Ryan Tubridy’s absence due to Covid-19 was oddly disconcerting

The RTÉ star sounds uncharacteristically elegiac after his coronavirus experience

Welcome back Ryan. We missed you. Photograph: RTÉ

Throughout his career, Ryan Tubridy has been characterised in some quarters – including this column – as bland, middlebrow and flippant. My, how we've missed those qualities. During the couple of weeks when the presenter was absent from his programme (The Ryan Tubridy Show, RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) due to illness with Covid-19, one came to know the truth of Joni Mitchell's observation that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.

Those elements of Tubridy’s on-air persona that previously grated – the blithe insouciance, the sensible-slacks editorialising – become precious portents of normalcy as he returns to the hot seat on Tuesday. This isn’t meant to be facetious. As the pandemic has grown ever graver, the absence of Tubridy has been oddly disconcerting. The natural relief that he has made a full recovery is accompanied by the expectation that his smooth patter is back to reassure listeners.

But when he opens the show, Tubridy adopts an unexpected tone. Declaring himself “humbled” by his recent experience, he recounts how he spent his self-isolating convalescence. “I thought about a lot of things,” he says. “You think about people you love, and loved, and you think about what you miss.”

What he missed most was the ability to go outdoors, a longing amplified whenever he heard children out walking with their parents. (Hopefully within a 2km radius of their homes, one’s inner busybody thinks.) The host strikes an elegiac tone as he talks of the envy prompted by “the lovely sound of freedom and youth and hope and kindness and innocence”.


He continues in this vein, sympathising with those who have lost jobs or loved ones, rhapsodising at finally being able to go for a stroll. It’s not quite philosophical, but Tubridy’s riff sounds like someone attempting to articulate the inchoate ideas and emotions arising from a period of enforced introspection.

It’s a monologue that surely chimes with many, undergoing as we all are varying degrees of quarantine. Admittedly, he’s back to his old self within a few minutes, talking about weighty matters such as the merits of Fry’s Chocolate Cream (though he does use the suspiciously high-falutin’ word “Proustian” in relation to the subject on Wednesday). For a few moments, however, Tubridy speaks for us all. Maybe not the zingy return one expected, but welcome nonetheless.

Some unlikely stars

But one issue above all still rules the radio, in the process throwing up some unlikely stars. A couple of months ago, few people outside medical circles had heard of people such as Prof Sam McConkey of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. Now, the infectious diseases specialist is a familiar figure on the airwaves, delivering ominous predictions or encouraging news to the public, or both, as is the case when he appears on Tuesday’s


(RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays).

Presenter Mary Wilson hears McConkey voice cautious optimism about the trends of infection. But, like a headmaster rewarding diligent pupils with extra homework, he then urges the Government to "go hell for leather" and increase restrictions to curb what he calls, with biblical clarity, "this plague". One suspects we'll be hearing such distressingly mixed messages for a while yet.

For the moment, Drivetime has been covering the crisis from an admirable variety of angles beyond the usual medical and political spheres, such as Fergal Keane’s report on those newly unemployed trying to collect their Covid-19 benefit payments. Keane draws attention to the often-stuttering practice of the widely trumpeted measures, as restaurant workers, asthmatic apprentices and barmen tell of not receiving payments, their voices testifying to the worry, fear and anger they feel for the future. It’s a bracing item, emphasising that while coronavirus may not discriminate who it strikes, preventative measures have a greater negative impact on people down the economic scale.

Serial killer

Similarly, while the central concern of The Nobody Zone (RTÉ Radio 1, Friday) is the tangled life and murky deeds of purported serial killer Kieran Patrick Kelly, its broader theme is the corrosive effects of poverty and marginalisation, even in death.

A six-part podcast co-produced by Danish company Third Ear and RTÉ’s Documentary on One team, which gets a much-warranted airing on radio this Easter weekend, the title alludes to the socially ostracised world of derelicts and alcoholics that Laois-born Kelly sporadically inhabited for three decades until 1983. That year, he was convicted for the murder of a fellow vagrant, strangled with dirty socks in a London police cell.

Kelly then confessed to a string of other killings, dating back to 1953, when he pushed his friend under a London Underground train.

That's just the first episode. Without giving too much away, the exact number of Kelly's victims remains a matter of contention throughout the series. "This is the thing we have to understand about the Kelly case," says narrator Tim Hinman, "the confusion." Investigative lapses, exaggerated claims and the memory all contribute to this. This is grist to the mill for the programme-makers.

As befits the podcast format, which prizes duration to encourage listeners to return, the series isn’t afraid to detail promising leads that turn out to be dead ends, nor averse to extrapolating lurid scenarios from minor bits of evidence, only to add, “That’s all conjecture, of course.”

But it also makes for a gripping tale. Hinman, with notable support from Rob Mulhearn, spins a narrative that criss-crosses both the decades and the Irish Sea, as he tries to untangle Kelly's crimes, as well as the background of the man himself. Perhaps the most remarkable element is a tape of Kelly's interrogation, in which his character, if not his motives, emerges vividly. Amid much punctuating profanity, there are moments of reflection – "If you kill another few, it plays on your mind" – and despair: "My mind is mithered." Whatever the reasons and the final toll, the fact that both Kelly and his victims remained invisible for so long tells its own story.

Radio Moment of the Week: On the Botton

Not to be outdone by Ryan Tubridy's newly reflective persona, Ray D'Arcy (RTÉ Radio 1) goes one better by inviting an actual philosopher, Alain de Botton, to share his wisdom on coping with the pandemic.

De Botton thinks the crisis has allowed people to admit to their anxieties. “We have a much stronger sense that we’re all going through this together, it makes it easier to connect to others,” he says. “Even though we can’t really connect,” replies D’Arcy, playing the realist. But his guest isn’t deterred, urging listeners to enjoy the pleasures of the here and now, as the pandemic is “a reminder of death and finitude – it’s like a giant memento mori, it’s like a skull on your desk”. Unsurprisingly, D’Arcy sounds ambivalent: “Hmm. Great.” It’s enough to make the news seem like light relief.