Radio: Joe Duffy keeps his cool amid the shouting and the scaremongering

The Liveline host presided over the fraught issue of childcare and abuse after Prime Time’s A Breach of Trust


It can be a charged and stressful environment, full of crying, shouting and incoherent babbling; one can understand, though not condone, how someone working amid this daily cacophony might snap. Yet day in, day out, Joe Duffy presides over Irish radio’s very own romper room, Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), with the reassuring poise of a professional. Even as the tears flowed during the fallout from the childcare scandal, Duffy maintained a calm presence.

There were times on Wednesday when the presenter sounded like the only person not on the verge of weeping, such were the sentiments unleashed by the previous night’s Prime Time film on the apparent mistreatment of children in creches. While the emotional atmosphere was to be expected, proceedings occasionally spilled into rumour and scaremongering.

One caller, Mary, said that although she had no children of her own, “If I was a parent today, I would be so beside myself.” Mary cited the experience of a friend who had quit her job at a creche after only a month because children were being treated “aggressively”, though concrete information was lacking because they hadn’t “discussed it in detail”. This was little more than speculation and hearsay, but it created the frisson of fearfulness that Liveline exploits so effectively.

There was no need for such gratuitous tactics, as other callers shared their own stories of troubling childcare practices. Rita told of how her daughter had been strapped into a high chair by creche workers as a punishment for eating another child’s food, adding that the workers didn’t speak to her for a week after she reported this to a manager. “That’s only what I saw. I don’t know what else is going on,” said Rita, a quiver in her voice.

Duffy, as always, walked a fine line between empathy for his guests and the need to draw out as much human drama as possible, the latter tendency just shading it. But amid natural parental anxiety about entrusting one’s children to others, some callers detected a bigger outrage, as a teacher named Sarah Jane delivered a polemic on Fianna Fáil’s record in government. The party’s Celtic tiger-era policies pushed everyone towards the workplace in order “to buy an overpriced house”, leaving people with no choice but to put their children in creches, which “commodified childhood”. In a programme awash with fraught feelings, it was a refreshing moment of clarity.

Childhood trauma was at the heart of Documentary on One: The Undiscovered Country (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday). Produced and narrated by Colin Murphy, the programme followed the writer Shane Connaughton (pictured above) as he brought his touring play The Pitch to Redhills, in Co Cavan. That village, it turned out, had been the scene of a “terrible wrench” some 60 years earlier, when Connaughton’s father, a Garda sergeant, had moved the family there from nearby Kingscourt. “I have never got over it,” said the writer.

Murphy’s stated intent was to divine why this move had such an impact on Connaughton. “I think maybe it all comes back to his father,” mused the narrator. Instead, the documentary meandered between wistful memory, elegiac reportage and narrative affectation, with the story self-consciously divided into acts and scenes.

Part of the problem was that the subject matter was rather thin. We learned that Connaughton’s father had been a stoical and distant figure, whose profession had obliged him to move his family, but not a lot else. Connaughton spoke of the colourful character he met in Redhills who introduced him to the “wilder side” of life, one of whom featured as his play’s protagonist, but there was little insight into how these experiences had influenced his later life.

If the disparate elements failed to gel, there were still evocative moments. The programme beautifully re-created the atmosphere of a travelling theatre company, all echoing halls and schedule clashes with Mass. And when Connaughton choked up as he recounted a celebratory family jig on the occasion of his father’s promotion, one got a sense of the deep filial longing that had persisted to this day.

There was a similarly bitter-sweet flavour to Patrick Kennedy’s recollections about his late father, the US senator Edward Kennedy, on Tubridy (2FM, weekdays). A former US congressman himself, Patrick recalled how he had bonded with his terminally ill father during the final year of his life, calling it “the best part of our relationship”. Far from being teary, he sounded upbeat; it was presenter Ryan Tubridy who noted that it took impending death for father and son to make that connection.

It was an absorbing radio encounter. The host, who has turned his obsession with the Kennedy clan into a side career, was knowledgeably engaging without being fawning, quizzing his guest about his issues with addiction, alcoholism and depression. Patrick, in turn, came across as thoughtful and as modest as could be expected given his family’s storied past. “I’d like to think I was elected because of my good looks or personality,” he said, “but the bottom line was that my last name was significant.”

Far from being weighed down by his famous surname or his personal troubles, Kennedy was his own man.

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