Wandering stars


RADIO REVIEW:THE SECOND instalment of Come All You Loyal Travellers(Lyric FM, Saturday) featured Mikeen McCarthy, who was born in 1931 in Cahirciveen into a family with a horse-drawn caravan.

He was discovered singing hunched in the corner of a pub in west London in 1975 by Pat McKenzie and Jim Carroll, who collected songs from Irish Travellers there, and now lives on their recordings of him and in this, Paula Carroll's wonderfully evocative radio documentary.

Mikeen's is a wistful story about the Irish diaspora, but it also reminds us that we were once a less suspicious, more homogenous people. It takes us back to a time when people in rural Ireland used to down tools when Travellers rolled into town on horseback and, if they deigned to sleep inside a house, put them up too. Mikeen would sell ballad sheets. He'd go to a local printer, recite the song, the printer would write it down, then print off the copies. Oh, he surely was grand.

Aside from being a tinsmith, he was also a chimney sweep ("You'd have to wash yourself 20 times a day or leave it for a week," Mikeen said), sold holly, cotton, linen and holy pictures; was a horse and donkey dealer; made tables and chairs; picked blackberries. He was not afraid of hard work.

Mikeen emigrated to England in the 1950s when the trades dried up. When he got off the boat in Wales with his horses, he asked a policeman, "Which way to Birmingham?"

In a pub once, a man put a pound in Mikeen's pocket every time he sang The Blind Beggar's Daughter,which dates back to 1672. "Would you sing it again?" the man asked him. "I'd sing it till morning if you like," Mikeen replied. That song starts: "Oh, there once been an old man who a long time was blind/He reared one only daughter of a low degree/And the first came to court her was a captain from sea/He courted lovely Betsy . . ." That night, he made six pounds.

Pat recalled: "Every year Mikeen would say, 'Come April I'll up and I'll go back to Ireland.' And he never did." Mikeen died in 2004. His crackled voice haunted the last moments: "I'm a Traveller man on the road, a tinker, a gypsy, we all have different names, but what's important to me now is a good lorry, a good trailer, my children happy, my wife happy, and myself. That's my life. That's all I have to look forward to and I would never care to look forward to anything else."

On RTÉ Radio One, Pat Kenny is back to fill the leather uppers Myles Dungan left behind. If only we could morph them into one superhuman broadcaster.

Joe Duffy is not yet back on the mat. Damien O'Reilly was a likely young pretender for Liveline, but as for Derek Davis's time in the hot seat? Don't let the door hit you on the way out! Livelineis a peculiar beast. It requires an "SSS" cocktail of sensationalism, sharpness and sensitivity. Loafers not so easily filled.

Another song man with a wandering spirit is Tom Dunne, whose new breakfast show, Tom Dunne(Newstalk 106-108, weekdays) is a breath of fresh air. Before his departure from Today FM, his former colleague Ray Foley was telling funny fake stories about the real Tom Dunne, saying he once left the offices in a "puppy-flavoured blood bath". Well, Tommy Boy is proving himself to be as much a cheerful chappy here. No need to lock up your puppies quite yet.

So this is what Newstalk has been missing: music. And, of course, Tom, who sounds like an innocent in a hard world. "It's the first day of September and I find the winters fantastically mild," he pondered on Monday. If he were more relaxed, he'd be broadcasting in long johns and sleeping cap from bed.

There was talk about confirmed bachelors, Big Macs and central heating systems. "We got through our first day of school and nobody is dead or injured," he chimed.

There was talk about what song Tom would play first. "I thought the Sex Pistols would frighten you at this hour of the morning so I thought Gobbledigookby Sigur Rós." It was lovely.

Inevitably, he accidentally mentioned another station, but was relieved to get it over within the first 10 minutes of Monday's show. That's nothing. He told Professor Ian Robertson of Trinity College, "I once forgot my own wife's name in a moment of terror." This must be a doddle after that.

We're touching base with Tom as a courtesy, as it's his first week in the saddle. He has a brand to build, loyal listeners to win over from Gerry Ryan and Ray D'Arcy, who both have three-hour marathon shows from nine to 12, a few of Ryan Tubridy's nine-to-10 crowd, and probably more to generate. No pressure. He has a way to travel, not quite as long as Mikeen McCarthy, but a long way all the same. In his favour, he is himself on the radio. Not as common or easy as it sounds.

Still, the way Newstalk goes through presenters, it wouldn't hurt to keep a few bags of blackberries and ballad sheets in a drawer in his desk. Just in case.