Radio: Scandalous tales from the past point back to the present

Despite a misfiring narrator, ‘The Scandal of Mrs Leeson, Lyric FM’s documentary about a madam in Georgian Dublin, is compelling fare. And after a year of finding his feet, Sean O’Rourke’s future looks good

Ill-judged narration: Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh

Ill-judged narration: Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh

 

It was a time when, to coin a phrase, we all partied. The capital was notorious for its conspicuous consumption, with money pumped into showpiece properties. It was also an era famed for its hedonistic nightlife, with seemingly every move of local celebrities chronicled in the press. Underneath the glitzy surface, however, lay another reality: binge drinking, street crime and sexual hypocrisy.

Such characteristics all too easily call to mind the Celtic tiger, but the society described by Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh in The Lyric Feature: The Scandal of Mrs Leeson (Lyric FM, Friday) is that of Georgian Dublin in the late 18th century. For those used to the familiar historical portrait of Ireland as a land of impoverished piety, the story of Peg Plunkett, aka the eponymous Mrs Leeson, comes as a surprise.

It is a remarkable tale. Born into a male-dominated world where women were viewed, at best, as marriage fodder, Plunkett followed a determinedly independent path. She never married but instead moved between relationships, ran a successful business and mixed with royals. In her day she was so famous that she published three volumes of memoirs. Viewing matrimony as an unfair contract rather than a sacred oath, she appropriated her married nomenclature from one of her lovers, of whom she wrote that she was “more distressed by the loss of his purse than the loss of his person”.

But if her tale sounds like a tonic, it is an astringent one. Plunkett was a madam, to use the sanitised term. Her income came from the brothels she ran, her fate still depended on men’s whims and her life was marked by calamitous maternal bereavement and savage sexual violence. Forced from her wealthy family by a violent brother and a teenage pregnancy, Plunkett was later viciously assaulted by well-heeled hooligans, with two of her children dying in the aftermath. In 1797, by now in poverty, she was gang-raped and infected with venereal disease, dying five weeks later. This is no feelgood story of female empowerment.

The personal experiences are vividly recounted against a backdrop of wider wealth and licentiousness, meticulously detailed by academic contributors, while Sorcha Cusack’s readings of the scandalous memoirs add a dramatic flair. Produced by Ruth Fitzsimons for Smooth Productions, the documentary is so compelling that one even overlooks Ní Chofaigh’s often fantastically ill-judged narration.

Relying on the cosily subjective approach of her daytime-television career, Ní Chofaigh wonders what it would be like to meet her subject: “Would she tell me any of her dark, dark secrets?” (We’ll never know.) She muses, “as a wife”, why women let their husbands openly visit prostitutes at the time. (They effectively had no choice.)

Quibbles aside, however, Ní Chofaigh presides over a documentary that conjures up the chestnut that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Discussing the unwanted pregnancies that inevitably arose among mistresses and prostitutes alike, the academic Mary O’Dowd tells Ní Chofaigh that one solution came in the form of dubious powders that promised “purges” of an unspecified nature. Of course, the word “abortion” was never used: such things would never happen in Ireland then. Thank goodness we’ve moved on from such double standards.

The past also features prominently on Today With Sean O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). Wednesday sees another instalment in the programme’s enjoyable slot on the centenary of the first World War’s outbreak. Anne Doyle reads a news bulletin on the fighting of this week 100 years ago, imbuing a sense of immediacy often lost when recalling historical events.

And O’Rourke hosts an enlightening discussion with the historians Mark Durcan and Conor Mulvagh, examining the often forgotten fact that in its first weeks the Great War was not a trench slog but a fluid and kinetic affair, if still an extremely bloody one.

O’Rourke covers another anniversary when he talks to Charlie bird, the former RTÉ reporter, about the announcement of the IRA ceasefire 20 years ago this weekend. Although the item risks turning into media-centric nostalgia – Bird talks about the flak he and RTÉ received for broadcasting IRA statements – it is a quietly riveting piece. Listening to Bird’s blurred archive recording of a female voice declaring the IRA cessation, one gets a sense of the murky, uncertain atmosphere of the time. Bird’s own tales of his meetings with IRA sources only underscore the machinations occurring behind the scenes.

O’Rourke handles the item with authority while displaying a newly relaxed relish. As a landmark of his own looms – it’s a year next week that he took over Pat Kenny’s slot – the presenter has found his voice. He is still confident and even combative when hosting news-related items, but he now sounds at ease with more offbeat matters.

Talking to the comedian Conor Drum about his stand-up show, which explores his experience of testicular cancer, O’Rourke asks his guest a personal question that, while almost unseemly, also speaks of a more laid-back and even irreverent approach: “How about your equipment, so to speak? How is it functioning?” For O’Rourke, at least, everything is working well at the moment.

Moment of the Week: Conspiracy theorist
On Wednesday, Seán Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays) conducts a phone interview with Roxanne Gay, author of Bad Feminist, mixing humour and insight during an analysis of why, despite advances, a deeply embedded gender imbalance persists. Both guest and host are hitting their stride when, suddenly, the line goes dead, followed by a dial tone. Despite the mishap, Moncrieff doesn’t miss a beat. “That, obviously, was caused by a bunch of sexist pigs.”

radioreview@irishtimes.com

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