Turning on and off the stereotypes

RADIO REVIEW: IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE there could be a more irritating radio ad than those TV licence spots – the ones that go, “…

RADIO REVIEW:IT'S HARD TO BELIEVE there could be a more irritating radio ad than those TV licence spots – the ones that go, "There are several ways to pay your television licence; one of them is not by bombarding listeners with unfunny comedy skits," or variations on that lame theme. But the current Chooseradio.iecampaign, encouraging companies to advertise on the wireless, is making a strong claim to the crown.

If you have been spared these commercials so far, they feature an actor gamely mouthing Irish colloquialisms and characteristics in a variety of regional accents before delivering the punchline: “They’re the Irish, and they listen to the radio, more than anyone in the world.” Assuming they haven’t switched it off after hearing that advertisement, that is.

It’s not just the laboured caricatures, cliched copy or overlong duration that hobbles the ads. For all that the campaign aims to present the nation in all its diversity, it actually suggests that the radio industry’s understanding of Irishness – northside and southside Dubs, culchies and the odd nordie – is limited, a throwback to a homogenous country that no longer exists.

A better snapshot of contemporary Ireland was found on last week’s Documentary on One: Border Beliefs (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday), which vividly illustrated how the old certainties of Irish identity are being transformed by new influences. Produced and presented by Kevin McCann, the programme explored the growth of new religious communities in the Border counties. For many in this area of historic sectarian tensions, McCann said, “religion was an inherited identity more than a chosen spiritual path”, one that divided people. But now, he said, this was changing.


He visited a Baptist church in Cavan whose pastor, Ivan Watson, saw “at first hand how religion could be divisive” when growing up in Tyrone but whose children were now playing GAA, performing trad music and learning Irish. Ireland belonged to no one faith, Watson said: the country was “God’s land”.

Interesting as this was, it still traded in a familiar milieu of Catholic and Protestant interaction. More striking were the conversations McCann recorded on St Patrick’s Day in Cavan town, where he met residents from the Indian subcontinent whose creeds ranged from Hindu to Catholic and Pentecostal. What brought them together was participation in the town’s parade. It was an illuminating illustration of different influences being weaved into the fabric of everyday life.

The documentary had its self-conscious moments. After visiting a Hare Krishna commune on a Lough Erne island, McCann waxed lyrical. “I took in the setting sun and reflected on this place,” he mused. “What is it that attracts these religions to this land?”

The answer, he felt, was that the area was off the beaten track: “There is certainly something mysterious about this land.” Indeed.

Such flourishes were offset by more memorable vignettes. Spotting two Jehovah’s Witnesses doing the rounds on his estate, McCann greeted them at his door with a microphone, eliciting a discombobulated reaction more usually associated with the proselytisee than the proselytiser.

Border Beliefs did not suggest that the entire population of Cavan was about to don orange robes and chant mantras, but it was a heartening missive from a pluralistic Ireland unimaginable until only recently. Simone, a Celtic shaman, perhaps put it best. “There were some draconian attitudes in 1990,” she said. “Thank the gods, time has moved on.”

If some stereotypes were thus challenged last week, there were other instances where the protagonists appeared straight out of central casting.

Speaking to Marian Finucane (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday), Lisa Murphy sounded like a parody of D-list celebrity mores. Best known as the wife of the “celebrity solicitor” Gerald Kean, Murphy spoke breathlessly about her appearance on TV3’s reality show Dublin Housewives while insisting hers was not a gilded life. “The recession has hit all of us,” she said. “I’m not going out shopping; I’m working harder for less.”

For a moment it seemed as if Murphy was being set up as unwitting comic relief. That is not Finucane’s style, however. After a few minutes the presenter turned on the breezy empathy and, in the process, produced an interview that was strangely captivating.

Talking about her ex-boyfriend Michael Flatley, who wrote some unchivalrous remarks after their break-up, Murphy was quietly devastating when Finucane asked why he did it. “I suppose because I left, really. I wasn’t happy with a few things, and I decided it wasn’t for me.” Ouch.

She gave a harrowing account of the robbery at her home, during which she was threatened and tied up by four burglars, and talked about how, despite counselling, she gets nervous on her own. And she spoke about her late brother, recalling his life with palpable affection – he had special needs from an early age – and recounting his death in calm detail that was difficult to sit through.

Finucane could be accused of mining the seam of tragedy, but it made for undeniably poignant radio. As for those who see Murphy as little more than glam arm candy, she finished with a small act of defiance. Discussing the boob job she once got, she said she did it “to keep a man happy, and I do regret it”. “I wouldn’t recommend it,” she added.

As Murphy showed, you pigeonhole people at your peril.

Radio moment of the week

Having covered Ireland’s Euro 2012 soccer woes with typical irreverence and insight from Poland, it was only fitting that the team behind Off the Ball (Newstalk, Monday-Friday) should best sum up the Irish contribution to the tournament the day after the game against Italy. “The best fans in the world are gone,” said presenter Eoin McDevitt. “But the good football teams are still here.”

Mick Heaney

Mick Heaney

Mick Heaney is a radio columnist for The Irish Times and a regular contributor of Culture articles