Commuter ‘hell’: €3,500 a year for packed, delayed trains

Radio review: Newstalk’s Henry McKean reports from inside ‘a sardine can on wheels’

Henry McKean: Unfailingly courteous yet anxiously scatty

Henry McKean: Unfailingly courteous yet anxiously scatty


“All week on Newstalk, it’s Ireland’s commuter hell.” Taken on its own, this sounds like a threat by the commercial station to add to rush-hour misery, say by unveiling Peter Casey as a new drivetime show host. Happily, this isn’t the case, for now anyway. Rather, it’s Pat Kenny’s way of introducing a report by Henry McKean on overcrowded trains, as part of Newstalk’s week-long focus on the country’s transport problems.

The picture painted by McKean (on The Pat Kenny Show, weekdays) is not a pretty one, though to describe his uncomfortable journey from Dublin to Newbridge as “hell” might be overstating the case. The passengers he encounters pay up to €3,500 per year to travel in packed carriages, with frequent delays. “It’s a sardine can on wheels,” is the verdict of one disgruntled rail user.

The reasons for this state of affairs are familiar ones of poor funding and wonky planning. Expanding its service after years of underinvestment, Irish Rail has ordered 300 new carriages, due in three years: in the meantime, the system strains as numbers increase. That said, it’s hard to feel sympathy for the passenger who, having taken the railway for the first time in a decade, complains he can’t find a seat to work on his laptop.

The bright spot amid all this gloom is McKean himself. Unfailingly courteous yet anxiously scatty, he explains how he took the Newbridge train by mistake, “so you could say I chose it randomly”, incessantly apologises to passengers for being “sniffly” and is palpably upset when a mother cannot board the jammed carriage with her buggy. But his on-air persona belies an ability to connect with people and elicit telling anecdotes. If every train companion were as winning, commuting mightn’t be so bad.

Gruesome report

For a truly hellish vision, one turns to Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), which carries a gruesome report on a new oral history of the Troubles. Reporter Juliet Gash hears former UDR soldier Noel Downey recall escaping from his car after was booby-trapped by the IRA in 1990. “I kept getting up and falling down,” Downey says. “I only realised why later. My leg was gone – it was in the back of the car.”

Such testimony may be jolting to hear, but is cathartic for those giving it. The project, organised by Cavan County Council, records the stories of victims of violence and their relatives, such as Josie Murray, whose brother was stabbed to death (by British soldiers) in a 1972 incident known as the “pitchfork murders”. Families received no counselling at the time, “this project gave them comfort”, says Cavan county librarian Tom Sullivan. Gash’s report could hardly be called comforting, but is a terse reminder about the bloody reality of Ireland’s recent conflicts, in the week when the centenary of the first World War armistice is commemorated.

Such items illustrate Morning Ireland’s ability to set the agenda despite preferring a more straightforwardly factual approach over loud editorialising. Louise Byrne’s report on homeless families living in “hubs” lays out the benefits of the system – “It’s somewhere for the kids to call home for a little while,” says former resident Clare – as well as its shortcomings and humiliations. Homecare support worker and hub resident Carol appreciates the staff support for her and her seven year-old, “but I’m 33 and I have to be signed in every night”.

Despite being touted as a temporary solution, Byrne highlights the lack of data on the duration of stays in these mainly charity-run accommodations. She finishes up by reading a letter from Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy demanding that local councils create more hubs. For all Byrne’s neutral tone, her segment is more damning than any histrionic opinion piece.

Degrees of agitation

Balanced commentary is a scarce commodity on the Niall Boylan Show (Classic Hits 4FM, weekdays), not that the host would have it any other way, as his rallying cry makes clear: “What gets your blood Boylan?” Plenty, it turns out. (Boylan’s personal sore point is the generous holiday allowance enjoyed by his “old pal” Joe Duffy, whom he gleefully impersonates.) On Wednesday, Boylan hears from callers in varying degrees of agitation about topics from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s call to curtail hospital staff’s Christmas holidays to the possibility of historical redress for victims of corporal punishment.

The latter proposal is floated by Boylan himself, displaying his talent for finding issues to rile his listeners. That said, the abuse suffered by schoolchildren in the past was all too real, as the host knows. He recounts the appalling punishment he suffered at school, from the Christian Brother who held him out a second-floor window by the ankles, to the “evil” primary school teacher who used a dowel to beat his hand until it was red. “Maybe he’s dead now, maybe the best place for him,” Boylan remarks.

Boylan’s stark personal honesty brings forth other accounts of terrible physical abuse. But there are also callers who reject Boylan’s hypothetical idea as though it were another example of PC nonsense. “You cannot go back and legislate for the values of the time,” says James, who talks about being beaten as a pupil but adds, with tragicomic inevitability, “It did me good.”

Such exchanges seem paragons of self-awareness compared with Boylan’s interview with Peter Casey. The former presidential candidate is on the show to complain about Ryan Tubridy’s treatment of him on The Late Late Show, deeming it “patronising” and “insulting”. Quite. Casey then disputes a tweet from 2FM presenter Jennifer Zamparelli alleging he didn’t know what direct provision was. “I think she was just looking for a few moments of spectacular glory,” Casey says, confirming the old adage about satire being dead. Radio careers have been built on less: commuters beware.

Radio Moment of the Week: Boy George, he’s got it

Boy George makes for an articulate and entertaining guest when he talks to Miriam O’Callaghan (Sunday with Miriam, RTÉ Radio 1). The most interesting memories are not about the singer’s 1980s heyday, however, rather his upbringing in a London-Irish family. “In essence I’ve always been George O’Dowd.” He recalls the abuse he received in the 1970s for being of Irish ancestry and gay, and remembers coming out at age 15: “I think my mother was very surprised, not that I was gay – that was kind of obvious – but that I hadn’t told her sooner.” Even now, George’s background shapes him: “I’m Buddhist in my aspirations and Catholic in my complications.” No wonder his band were called Culture Club.

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