Brendan O’Connor sharpens the skewers, helped by a hapless Conor Lenihan

Radio: RTÉ host does a good line in disdain when proceedings threaten to get too cosy

Brendan O’Connor. Photograph: Kinlan Photography.

Brendan O’Connor. Photograph: Kinlan Photography.

 

There are times when Brendan O’Connor (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday) just can’t help himself. In his tenure of the flagship weekend slot, O’Connor may have settled into a comparatively mellow groove, swapping the disruptive snarl of his newspaper-columnist guise for a more down-to-earth persona. But now and again the instinct to skewer still kicks in, particularly when proceedings threaten to become too reverential or cosy.

At least that’s the impression on Saturday, when O’Connor talks to the author and broadcaster Manchán Magan about his new project, an online “hedge school” for the Irish language. As the reliably enthusiastic Magan talks about “teaching you things the mainstream consciousness mightn’t want you to know”, the host is cheerily affable, but his sceptical edge is discernible. 

“This is as much a spiritual thing for you as anything else, yeah?” he asks. Magan, who doesn’t seem to have a cynical bone in his body, agrees, describing the Irish language as allowing a “spiritual connection with the trees and plants and soil”, lost since the Famine.

‘You reappeared out in Russia, working for an oligarch,’ Brendan O’Connor says to Conor Lenihan. ‘And here you are, proud as punch’

O’Connor isn’t so crass as to openly deride this – even Magan admits his sentiments might seem “hippy-dippy” – but he doesn’t sound entirely sincere either: “Good luck with the Celtic revival.”

His occasionally doubtful tone notwithstanding, the host also engages with his guest’s heartfelt mission to restore Gaeilge as a “cultural asset”. O’Connor doesn’t sound entirely convinced, but one suspects if he really wanted to get stuck in, proceedings would be less convivial.

Or maybe not. An atmosphere of geniality also prevails when O’Connor interviews the former Fianna Fáil minister Conor Lenihan, even as the host picks his guest apart with barely concealed scorn. The erstwhile politician discusses his new book on Albert Reynolds, focusing on the late taoiseach’s role in the peace process in the 1990s. Lenihan, a journalist at the time, tells of passing on messages to various figures for Reynolds, and recalls the taoiseach dressing him down for using his home phone for this task. 

As Lenihan chirpily deduces that his landline was monitored by authorities, the host is incredulous. “You were a political journalist and you weren’t put out when the taoiseach presented you with a transcript from your own phone?” O’Connor asks in disbelief. His guest feebly responds that it was “amusing”. “Amusing is one word for it,” O’Connor replies.

Talk turns to Lenihan’s postministerial career. “You reappeared out in Russia, working for an oligarch,” says O’Connor. “And here you are, proud as punch.” Lenihan describes his job raising foreign investment funds for a Moscow foundation as a “great break”, but the host isn’t so sure. “I do notice people who go to Russia get defensive about Putin,” he says. “It’s like they’ve joined a cult.” Lenihan replies that much foreign analysis of Russia is “partisan”. “So you are a bit defensive about it,” the host chuckles.

Karina Molloy, a former quartermaster, recalls being passed over for promotion, being presented with inappropriate underwear on her birthday and being sexually assaulted by an NCO

If O’Connor sounds more like his old self as he disdainfully mauls his guest, he’s helped by Lenihan, who haplessly sharpens the knives for his own evisceration. One minute the ex-minister is boasting about “travelling around the world talking to companies”, the next he’s bemoaning public cynicism about politics. “You’d have to question where it comes from,” O’Connor pithily observes. 

The show has less cruelly enjoyable items too. On Saturday, Rosaleen Linehan recalls her life as a pioneering stalwart of Irish radio satire, her impression of a Donegal uncle a particular delight. On Sunday, the indefatigable US tennis legend Billie Jean King recounts her fight for women’s equality on the court and her struggle with her sexuality off it. In both instances O’Connor is in generous form, proving he can ping off guests as well as slag them off. 

But it’s his station colleague Katie Hannon who makes the bigger impact with her documentary Women of Honour (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday), which uncovers the sexual discrimination, harassment and assault endured by some female members of the Defence Forces. Such grim transgressions against women in the Irish military have been revealed before, but, as Hannon says, “This is the first time you will hear their voices – and their anger and humiliation”. 

Sure enough, former soldiers, sailors and Air Corps members recount in stark detail the misogynist attitudes and demeaning practices of male comrades, often their superiors. Karina Molloy, a former quartermaster, recalls being passed over for promotion, being presented with inappropriate underwear on her birthday and being sexually assaulted by an NCO who then bragged about it to colleagues.

Other contributors tell similar stories of being threatened, abused and worse.
Such experiences are shocking, but the response from military authorities is especially troubling. “A common theme is the feeling of being victimised for complaining,” Hannon notes. Several women remember variations of the “boys will be boys” mantra being used to excuse even the worst violations, while their own careers were blocked. 

Ray D’Arcy wonders why ‘wasp’ isn’t pronounced with a broad ‘a’, as in ‘waah’. ‘Did you ever think about that? No,’ he asks, before repeatedly and fruitlessly returning to the matter

It’s a direct, effective piece of radio from Hannon, weaving together first-hand testimony to paint a disturbing picture of dysfunction, violence and denial. The story is kept alive with critical follow-up reports on the military’s suspiciously self-serving response throughout the week on Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), underlining the way old-fashioned investigative reporting can still make waves.

Hannon shows another facet of her broadcasting ability when she returns as host of The Late Debate (RTÉ Radio 1, Tuesday-Thursday), marshalling both facts and guests with an easy but occasionally acerbic authority. Covering the Zappone affair, she describes Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney as taking “the scenic route to contrition”.

She also ensures her political panellists don’t get too slippery. After Coveney survives a no-confidence vote in the Dáil, she grills the Fianna Fáil TD Cathal Crowe on Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s inability to sack Fine Gael Cabinet Ministers. After her guest prevaricates she drily remarks, “I wonder will we get an answer to this question.” Eventually, she brings the matter to a head: “I’m still not hearing an answer.” 

A chastened Crowe concedes such dismissals are a Fine Gael prerogative. Ouch. There’s no escape from Hannon’s killer instinct.

Moment of the week: Ray D’Arcy’s waspy waffle

Proving he’s not stung by criticisms that his show can be a bit aimless, on Wednesday Ray D’Arcy (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) discusses wasps in his monologue, wondering why the word isn’t pronounced with a broad “a”, as in “waah”. “Did you ever think about that? No,” he asks, before repeatedly and fruitlessly returning to the matter. Not an obvious matter to get a bee in your bonnet about, you’d think. D’Arcy’s show needs more of a buzz, but this is ridiculous.

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