The perils of stepping on Irish turf


RADIO REVIEW:DURING THE 1970s, Frank Kelly wrote and recorded a series of sketches for The Glen Abbey Show on RTÉ radio which brilliantly captured the perils that awaited British broadcasters who ventured into deepest rural Ireland.

Each week, Kelly’s plummy-voiced English presenter visited the fictional townland of Ballykilferret, “in the Republic of Eire”, to learn about country life from local resident Gobnait O’Lunacy. Part cute hoor, part feckless waster, O’Lunacy would spin tales of arcane native rituals, such as watching the bacon-slicer, for the benefit of the gullible reporter.

The spectre of O’Lunacy and his wide-eyed guest loomed large last week when British magazine show Open Country (BBC Radio 4, Thursday and Saturday) investigated a subject that has proved bafflingly contentious to many people here, never mind curious outsiders: the conflict over Ireland’s boglands. Travelling around the midlands, reporter Helen Mark initially uncovered the historical importance of our peatlands, from ancient wooden trackways that criss-cross some bogs to the sacrificial victims buried there. This was interesting but potentially blinkered fare, benignly absorbed in the landscape’s past while ignoring the present-day dispute over the ban on turf-cutting in certain EU-designated sites.

Eventually, however, the current controversy obliquely emerged into view. Dr Craig Bullock of UCD spoke wistfully of the serenity and wildness of the boglands, but acknowledged that for many local residents this landscape was bound up with the more practical traditions of cutting the sod. “I would see it as an aesthetic thing or environmental resource, while others would see it as cultural or economic resource,” said Bullock.

Having established the storied past and ecological significance of these lands, Mark heard from Seamus Boland, whose family have long hewn peat at the raised bog in Clara, Co Offaly. Boland described the area as “one of the most unique bogs in the world” but admitted that “we didn’t realise it ourselves”. He recalled the dismissive local attitude when wildlife broadcaster David Bellamy appeared on The Late Late Show in the 1980s to decry the damage done by turf-cutting. It was only recently that people there had “faced up to the fact” that they had such a precious resource, agreeing to source peat in another nearby bog. “That’s the road we have to travel,” said Boland, who admitted to previously making “embarrassing” statements that he would go to jail rather than forgo his traditional rights.

Far from being patronising, Mark’s story had a depth of information and unhurried inquisitiveness missing in much of the more confrontationally- pitched Irish radio coverage of the issue.

Conflicting attitudes were also on display on The Green Room (Newstalk, Monday), though in this case the opposing outlooks were held by the one person, Terence Davies. The English filmmaker spoke frankly to presenter Orla Barry about the grim childhood

that inspired his bleak 1988 classic Distant Voices, Still Lives, from his “psychotic and very, very violent” father to the family wounds reopened by his film.

But the most interesting aspect of the conversation came when Davies spoke about the lasting influence of his religious upbringing, despite now being a non-believer. When Barry asked her guest if he appreciated critical acclaim, he said yes but added that “being a lapsed Catholic, I feel I’ll fall into the sin of pride”.

Prodded by the host, Davies described how being brought up as a Catholic in “basically Protestant” England led to a siege mentality of righteousness that he had not completely shaken. “Once those things are put into you as a child, you never get rid of them.”

It was a good example of how illuminating insights can unexpectedly emerge at the hands of an underused presenter who combines easy charm with supplely gauged questions.

Such adroitness was missing in Irish Pictorial Weekly (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday), a new sketch show which falls short of the skewed satire it so obviously aspires to. Produced by Hugh Ormond and performed by a variety of acclaimed comic talents, including Barry Murphy and Gary Cooke of Après Match fame, the programme steers clear of the sledgehammer wit that marks Oliver Callan’s Nob Nation and Green Tea franchises.

But in taking a more leftfield approach, the show largely forgoes jokes altogether, leaving the often ropey celebrity impressions exposed.

A running gag about sportscaster Des Cahill hosting a homecoming reception for the signatories of the Anglo-Irish Treaty quickly ran out of steam, as did a sequence about Tom McGurk hosting Liveline. There were some smart moments – a sketch intercutting a fictional Denis O’Brien answering trite questions from the real-life Miriam O’Callaghan was quietly devastating – but the lack of bite compounded the show’s underlying air of smugness and fatal dearth of humour.

Those seeking subtle irony and wit would do better to seek out Frank Kelly’s vintage gems.

Radio moment of the week

Sean Moncrieff (Moncrieff, Newstalk, weekdays) displayed his perceptive drollness when he spoke to historian Caroline Shenton about the fire that gutted the British Houses of Parliament in 1834. “I’m sorry to say some people did blame the Irish,” said Shenton. “You don’t have to apologise,” said Moncrieff. “Half the people listening will be delighted.”

Sadly, he was probably correct.

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