Marching season comes in like a lion but out like a lamb


RADIO:It was a case of contempt breeding familiarity and fatigue in the coverage of this week’s protests

North of the Border it falls during the summer, but in the Republic the marching season is only now starting to kick off. “With just two weeks to the budget the protests and meetings are getting into full swing,” said Mary Wilson on Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), as she introduced a report from Wednesday’s demonstration outside the Dáil against potential cuts to disability benefits. Although the rally had specific aims, it chimed with the wider climate.

The most vulnerable in society were being discriminated against, one mother of an autistic child told the reporter Brian Lally: she felt angry and betrayed that essential supports for her son were under threat. Another protester agreed: “We’re people who normally don’t fight, but enough is enough.”

For all the rawness of the emotions, there was an underlying air of weariness at the ongoing threat to basic supports. One woman, whose wheelchair-bound son requires 24-hour care yet whose medical card is under review, sounded drained by the twin battles of minding her child and constantly fighting his corner. “Here we are again, protesting again,” she said. “It’s just one thing after another.”

She probably wasn’t the only person thinking that: earlier in the week Drivetime carried a report from another demonstration, this time by students outside Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore’s constituency office, in Dún Laoghaire. Here the tone was that of idealistic youth rather than burdened responsibility.

Many of the marchers were moved by altruism – one admitted that although she could afford to attend college, she was “fighting for the majority” – while the sloganeering gripes of others had an oddly touching righteousness.

Bemoaning “socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor”, one young man said he was “sick of paying for some rich nob in Monte Carlo to live his life the way he wants while I can’t afford a box of Rice Krispies”. Given that cereal is the staple foodstuff of most student lodgings, this was a more serious complaint than it might first appear.

For all the genuine ire expressed throughout the fifth marching season of the austerity era, the cumulative effect of the radio coverage was one of familiarity and fatigue as much as outrage. Then again, as a startling report on Wednesday’s Lunchtime (Newstalk, weekdays) testified, intolerable pressures can cause people to retreat into stoical numbness rather than take to the streets, particularly when the thoroughfares are as dilapidated as those of Gleann Riada in Co Longford.

The presenter, Jonathan Healy, visited the ghost estate to speak to residents whose homes were suffused with the stench of sewage – if they were lucky. Gases released by the waste meant some dwellings were potentially lethal, with an explosion having occurred in one house. But as they lived on a private development, people had received only limited help from Longford County Council.

One woman, Noelle, was unable to light a fire and had to leave her windows open even in the dead of winter. “Some days you get so depressed,” she said, “you wonder, what is the way out of here?” Another, Ahmed, described his nightly routine of checking his children were safe from leaking gases. Life on the estate was hell, the exhausted-sounding father said. “We love our house,” he said, “but now we have to leave our house or leave our lives.”

Despite melodramatic touches, such as needless mood music, it was a vivid portrait of postcrash Ireland, where hope is in short supply.

In her audio essay on Tuesday’s Drivetime, Olivia O’Leary wondered if such despair had pushed the country into hopeless passivity, particularly in the light of Savita Halappanavar’s death. Citing the “learned helplessness” of some abuse victims who use pliancy as a survival tactic, O’Leary wondered if “the helplessness we learned as a people in colonial times has continued to dog us even when we’re free”.

Why else, she asked, had women voters not made their own medical safety an issue, instead electing successive governments that had failed to legislate on the grey areas left by the X-case ruling? But with Halappanavar’s death putting the issue centre stage, O’Leary said, the time had finally come to “take our lives out of the nods-and-winks box [and] show them we’re not helpless any more”. It was an eloquent call to arms, as well as a plea not to surrender to apathy.

Similar sentiments were heard on The Ray D’Arcy Show (Today FM, weekdays). D’Arcy has previously stated his annoyance about Ireland’s abortion laws, but this had been piqued by the fate of Halappanavar, nothwithstanding his tendency to conflate her name with a retro brand of cheddar by repeatedly calling her Salvita. Reviewing Tuesday’s papers, D’Arcy spotted a story about the Catholic hierarchy “cherishing” the State ban on abortion. “I’d love to say to them, ‘Excuse me, lads’ – and you can be very confident there’s no girls there – ‘can I ask a question, please? What’s your opinion on the 150,000 women who’ve had to travel to the UK for abortions since 1980? What do you think of them?’ ”

It was an outburst designed for maximum emotional impact, but it was striking nonetheless: it takes courage for a popular daytime-radio presenter to parade his clearly pro-choice views on such a divisive issue. In common with our seasonal marchers, D’Arcy is not about to throw in the towel.

Moment of the Week Fad diet or Famine

Appearing on Today With Pat Kenny (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), Tim Pat Coogan showed his gift for the bon mot and his appetite for lively feuding. Discussing his new book, The Famine Plot, he took a swipe at “Irish historians who seem to be intent on telling us it’s not really a famine but a 19th-century precursor of the Scarsdale diet”. Scholarly? Maybe not. Entertaining? Yes.

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