Claire Byrne gives Leo Varadkar the upper hand

Radio review: Things get tetchy when she raises his alleged leak of documents

Claire Byrne was in a good mood, particularly with scientist Luke O’Neill. Photograph: RTÉ

Claire Byrne was in a good mood, particularly with scientist Luke O’Neill. Photograph: RTÉ

 

As an interviewer, Claire Byrne often makes a virtue of rattling her guests, particularly those of an evasive political stripe. But she projects such unruffled poise of her own that it’s hard to imagine her getting flustered, much less embarrassed. So on Wednesday (Today with Claire Byrne, RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), it’s oddly disconcerting when the host talks about the mortification felt after mishaps such as “the time you tucked your skirt into your tights”, the effect is akin to hearing your grandmother curse. 

Any crack in her formidable aura is only momentary, however. As she talks to psychologist Dr Sabina Brennan about “those humiliating moments that continue to haunt us”, Byrne implies that she herself may not have experienced such calamities. “I’m wincing just reading about those hypothetical situations,” the host says, emphasising the conjectural nature of her earlier statements, albeit in a knowing tone that suggests otherwise. Either way, she spares herself any blushes.

That aside, her conversation with Brennan is an intriguing overview of the psychology of embarrassment, which turns out to be a largely positive emotion. Not only does it speak of humans’ capacity for self-evaluation – “an evolutionary advantage”, says Brennan – but it’s also linked to empathy. The latter quality, however, has its limitations, particularly for people in medical or care professions: “Too much empathy can paralyse you,” Brennan says.

Byrne is engaged throughout, particularly when she asks about our reactions when informing others that they’ve just embarrassed themselves. “Why do we cringe that we have to deliver that news to somebody else?” she asks, a tad too jauntily.

To be fair, it’s not the only time Byrne sounds in a good mood. Following the lifting of most Covid restrictions, she discusses with immunologist Professor Luke O’Neill whether the virus really has reached the less disruptive endemic stage. The host is buoyant at the possibility of things returning to normal – “It’s a really different feeling this morning compared to all the other times” – while her guest does little to disabuse her: “There’s a huge consensus we are entering this endgame.”

As Byrne notes, O’Neill has always been an optimistic presence – particularly in an era when apocalyptic pundits otherwise dominated the airwaves – but still, it’s surprising to hear his advice on what people should do next. “Now is the time to reclaim our lives,” he says. “Start enjoying yourself again.” He doesn’t lose the run of himself: we need to prepare for an inevitable resurgence of the virus: “The big message is, get ready for next winter.”

Nonetheless, it’s an authentic feelgood item, at least until O’Neill remarks, almost in passing, that “we should never forget the toll was high”. Amid the party atmosphere that greets reopening, the terrible price paid by so many gets overlooked all too easily. 

Empathetic

Byrne’s positivity only stretches so far, however. She’s in less empathetic form when interviewing Tánaiste Leo Varadkar about proposed new legislation on the right to work from home, homing in on criticisms that the bill is“very weighted” in the employer’s favour. “Where’s the worker’s voice?” she asks, with a conviction that a union official would envy.

'When you’re criticised from both sides, it might mean you’re getting something right,' Varadkar says, eliding the possibility that you might simply be making a hames of it

The Tánaiste replies that the Government is creating an employment right where none currently exists, while noting that there have been discontented rumblings from employers as well. “When you’re getting criticised from both sides, it might mean you’re getting something right,” Varadkar says, a glib truism that elides the possibility that you might simply be making a hames of it. 

Far from being a hatchet job, however, it’s a standard interview from Byrne: she doesn’t lob in any unexpected grenades as questions, and gives her guest time to fully deliver answers. Things only get tetchy when she raises the ongoing Garda investigation into Varadkar’s alleged leak of confidential documents, wondering if the matter will adversely affect the Fine Gael leader’s re-ascension to Taoiseach later this year.

The Tánaiste firmly states the allegations are false. “Is that not for the gardaí to decide?” Byrne asks. An irritated-sounding Varadkar replies that the decision belongs to the Director of Public Prosecutions, and the courts beyond that. It’s a rare misstep by Byrne, allowing her guest to get the upper hand: scarlet for her.

Vigorous grilling

Varadkar also pops up on The Last Word (Today FM, weekdays), where he gets a typically vigorous grilling from Matt Cooper. But while the host presses the Tánaiste on the home working proposals and the leak investigation, he can’t wring any more revealing answers from his guest than Byrne. Then again, so well drilled are senior politicians these days that most interviews are formalised spectacles rather than decisive engagements, in the manner of medieval jousts.

Cooper has a happier time with local politics, when he discusses Dublin City Council’s plans to build 40,000 new homes. Labour councillor Dermot Lacey and author Frank McDonald both make the case for more sustainable accommodation projects, with higher apartment blocks confined to certain areas, and containing fewer build-to-rent units, as an antidote to the current malfunctioning developer-led model. Cooper asks a few pertinent questions, but seems favourably disposed to the measure, which could be seen as bias. Or maybe it’s just the right thing to do.

He has a neat line in anecdotes, whether it’s playing football with a teenage Phil Lynott, or recounting how a theatre performance was interrupted by a pizza delivery

Though normally unfazed by guests, Cooper sounds slightly starstruck when he talks to actor Gabriel Byrne for the show’s weekly Culture Club slot. Understandably so: Byrne, who is promoting the stage adaptation of his memoirs, has a quietly charismatic presence. He lists off his favourite cultural artefacts in his signature Dublin drawl, thoughtfully singing the praises of Hamlet, Columbo and the Wind in the Willows.

He also has a neat line in anecdotes, whether it’s playing football with a teenage Phil Lynott, or recounting how a theatre performance was interrupted by a pizza delivery. Hearing the latter tale, Cooper is eager to please his guest: “I must remember to turn off the phone when I go to [Byrne’s show] Walking with Ghosts on the opening night.” Anything to avoid embarrassment.

Radio Moment of the Week

As the title indicates, the Documentary on Newstalk: Childless (Sunday) examines the age-old but overlooked subject of women who are unable to have children. Produced and narrated by Hilary Fennell, the documentary hears from six women who candidly recount the reasons why they couldn’t have children, be it infertility, lack of a suitable partner or a ticking biological clock.

Though Fennell’s statement that the subject is “taboo” might initially seem overstated, the testimony of her interviewees makes clear the strain and stigma that childlessness brings for women, fracturing relationships, causing depression and making one feel like “social plankton”. It’s a stark but honest and humane look at a tough – and, alas, timeless – subject.

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