More résumé than kiss and tell
AUTOBIOGRAPHY: HILARY FANNIN reviews Just Joe: My AutobiographyBy Joe Duffy Transworld Ireland, 377pp. £18.99.
‘I WAS BORN IN a grey time in the history of Ireland, in the dying days of January 1956, in that small room in Mountjoy Place.”
So begins the life story of Joseph Duffy, a devout, earnest child from a working-class suburb of Dublin who set out to better himself. The son of a hard-working, alcoholic father and a steadfast, equally hard-working mother, he grasped education with determined hands and catapulted himself into a swivel chair at RTÉ, from where, daily, he amplifies the national pulse with his microphone.
Joe Duffy. Name ring a bell? For those who have enjoyed a contemplative existence beyond the range of radio, TV, web or tweet, Duffy is best known as the presenter of Liveline, the national broadcaster’s second-most-listened-to radio programme. (The bulky shadow Joe casts over the listening nation is eclipsed only by Morning Ireland’s.)
Livelineis on air 75 minutes a day, five days a week, with a daily listenership of 400,000 people. Duffy has been at the helm of this phone-in since 1999, covering a turbulent period that has seen the country deck itself in the livery of self-indulgence and then crash to the floor from its borrowed high heels. Duffy has acted as both ringmaster and confessor to the nation, as caller after caller decided to “talk to Joe” rather than to their priests, lawyers, mothers or gods.
Now, a dozen years after he slipped into the seat vacated by Marian Finucane, Duffy has written his autobiography, Just Joe, the title itself making an ambiguous claim. Is this “just Joe” as in it’s-only-me-the-lad-from- Ballyer-tell-us-about-your-problem-with-the-double-glazing or “just Joe” the avenger, the righter of wrongs, the champion of the underdog? I suspect that Duffy has an imaginary superhero suit hanging in a dusty corner of his psyche, but even without X-ray vision or wings he plays a powerful role in the country’s adventures.
So who is he?
The inherent problem with Duffy’s book is that it fails to answer this question or fully illuminate the man. Self-examination appears as much an anathema to him as eating a plate of beluga caviar at the archbishop’s palace while a hungry orphan polishes his boots. The almost Dickensian portrait Duffy paints of the living conditions of his forebears in Dublin tenements is well drawn but sets the tone for the rest of the book, a factual, painstaking chronology that somehow feels distant. He enumerates the phases of his life with conscientious rigour: his student days, his work in the probation service, his fledgling career at RTÉ on Gay Byrne’s production team, the highs and lows of life in Montrose. But as incident piles on neatly folded incident, a sense of remoteness, of professional neutrality, grows. No matter how many times he litters his dutiful prose with exclamation marks, they remain just that, exclamation marks, not keys to emotion.
In later, more personal aspects of the book, where, for example, Duffy describes the death of his youngest brother, it is understandable that his reportage is straitened. However, this tone of detachment is less comprehensible when it is applied to matters of public relevance, such as his prison visit to the serial paedophile Fr Brendan Smyth.
Doubtless, however, Duffy’s hefty volume will squeeze itself into many Christmas stockings: those of his nervy bosses at RTÉ, of scorned politicians (most of the political parties seem to have offered him a seat at their table) and certainly of his legions of listeners. Who can afford not to know the story behind “Joe Duffel”, as he was known in his bearded and riotous Trinity College days, when his quest for social justice, or a hunger to be heard, to be counted and recognised, led to him becoming president of the Union of Students in Ireland.
Just Joehits its stride in its latter third, when Duffy writes about Liveline, the church where he has presided over a packed altar. The debacle of the health service has fed hour after hour of programming, with stories of people dying on waiting lists or sleeping on trolleys, and of cystic-fibrosis patients being forced to share infectious wards. Duffy has also given swathes of airtime to victims of clerical sexual abuse, providing a platform for those who survived the vicious institutions that studded the State, from Letterfrack to Daingean and Artane. There is no doubt that, in providing that space, Duffy has helped to exhume a national memory and begin a process of healing.
Duffy is a grafter; he is driven, conscientious, insecure. In his book he divulges his “neurotic monitoring of all things print or broadcast”. He sees himself as giving a voice to the voiceless, and rails against criticism that Livelinehas lowered the level of public discourse.
You want to believe him. Duffy is certainly no shock jock, but, as he admits, 75 minutes of airtime a day has to be actively managed: when Livelinedescends into rabid, bitter battles, as when David Norris is hauled over the spitting embers of Helen Lucy Burke’s memories or failed entrepreneurs are barracked into empty contrition by packs of outraged callers, Duffy’s assertion that he is just Joe, sitting behind his microphone facilitating public debate, rings hollow.
Just Joeis a cautious book, more extended résumé than celebrity kiss and tell. Unless, of course, you count the sex – oh, hang on, there is none. The nearest we get to salaciousness is Duffy’s paean to the humble Mikado: “Scoring the raspberry jam from the central reservation of a Mikado mallow biscuit with a powerful tongue was another magnificent skill, honed over years of slow, deliberate practice.”
Steady on there, Joseph.
Hilary Fannin is a playwright and journalist currently under commission to Rough Magic Theatre Company