Katie Hannon gets personal as abortion arguments turn nasty

Presenter brings her own experiences to charged exchanges on Liveline, while Ciara Kelly shows her bedside manner in bleak conversation

After the use of anti-abortion shock tactics failed to stop the repeal of the Eighth Amendment last year, some erstwhile No campaigners have belatedly changed their ways. Gone are the graphic images and harsh slogans that backfired so badly with the electorate. Instead, as listeners learn on Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), there's a new approach. From now on it's no more Mr Nice Guy.

This is main takeaway from Tuesday's startling conversation between stand-in Liveline presenter Katie Hannon and Charles, the organiser of a controversial anti-abortion protest outside Dublin's National Maternity Hospital. Speaking to Hannon after a succession of callers have decried the insensitivity of protesters who placed three child-sized coffins outside the hospital, Charles defends the measure.

“We all want to be nice and get along,” he says, before adding, “I think this is the problem with the church in the last 40 or 50 years, everyone wants to be nice. Nobody wants to have a proper discussion, nobody wants to offend anyone.”

These are, to put it mildly, moot points, but you have to give it to Charles for sticking to his principles and overcoming any snow-flaky inhibitions about upsetting new mothers with baby coffins.


Charles’ statement comes after Hannon has heard from Lou, a “100 per cent pro-life” woman who nonetheless abhors the protest. Having lost twins after premature birth, Lou knows how vulnerable women feel during pregnancy. Her terrible experience also underscores her beliefs: “I want women to understand they never need an abortion.”

Charles takes a more robust line. Abortion is “a national sin” for which “people will go to hell”. Just in case any of this sounds a bit too New Testament, he adds that “the people involved in this are satanic”.

But he shows that he too can take offence when another caller characterises him as right wing. “Everyone is right wing if they don’t agree with you,” he says, with the wounded air of a man who casts his opponents as damned devil worshippers.

Charles, it should be said, is clearly an outlier. But the discussion is also a reminder that abortion remains a live issue, with several callers deeply unhappy with the measure’s introduction here.

Heated exchanges

For her part, Hannon is an experienced current affairs correspondent who has lately become something of a utility sub on Radio 1 – prior to her current stint as Joe Duffy’s stand-in she was replacement presenter on Drivetime – so she’s unfazed by the heated exchanges that sporadically break out, briskly marshalling the arguing callers.

She’s also seasoned enough not to guffaw at the familiar spectacle of anti-abortion callers complaining about being censored while holding forth on national radio.

The discussion also brings out another side of Hannon. When one caller, Vanessa, recalls her distress after the premature birth of her son, Hannon empathises. “I’ve been there myself, I know how terrifying that experience can be,” she says, recalling the “scary environment” in neonatal units where “your baby is attached to all those tubes”. Though Hannon eschews the heavy sighs that Duffy emits during difficult stories, she establishes a more personal connection by sharing her memories.

There are times, however, when Hannon is clearly flabbergasted by the tales she hears. On Monday she talks to Rosemary, who recalls growing up as a mixed race child in Ireland. Born in a mother and baby home in the 1950s, Rosemary wasn’t put up for adoption, but instead brought up in an industrial school.

“Our colour was listed as a defect in the admission notes,” she says, a revelation that Hannon can only repeat in disbelief.

Rosemary paints a harrowing picture of her childhood. Isolated by her skin tone and lack of family, she suffered “non-stop” racial abuse: verbal, physical and sexual. Unsurprisingly, she left for London as a young woman. It was only later in life that Rosemary met her “cold and bitter” mother – “I think my father broke her heart” – and discovered her paternal background. “The nuns knew my real name, but they obliterated my African heritage.”

Grim testimony

Hannon is understandably dumbfounded as Rosemary shares her grim testimony in matter-of-fact fashion. But it ends on a positive note. Rosemary has founded an association for Irish people of mixed race background, and reaches out to another caller who had shared a similar tale the week before. Still, Rosemary’s story is worth bearing in mind next time someone moans about people being too nice these days.

Over on Lunchtime Live (Newstalk, weekdays), presenter Ciara Kelly increasingly relies on calls from listeners for content as she looks to dissect the mores of contemporary Ireland. The format has uneven results. Kelly spends half of Wednesday's show trying to discover, in full is the pope a Catholic mode, whether Irish men do less housework than women, while declaring her own disdain for such chores.

“I’m unusual in this zone as a woman who’s not interested in domestic things,” she says, a tad patronisingly.

Tuesday’s discussion about decriminalising drugs is more instructive as Kelly talks to Ben, an alcoholic who uses marijuana to combat his mental demons. Anti-depressants don’t work, he says, but “cannabis has given me my life back”.

Not that it’s much of a life. Alcohol has “got the claws into me too deep”, he says. He works and sees his children from his estranged marriage, but then “I’m home to drink”.

It’s a bleak encounter to which Kelly – a former GP, as her listeners are regularly reminded – brings her best bedside manner. “You’re only 41, pet, you have your life ahead of yourself,” she says, but to no avail. When Ben signs off in fatalistic fashion, a numb-sounding Kelly goes straight to the ads. It’s enough to move even the most insensitive souls.

Radio Moment of the Week: sock it to ‘em

Straight-talking Ivan Yates is no fan of sanitised radio, but he maybe goes too far on The Hard Shoulder (Newstalk, weekdays) when he asks celebrity TV cleaner Aggie MacKenzie if people do too much laundry.

MacKenzie thinks “we wash stuff far too often”, at least until Yates starts getting specific. “How many wears for a guy’s boxers? I’d say you could get two or three days anyway,” he chuckles, adding he can “get a good week” from his underwear.

He finishes by suggesting as he wears shoes, “you’d get three days out of socks”. MacKenzie suspects she’s being teased – “you’re talking nonsense” – but either way it’s not for those with delicate sensibilities.

Put a sock in it, Ivan!