With the next decade hosting the centenaries of such traumatically violent upheavals as the Easter Rising and the Civil War at home, and the first World War and the Russian Revolution abroad, the 100th anniversary of a lone protestor's death on an English racecourse might seem an irrelevant footnote. But as Dr Helen Pankhurst reminded Miriam O'Callaghan on The John Murray Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), when the suffragette campaigner Emily Wilding Davison fatally stepped in front of King George V's horse at the Epsom Derby on this day in 1913, she made a symbolic gesture that still resonates.
Given that Davison’s death added irresistible momentum to the drive for female suffrage, which prefigured the feminist movement that has transformed the place of women in the western world, the long-term effects of her act were arguably as great as those of the cataclysmic conflicts that would shortly follow.
But Pankhurst, the great-granddaughter of the suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, stressed that the cause for which Davison died is far from finished.
She hardly needed to tell O’Callaghan about the poor representation of women in the political and economic arenas. The broadcaster’s extended stint as stand-in for the ill Murray has highlighted the dearth of women on Irish radio in general and on RTÉ’s flagship station in particular.
Indeed, on Wednesday, O'Callaghan was the only female host to be heard on Radio 1 – until Audrey Carville arrived to helm The Late Debate, at 10pm. Set beside the nation's biggest radio station, the Dáil looks like a hotbed of gender-equality initiatives.
Although O’Callaghan’s midmorning tenure may have broken up the monotonously male tenor of the Radio 1 schedule, she is hardly an irreverent new voice. The presenter’s familiar tics were present and correct, from her breathless enthusiasm to her overeager bonding with guests. “Does absolutely everybody ask you about your name?” she inquired of Pankhurst, by way of asking her about her name.
Later, on learning that one of her other guests, the debut novelist Kevin Curran, was a teacher, she was even more gushing. “I think it’s lovely being a teacher,” she said. “My mother was a teacher. It’s a wonderful profession.” At times like this it was hard to remember that O’Callaghan made her name as a current-affairs anchor.
Yet for all her tendency to fluff up proceedings, she also brought a different tone and perspective, as welcome as it was rare. When Curran said the difference between his male and female pupils was that the girls were more mature, O’Callaghan guffawed heartily: “We certainly are. I don’t know how you got to run the world.” Or the nation’s airwaves, come to that.
Another campaigner against injustice, albeit of the contemporary, celebrity and male variety, came in for flak on Today with Pat Kenny (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). Plugging his new book about Africa, the travel writer Paul Theroux took time out to belittle the debt-relief efforts of Bono, whom he has described as a "ubiquitous meddler". Quizzed by Kenny, Theroux appeared to soften his stance, downgrading Bono's status to "distraction" before twisting the knife. "It's not his fault; he wants to sell records," Theroux said, adding that "he has a lovely voice".
It was a harsh – some might say ungenerous – judgment, slightly at odds with Theroux’s otherwise reflective and even wistful mood. Having in the past faced death several times from “boys with rusty rifles”, the writer said he was more wary of such mortal perils as he got older. “I’d like to die with a drink in my hand under a palm tree beside my darling wife in Hawaii rather than on a side road,” he mused.
Responding well to Kenny’s knowledgeable questioning, Theroux also bemoaned the way modern communications had robbed travel of mystery and adventure. Whereas people could now keep in touch with home from most anywhere, the writer recalled he had not owned a phone during the first six years he lived in Africa. Right on cue, Theroux’s line, all the way from exotic London, went dead. Oh, the irony.
Memories of a bygone era were also the order of the day on Off the Ball (Newstalk, weekdays), although the reminiscences of the former Ireland soccer internationals Jason McAteer and John Aldridge didn't exactly strike an elegiac note. McAteer, who was guesting as copresenter alongside regular host Ger Gilroy and who in past appearances has come across as a self-deprecating presence, sounded boorish and crass in the company of his erstwhile team-mate.
As the pair swapped anecdotes about their activities during the Jack Charlton era, the banter gave dressing-room wit a bad name. There were fond tales about off-field drinking exploits – “We thought we were invincible,” said Aldridge – and porn videos McAteer brought with him on World Cup campaigns. “Six weeks away, you need some light entertainment,” McAteer quipped. Nice.
A deft and alert broadcaster, Gilroy sounded increasingly ill at ease as the conversation progressed, but he played along with his celebrity sidekick. It made for dispiriting listening, all the more so as Off the Ball was not so long ago one of the best radio shows around. Then again, boys will be boys.