Sam McConkey’s Spinal Tap moment takes the restrictions debate to Level 10

The professor’s conversation with Pat Kenny on Newstalk is unintentionally hilarious

Pat Kenny  worries about there being too much carrot and not enough stick when it comes to infractions. Photograph: Frank Miller

Pat Kenny worries about there being too much carrot and not enough stick when it comes to infractions. Photograph: Frank Miller


Surveying the options mooted to curb Covid infections, Pat Kenny is happy to eschew the most severe option in favour of less draconian actions. “You don’t need to arrest everybody,” he says. Well, that’s a relief. But as Kenny frets about the lack of enforcement powers, his ideas make Nphet’s scotched proposal to impose Level 5 restrictions nationwide look like reckless libertarianism. 

Discussing the effectiveness of Garda checkpoints with the AA’s Conor Faughnan on Wednesday’s programme (The Pat Kenny Show, Newstalk, weekdays), the host indulges his guest’s preference for compliance through consensus rather than additional police powers (“It’s better to ignore the odd ignorant sod”), before conceding that mass incarcerations aren’t necessary. Not that he’s going soft.

“You just need a few people to be seen to be punished and the word gets out very quickly,” Kenny ventures, breezily suggesting penalties such as loss of pandemic payments for attending a late-night house party.

It’s an off-the-cuff remark, though not an isolated one. Throughout the week, Kenny worries there’s too much carrot and not enough stick when it comes to infractions. Talking to Dr Jack Lambert of the Mater on Tuesday, the presenter voices his concern that “we seem to be tippy-toeing around sanctions”. Even on Monday, with the prospect of a full lockdown looming, Kenny appears annoyed that Nphet hasn’t gone far enough in its advice. 

Legal penalties

Discussing the issue with infectious diseases consultant Prof Sam McConkey, the host wonders why Nphet doesn’t recommend legal penalties for those infringing the regulations. McConkey replies that the public health advisory group’s remit doesn’t include punishment – though some might dispute this view – only for Kenny again to suggest that “they could do things that inhibit certain behaviours”. This sounds ominous, though it turns out Kenny is thinking only of curfews. For now, anyway.

Meanwhile, McConkey acts as a moderating influence on Kenny’s whims, but is still in favour of going to Level 5 to stop the surge. Indeed, he floats the possibility of yet more curbs, such as curfews. “That could be a Level 6,” McConkey says. “I know nobody’s talked about a Level 6, and are probably even shocked to hear Sam talk about Level 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.”

These escalating levels are not so much shocking as unintentionally hilarious, evoking the scene in none-more-oracular mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap where guitarist Nigel Tufnell shows off his “one louder” amplifier which goes up to 11. Still, given the deteriorating situation, laughter is maybe the only option other than weeping. Though Kenny might think a short sharp shock could work as well.

Duffy’s drop of reality

Since the pandemic started, Joe “washyourhands” Duffy has urged his listeners to comply with anti-Covid etiquette, though his metronomic catchphrase sounds a bit dated now: “wearamask” or “don’ttravelunlessyourjourneyisnecessary” might be more on trend, if less snappy. But, more importantly, Duffy still turns up personal stories that encapsulate the everyday reality beneath the grand strategies.

On Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), he talks to Aisling, a recently widowed mother whose tale is as heartbreaking as it is prosaically infuriating. Aisling’s husband, Neil, died suddenly a month ago, necessitating a postmortem, which in turn entailed a Covid test. The results turn up in the post on Monday morning – a month later, and addressed to Neil. The test is negative, but the HSE letter advises the late recipient to restrict his movements if he displays any symptoms.

As if all this isn’t fraught enough, the letter arrives on their son’s 12th birthday: Aisling is calling from a bedroom to keep her distress from her children. “On a couple of levels it’s hard,” she says, with admirable restraint.

Aisling explains she’s highlighting this error to prevent it happening again, and to make a crucial broader point. “The lack of attention to detail doesn’t give you a lot of confidence,” she says. While it may be considered “a minor oversight” by the HSE, she thinks it “speaks to a bigger lack of competence”.

Aisling comes across eloquent yet determined, wavering only when Duffy asks her to describe her husband. Even Duffy sounds winded by the conversation: “I can’t take another call after that,” he says, going straight to a break. It’s a short but illuminating item, emphasising that sweeping proposals count for little if basic details can’t be got right.

Remarkable soundscapes

Amid all this, Drama on One: Islands (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday) provides welcome, though anything but mindless, escapism. Written by Luke Clancy, producer of Lyric FM’s stimulating Culture File slot, the piece uses the field recordings of sound designer Chris Watson to create a journey – a trip, really – through some of the world’s most remarkable small islands.

Starting at Ross Island in the Antarctic, Clancy and Watson act as lighthearted guides as they travel up to Svalbard in the Arctic, via the Galapagos and the mythical island of Hybrasil. The inclusion of the latter captures the drama documentary’s playful spirit, as do the many corny gags, such as Clancy’s remark that a recording is so good he can smell volcanic gases. 

If the script doesn’t take itself too seriously and the narrators’ acting isn’t going to put Michael Fassbender out of a job, it doesn’t matter, so remarkable are Watson’s location soundscapes. Whether it’s the “sense of unstoppable power” of freshwater glaciers breaking onto seawater ice, the otherworldly cacophony of howler monkeys or the mesmerising songs of humpback whales, Islands is full of sonic surprise and aural astonishment, aided by the ambient score of composer Irene Buckley.  

Clancy and Watson previously collaborated on a memorable portrait of another famous island, Skellig Michael, but this goes further, combining extraordinary recordings with ingenious travelogue to produce a captivating work of imagination. It’s a veritable ocean of sound that testifies to the transporting quality of radio, something sorely needed amid the restrictions of the real world. 

Radio Moment of the Week

Taking the name of his show the Hard Shoulder (Newstalk, weekdays) to its logical conclusion, Kieran Cuddihy shares a motorway anecdote on Wednesday. He recounts how, when driving down the M9 to his Kilkenny home the previous evening, he spotted another car travelling in the same direction in the lane beside him. Nothing remarkable there, until he realised the car was in fact “going down the wrong lane, travelling against the traffic”. Cuddihy phoned the guards and, thankfully, there was “no evidence of an accident” when he travelled back up to Dublin that morning.

Cuddihy plays the incident down – “I thought I’d bore you with it” – but it’s an arresting if alarming anecdote. An alternate career in AA Roadwatch beckons for Cuddihy if his show doesn’t work out: for now, however, he’s going in the right direction.

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