Marooned – An Irishwoman’s Diary on what ‘Desert Island Discs’ teaches us about celebrities

Thanks to the wonder of podcasts, we can listen back to hundreds of archived episodes of ‘Desert Island Discs’

Thanks to the wonder of podcasts, we can listen back to hundreds of archived episodes of ‘Desert Island Discs’


It’s a little known fact that some of the best ideas come when you are in your pyjamas. Back in 1941, broadcaster Roy Plomley was pottering around in his pyjamas when an idea came to him. Wouldn’t it be interesting to ask a well-known person to select eight gramophone records they would take if they were cast away on a desert island?

He immediately wrote to the BBC to propose the programme, and Desert Island Discs was born. Sadly, the plummy tones of BBC Radio 4 never entered our rural home where the radio dial was permanently tuned to RTÉ Radio for Harbour Hotel, Dear Frankie, Farm Diary and Mo Cheol Thú.

But thanks to the wonder of podcasts, we can listen back to hundreds of archived episodes of the programme. Recently, Desert Island Discs podcasts became the perfect travelling companion as I began to pound the country roads in a bid to find my missing waist – last seen circa 2005.


Actor, writer and director Kathy Burke told how her mother died of cancer before she was two. Her father was an alcoholic and she recalled the countless times he would fall and crack his head open. Before he died he told her how he had rescued his mother after she had attempted suicide. She was placed in the local mental institution and he never saw her again.

Comedian Johnny Vegas told interviewer Kirsty Young how he came home from school to find his pet rabbit skinned and hanging up in preparation for dinner.

His father had been laid off work and may have been in the throes of some sort of breakdown at the time.

Comedian and broadcaster Ruby Wax grew up in a highly dysfunctional household, the only child of an obsessive compulsive mother who covered every available surface in plastic and a father who was a strict and violent, disciplinarian who constantly disparaged her.

Then there was retail consultant and broadcaster Mary Portas, whose mother died from meningitis when Mary was 16, leaving five children. Her father quickly remarried, moved out and put the family home up for sale, effectively leaving her and her younger brother homeless. When her father died of a heart attack not long after, he left everything to their stepmother.

One of the most fascinating interviews was with the redoubtable author and adventurer Dervla Murphy, who had her share of hardship before she began her life of travel. Her mother became an invalid at the age of 24 and Dervla left school to care for her. She had planned to travel the world but as an only child, she had to park her dreams and suffer years of broken sleep as she rose several times a night to aid her mother.

“I thought of putting an end to her . . . if it had gone up for another three, four, five years I might well have done,” she said candidly.

As soon her mother died, she carried out her childhood dream and cycled to India.

She got three ribs broken in a brawl on an Indian bus, was set upon by wolves, fought off an amorous Kurd and loved every moment of the adventure.

The inveterate traveller said rat intestine was not her worst meal. That award went to a dish in Cameroon. “I can’t remember what they call it but it’s made of guts of fish, it’s a sort of yellow, grey, brown colour and it is repulsive beyond any possibility of describing.”

After listing to so many stories of hardship and adversity I chanced upon Morrissey’s interview. The tortured troubadour and king of misery must surely have had an horrifically tragic upbringing? Actually no, or if he did have a sack of sad stories, he didn’t share them with Desert Island Discs. “I was raised very firmly, not roughly but very firmly,” was all he said.

But the pope of mope did not disappoint with his relentlessly bleak world view. “Everyone dies screaming,” he said morosely before toying with the idea of bringing a bag of sleeping pills to the desert island “because I might want to make a quick exit”.

When asked if his early Catholic upbringing had provided comfort, he declared “nothing comforts me at all. I think the world is a mesmerising mess. I think human beings are mesmerising messes”.

Perhaps he should try following in the bicycle tracks of Dervla Murphy? Three months wearing the same body lice-infested clothes in minus 40 degrees in the Himalayas might help identify what truly gives him comfort. At the very least, we’d get a good song out of it. “Everyday is Lice Sunday” anyone? Or what about “Heaven Knows I’m Itchy Now”?