Gangs roaming with impunity, innocent families kidnapped for petty sums, terrified householders arming themselves to protect elderly relatives, a Garda so stretched that some call for the Army to go in: the portrait of rural Ireland that emerged on the airwaves last week was less Éamon de Valera’s idyll of cosy fireplaces and happy maidens than a Hobbesian dystopia akin to Rio’s lawless favelas.
Rural crime dominates a discussion on Marian Finucane (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday), prompted by the nightmarish ordeal of the Corcoran family, who were taken hostage in their Tipperary home by a criminal gang. One of Finucane's guests, Sebastian Hamilton of Associated Newspapers Ireland, which publishes the Irish Daily Mail, sets the tone by referring to the story of a Tipperary man so intimidated by crime that he keeps a shotgun in the home he shares with his mother.
Hamilton calls this “a reflection of the fact that millions of people are feeling abandoned and fearful”. Preventing similar cases, he adds, requires “meaningful action”, not “sympathetic handwringing”.
On cue, the Labour Minister of State Aodhán Ó Ríordáin not only trots out figures about increased Garda man hours but also draws attention to wider reasons why society produces such unrepentant criminals. "This may sound like a soft liberal attitude to crime," Ó Ríordáin frets – with reason, for he sets himself up as the stereotypical pinko to Hamilton's no-nonsense law-and-order advocate.
Hamilton ups the ante by using the Minister’s plea for educational opportunities to draw attention to HSE statistics about the “vast majority” of Traveller families not wanting their children to pursue further education. “Perhaps we shouldn’t be pretending there isn’t a problem,” he says. Maybe so, but his point equally veers close to easy scapegoating. Finucane sidesteps any creeping unpleasantness by talking about literacy in the inner city.
The focus on poverty grates with Kieran Cleary, the Corcoran family's solicitor, who gives extraordinary vent to his anger. "This is a country issue," Cleary says, his voice rising. "We are being intimidated and threatened and frightened to death, and what the Minister said there is the greatest load of rubbish I've heard in 40 years in the courts. We don't need to rehabilitate the criminals. We want to protect the innocent."
When Ó Ríordáin feebly protests that was not his point, the livid solicitor brushes him aside. Even Finucane sounds taken aback, waiting until Cleary has stopped his polemic before resuming her role as host. By the end Cleary has regained his equilibrium and apologised to the minister for losing his cool, even as he evokes an image of the Corcoran children “frozen with fear”.
It’s all a classic example of how statistics are no match for stories that touch a raw nerve – as well as a welcome blast of energy into the lethargic predictability that too often pervades Finucane’s Sunday panels.
There are more anecdotes of countryside crime on The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, weekdays). Robert O'Shea, also from Tipperary, recounts how his home was raided twice in the week after his mother died, cleaning out his farming equipment. Given his ordeal, his views seem if anything overly balanced, particularly as the host is apparently egging him on to take the law into his own hands.
Kenny asks whether his guest would use his shotgun if he caught “these ne’er-do-wells” on his property again. O’Shea demurs, saying anyone with a conscience would think twice about shooting a person. But he also makes the chilling observation that the raiders left slash hooks by the barn they were robbing, lest anyone disturb them.
Kenny reads several texts asking for Army patrols in rural areas and wonders if some version of the United States’ hard-line “three strikes” sentencing system would discourage career criminals. O’Shea suggests that “the American system mightn’t be the total answer”, if only because Irish prisons are overcrowded.
With such rounded views, it may only be a matter of time before someone accuses O’Shea of hand-wringing. As it is, his life has been shattered by the acts of others. Noting with rather too much alacrity that raiders will poison any dogs in their way, Kenny asks his guest how he now secures his property. “We have alarms. Not sleeping properly is another way,” is the weary reply.
Since moving to Newstalk, Kenny has given voice to his outrage at the supposed excesses of political correctness with a regularity that is growing tedious. (His station colleagues Ivan Yates and George Hook share the same shtick, making one wonder where Kenny encounters these PC killjoys.) So it's a relief to hear his interview with the singer Judy Collins, which reminds listeners of his previous incarnation as an enthusiastic and knowledgeable DJ.
Kenny's delight at meeting the veteran vocalist is palpable. He gleefully discusses tracks she recorded in the past and reminds her of Bill and Hillary Clinton's claim that they named their daughter after hearing Collins's recording of the Joni Mitchell song Chelsea Morning.
Collins is obviously pleased, but she sounds a nicely sardonic note: “I think they tell that to Joni when they see her, too, because they’re diplomats.” It’s a rare sighting of diplomacy in an otherwise charged week.
Moment of the week: Black mark for Gaybo
The return of The Gay Byrne Show (Lyric FM, Sunday) underlines yet again that the host is sui generis in Irish broadcasting, as he combines contentious opinion, fond anecdote and the finest vintage jazz with self-confidence. At one point he reminisces about the late Val Doonican, whom Byrne saw as a boy visiting the esplanade in Bray. "They ran a show called the Coon show," Gay chirps, spelling the word out lest there be any confusion. "If you tried it now you'd be run out of town on the end of a spike. But a couple of them blacked up then and did minstrel numbers." You could get offended, but what would be the point?