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Joe Duffy needles Up the ’Ra songwriter about the ‘brutal’ song that made him ‘a bit rich’

Radio: The argument about the Wolfe Tones’ Celtic Symphony feels unsatisfying all around

The draw of Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) is the way it corrals opposing viewpoints together, sometimes resulting in sparks. When things get going, you want to pull out a box of popcorn and sit back to enjoy the spectacle. Joe Duffy is a confident ringmaster equally capable of handling a conversation with kid gloves or cracking his own whip. When it comes to a fractious discussion on Tuesday about the Up the ’Ra chant, however, this is the sort of radio that feels unsatisfying no matter what opinion you hold on the matter.

The week starts off more softly for the presenter. On Monday and the previous Friday, he opens the floor to callers who were refused breast-reduction surgery because of their BMI. It is a sensitive, empathetic conversation, with women revealing personal details on air. Duffy keeps a sympathetic and respectful tone and the callers are comfortable sharing their stories with him.

On Tuesday, though, Duffy goes head to head with the Wolfe Tones singer Brian Warfield over the line “up the ’Ra” in the band’s song Celtic Symphony, following criticism after fans sang the chant during their set at the Féile an Phobail festival in west Belfast on Sunday.

A Liveline caller is concerned about a Wolfe Tones concert due to take place at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick, near her house. She’s worried about the chant because of what she feels it promotes and because Garda Jerry McCabe’s widow lives in her neighbourhood; she also points out that she’s calling on the 25th anniversary of the Omagh bombing.


Brian Warfield is quickly on the phone but before he has a chance to talk, Duffy tells him, “You love this, don’t you? You’re a little bit rich because of all this.” This sets the tone for what follows. “I’m a little bit sick of all this nitpicking we get over the years,” Warfield retorts. He claims that unionists are jealous of the sold-out gig but Duffy wants to steer him away from that topic. “You’re not here to make more money, Brian. You’ve made enough out of that song,” Duffy says before proclaiming Celtic Symphony “brutal”.

The conversation devolves into three voices competing to be heard. When Warfield attempts to explain why he wrote the song, Duffy says he doesn’t want to hear that again, as it’s “all guff”. The presenter asks the singer to explain what Up the ’Ra means. “I think you’re intelligent enough to know that,” Warfield replies, adding that he originally saw the phrase on a wall. He also suggests, however, that people can take their own meaning from it – including that ’Ra refers to the Egyptian god.

There are moments of empathy – Duffy expresses concern about some of Warfield’s experiences during the Troubles – but there are also moments when all you can make out are Warfield’s allegations about “brown paper bags”. Towards the end of the slot, some Wolfe Tones fans call in to chastise Duffy for his approach.

As a Corkonian who was in her teens when the Belfast Agreement was signed, I want to pay close attention to the opinions of people with experience of the Troubles. Though it’s understandably impossible for this debate not to get personal, it deserves more room to breathe than it gets here. One claim frequently made around the Up the ’Ra chant is that young people “don’t know their history” – but if on-air debates immediately deteriorate into not-quite-shouting matches, what hope do they have of learning anything?

The same day, Joe Brolly talks to The Hard Shoulder (Newstalk, weekdays) about the same issue and he’s both frank and nuanced. “It’s not for me. Life’s too short for that song if you ask me,” Brolly tells Kieran Cuddihy. Initially, Brolly criticises Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice party, who called the Belfast event a “terror fest”. Brolly’s choice of words prompts Cuddihy to point out that Allister isn’t on the line to defend himself. Brolly goes on to explain both why people embrace the chant and why it’s problematic.

Though Brolly can be polemical, what’s most pertinent here is the way the Derry man is given the time to put the chant in its cultural and social context. He looks at it from several angles: why he understands the appeal of the chant, why it means different things to different generations, why he regards it as “a nuisance and a menace” and why it’s upsetting for the unionist community. Even if listeners don’t agree with him, they can get a full sense of his opinion, something that’s missing overall from the Liveline discussion.

Over on Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) on Tuesday, Peter O’Riordan highlights the horrifying impact of the recent deadly blaze on the Hawaiian island of Maui. His story has the feeling of a horror film. The former Xposé presenter was in Chicago when he “was awoken to this phone call of just somebody hysterical, screaming down the phone”. It was the mother of his children telling him that their house was gone and the family were fleeing.

O’Riordan eventually made it back to Maui. “It was as if somebody literally dropped a bomb on the west side of Maui and everything had been absolutely obliterated,” he says. “I’m talking dust.” He is now safe with his family, although they and many of his staff have lost everything. Chillingly, O’Riordan fears that the 1,000 people who are still missing have all died and that many children are among them. “These people had no warning whatsoever that this was coming,” he says. It’s an interview that brings the full force of a disaster 11,000km away right into Irish kitchens.