It is, Joe Duffy observes, 12 months to the day since the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in China. "What a year it's been," Duffy says as he opens Tuesday's Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), his prosaic verdict on this extraordinary time lulling us into a false sense of complacency. For what the host does next is as shocking as anything heard on the airwaves this year, testing the emotional mettle of even the hardiest listener.
Joe Duffy, sorry to report, tries his hand as a rapper.
It all starts off normally enough. Duffy talks to Susan, a musician who recounts how she spent two months chasing delivery of an oven bought from Argos. Eventually, Susan’s frustration was such that she recorded a rap track complaining about the situation and posted it on social media. Her ruse worked, for the oven promptly arrived. Duffy then plays his caller’s song, as lighthearted as the item itself.
“There’s worse things happening in the world, I realise that,” Susan says, unaware that one such thing is about to occur.
Duffy invites another caller, Patricia, to tell another story about a missing parcel, apparently because he wants Susan to compose another rap about retail woe. “Are you writing this down?” he asks jokily. “I think you’ve got this covered,” Susan replies, in the manner of someone looking to make a diplomatic exit from an embarrassing situation.
But Duffy is only getting started. It’s quickly obvious that he’s mainly interested in the details of Patricia’s story for its rapping potential. “I need more names for rhyming purposes,” he says. On hearing a courier company name, he busts out the rhymes. “Fastway, last way, it’s not a gas way,” Duffy freestyles breathlessly. Warming to his new persona – Joe-Z, as it were – he continues to drop the lyrical truth bombs, prompted by his callers’ accounts: “I went to Athlone, on my own, I was in the anger zone.” And so it continues, for a quarter of an hour.
As bad as all this may look written down, it’s much, much worse on radio. Duffy’s trundlingly unfunny rhymes make the rapping of Dustin the Turkey sound like Wu-Tang Clan. Of course, it’s intended as a bit of fun, but it’s merely mortifying, like a tipsy uncle singing Bob Marley songs in a dodgy Jamaican accent. More to the point, Duffy is so caught up in his own joke that he ends up talking (rapping is the wrong word) over his guests.
It’s hypnotically embarrassing stuff, less Fight the Power than Welcome to the Terrordome, as Public Enemy might have it. But credit where credit is due. Even in a year as scarily surreal as this, Duffy can still surprise.
Weekend scenes of outdoor drinking in Dublin and Cork, and the entirely predictable outrage that followed, are discussed on The Last Word (Today FM, weekdays), with host Matt Cooper seeking to understand rather than condemn the wayward revellers. "These people are going out because they're going stir crazy," he says.
Cooper's guest, epidemiologist Prof Patricia Kearney, agrees that everyone is fed up, but thinks such behaviour is "not okay when we're dealing with a pandemic". Asked whether Level 5 should continue in December, Kearney talks about "aggressively" tackling case numbers and taking "difficult decisions", which sounds like a yes, even if she doesn't quite say so.
The conversation fits snugly into the by-now-standard template for radio interviews with public health experts, in which questions about maintaining restrictive measures are met by variants of the reply, “We understand how hard it is for shops/funerals/emigrants, but . . . ” (There’s a similar discussion with Nphet member Dr Mary Favier on Monday’s Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio 1.) It’s illustrative of the dialectic between the irresistible force of a fatigued public and the immovable object of best medical advice: all the likes of Cooper can do is look for definitive answers that probably don’t exist.
Still, tthe host manages to highlight less-covered aspects of the coronavirus crisis. On Tuesday Cooper talks to psychiatrist Prof Brendan Kelly about the pandemic's impact on mental health in a nuanced, informed and oddly encouraging encounter. Kelly cites a survey which finds that one in five Irish people have "increased psychological distress" since the virus arrived, while emphasising distress is not the same as illness. Those with mental illness, however, are suffering relapses, and are more likely to contract the virus.
“Medical guidance doesn’t reach people with severe mental illness,” Kelly explains. It’s perhaps an obvious revelation, but one that many of us are unaware of until it’s spelled out.
Cooper, meanwhile, follows his own concerns, again musing whether outdoor drinking in groups is “giving some relief from boredom or isolation” and wondering if young people are getting enough sympathy. In response, Kelly focuses on the positive, suggesting we should hone in on the permissions as well as the restrictions of the pandemic rules. He concludes that despite everything, Irish society has shown “remarkable resilience”: “We’re coping far better than we might have predicted.” If only all Covid conversations were so optimistic.
Cooper continues his run of stimulating interviews when he talks to author Anne Applebaum about the rise of authoritarian parties in recent years. Applebaum, whose book Twilight of Democracy covers the topic, is alive to the economic and social "sense of frustration and loss" that leads voters to support leaders such as Donald Trump. But she's unsparing about the Republican Party's backing of the (hopefully) outgoing US president: "They're not committed to democracy." She also despairs of the universe of "alternative facts" – or "lying" as she calls it – that feeds populist "culture wars".
It seems a bleak scenario for what Cooper describes as “liberal democrats”. But perversely, the pandemic provides a ray of hope. Applebaum says that support for some far-right parties in Europe has fallen: faced with the virus, more people want “real information” than divisive slogans. Sometimes rhyme has to give way to reason.
Radio Moment of the Week: Byrne bright for D'Arcy
On Monday, Gabriel Byrne promotes his newly published memoir on The Ray D'Arcy Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), in an interview notable not just for what the actor says but how he says it. As he discusses everything from the Irish language and adolescent body angst to childhood intestinal mishaps, Byrne sounds less a Hollywood star than an auld Dublin character, his unreconstructed accent and beguiling erudition straight out of a Sean O'Casey play.
D’Arcy gamely attempts to quiz Byrne, only to have questions whether his guest suffers from “working class insecurity” rebuffed: after that, host wisely lets his guest do the talking. And when Byrne deals with deeply personal topics such as alcohol addiction and sexual abuse, he is impressively candid.
“Sometimes things aren’t resolved, and you have to come to terms with that,” he says of the latter experience. It’s a wonderful encounter with a national treasure.