy listening this year. Music programming apart from Peter Browne's fine Sounds Traditional and some adventurous programmes heard on Radio Kilkenny and some community stations was disappointing. I don't get it if the provincial stations can keep playing that tedious, repetitive brand of country music because the punters want it why can't the (licensed) Dublin and national stations play the slightly less tedious, repetitive brand of dance music that young people want to hear?

RTE's pedestrian Ireland Tonight has failed to take off in the wake of the mildly lamented Roth Sides Now, driving Dublin listeners into the arms of Chris Barry and his phone in on FM104 the station that managed to thrive with something even less imaginative than its music policy.