Ciara Kelly, Covid-19 patient and self-isolation advocate, changes her mind

Radio: The presenter’s questions are less urgent health queries than audience clickbait

Ciara Kelly presents herself as someone who speaks her mind, whatever the consequences. Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times

Ciara Kelly presents herself as someone who speaks her mind, whatever the consequences. Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times

 

It’s a week when spring is in the air, or at least the airwaves, as presenters ponder the prospect of finally being sprung from confinement. But as tentative steps are taken towards gradually easing the lockdown and releasing us from isolation – pandemic parole, as it were – Ciara Kelly, for one, is impatient with the pace of change. Having been ill with the virus two months ago, the presenter of Lunchtime Live (Newstalk, weekdays) has been a vocal advocate of self-isolation measures, even broadcasting her show from the hot press in her home. But now she’s changed her mind.

“My pendulum is swinging back the other way,” Kelly says, as she begins Tuesday’s show. Notwithstanding the fact that her metaphor suggests her views may yet swing back, the host says that while she called for social-distancing from early on, such as visitors being barred from nursing homes, she’s now concerned that the lockdown is having a negative effect.

Kelly presents herself as someone who speaks her mind, whatever the consequences - “You know me, I say what I think,” she tells her listeners – but this is hardly a radically new line, least of all on Newstalk. After all, her station colleague Ivan Yates has been decrying what he sees as lily-livered lockdown measures for some weeks now. But the fact that Kelly is a former GP imbues her opinion with some force. As a member of Newstalk’s liberal wing, she frets that she’s “gone all Boris Johnson”, but is insistent: “We need to start asking questions”.

This is common sense, of course. The only problem is that her questions are less urgent health policy queries than audience clickbait. Following Tuesday’s monologue, she asks listeners if smoking should be banned in outdoor areas when pubs reopen. It’s a proposition mooted by the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, but when the discussion is thrown open to callers, it’s resoundingly rejected, with the response predictably based on personal preference above all.

“All these professors, their advice is based on facts and figures, but not real life,” says Eoin, a smoker. “Where’s the fun?” Faced with such irrefutable arguments, Kelly feebly responds that she doesn’t think smoking is fun. 

Even when the debate is more factual, as when another caller, John, asserts there’s no evidence of harmful passive smoking outdoors, it’s hardly enlightening. When Kelly says that cigarette smoke smell is unpleasant for most people, John dismisses this as “subjective”, prompting the host to blaspheme in exasperation. 

It’s not that Kelly doesn’t deal with worthwhile topics. She tackles overlooked subjects, like the emotional impact of the lockdown on sixth class pupils not now returning to primary school. It would also be interesting to hear her expand on her views in greater depth, such as her fears about the negative health effects of the economic collapse: her point about the lack of mammograms since the crisis began is a powerful one. But too often such pertinent queries seem primarily aimed at eliciting lively opinion.

“What do you think?” is her show’s mantra. Questions are all very well, but they’re better used to discover what we don’t know.

Over on Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), the focus is also on things returning to normal, or less abnormal anyway. On Wednesday, host Joe Duffy talks to publican Charlie Chawke about his plans to reopen most of his bars in June instead of August, as they have restaurant rather than pub licences. This plan draws a fierce response from Frank, a caller who decries the “greed” of publicans, warning that alcohol is a “drug” that will turn cities into “cesspits” for the virus.

Despite his fire-and-brimstone language, Frank makes a reasonable point about the difficulty of maintaining distancing and hygiene practices as inhibitions disappear after a few drinks. “The world we know is gone,” he concludes. If nothing else, the discussion raises the practical problems that will arise as economic activity gears up again.

In other signs of things inching back to normal, Duffy has increasingly been talking about more inconsequential but no less impassioned matters, though with little luck this week. Having been a banker for indignant calls over previous weeks, the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People – now officially designated as “steamy” – fails to generate any outrage about onscreen filth.

“The news is there is no news,” says Duffy the day after the latest episode is broadcast, scarcely hiding his disappointment. Undaunted, he continues to mention the series almost as often as he says “washyourhands”, even asking callers whether they’ve seen the show, but to no avail. You’d almost think people had more important things to worry about.

Indeed they do. Duffy also covers more pressing subjects, talking to bereaved families awaiting Covid-19 test results for loved ones who have died. But the week’s most heartbreaking moment comes on Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). On Wednesday, host Mary Wilson speaks to Mona Whiston, who was unable to attend the funeral of her husband Adam, having been stuck in Gran Canaria since the coronavirus outbreak stopped air travel.

Mona plaintively recounts how Adam, a former golf pro, received a cancer diagnosis while she was stranded abroad, dying soon after. She describes the agony of not being with her husband of 52 years for either his illness or funeral, which she watched alone in a holiday apartment. “Devastating,” Mona says simply.

Wilson conducts the interview sensitively. “Your story brings home what we are losing during this pandemic,” the host says. Mona, meanwhile, somehow manages to keep her composure despite her awful story. Then Wilson asks how she’s doing, and she breaks down. “I’m okay Mary, I’ll continue,” she eventually says.

It’s tough, but it is also as dignified and true an expression of love and grief as has been heard throughout this dreadful time. It’ll be some time before it’s business as usual.

Radio Moment of the Week: Newstalk’s Dalkey divide

Hollywood star Matt Damon’s interview with Spin 1038 about his stay in Dublin is covered on fellow Communicorp station Newstalk, where it seems to stir hitherto unnoticed tensions on Newstalk Breakfast (weekdays).

After listening to a clip of Damon extolling the virtues of Dalkey, presenter Kieran Cuddihy says of the affluent village, “All the great and good are in Dalkey.” A heartbeat. “Good morning Pat Kenny! ” Kenny, whose Dalkey home has been the subject of legal cases, gamely plays along, saying he hasn’t met Damon yet. “I’d say that invite got lost in the post,” replies a chuckling Cuddihy.

Not to be outdone, Kenny gives advice on how locals act blase when celebrity neighbours such as Bono pass by: “You turn away, no fawning.” But Cuddihy can’t stop baiting his well-heeled colleague, asking if locals shout out when they see Kenny: “Spit on me, Pat!” Talk about showing your class. 

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