If you should ever meet Ciara Kelly, take care how you address her. If her conversation on Newstalk Breakfast (weekdays) is anything to go by, the presenter isn’t too keen on people who don’t know her bandying her first name about. In fairness, this aversion isn’t down to overinflated ego but has more prosaic roots.
On Wednesday Kelly and co-host Shane Coleman discuss nametag etiquette, an ostensibly innocuous subject that proves oddly triggering. Having worked in hospitality jobs as a student, she shudders at the memory of being repeatedly called "Ciara" by people reading her work badge: she thinks the practice "overfamiliar and patronising". Hearing this, Coleman displays an understanding attitude towards his colleague: "You're just being a total crank." The jocular sniping continues when a listener's text calls Kelly by her first name, but elides Coleman's altogether. "I'm going to have to get a nametag myself," he grumbles theatrically, before adding a deliberately generic ident: "You're listening to Newstalk Breakfast with two people presenting."
That pretty much sums up the programme’s formula: it’s as much a double-act routine as a morning news magazine, going back to when Ivan Yates and Chris Donoghue perfected the slot’s mismatched partner blueprint more than a decade ago. Coleman and Kelly don’t quarrel with quite the same cartoonish vigour as their predecessors, sharing more political and indeed generational common ground. But their temperamental differences create a dynamic that keeps the show stimulating, without descending into the shouty pantomime that prevailed when Coleman shared the mic with his previous co-presenter, the swaggering Paul Williams.
For one thing, when they're not quibbling about nametags, Coleman and Kelly use their differences to productive effect, co-opting each other's divergent opinions as required. Opening Wednesday's show, the two presenters set out separate concerns about the proposed Leaving Cert overhaul, with Kelly uneasy that continual assessment will lead to grade inflation and Coleman worried that teachers' unions will block reform. But when Kelly later interviews Minister for Education Norma Foley, she leads off with her colleague's fears about possible union recalcitrance: "Are you going to face them down?"
Foley plumps for a conciliatory reply, optimistically invoking her plan’s timelines. When Kelly pushes on her own pet fret, that inflated marks will transform the Leaving Cert into “sports day at Montessori school, with a gold medal for everyone”, the Minister is again upbeat, claiming the reforms conform with international best practice.
The host doesn’t roast her guest, but presses her on each issue. Meanwhile, Foley mixes judiciously corralled detail with well-burnished platitudes such as “change is never easy, but it also brings opportunity”. If she loses marks for such clichés, her heartfelt support for a Leaving Cert drama studies strand brings up her score. Kelly perks up at the answer: “I tend to agree.”
The item brings out Kenny at his best, whether it's creating context... or sympathetically hearing out his guest as she tells her story
But the show works better when consensus is missing, particularly among the presenters. On Thursday the pair are at loggerheads again, on whether primary school pupils need homework. Coleman is firmly in favour of abolishing such work, while Kelly passionately defends it: “We’re afraid to challenge kids.” It’s a spirited exchange, speaking to listeners’ everyday experiences. Of course, by concentrating on such matters, as well as topics like fast fashion and queues at Dublin Airport, the duo distract attention from the war in Ukraine, which receives surprisingly scant coverage. In this, as with the presenters’ on-air chemistry, Newstalk Breakfast provides diversion in every sense of the word.
In fairness, the Ukrainian conflict is extensively examined on The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, weekdays), which follows. The host, whose outrage at Russia's actions is palpable, discusses the war's ramifications with security analyst Tom Clonan and hears vivid first-hand accounts from Ukrainian MP Inna Sovsun, one of several Kyiv parliamentarians who have become regular and powerful voices on Irish radio over the last month.
But while Kenny is well-known for his rigorous if occasionally overzealous attention to detail on current affairs, he reminds listeners of his wider broadcasting nous with items on sensitive but vital personal matters. With Wednesday being World Bipolar Day, the host talks to Bernadette Crawford, ambassador for mental health organisation See Change. Crawford candidly recounts the impact of being diagnosed as bipolar in her 40s, and her determination not to be stigmatised by the condition: her work life has continued as normal. Kenny briefly seems to put his foot in it, recalling how bipolar used to be called "manic depression", but Crawford remarks that the term accurately captures the highs as well as the lows that are part of the condition. It's a frank, engaging and all-too-rare discussion on the subject.
Kenny deals with an equally delicate topic when he interviews Amy Dunne, who as a pregnant teenager in 2007 was the eponymous, anonymous plaintiff in the landmark "Miss D" case over abortion travel rights. Dunne is strikingly honest as she remembers how she became pregnant while under the care of the HSE, who barred her from travelling for a termination after she learnt her baby had anencephaly. As for her decision to take a case, Dunne had no idea it would "turn my life upside down". She describes feeling like "a little peanut" amid the legal machinations and opposing protests that followed, recalling how a man prayed over her in court while calling her evil.
While Dunne won her case, she’s open about how she was affected as her pregnancy progressed: “I was feeling her flutter and I didn’t know what I wanted to do any more.” In the end, she opted for a “compassionate induction” in Liverpool: her account of holding the hand of her stillborn daughter is a tough listen.
But it’s also a vital piece of radio, part intimate testimony, part social history. The item brings out Kenny at his best, whether it’s creating context – he talks of Dunne taking on the “might of the State” – or sympathetically hearing out his guest as she tells her story. Despite her difficult experience, the impressive Dunne emerges as an inspiring figure. No wonder she now wants people to know her name.
Radio Moment of the Week
On Tuesday’s Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), Cormac Ó hEadhra covers the news of Ireland’s expulsion of four diplomats from Russia’s intriguingly heavily-staffed Dublin embassy, hearing sober assessment about possible blowback from what he calls “a move of consequence”. But while the reporting is balanced, text reaction to the move is anything but. The host reads out a series of increasingly sceptical responses: one message calls the expulsion “a sad day for democracy” while another urges Ireland to “stay out of foreign disputes”. “And on and on they go, some, dare I say, controversial views there,” comments Ó hEadhra. Right enough, the outpouring of views apparently seems so uniformly hostile it would do a Russian text bot farm proud. A coincidence, obviously.