It's a week in which the country celebrates its national holiday, but it's hard to feel much joy. On Tuesday, bulletins carry the dreadful news about Pierre Zakrzewski, the Irish photojournalist killed in Ukraine by Russian artillery. Zakrzewski's violent death viscerally brings home the horror wrought on Ukrainians by Putin's armies, but above all it's an unimaginable loss for his wife, mother, family and friends, as the many on-air tributes make clear.
I need to declare a personal interest here. Pierre was my classmate at St Conleth's College in Dublin, and you couldn't hope to meet anyone more charismatic, selfless and loyal. He was also fearless, as his vocation as an astonishingly brave cameraman highlighting humanitarian plights in war zones attests. Pierre's remarkable life was recalled in vividly unvarnished detail by his brothers Nick and Greg on Wednesday's edition of Today with Claire Byrne (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). Speaking with an ease and clarity that belies their appalling loss, the two siblings recount how Pierre's early work as a freelance cameraman dovetailed with an appetite for travel and a drive to highlight injustice. They describe their brother as "a truth-teller" and a "free spirit", but stress his no-nonsense side, which saw him navigate perilous conflict zones in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. It's a poignant, heartbreaking interview.
Pierre was always the same effortlessly engaging company: despite the things he'd seen, he was modest about his experiences
It also chimes with my own experience of Pierre, who was unfailingly friendly and utterly charming but always had a maverick spirit that saw him travel on foot through far-flung locations while the rest of us chipped away at careers. After leaving school, my encounters with him were far too infrequent, but he was always the same effortlessly engaging company: despite the things he'd seen, he was modest about his experiences. It makes news of his death all the harder to hear, although with his proud Franco-Polish heritage, Pierre may have smiled ruefully as the usually accomplished host Cormac Ó hEadhra struggled to pronounce his surname on Tuesday's Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), much as our headmaster habitually did.
An intrepid, humane and courageous journalist to the end, Pierre's death, along with that of his local colleague Oleksandra Kuvshynova, is only one tragedy amid the millions of lives upended by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But it throws the conflict's cost into sharp focus, robbing his family of a beloved husband, son, brother and uncle, and leaving his friends to mourn the remarkable human being they were lucky to know. Talking to Ciara Kelly on Wednesday's Newstalk Breakfast (weekdays), my fellow Conleth's past pupil Stephen O'Dea perhaps sums it up best, calling Pierre an "indomitable character". Indeed he was: rest in peace, Pierre. The rest of us will pray for peace.
There's not much evidence of festive St Patrick's Day spirits on Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). As has been the case across the airwaves for the past couple of weeks, the atmosphere is charged with anger: not about the carnage in Ukraine, over which an air of fatalistic despair reigns, but rather on the not-unrelated matter of soaring energy bills. Despite this, the on-air fury over the gobsmackingly steep spike in gas and electricity prices isn't aimed at Putin. It's not even much directed at Bord Gáis, which has just raised its rates precipitously. Instead, if Liveline's guests are to be believed, responsibility lies with a fanatical splinter faction of eco-radicals, going by the nom de guerre of the Green Party.
Duffy walks a fine line between providing a snapshot of public concerns and giving a platform to scattershot popular rage
Joe Duffy starts off Tuesday's show by talking to Kerry pensioner Michael, who paints a vivid vignette of fuel poverty. Tight budgets mean Michael and his wife already ration fuel, using their oil-fired heating at a minimum: "We light the fire in the front room and sit there," he says plaintively, "and put an extra duvet on the bed." Clearly upset that people should still live in such conditions, Duffy presses for more details of penury, ascertaining that Michael's wife buys own-brand butter rather than Kerrygold. "It's a sad day when people can't afford butter," Duffy says mournfully, identifying dairy products as a key index to quality of life.
The conversation is an indictment of how older people are let down in Ireland, particularly when they are less well-off. Michael is unsurprisingly upset about the latest rises – "All I can see them doing is robbing the poor" – but he reserves his real ire for Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan, whom he dubs "that eejit in the Green Party". Duffy demurs at the description, but the genie is out of the bottle. Another caller, John, expresses exasperation at how his commute costs more because of various carbon taxes, which he calls "a vanity project for the Green Party". Sharon goes further. "I blame the Greens for everything," she says, adding that the Irish public have, ahem, "done nothing but take it up the jacksie".
Throughout this, Duffy periodically points to other factors in relation to the price issue, from Bord Gáis being a British-owned private company to the obvious effects of Putin's savagery. Far from ignoring the catastrophe in Ukraine, the host covers it unstintingly, whether canvassing the opinions of listeners – a mixed bag, inevitably – or hearing from people deeply connected to the region. On Monday, he interviews Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya about the impact of the war on her native country, from where Russian troops have launched in the invasion. "We understand the fate of Ukraine and the fate of Belarus are connected," says Tsikhanouskaya, who spent summers in Ireland when a child and ran as a pro-democracy candidate in a 2020 presidential election against Belarus's autocratic leader Alexander Lukashenko, whom she dubs a "war criminal".
But such a broad view seems to matter less when discussing precipitous fuel hikes. Here, Duffy is primarily interested in hearing out the complaints of his callers, who appear more interested in finding a more tangible scapegoat. Such outpourings are understandable when people are hard-pressed, and feel powerless and livid. There's some grounds for resentment. As Claire Byrne has highlighted previously, government environmental measures such as retrofitting seem skewed towards those with more capital to spare. Even so, Duffy walks a fine line between providing a snapshot of public concerns and giving a platform to scattershot popular rage, when more culpable parties skulk in the Kremlin.
Radio Moment of the Week
With so much sorrow around, the wanton frivolity of Marty in the Morning (Lyric, weekdays) provides much-needed respite. Marty Whelan's trademark mix of groan-worthy jokes, light conversation and soundtrack of classical and pop remains daftly diverting, as when he chats casually with traffic reporter Ellen Leonard on Wednesday. Having cajoled Leonard into some impromptu (and impressive) soprano singing the week before, Whelan now finagles details out of her about her imminent house move over the holiday weekend. When Leonard tells him that the furniture for the new home involves upcycling, the host can't resist his dad humour instincts. "Is that a bike on the wall?" Whelan chuckles. On your bike, Marty.