Today with Claire Byrne can sound more like a Dáil committee than a flagship radio show

Radio: She’s an assured interrogator of current affairs, but a certain stolidity creeps in

What with the state of the world right now, it’s understandable to yearn for the certainties of the past. But for anyone wistfully harking back to the way things were, Today with Claire Byrne (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) provides a cautionary note, as the host discusses our propensity for nostalgia with Dr Harry Barry.

“Our memories are totally inaccurate,” Barry says bluntly, “We create these ideas in our mind, but if we really seriously examine them, an awful lot of them are false.”

On the face of it, this is a pretty bleak proposition, implying the personal histories by which we define ourselves are built on shaky foundations. But it’s actually an upbeat item. Barry thinks that nostalgia, with its tendency to filter out negative experiences, helps people be more optimistic and “realise how fortunate we are in life”.

Byrne’s other guest, Dr Ann-Marie Creaven, is slightly more circumspect about the virtues of “remembering events more favourably than they were”, but still sees it as beneficial. With so many cherished memories involving the “social context” of family and friends, Creaven suggests that “nostalgia can reinforce our social relationships”.

Faced with this unexpected outbreak of positivity, the host tries to tamp down the mood, sounding doubt on the “halo effect” of nostalgia. But by the end, even Byrne is so buoyed that she glides over Barry’s alarming assertion about the fallibility of memory.

Either way, it’s a stimulating segment on a show which could do with a bit more vim. In her helming of the mid-morning slot, Byrne has underscored her reputation as an assured interrogator of current affairs, but a certain stolidity can creep into proceedings. Her unwaveringly steady manner means that the on-air atmosphere can sound more akin to a Dáil committee session than a flagship show on prime time radio.

Listener’s attention

Interviewing Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman over the government’s hastily-arranged apology on illegal adoptions, the host asks all the right questions, but it sounds flat. Of course, in the era of fake news, an unruffled pursuit of the facts is both commendable and crucial. But aside from the grimly arresting reports out of Ukraine, the host’s approach to news items doesn’t always hold the listener’s attention.

Things are better when Byrne deals with less -covered topics, such as displaced Ukrainian children arriving in Irish schools. Co Cork primary school principal Siobhan Buckley outlines the challenges of integrating 24 new pupils from emergency accommodation in nearby Millstreet Arena into a student body of 200, starkly describing the “separation anxiety” initially felt by the refugee children.

These difficulties are exacerbated by language obstacles, with Buckley saying more state help is needed: using translation apps and local Ukrainian residents to communicate with students unsurprisingly has its limits. Even so, as Byrne probes both the social impact and the human aspect of the issue, a cautiously sanguine mood emerges.

“It’s amazing how well they have adapted,” Buckley says of her new charges, while attesting to their parents’ ambition for their children. It’s a welcome glint of hope in a dark situation.

Such stories keep Byrne’s show interesting, as do quirkier items such as her conversation with Dr Niamh Roche of Bat Conversation Ireland about the nocturnal flying mammals. At once engrossing and plain gross, the discussion has tips on how to ascertain if you have bats in the attics. Roche describes how their droppings turn to dust if squished: less batshit than dry auld shite, apparently.

Meanwhile, for all her unflappability, Byrne can’t hide her distaste for bats, as she recalls how one flew into her bedroom once: “I was hiding under the duvet,” she says, palpably squeamish at the memory. You don’t forget things like that.

There's little in the way of rosy remembrances of times past on Saturday, when Brendan O'Connor (RTÉ Radio 1, weekends) interviews Brian Kennedy. The Belfast singer candidly recounts his upbringing as a closeted gay teenager on the Falls Road at the height of the Troubles, remembering how he was beaten up "on a daily basis". But there's no wallowing in misery. Kennedy imbues his testimony with wry flourishes, as when he talks about sexuality in the conflict-ridden west Belfast of his youth: "You weren't even allowed to be heterosexual."

Charged questions

It all makes for skittishly enjoyable listening. O’Connor does his part by priming his guest with charged questions, whether inquiring about Kennedy’s strained relationship with his late singer brother Bap or wondering if there’s still “a narrative around being gay that it’s somehow a problem”. The host also coaxes his guest into giving a song, enthusing about his unaccompanied voice, which may be a polite way of saying he doesn’t like the MOR arrangements that have sometimes enveloped the singer’s recordings. Either way, the resulting performance is striking: whether in conversation or song, Kennedy has a decent set of pipes.

If O’Connor is deftly diplomatic with Kennedy, his more provocative persona is evident when he talks to comedian David McSavage about his current tour of Ukraine. “I’m tempted to be smart and say haven’t these people suffered enough,” O’Connor remarks.  McSavage, a reliably controversial figure himself, doesn’t take the bait, instead talking hesitantly about his desire to do something to help Ukrainians. But O’Connor can’t help poking his guest, asking if he feels like “a frivolous, unserious person” in a warzone or whether he’s following in the footsteps of his father, former foreign affairs minister David Andrews: “You’ve turned into a grotesque version of your father.” “That’s so sweet of you,” McSavage deadpans in response.

These exchanges are bracing, but it’s not all snark. McSavage talks about the toughness of the Ukrainian soldiers he’s met – “The Russians have picked on the wrong people” – and makes barbed gags about Ireland’s military capability: “We don’t have an army, we just have rebel singers.”

Moreover, he gets his own back on the host, expressing hope that O'Connor will replace Ryan Tubridy on The Late Late Show. "I put myself on the line to get you on, and you had to spoil it," says O'Connor, not sounding too upset, truth be told. So long as it's memorable, he probably doesn't mind.

Radio Moment of the Week

On Tuesday, Ryan Tubridy (RTÉ Radio 1) has an effortlessly enjoyable conversation with Simon Callow. The English actor and author talks with erudition and humour, sharing anecdotes about everyone from his mother to actors Charles Laughton and Micheál Mac Liammóir, as well as (full disclosure) my late father Seamus Heaney. But the best line comes when he describes filming a nude bathing scene in the 1985 film, A Room with a View. “It was a torture because the water was so cold,” says Callow, chuckling. “It resulted in the proof of the old axiom, there are no small actors, only small parts.” At least he doesn’t shrink from telling the truth.