Just when you thought this year couldn't get any worse, along comes the first news bulletin of the week. "Pull the duvet back up," says Audrey Carville on Monday's Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), "Brexit's back."
Even with new coronavirus restrictions looming as case numbers rise, the much-unloved soap opera that is the UK’s long goodbye to the European Union continues its interminable run, once again dominating news and current affairs shows as Boris Johnson’s government threatens to break the treaty it signed only last year. Carville captures the national mood of eye-rolling ennui when she adds: “Your holiday from Brexit is over.”
But there's no need to panic, if the reaction of Ray D'Arcy (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) is anything to go by. Even as the politics of 2019 and the pandemic of 2020 turn the week into a real-life Venn diagram of nightmarish woes, the presenter shrugs in apathy. "Do you ever get those 'nyeh' days? I'm having a 'nyeh' day," says D'Arcy, without defining what he's talking about, though it's probably what Americans would call a "meh" day. "I've nothing to complain about at all," he adds, ascribing his demeanour to "the weather, the evenings closing in, Monday, all that sort of stuff".
D’Arcy’s frank admission could be seen as an instinctive everyman touch – who doesn’t struggle to find their mojo, even during the most dramatic of times? Equally, it’s not a good look when a high-profile broadcaster can’t be bothered to hide his lethargy as he does his well-remunerated job. But it’s symptomatic of the aimless and indeed listless atmosphere that often pervades D’Arcy’s afternoon slot.
There are intriguing items on the show. On Tuesday, the host talks to Anthony Clery and Maria Gemayal, whose newlywed life in Beirut was shattered by the explosion that devastated the Lebanese capital last month. Their account of the blast’s aftermath is gory but gripping. Maria just missed being seriously injured, while Anthony was covered in blood after their apartment windows were blown out: he still has shards of glass embedded in his feet.
With their home destroyed, both are now living in Ireland, prompting D’Arcy to remark that Maria was lucky to have met Anthony: “He’s your knight in shining armour to bring you back to Bray.” It’s not the most sensitive thing to say to someone forced to leave their homeland, but otherwise the host is an attentive listener as the catastrophic tale unfolds.
Elsewhere, D’Arcy talks to psychiatrist Dr John Kelly about a new clinical trial to determine whether depression can be treated with psilocybin, the chemical compound that imbues “magic mushrooms” with the Paul Daniels touch. The host eschews a sensationalist approach to the story, his interest sounding more piqued than usual as Kelly explains how psychedelics may help alleviate depression. There’s also delicate discussion around the abuse of such psychoactive substances and the ethical and legal issues that it raises: magic mushrooms are illegal, listeners are reminded.
Despite these and other stimulating items, such as an interview with a woman who lost her mother to coronavirus (D’Arcy doesn’t completely ignore the subject), the show is somehow less than the sum of its parts. Just when he seems to be getting in a groove, whether talking about ‘shrooms or chatting with author Carl Honore about the benefits of slowing our lives down, the host has to move on to segments on TikTok videos or DIY television programmes.
But while the staleness of his show’s sweet ‘n’ sour format is a long-running concern, D’Arcy now also seems increasingly adrift in a Radio 1 schedule freshened up by new voices. In this regard, D’Arcy has some cause for complaint, despite his protestations to the contrary. But expressing how jaded you feel is an odd way to make the case for your relevance.
Ryan Tubridy (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) doesn't dwell too much on coronavirus and Brexit either. But far from sounding bored, he is if anything too enthusiastic as he discusses two other difficult issues. On Tuesday, the presenter talks to Dublin woman Sarah Donovan about having breast cancer. Sarah describes her experience with remarkably dispassionate clarity, recounting the shock of being diagnosed with the illness in her 30s and her raw emotions at getting a double mastectomy.
Tubridy is gently inquisitive and wholly supportive, but occasionally his eagerness gets the better of him. “Is chemotherapy like being punched around the place by Mike Tyson?” he asks: a less aggressive metaphor might have been appropriate. Sarah, however, agrees that it’s a tough ordeal, though happily she’s now in recovery. It’s an uncompromising but quietly hopeful conversation on an all-too-prevalent condition.
His interview with Bray teacher Emer O’Neill the next day is distressing in a different way. Of Irish and Nigerian parentage, Emer was so dogged by racist bullying as a child that her mother once found her in the bath trying to scrub off her brown skin. Nor has the problem gone away: Emer says her young son sometimes wishes he was white, while she still hears the N-word directed at her on a monthly basis.
Such reasons spurred her to post an online video in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, despite some trepidation about the reaction. Alas, Emer’s fears were realised: she was the target of vilely abusive graffiti while her house was pelted with eggs. But she is if anything more determined now: for one thing, what happened highlights her message that racism is alive and well in Ireland.
Tubridy’s disgust at such bigotry is palpable, though he’s so keen to express this that he sometimes interjects clunkily as Emer tells her story. But he’s bracingly blunt rather than bland when it comes to our national record on such matters.
“We congratulate ourselves a bit about being diverse – ‘well done Ireland, everything’s changed, it’s not like the old days’,” he says. “It is.” When Tubridy is in this form, it’s difficult to be apathetic.
Radio Moment of the Week
An absorbing piece of radio, Documentary on One: The Hospital the Irish Shipped to France (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday) is notable for its storytelling and (perhaps unwitting) relevance. Produced by Aidan O'Donnell and Sarah Blake, the programme recounts how the Irish Red Cross established a much-needed hospital in the bombed-out French town of Saint-Lô after the second World War. A pioneering example of Irish overseas aid, funded by donations and set up by a motley crew of intrepid souls (including Samuel Beckett), the hospital made such a mark that the town still celebrates St Patrick's Day.
Full of vivid portraits and evocative snapshots, the documentary also makes one wonder how an impoverished Ireland could then build a hospital in war-torn foreign climes, but is unable to deliver a bloated children’s hospital at home now. Hard medicine indeed.