Radio: Sean O’Rourke’s the wrong man in the write place

Review: ‘Today With Sean O’Rourke’, ‘The Documentary Hour: The Sandhogs’, ‘The Ray D’Arcy Show’

Talk about returning from holidays and feeling like you've never been away. Listeners to Today With Sean O'Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) expecting a host transformed by his summer break have their hopes dashed pretty quickly on Monday.

“It’s nice to be back, but, as frequently happens, we begin with sad news,” says O’Rourke, adopting a familiar tone – serious and probing, if not noticeably sad – as he goes to a report on the drowning of a man off the Wexford coast. Pupils dragging themselves back to school are surely returning to a chirpier atmosphere.

From his own point of view O’Rourke’s return couldn’t be better timed. His taste for the meaty news story is sated by a rush of heavyweight topics: Wednesday’s show is dominated by discussions of the Fennelly report and the Dáil banking inquiry. But it is the more bookish items – not always O’Rourke’s strongest suit – that yield his best moments.

On Monday the presenter convenes his regular book club, where panellists share their thoughts on the latest novel by the American crime writer Dennis Lehane. The conversation is illuminating, helped by the presence of John Connolly, who, as a successful crime novelist himself, knows what he's talking about when he offers insights about characters mattering more than plot.

The broadcaster Maxi chips in with some choice anecdotes from the 1970s, when she worked as a singer in Miami, the setting for Lehane’s book. She recalls the charming wiseguys who complimented her that “with those looks we’ll get three years out of you”. She chuckles at the memory. Different times, as they say.

Almost inevitably, however, it is Eamon Dunphy who has the best (if not necessarily the most cogent) lines. As he discusses the novel's themes of political corruption in 1930s Florida, he says it resonates in an Ireland of unpunished white-collar crime.

O’Rourke protests that it’s yet to get as bad here as in Lehane’s Miami, where one character feeds enemies to the sharks. But Dunphy is having none of it.

“Hold on now. Are we a long way from that?” he says. “Because there are people going through hell in this country, being taken out of their homes, people with disabilities, people who are poor. And metaphorically, if not actually, we are doing exactly that to those people.”

Dunphy’s outrage is as palpable as his logic is shaky, but it has a welcome rawness in a week of revelations about questionable political and financial dealings.

For all that John Banville is seen as a practitioner of arty highbrow literature, the novelist goes one better and confesses to his hitherto unknown criminal past. While talking about his new novel on Tuesday's show, Banville reveals that as a "bookish teenager" he stole a copy of Dylan Thomas's Collected Poems from Wexford County Library. But, he assures us, it was a one-off theft and that, by way of compensation, he has bequeathed the library €2,000 in his will.

Besides, he adds, the staff probably knew it was him, as they used to lend him their banned books.

Far from being an arid presence, Banville is stimulating and bone-dry funny. But O'Rourke doesn't quite click with his guest: he follows up Banville's tales of youthful misdemeanours with an incongruous question about his new book. And the host repeatedly asks about his guest's supposed "self-esteem", referring back to Banville's well-known quote about his Booker-winning novel The Sea being a "work of art".

It’s not the first time that O’Rourke’s no-nonsense interview style comes across as heavy-handed when he ventures beyond current affairs and sport. Eventually, however, the host goes with the flow, setting up his questions so Banville can fire back with pithy zingers.

When the author says that art is destroyed by having a message, O’Rourke counters that “a lot of artists want to do just that”. “Yeah, but they’re wrong,” says Banville. For anyone worn out by the news, Banville’s artful world-weariness is just right.

Hard-won experience is much in evidence on The Documentary Hour: The Sandhogs (Newstalk, Saturday). The sandhogs of this engrossing documentary, produced and narrated by Pavel Barter, are the men who, for the past century, have dug the subways and water tunnels of New York city, often at a fearful cost.

With a soundtrack of bawdy banter and clanking subterranean noises, the programme evokes the camaraderie and otherwordliness of a workplace that the writer and former sandhog Thomas Kelly describes as "the closest you'll get to working on a pirate ship".

This portrait of the tunnellers’ often lethal world – a boiling, chaotic building site surrounded by unstable earth – yields other themes, from urban development to the role of unions. The documentary is also a tribute to the idea of physical labour and a paean to migrant workers.

The sandhogs are largely Irish – Monaghan, Donegal and Galway accents abound – or Irish-Americans whose families have worked in the tunnels for generations. These men, many of whom have been tunnelling since the 1960s, are often “almost deranged with a work ethic”, says Kelly, who tells stories of men breaking an arm and returning to finish their shift. Yet as a retired union organiser remarks, without the infrastructure these workers built, “there would be no New York city”. At a time when bankers see themselves as victims, it’s a reminder that there are still people we can look up to, even when they work beneath us.

Moment of the Week: Eoin Colfer's snotty stories
On The Ray D'Arcy Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), Eoin Colfer talks about the forthcoming film adaptation of his Artemis Fowl novels. He is witty and engaging, but his command of language fails him when recalling his past life as a teacher. "I still have the jacket covered in bodily fluid to prove it," he says. Cue nervous giggles from the host and a hasty response from his guest. "That sounds a bit weird, now that I said it," Colfer says. "Just to clarify, I meant snot." Phew.

radioreview@irishtimes.com