The green under foreign colours


REBEL BALLADS may not be to everyone’s musical taste, but their ability to rouse martial ardour in Irishmen is undeniable. Last week brought stirring testimony of how a committed group of fighting men from across Ireland, all immensely proud of their country, regularly listened to patriotic songs before donning the green and facing the enemy.

Documentary On One: The Royal Irish

It was one of the most telling details in Fergal McCarthy’s documentary which looked at citizens of the Republic serving the crown through the prism of the Royal Irish Regiment’s 2010 tour of duty in Afghanistan. Far from being the nefarious quislings of legend, these soldiers were constantly seeking ways to display pride in their homeland.

Tricolours and county flags fluttered over bunks and bases. The Irish rugby team was cheered to victory over England, and St Patrick’s Day was celebrated raucously. “Just because you’ve joined the British army, it doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten who you are,” said one soldier. Most of those interviewed had always wanted to be soldiers, with many initially trying to join the Irish Defence Forces. The British army, said one, was “just a job”.

Still, fighting a foreign war in another nation’s army seems an extreme career path, even in these straitened times. The documentary was punctuated with the sounds of a firefight, recorded by the soldiers themselves, the crackling gunfire and barked commands a reminder that the soldiers were on a combat mission.

The troops’ tone hardened when it came to fighting the Taliban. “When you get the one-up on your enemy, who has been trying to kill you, it is sweet,” said one. “That may sound absolutely barbaric, but that’s the way it is.” Such moments highlighted a weakness in an otherwise fascinating documentary. In presenting a sympathetic portrait of those once-reviled Irishmen who join the British forces, The Royal Irishchallenged the old certainties of national identity. But in presenting a ravaged Afghanistan as little more than a dramatic backdrop, odd references to local casualties aside, the documentary struck an uneasy imbalance of its own.

THIS OMISSION WASaddressed by Claire Byrne, sitting in for Marian Finucane(RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday), when she spoke to a former British Army officer, Patrick Bury, one of the main voices in The Royal Irish. As Bury spoke of his time in Afghanistan, Byrne asked about his dealings with the local population, whom he ambiguously characterised as “caught between a rock and a hard place”.

When a listener texted to ask Bury “what did the Afghan people ever do to you”, he replied that, aside from following orders – a defence with an unfortunate ring – he had viewed the country as a haven for terrorists who had once attacked the US.

But, he added, he eventually felt there weren’t enough terrorists to justify his presence there, which was one of the reasons he left the army. It was an intriguing footnote.

Meanwhile, Byrne showed off her strengths as a more forensically-minded host than Finucane. It was no coincidence that the interview she conducted with retired Det Sgt Alan Bailey of the Garda “cold case” unit was thorough and understated, yet quietly compelling. Her calm manner was needed again when dealing with the charged subject of autism, or rather the controversial views of Dr Tony Humphreys on the condition.

The clinical psychologist had written a column denying autism was a neurobiological condition and suggesting that an unconscious lack of parental love was instead partially responsible, causing a storm of predictably angry reaction.

By way of rebuttal, Humphreys told Byrne he had never said parents deliberately harmed their children; rather, he said, “unwittingly, our fears and anxieties and insecurities can block a child’s development”. Sounding more wronged than contrite, he thought his article was “good news”, as parents would be relieved they haven’t passed any genetic defects on to their children. Gee, thanks. As for any offence caused, he said he understood that for “people who believe a certain thing for years, it is difficult to have that challenged”, an assertion that seemed patronising.

For all that he protested his noble intentions and clinical track record, Humphreys’s defensive air gave the impression that he saw himself as the wounded party. In the end, even Byrne lost her cool, impatiently inquiring whether her guest understood how his language had upset people. No, he said, tetchily accusing his host of misinterpreting him. There are two sides to every story, but on this showing, Humphreys has only himself to blame for his predicament.

Radio moment of the week

Joe Duffy is something of a master when it comes to wringing maximum emotional impact from his callers’ experiences. But Monday’s Liveline(RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) featured a rare instance of Duffy overplaying his hand. Speaking to Kieran, an unemployed security guard whose offer to work for free had been turned down, the presenter sought to play up the human drama, asking Kieran if he had any family. A wife and two children came the answer, prompting Duffy to sigh for nearly 10 seconds in sympathy and, unfortunately, inaudibility. Kieran’s nonplussed response somewhat ruined the poignancy of the moment. “Hello?”