For whom the bell tolls: Ray D'Arcy tires of the Angelus

Radio Review: Presenter’s irritation at religious slot brings him to life, while Sean O’Rourke needs time to reflect on his show’s adversarial approach

Ray D’Arcy: fed up with the Angelus. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/RTÉ

Ray D’Arcy: fed up with the Angelus. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/RTÉ

 

The broadcast of the Angelus on RTÉ has been long been a target for those who view it as an anachronistic manifestation of Catholic triumphalism. But even the most militant atheist might blanch at the revelation on the Ray D’Arcy Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) that the twice-daily transmission of pealing bells was once sabotaged in an incident involving piles of excrement. Happily, this was not some kind of secularist dirty protest, but rather an unfortunate consequence of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid’s insistence in 1950 that the Angelus be broadcast live from the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin.

“The microphones got so covered in pigeon poo that they said, enough, we’re going to put it on tape,” explains Roger Childs, RTÉ’s head of religious programming. This icky piece of trivia comes during D’Arcy’s interview with Childs about religious broadcasting in general and the Angelus in particular. It’s a surprisingly absorbing conversation, which takes unexpected theological diversions – whether Mass can only be broadcast live, for instance – while allowing Childs to articulate his role, “to reflect, interrogate, celebrate and explain the religious, moral and ethical life of this country”. Since being appointed to the post 11 years ago, Childs has tried to serve “all faiths and none” by, among other things, presenting the Angelus as a time for reflection by dropping religious imagery from its TV version.

It seems to have worked: Childs cites a recent poll finding that two-thirds of the population want to keep the slot. This cuts no ice with his host, however. “It offends me, I have to say,” D’Arcy interjects. “Every time I hear it, I am brought back to child sexual abuse. It doesn’t matter how many pictures you put on it, it can’t mask where it takes me.” It’s a shock to hear an RTÉ presenter expressing such unalloyed antipathy, though it’s a sign of the times that this has less to with D’Arcy’s anti-clerical sentiments than his criticism of the network.

Either way, the presenter’s bracing candour – largely missing since he moved to RTÉ – combines with his guest’s insights into the still vibrant religious life of contemporary Ireland to inject some much-needed oomph into proceedings. Normal service resumes when D’Arcy talks to actor James Nesbitt and barber Conor McAllister about hair transplants. Suffice to say, the topic is as thin as Nesbitt’s pre-op hairline. Never mind the Angelus, D’Arcy’s programme needs to ring in the changes.

There’s not much time to reflect on Today With Sean O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), where issues are debated in a deliberately adversarial manner that allows little in the way of deeper understanding. On Tuesday, for instance, O’Rourke is joined by Chris Snowden from the Institute of Economic Affairs, a British “free market think tank” that recently placed Ireland third in its annual “nanny state index”, and by Prof Donal O’Shea, clinical lead for obesity at the HSE, who has been nominated for a “Golden Nanny” award by pro-smoking pressure group Forest. Unsurprisingly, the guests agree on virtually nothing.

Snowden is against what he sees as Government “stamping down on liberty” by introducing public health measures such as smoking bans, minimum alcohol pricing and, of course, increased taxation on drink, cigarettes and sugar. What O’Rourke calls the “liberty to overindulge” is part of a libertarian credo, which Snowden is of course as much entitled to believe as those who think the state should regulate for health.

Broad strokes

But Snowden goes further, dismissing the notion of childhood obesity epidemics as “fictitious”. O’Shea counters with a raft of data, adding “it’s not fictitious, that’s a tabloid throwaway, incorrect comment”. O’Rourke seems to agree, recalling his recent sighting of an overweight child “waddling” while eating crisps. Still, that a pressure group pundit’s take on obesity is given equal weight, so to speak, as the knowledge of a specialised clinician suggests factual accuracy is less of a priority that generating sparks in studio.

Similarly, Wednesday’s encounter between Green Party TD Eamon Ryan and Irish Road Haulage Association president Verona Murphy over the issue of carbon tax rises is a masterclass in guests vehemently arguing at cross-purposes to the detriment of clarity. Ryan outlines his position in broad strokes, urging the government – and listeners – to “play our part” in reducing carbon emissions with a range of measures from retrofitting houses to raising taxation on fossil fuels while reducing dependency on them.

Murphy, meanwhile, is a formidable advocate for her industry, as she rails against the negative impact of current carbon-limiting measures on the haulage sector. Indeed, she marshals such an amount of technical information that even O’Rourke sounds somewhat bewildered. “You’re saying what exactly?” he asks at one point. Murphy’s trump card is that Ryan doesn’t know the difference between a Euro 6 diesel engine and a Euro 6 gas engine. (There is none, apparently.) She seizes on this as proof that the TD lacks the expertise to formulate policy, making the point several times. “In fairness not many people would know the difference,” O’Rourke eventually remarks.

Murphy isn’t necessarily better informed when it comes to policy ideas. She suggests that cattle should wear nappies to prevent methane emissions; when Ryan says cows emit methane from their mouths, Murphy says they could wear gas masks. By this stage, the acrimony has increased to the level that reasoned debate has long gone out the window, if it were ever possible between an overly idealistic politician and a hard-headed sectoral lobbyist.

All in all, it’s a diverting spectacle for those who enjoy a bit of spice with their current affairs radio, but the substance tends to gets lost. An individual interrogation of each by O’Rourke would probably be more enlightening. Compared to the ding-dongs on his show, the bells of the Angelus seem like sweet silence.

Radio Moment of the Week: Country loses its best friend

The unexpected death of broadcaster Sandy Harsch casts a shadow over last week, robbing Irish music radio of one of its most distinctive voices. As presenter of RTÉ Radio 1’s long-running show Country Time, Harsch was a wonderful advocate of country music in all its variations. Up until two weeks ago, she could be heard on her Saturday night slot playing tracks by veteran and emerging artists from the US and Ireland, while offering honest opinion and deep knowledge in her gently authoritative American accent, still strong after more than 50 years living in Ireland. An invaluable resource for country fans, Harsch’s show was also a revelatory pleasure for any music lover who stumbled across it. A true fan and a natural broadcaster, she will be sadly missed.

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