Tony Holohan is that rarest of things: an Irish technocrat who ended up in the spotlight. Three years after becoming the face of Ireland’s response to Covid-19, the former chief medical officer has just published a memoir and, wending his way on the book promotion Yellow Brick Road, has arrived at Joe Duffy’s metaphysical interview show, The Meaning of Life (RTÉ One, Sunday, 10.30pm).
Duffy catches a lot of flak because of Liveline, the radio equivalent of everyone in a room shouting at once: it’s where Ireland goes to be angry at itself. But he’s empathetic and thoughtful presenting The Meaning of Life. That’s just as well as Holohan presents a particular challenge.
On the one hand, there is no doubting his personal courage in heading Ireland’s Covid response even as he lost his wife, Emer, to terminal illness. At the same time, he has become entangled in several controversies – the CervicalCheck scandal and the outcry over his postlockdown secondment to Trinity College Dublin (from which he subsequently withdrew).
Opposite Duffy, he’s chatty and amiable. As is often the case with individuals whom we usually see fielding questions at a podium, in person he’s different: more clubbable and outgoing. (I have a flashback to the time he wandered past me at a Fontaines DC gig, quietly bopping along to Boys in the Better Land.)
It is an interview of two halves. In the first, Duffy encourages Holohan to talk about his wife’s blood cancer and her final months and weeks. Holohan recalls a family dinner just before Covid: Emer was unwell, but he was distracted by reports of a mysterious new virus coming out of China. “I tried to ensure my own personal experience didn’t impact on how we did the job,” he says.
Holohan blinks away tears as he describes his family’s fears about Emer contracting Covid. “The thing that always kept me grounded was my own personal situation,” he says. “The risk of Emer going into the hospital.”
He laughs when Duffy mentions the cult of hero-worship that briefly sprang up around him. Duffy references graffiti depicting Holohan as Superman. The former CMO chuckles. “That will change,” he recalls telling his team at the time. He remembers someone saying of him, “That man will never pay for a pint again.” As the lockdowns went on, the consensus turned to, “That man will never get into a pub again.” He shrugs: “I’m not surprised at that – people became frustrated.”
In part two, Duffy takes off the gloves and turns to CervicalCheck and that controversial Trinity gig, which, it turned out, didn’t receive the required sign-off. (Holohan says he was told everything was in order.)
This isn’t Jeremy Paxman on Prime Time – or even Fran McNulty on Newsnight – and Duffy doesn’t unduly pummel his guest. He does land one pertinent question, however: why does every health scandal in Ireland invariably involve the care of women? “There’s no single explanation, “says Holohan. “The profession was perhaps too paternalist.”
After the many controversies that have rocked the Irish health system, should Duffy have pressed him harder? The answer is probably no – flensing interrogation isn’t what The Meaning of Life is about. Within the show’s framework, this fascinating conversation instead confirms Holohan to be an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances.