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Unapologetic, unrepentant and scornful, Seán Moncrieff hits his stride

Radio: The host’s off-beam but engaging broadcasting style has seen him become Newstalk’s most durable fixture

For anyone wondering why the inhabitants of this island seem incapable of giving a straight answer to a simple question, Seán Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays) is here to provide some clues. “Do Irish people ever say what they mean?” Moncrieff asks on Wednesday. Not very often, it would seem. “We tend to use it to obscure meaning as much as transmit it,” he says of our Hiberno-Irish vernacular, not without pride.

Maybe so, but the host’s discussion with a University of Limerick academic named Gail Flanagan is illuminating in another way. It’s a good example of the broadcasting style that has seen Moncrieff become Newstalk’s most durable yet, paradoxically, flexible fixture. It’s the kind of off-beam, boffinish topic that allows him to indulge his wide frame of reference and knowing style. (Indeed, the item is a throwback to his regular lexicography slot with the late Hiberno-Irish scholar Terry Dolan.) There’s a lot of enjoyably useless information interspersed with perceptive observations. With so many Irish people having come from small communities, host and guest agree, there’s an aversion to straight talking here, lest it cause offence. “We say sorry about everything,” Moncrieff notes.

‘Good man, showing your defiance to something that wasn’t said,’ Seán Moncrieff comments scornfully to one texter

Well, not everything. Moncrieff (who also contributes a column to The Irish Times) can be unapologetic when he feels like it. On Tuesday he speaks to the environmental journalist George Monbiot about “precision fermentation”, a form of brewing capable of producing protein-rich meat substitutes. Monbiot sees this as “potentially revolutionary”, not only because it can create a cheap and effective foodstuff but also because it could spell the end of animal farming, “the best thing we could ever do for the living planet”. It’s a stimulating exchange, with Moncrieff asking smart questions and his guest explaining the practicalities of what seems a somewhat utopian aspiration: Monbiot says meatless steak substitutes are indistinguishable from the real thing, though, as a vegan, his judgment may be slightly skewed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the item attracts blowback, such as from a texter who complains (erroneously) that Monbiot wants to hand food production to multinationals. “Good man, showing your defiance to something that wasn’t said,” Moncrieff comments scornfully. When another listener bemoans the prospect of a world without meat or dairy, an exasperated Moncrieff points to the alternative of catastrophic climate change: “Do you want to live in that world?” Apart from a slightly rueful admission that he’s a carnivore himself, Moncrieff is unrepentant in his views: in this case, at least, he means what he says.


The fractious interface between environmental activism and agricultural practice also comes under the spotlight on Countrywide (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday), as its new presenter, Philip Boucher-Hayes, covers the recently concluded citizens’ assembly on biodiversity loss. Wait, what? On the face of it, that such green-hued issues should feature on the rural-affairs magazine so soon into Boucher-Hayes’s tenure seems designed to raise the hackles of the show’s core listenership.

Whereas Damien O’Reilly, its Brussels-bound former host, provided a reliably sympathetic ear to farmers’ fears, Boucher-Hayes is known for his climate-action series Hot Mess (RTÉ Radio 1, Monday), which forensically documents the impact of global warming. Given that the phrase “green agenda” counts as gross profanity in many agricultural circles, for a broadcaster of such pedigree to discuss the suspiciously metropolitan concept of biodiversity on a rare bastion of rural-oriented programming seems as provocative as, well, a vegan discussing the merits of steak. Boucher-Hayes’s ominous intro does little to dissuade this assumption. “We are going to begin with nothing less than the future of agriculture in Ireland,” he portentously intones.

But fears of Countrywide going full Eamon Ryan prove premature. Boucher-Hayes visits a Galway farmer named Pat Joyce, a member of the assembly, to discover what the body’s proposals might mean for the agricultural community. Joyce admits some colleagues were sceptical about his participation but thinks the sector will play a pivotal role in future developments. “A lot of farmers don’t know what biodiversity is, but they understand nature,” he says.

Under Philip Boucher-Hayes, its new incumbent, Countrywide appears more attuned to ground-level sustainability than the realpolitik of agribusiness

It’s a clear-eyed but gently encouraging report. Joyce is wary about media portrayals of his vocation – “Farming has become a dirty word” – but he’s equally keen to restore biodiversity, literally at grass-roots level. And if Boucher-Hayes can sometimes come across as elevated in tone – he’s unmistakably a big-picture guy – he’s astute and forthright in his questions. Initial impressions notwithstanding, he’s also alive to the concerns of his audience. Interviewing the chairwoman of the citizens’ assembly, Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, he pointedly asks if the exercise will end up as farmers being told what to do by the rest of the country.

In fairness, last week’s show is something of an outlier in content: the previous edition had Boucher-Hayes covering more conventional rural-themed fare, from the avian-flu outbreak to an interview with Minister of State for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Pippa Hackett. Even so, under its new incumbent, Countrywide appears more attuned to ground-level sustainability than to the realpolitik of agribusiness.

The programme also carries a report by Della Kilroy from a community garden in Cork, where local residents originally from the likes of Kenya and Congo – some of whom live in direct provision – are growing the kind of produce they would have eaten in their native land. This seems a long way from Tuam farmers, but it nonetheless points to a potential shared future.

Speaking to Donal McCormack of Community Gardens Ireland, Boucher-Hayes hears how Ireland is out of step with European neighbours in local horticultural projects; there are about 2,500 allotments here, compared with 40,000 in similarly sized Denmark. To those dealing in the hard practicalities of farming, these gardens might seem like mere bagatelles, but the host knows that such projects might be vital players in food security. “With supply-chain disruptions down the line, growing your own is no-brainer,” Boucher-Hayes concludes. In this light, broadening Countrywide’s remit makes sense: we could all be farmers soon.