Tuning into Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) on Easter Monday, it's apparent something is up. Quips about "telegram polls" and references to the GPO on Sackville Street make it clear enough that it's a retro-themed special for RTÉ's Cruinnú na Cásca cultural festival. But above all it's Joe Duffy's demeanour that alerts listeners that this is a different Liveline, one that imagines what the show might have sounded like in 1917.
Gone is the air of exasperated concern that Duffy usually wears as chief of the nation’s complaints department. Instead, as he broadcasts from the Custom House in Dublin he sounds like a master of ceremonies at a vaudeville revue. When one “caller” – an actor playing a war widow from Carlow – recounts a (true) tale about a con man who offered her money after “he came into my house to have a look at my valuables”, Duffy responds gleefully. “I’d say he did,” he says, guffawing. “He had a root through them, did he?”
Joe Duffy couldn't play to the gallery more if there was a drum roll and crashing cymbal
When he’s not trading in saucy cracks Duffy is throwing out knowing asides to his audience. He hears an actor portraying another true-life character, an Irish soldier with the British army who was killed on the Western Front in July 1917. When the “soldier” recounts how his widow lost her pension after marrying his brother, Duffy shoots back, “I didn’t know Leo Varadkar was around then.” He couldn’t play to the gallery more if there was a drum roll and crashing cymbal.
Nonetheless, it's an absorbing show. For all Duffy's hamming there are more laughs than on Liveline's Funny Friday specials, where most of the jokes predate 1917. But it also brings the political ferment of post-Rising Dublin to life and reveals the seamy side of Ireland a century ago, from ne'er-do-wells scamming the vulnerable to self-appointed moral guardians – "lady patrollers" – policing any wayward behaviour by women. No wonder Duffy is laughing: there was no shortage of material for him back then either.
Normal service is resumed on Wednesday, when Duffy devotes the programme to an interview with a convicted killer. The presenter has previously spoken to Declan Fox, whose brother John was stabbed to death in 1987, during an altercation in Sligo. Now he talks to Richard Kelly, the man who killed John. Kelly, who served six and a half years for manslaughter, sounds remorseful and is keen not to make excuses for his actions. He did not set out to kill John, he says, but accepts his culpability, both for bringing a knife with him that night and for drinking to the point that he doesn't remember stabbing his victim.
It would be nice to view Kelly’s tale as one of redemption. Realising the enormity of what he had done, he says, he served his time uncomplainingly, took education courses, and on his release moved north to work, where he married and had a family. But for all Kelly’s obvious contrition and sympathy for the family of the young man he killed, there is no getting away from the central fact that he is alive and, thanks to him, John Fox is not.
“I had no intention of taking that man’s life,” Kelly says at one point.
“But you do understand it’s incidental to the Fox family,” says Duffy. “Their boy is dead.”
It’s a compelling but uncomfortable show, with an unclear purpose beyond drawing listeners in. Kelly may be trying to exorcise his demons, but for the Fox family it is an unwelcome reminder of a dreadful past.
The music industry was awash with money but Irish rock lacked a basic infrastructure, so 2FM set out to join the dots
Altogether happier memories dominate Cork Rock (2FM, Monday), Dan Hegarty's documentary about the eponymous music festival that showcased emerging Irish acts from 1988 to 1995. The event was organised by the 2FM producer Ian Wilson (who also produces this programme) as a way of bringing unsigned acts to the attention of international talent scouts. It was conceived as an act of public service broadcasting: Wilson points out that it was a time when the music industry was awash with money but the Irish rock scene lacked a basic infrastructure, so 2FM set out to join the dots.
On the face of things it worked. The event is fondly recalled by members of groups such as The Cranberries, The Frank and Walters, Whipping Boy and The Sultans of Ping FC, all of whom played there early in their careers and went on to greater success. But amid the raw live recordings and the unvarnished vignettes of band life the documentary blurs the line between correlation and causation. With the exception of The Frank and Walters, playing Cork Rock did not seem to lead directly to the grail of the era, the record-label deal. The programme works better as an unashamedly celebratory snapshot of Irish indie rock in those years.
Those seeking more left-field sounds may venture elsewhere, such as Late Date Takeover (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday-Tuesday). For three nights the nocturnal music show is taken over by the writers Joseph O'Connor and Lisa McInerney and the country singer Robert Mizzell. McInerney in particular proves a delight, her open, almost unfiltered presentational style matched by a engaging selection of tunes from Ireland and abroad. As well as being an exciting literary talent, she has quite the on-air presence.
In a week when the past features so prominently it’s good to hear someone with an exciting future.
Moment of the Week: Bowman’s ode to a nightingale
Bowman: Sunday: 8.30am (RTÉ Radio 1) is always enjoyable, with John Bowman's weekly compendium of clips from the archives providing audio portraits of public figures and retelling old stories in new ways. But even by his standards Sunday's edition delves far into the past, as Bowman explores Thomas Edison's invention the phonograph. He uncovers an early cylinder recording of the Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale, from 1890. "When I am no longer even a memory, just a name," she says, amid much crackling, "I hope my voice brings to history the great work of my life." It brings a shiver down the spine.