Claire Byrne forged her reputation as a resolute and rigorous broadcaster a long time ago, but this week listeners learn that she can be as determined off duty as she is on air.
At the very least, Tuesday's Today with Claire Byrne (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) suggests that the presenter approaches leisure time with the same brisk efficiency she uses to grill guests. Discussing domestic holiday destinations with the travel journalist Fionn Davenport, Byrne notes that staycation venues are in short supply. "Every second person I talk to has missed the boat because they didn't book in January – like I did," she says, staying just on the right side of smug.
When Davenport wryly congratulates her diligence – “Look at you” – the host outlines her family’s holiday plans with unexpected effusiveness: “We are camping, Fionn, we are camping.” Notwithstanding her palpable joy at vacationing with her children, however, Byrne doesn’t sound entirely convinced by the idea of an alfresco vacation. “That’ll be fun,” she says drily.
Claire Byrne isn't one for freewheeling levity, unless you count lording it over less industrious peers as merriment. But hearing her preside over bickering politicians can be entertainment enough
Then again, Byrne isn't one for freewheeling levity, unless you count lording it over less industrious peers as merriment. But hearing her preside over bickering politicians can be entertainment enough, as on Tuesday's debate between the Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher and the Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin about the latest housing outrage.
The discussion focuses on a private equity fund’s recent purchase of most units in a new housing estate in Co Kildare. Kelleher has decried the news on Twitter, although this cuts no ice with Byrne: “Are you saying your party in government has got this all wrong?” Kelleher denies this, on the dubious basis that it is “only in power a year”, and says that there’s “no simple solution” to vulture funds bulk-buying properties.
Ó Broin, meanwhile, veers on to thin ice by dubbing Fianna Fáil’s approach as “talking out of both sides of their mouth”, a charge not infrequently levelled at his own party, but outlines a policy of removing the equity funds’ “outrageous tax advantages”.
Kelleher responds to this idea with indignation – “I’d love to hear Eoin without outrage for once in his life” – leaving his flank exposed for Byrne’s next question: “Should we not be outraged by this?” Her guest concedes this point while muttering about Sinn Féin.
The discussion continues in this ill-tempered vein, as Byrne vainly attempts to stop her guests interrupting each other. Kelleher gets so caught up in the argument that he angrily dismisses a pointed question posed by Ó Broin, or so he thinks, until the host corrects him: “No, it’s Claire asking you that,” she says.
By the end, Byrne herself is discombobulated, mixing up Ó Broin’s name with that of Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien. “That could be defamation of my character,” says the Sinn Féin deputy, by way of displaying his own fun side.
Sparky though all this is, the verbal fireworks provide more distraction than illumination on this pressing matter, with the Government advocate forced into irritable defensiveness.
Despite menopause affecting half the world's population, this crucial phase in a woman's life is rarely discussed in public, leading to confusion and distress, as Liveline callers observe
But while Byrne tackles such topical items with characteristic intent, she endeavours to show her lighter side from time to time, as when discussing the imminent reopening of hairdressers and beauty salons. “Isn’t it great to be talking about something so positive?” she says with obvious delight.
Sure enough, a larky mood pervades her conversation with the journalist Triona McCarthy and the salon owner Corrina Grehan, although no one is under any illusion about the challenges of rectifying lockdown's DIY-beauty disasters. "Can we take a moment of silence for what all the beauty professionals will be facing?" McCarthy archly asks, describing such workers as "the new elite athletes".
After the trials of the past few months, the joy with which host and guests share tips – and catastrophes – makes for refreshing listening, even for those of us who continue to schlub around in dishevelled fashion. But Byrne still can’t quite cut loose. Recommending a home hair-treatment product, McCarthy remarks, “I wish you could lean over and feel my hair now, Claire.” Byrne laughs gamely but also reminds her guest of public-health protocols: “That’s not Covid-compliant.” It’s all great fun, but Byrne, alert as ever, makes sure no one gets too carried away.
A less joyful air pervades Wednesday's Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), as Joe Duffy hears caller Sallyanne describe suffering from cyclical depression, tinnitus, migraine, vertigo, exhaustion, sleeplessness and suicidal ideation from her mid-30s. This grim catalogue of ill health had one root cause: the menopause. Yet despite affecting half the world's population, this crucial phase in a woman's life is rarely discussed in public, leading to confusion and distress, as Sallyanne and others observe.
Because continental countries have much higher capacity in their hospital systems, they have favoured a less restrictive approach to Covid, which allows a slightly higher level of infection but much more opening of the economy
As so often on Liveline, initial testimony leads to a flood of calls. For some, like Martine, it is a positive development: “My libido has increased tenfold”. But for most others it’s an unsettling experience, with everything from classically symptomatic hot flushes to more perplexing physical and mental distress.
All this is exacerbated by a lack of awareness of the menopause and, especially, its preceding transitional phase, the perimenopause. Likewise, several guests praise the benefits of hormone-replacement treatment but note that it is dogged by a misplaced fear of cancer. Strikingly, callers repeatedly express their gratitude to Duffy. “Thanks for talking about this taboo subject,” says one caller, Loretta. (As it happens, Claire Byrne also hosted an absorbing discussion on the subject last year, which stood out for its rarity as much as its content.)
Duffy is typically empathetic and sensitive, although he’s also alive to the awkwardness of a man helming such a gender-specific conversation. When Loretta, whose experiences prompted her to found a menopause clinic, talks about conducting a comprehensive survey in which most respondents knew little about the condition, the host responds almost too fulsomely. “Well done,” he says, before clarifying his remark: “Sorry, that sounds a little bit patronising the way I said it, but that’s an incredible piece of work.” Still, kudos to Duffy for doing his job.
Moment of the Week: Travel rules, home truths
On Tuesday's News at One (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), Bryan Dobson interviews Dr Eoin Drea of the Martens Centre, a Brussels think tank, about the EU's plan to introduce a vaccine passport for travel across the union, which clashes with Ireland's mandatory hotel quarantine.
Drea talks of frustration in EU countries at the apparent inconsistencies in the Irish restrictions. When Dobson notes Ireland has one of Europe’s lowest infection rates, so making the keeping-out of variants crucial, Drea agrees, but he adds a telling caveat.
Ireland has also endured one of the longest lockdowns in the world, he says, so low infection levels would be expected. But, he continues, "What you find in the continental countries is that because they have a much higher level of capacity in their hospital systems, particularly in intensive care, they have favoured a less restrictive approach, which allows a slightly higher level of infection but much more opening of the economy."
It's a depressingly familiar story of insufficient public investment coming back to bite us. Fail to prepare, and all that.