Philip Boucher-Hayes trips over his own intellect

Radio: The erudite, thoughtful presenter is sometimes too keen to show off his learning

Teachers may disagree, but Philip Boucher-Hayes is surely right when he says Monday’s full reopening of schools will prompt a “collective sigh of relief from teenagers and their parents”.

True, his suggestion that this exhalation will be so great that Met Éireann may detect atmospheric-pressure changes is a bit of an exaggeration. But while Boucher-Hayes, the guest host on Today with Claire Byrne (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), isn't one for understatement – he calls mass online education "a social experiment unprecedented in modern human history" – he also captures the mood surrounding the resumption of school.

Amid the prevailing depressions and squalls of the pandemic, any positive development isn’t so much a breath of fresh air as a gale.  As a presenter, Boucher-Hayes is always erudite and knowledgeable, but his style can veer between the refreshing and the windy.

On Wednesday he talks to the neuroscientist Dr Sabina Brennan about helping "the teenagers in our lives manage the expectations, stress and risk of living under lockdown", which seems an ambitious goal, given how most adults are muddling through the crisis.


But the discussion proves both absorbing and useful. Brennan explains how the teenage brain has a “neuroplasticity” that brings incredible flexibility in terms of learning, but also “increased vulnerability” to stress. Similarly, with the “rational” frontal lobes still developing, teens rely on the emotional centres of the brain, resulting in “reflexive rather than reflective behaviours”. Brennan’s language is clear and accessible, but her message is oddly reassuring, presenting distressing adolescent mood shifts as a natural part of a biological process.

Boucher-Hayes is a receptive foil throughout, though he also punctuates the chat with chortling dad humour: “Do teens need more sleep or are they just lazy oafs?” Not that the host dumbs things down. If anything, he’s too keen to show off his own learning, as when he claims that, unlike adults’, the teenage brain is capable of multitasking. “It’s quite the reverse,” Brennan replies. “I must have been multitasking at the point in time when I read that,” says Boucher-Hayes, sounding only slightly chastened.

It's not the only time his naturally confident manner trips him up. During an interview with epidemiologist Dr Gabriel Scally, Boucher-Hayes takes issue with his guest's advocacy for mandatory quarantine.

“The number of cases linked to foreign travel is a fraction of a per cent,” the host says. “It’s not the biggest problem.” When Scally responds that every case is linked to foreign travel because the virus and its subsequent variants all arrived from abroad, Boucher-Hayes talks over him: “Yes, but we are where we are.” It’s a peevish exchange, emphasising the fine line between grilling a guest and insisting on the last word. Such moments are rare, however.

His occasional intellectual overenthusiasm aside, Boucher-Hayes has an admirable curiosity about how individual stories feed into a bigger picture

His occasional intellectual overenthusiasm aside, Boucher-Hayes has an admirable curiosity about how individual stories feed into a bigger picture, as shown by Boom, Bust, Broke, his recent documentary strand for Drivetime on the decade since the bailout.

Similarly, Tuesday’s conversation with the paleoanthropologist and broadcaster Ella Al-Shamahi on the history of the handshake places personal experience into wider context to good effect.  Boucher-Hayes sounds fascinated as his guest outlines the origins of the greeting, but he’s equally aware that the gesture’s universality is partly due to the “dominance of western culture” sidelining other expressions of welcome.

This isn’t an academic issue for the host, who has previously reported from the Middle East: he asks if touching his heart and bowing is an appropriate greeting towards a Muslim woman in the region. Al-Shamahi is duly impressed, recalling that she never shook a man’s hand until adulthood. She also suggests the heart tap is also a sensible greeting for pandemic times.

“Well, it beats waving your elbow at people,” Boucher-Hayes replies. As an item, it’s breezy but thoughtful and informative – much like the versatile host himself.

The impending return to school also features on The Last Word (Today FM, weekdays), albeit refracted through the row about teachers losing their vaccination priority. But despite the upset felt by teachers at their status being downgraded in the Government's new age-based vaccination plan, there's surprisingly little spark as Matt Cooper speaks to teaching-union leaders.

Instead, a doleful air pervades his interviews with the ASTI's Eamon Dennehy and John Boyle of the INTO. While the officials are concerned about unvaccinated teachers in crowded classes, Boyle also insists they're "not trying to jump ahead of the queue". This diplomatic sensitivity to the public mood slightly undercuts their arguments, as does the reality of the rollout. "The vast majority of teachers will get vaccinated when on holidays, so it doesn't really make any difference," Cooper says.

For his report on nail-biting, Graham Finlay outlines the dire consequences of swallowing nails: 'Worms from the anus. I think that's enough said about that'

Even the presence of ostensibly opposing viewpoints doesn’t raise the temperature: Neil McDonnell of Isme, the small-business group, is against industrial action but concedes that Dennehy makes a good case.

This lethargic air pervades other items. A debate between Prof Anthony Staines and the Independent TD Michael McNamara on whether public-health officials are "scaremongering" is short on friction. Despite the participants' differing views on future strategy, both agree current policy is causing public weariness. "We are pushing everything on to the shoulders of Irish people, but we're not doing the other stuff," says Staines.

Similarly, the Labour Party leader, Alan Kelly, can’t summon his customary outrage when decrying the quarantine policy to the Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews, even to the point of muttering “I respect what Barry is saying”. Though Cooper conducts affairs in sprightly fashion, the weary atmosphere seems to echo the country’s temper. It’s only when conversation again turns to the topic of young people’s psychological wellbeing that there’s any urgency.

Alexandra Ryan of talks openly about her feelings of confusion, loneliness and vulnerability during lockdown, while expressing annoyance at the absence of younger voices at policymaking level.  Cooper, for his part, wonders if young people will "go ballistic once they get a bit of freedom".

Ryan isn’t entirely sure – “All this social anxiety has built up” – but can’t help being optimistic. “I think it will be the best year we’ve had in a long time,” she says. With luck we won’t have to hold our breath for much longer.

Moment of the Week: Making the cut

As Tom Dunne stands in for Sean Moncrieff (Newstalk) on Tuesday, he must wonder if he's there as some kind of punishment, as he's landed with a notably stomach-churning bill of fare. There's the regular contributor Graham Finlay's report on nail-biting, for one, in which he outlines the dire consequences of swallowing nails: "Worms from the anus. I think that's enough said about that." Dunne can only ruefully agree.

If this isn’t enough, there’s also Dunne’s introductory spiel, when he details the unique family keepsakes of the British singer Stacey Solomon. Dunnes recounts how Solomon, who is Jewish, keeps “random gross stuff”, including her sons’ circumcised foreskins. “To which you can only say, ah lads,” adds the nonplussed Dunne. Actually, you could say lots more – kudos to Dunne for his understatement.