Pat Kenny is a smart man, but he asks some silly questions

Radio: Veteran host sounds relaxed and confident, though his unwitting comedic side remains

Pat Kenny: the Newstalk presenter has sounded more engaged on air since the pandemic kicked in. Photograph: Frank Miller

Pat Kenny: the Newstalk presenter has sounded more engaged on air since the pandemic kicked in. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

Pat Kenny is a smart man, but he asks some silly questions. “Are you suffering from crisis fatigue?” he inquires of listeners to Monday’s Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, weekdays). This sounds less a query than an exercise in trolling, what with the stressful tedium of the pandemic exacerbated by the imminence of a vaccine, and the prospect of a no-deal Brexit again raising the spectre of toilet-roll riots. Fatigued? Any more calamity and people will be taking to the bed for a week, à la Flann O’Brien’s survival strategy for neutral Ireland during another “emergency”, aka the second World War.

Obvious answers aside, however, Kenny’s question prefaces an instructive discussion on what turns out to be an actual condition, albeit a slightly amorphous one. Crisis fatigue, according to the Cork GP Dr Phil Kieran, is a psychological syndrome that occurs among “populations in prolonged periods of high stress”. “There’s only so much we can deal with before we burn out,” he explains to Kenny. This syndrome has real health ramifications: at his clinic, Kieran is seeing “higher levels of anxiety and depression”. But it also has implications at societal level, with people feeling so “hopeless and numb” that they are more likely to defy restrictions. “They’re physically and mentally exhausted,” is Kieran’s unsurprising diagnosis.

Kenny has been perked up by the events of the past year. The science behind the virus has appealed to his technically minded personality, which in turn seems to have loosened him up

Yet, if anything, Kenny has been perked up by the events of the past year. A broadcaster who in the past has sometimes come across as stiff and oddly insecure, he has sounded more engaged on air since the pandemic kicked in, almost to the point of enthusiasm. The science behind the virus has appealed to his technically minded personality, which in turn seems to have loosened him up. This is particularly evident when talking to experts such as his regular guest Prof Luke O’Neill, but Kenny’s more relaxed mood isn’t confined to Covid matters. He sounds positively giddy as he dissects the latest Brexit drama with the likes of the former Downing Street press secretary Alastair Campbell.

Kenny hasn’t lost his old talent for inadvertently squirming humour. Long given to baffling nonsequiturs, he now breezily shares personal titbits at every opportunity. When the provost of Trinity College Dublin, Patrick Prendergast, suggests online classes may work better than crowded lectures in large halls, Kenny rhapsodises about his own student days. “We used to do the Simplex crossword at the back of lecture theatre,” he reminisces. Even as a young man on the doss, he was showing how smart he could be.

But this signature urge to display knowledgeability has now come into its own. Audiences have been responding, too, if his increased listenership figures are anything to go by. Later, when Prendergast outlines the funding crisis in Irish universities, the host advises his guest, “Never waste a crisis.” Kenny certainly hasn’t.

Some shows have been negatively affected by lockdown, however. Having been off-air because of Level 5 restrictions, The Late Debate (RTÉ Radio 1, Tuesday-Thursday) returns to a packed agenda. Sure enough, Katie Hannon’s nocturnal political panel show delves straight into the urgent topic of vaccination on Tuesday. Hannon sets the tone by reading a text bemoaning the lack of “real journalists” questioning the vaccine. 

The first edition of the returned Late Debate is that rare beast: a political discussion that yields positive and sensible suggestions

Rather than dismiss this contribution as a conspiratorial jeremiad about mainstream media, Hannon wonders if people are right to be suspicious of a vaccine that, despite warnings of taking years to develop, arrives “by magic” in nine months. What follows is an interesting conversation about how scepticism towards a vaccine breaks down on party lines, with polls suggesting that 45 per cent of Sinn Féin supporters are reluctant to get jabbed. “Are you interrogating that issue within the party?” is Hannon’s unfortunately phrased question for the Sinn Féin TD Claire Kerrane, who blandly responds that politics shouldn’t be brought into such a serious issue. 

The People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith points out that people are mistrustful of the pharmaceutical industry. But she recalls the effectiveness of the polio shot during her childhood and urges politicians to convince the public that the new vaccine is as beneficial. It’s that rare beast: a political debate that yields positive and sensible suggestions.

Not every item is as productive, however. Hannon brings up the Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley’s controversial tweets, which equated the 1920 IRA ambush at Kilmichael with the 1979 bombing of British troops at Warrenpoint. She asks Kerrane, who was born in 1992, how Stanley’s sentiments sit with her generation of Sinn Féin politicians. “These kinds of conversations serve nobody. I don’t want to add to the grief on both sides,” Kerrane says, kicking to touch with a proficiency that would shame an older generation.  

Hannon, whose affable manner is matched by a firm approach to questioning, presses her guest, but Kerrane sticks to platitudes. The Fianna Fáil Senator Lisa Chambers is more abrasive, accusing Sinn Féin of hypocrisy. This in turn prompts similar (and not entirely baseless) countercharges about the Civil War parties’ attitude to the violence of 100 years ago. One might think we have enough current issues to argue about, but Joyce’s line about the unwaking nightmare of Irish history clearly remains as relevant as ever.

It’s a joy to hear Gay Byrne masterfully flatter Pádraig Flynn into making boastful statements that prompted the whistleblower Tom Gilmartin to spill the beans on endemic bribery

That said, Hannon also uses the past to distract from such dispiriting exchanges, as she introduces a new segment looking back on seminal political events, which she dubs “the late diversion”. 

By way of rousing listeners, Hannon and Jack Murray of Media HQ revisit the unwitting self-immolation of the Fianna Fáil grandee Pádraig Flynn on The Late Late Show in 1999, which unleashed seismic revelations of political corruption in the planning process. It’s a joy to hear Gay Byrne masterfully flatter Flynn into making boastful statements that prompted the whistleblower Tom Gilmartin to spill the beans on endemic bribery. It’s also a salutary overview of a shameful period in Irish politics, and a reminder of why the likes of Hannon need to continue probing public representative. Fatigued we may be, but the past can still serve as a wake-up call.

Moment of the Week: Lennon larks

On Tuesday, Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1) marks the 40th anniversary of John Lennon’s death by hearing from Andy Peebles, the BBC DJ who interviewed the former Beatle shortly before he was murdered outside his New York apartment. The archive clips of the Lennon interview are eerie, as Lennon talks about his ease in the US city. As Peebles says dramatically, “Forty-eight hours later saw my new friend and hero lying in a pool of his own blood.” Peebles himself is a radio jock of the old school, mixing anecdotes with namedropping and rococo phrasing. Recalling his dinner with Lennon, he is at his most Smashie and Nicey-like: “I’ll edit this for fear that the Holy Father in Rome would be cross with me if I use naughty language on RTÉ.” The show’s hosts, Cormac Ó hEadhra and Sarah McInerney, chuckle indulgently: this was a stereotyped image of Ireland in 1980, never mind now. All round, a memorable item.

This article was edited on December 11th

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