Claire Byrne’s inconvenient facts burst Stephen Donnelly’s bubble

Radio review: The calmly forensic style of the host unpicks the Minister for Health’s assertions

It seems like only yesterday that we were being urged to step outside our bubbles, of the social-media variety, and listen to viewpoints beyond our echo chamber. These days, of course, the advice about metaphorical bubbles is precisely the opposite: stay firmly within them, the better to reduce close contacts.

Now, according to Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), things may be about to go one step further: our future social life could be conducted in bubbles, of the physical variety. It's a measure of how much things have changed that this is a good-news story.

On Tuesday, the Morning Ireland presenter Audrey Carville talks to Wayne Coyne, the lead singer of the US alt-rock group The Flaming Lips, who describes playing in front of an audience standing in individual pods, or "space bubbles", during recent shows in Oklahoma. As Coyne tells it, fans enjoyed the experience, although he concedes that the audience were biased: "It's like the hypnotist's trick – the people who want to be in it are going to like it."

The Minister for Health exudes a can-do self-belief seemingly impervious to inconvenient facts, which Claire Byrne serves up with metronomic efficiency

The singer concedes he has form in this department, having regularly performed from inside a giant transparent Zorb ball at gigs before it was best medical practice. “For me, all that is second nature,” he says.


To be fair, Coyne doesn’t think such podded shows are the future of live music. Rather, the band came up with the concept as an alternative to the old-school concerts – unmasked, crowded – that still take place in parts of the States. “We weren’t itching to go out there to play,” he says.

That aside, there’s a quirky optimism to the story, particularly when combined with Coyne’s cheerfully insouciant drawl. That watching a band from inside a plastic bubble seems an enticing prospect only underscores what a different world we now live in.

Otherwise, weary fatalism is the prevailing mood as Level 5 restrictions are extended. Not that Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly betrays any hint of resignation on Wednesday, when he appears on Today with Claire Byrne (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays).

Rather, the Minister exudes a can-do self-belief seemingly impervious to inconvenient facts, which Byrne serves up with metronomic efficiency. “My big ask is that we all continue,” Donnelly says of the extended measures, in the manner of a team leader giving a pep talk.

He continues in this motivational tone. When he acknowledges hardships – “I think it’s intolerable for everybody” – it’s as a prelude to some ostensibly positive statement: “There is a plan, and the plan is working.” But, as Byrne notes, details of this plan remain vague.

Some additional restrictions to international travel aside, Donnelly doesn’t buy into the growing push for a zero-Covid strategy. “The big challenge Ireland has is north-south travel, and I’ve discussed this with the zero-Covid guys,” he says, this time adopting a “casual Friday” air of informality.

Stephen Donnelly gives the impression of always needing to be the smartest guy in the room, which, conversely, does little to inspire confidence

For Donnelly, “the game-changer is vaccination”, but he overplays his hand again. Despite the damaging row between the EU and the vaccine maker AstraZeneca, Donnelly sticks by his aspiration to have the country vaccinated by September, trying to breeze past his own inconvenient statements in the process.

“Are we likely to all be vaccinated in May? No. Is it likely that it’ll be this year? Yes,” the Minister explains. “And you still say it’s likely that we will all be vaccinated in September,” Byrne responds. “I can’t say likely,” her guest replies. “But you did say it,” an incredulous Byrne points out.

“Well, let me rephrase it,” Donnelly answers tetchily, saying it’s “reasonable” to think everyone will get the jab by then, if everything goes to schedule. Which seems a pretty big if.

It’s possible to sympathise with Donnelly as he’s grilled by his host. He has an undoubtedly difficult job, and makes some salient points, not least regarding cross-Border complexities. But as has been the case in previous radio appearances, he gives the impression of always needing to be the smartest guy in the room, which, conversely, does little to inspire confidence.

The encounter showcases Byrne at her best, however. Her style of presenting may not give off much sizzle, but the calmly forensic way the host unpicks her guest’s assertions, bolstered by a succession of doubtful “hmmms”, is as bruising as, and arguably more effective than, the confrontational approach of Sean O’Rourke, her predecessor in this slot. She certainly bursts the Minister’s bubble.

An altogether airier atmosphere pervades Spoken Stories: Independence (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday), a series of specially commissioned short tales from some of Ireland's best writers. As its producer, Clíodhna Ní Anluain, explains in the introduction, the 12-part season is a creative contribution to the "decade of centenaries" marking Ireland's independence struggle, but the brief is loose enough to give the authors full imaginative licence.

So the opening story, Anne Enright’s Wildlife, is an acutely observed account of a strained family holiday in Nova Scotia in the wake of the economic crash, read with wry poise by the author.

Like the best art, music or literature, Kevin Barry's hypnotic radio piece transports the listener, offering a glimpse of a world other than the glum one we're currently inhabiting

The latest contribution, A Pirate, Dreaming, written and read by Kevin Barry, is a more impressionistic affair, a tribute to the writer's native Limerick and the pirate radio he heard there. As the title implies, it's as much reverie as narrative, as Barry evokes a nameless DJ observing the city from his makeshift (and illegal) studio in the early 1980s.

It’s studded with vivid detail, from the unashamedly MOR playlist of FR David and Joe Dolan to the urban geography outside the studio’s Velux blinds, and the characters who inhabit it. But for all its moments of literary elan (“Each morning he drew the city into his existence”), Barry really revels in the protagonist’s on-air spiel, delivering his stream-of-consciousness commentary in an exaggerated Shannonside accent.

Compared with the author’s usually disconcerting fictions, it’s an affectionate piece, light even. But like the best art, music or literature, Barry’s hypnotic radio piece transports the listener, offering a glimpse of a world other than the glum one we’re currently inhabiting. Who needs a plastic bubble?

Moment of the Week: Duffer dads rock on

On Sunday, Brendan O'Connor (RTÉ Radio 1) takes a trip down memory lane with the English journalist and broadcaster David Hepworth, to pick over the classic music released in 1971. According to Hepworth, one of the most influential figures in the once-mighty music press, that year marked the "zenith" of the rock album: then-young artists such as David Bowie and The Who didn't linger over recordings long enough to spoil them, he explains, nor did they try to ape past glories.

It’s all unabashedly nostalgic, but bolstered by Hepworth’s witty presence and astute asides: “We all have the same record collection now,” he says of the Spotify era. As for O’Connor, he gleefully shares his guest’s enthusiasms but is well aware that it may sound like “a real dad conversation” to others: “A teenager might disagree with us two old duffers.”

Maybe so, but it’s a joy for anyone who recalls the days when records were “the prime form of home entertainment”.