Leo Varadkar: ‘There’s racism and homophobia. But I’m a big boy, I can take it’

Radio review: ‘Do you think I’m aloof?’ the Taoiseach asks a baffled Sean O’Rourke

Historically, July and August have been referred to in news media circles as “silly season” (or, curiously enough, as “cucumber time”).

Government officials take their buckets and spades to the beach, and the dog days of summer are said to be marked with news stories that run a gamut from the sublime to the frivolous. Of course, the very idea of silly season is with O’Leary in the grave in the current political and social climate – or at least has shape-shifted to become even sillier.

Before Leo Varadkar gets to enjoy his lengthy summer recess, there was just enough time for Sean O'Rourke to flex his considerable muscle as a presenter with one final interrogative squeeze (Today with Sean O'Rourke, RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). It's been noted many times over, not least in this column, that O'Rourke is one of the station's strongest, most focused and most tenacious interviewers. Certainly, he's fond of getting right to the point and often leaving the person on the other side of the microphone flummoxed and, occasionally, flailing. There have been notable successes, all of them delicious and meaty radio moments: Mary McAleese, Gavin Duffy and, more recently, Maria Bailey.

And so to An Taoiseach, where there were many, many issues to chew the cud over during a half-hour item: Brexit, Maria Bailey, Trump, Lisa Smith, the CervicalCheck controversy, corporation tax, the budget, housing, Diarmuid Martin, the general election . . . The item has “potential viral moment” written all over it.


Fawning niceties

While keeping the tone amiable and conversational, O’Rourke did away with the fawning niceties and ticked each topic off with admirable vim. Yet anyone seeking snark, roaring, gladiatorial theatre, or general histrionics, was left wanting.

“I don’t expect you to tell me . . .” O’Rourke is fond of saying, and in this instance it became a very efficient tool with which to broach the hard questions.

As one might expect from a political leader, Varadkar is positively drenched in the oily cologne of spin. Even under O’Rourke’s short leash, Varadkar was somehow able to turn this state-of-the-nation dispatch into something resembling a fireside chat. The right diplomatic takes and buzz-phrases were delivered in a monotonous wheeze, with little room for off-the-cuff ad-libbing.

But half an hour can sometimes be a long time in radio. Perhaps even longer on O’Rourke’s show.

On the issue of Trump’s recent racist comments that four US congresswomen of colour should “go home”, Varadkar wouldn’t be drawn into calling out the US president.

Have you seen my Twitter account? There's plenty of racism and homophobia there. But I'm a big boy, I can take it

“It has the hallmarks of racism, but I’m not calling Trump a racist by any means . . .” he noted, when perhaps this was exactly the time when he should have.

“Has anyone said, ‘Varadkar, go back to where you came from’?” asks O’Rourke.

A beat of silence. “Have you seen my Twitter account?” comes the reply. “There’s plenty of racism and homophobia there. But I’m a big boy, I can take it.”

Quickfire round

He could certainly take O’Rourke’s quickfire round, but the encounter smacks of a missed opportunity – one of many, it should be said – to present the off-script, and more authentic version, of himself. “Do you think I’m aloof?” he asked O’Rourke at one point, seemingly baffled that anyone would even think as much. No doubt his Twitter mentions will bring him up to speed on that one in due course.

An hour previously, on the very same station, Ryan Tubridy's reunion with young GAA savant Michael O'Brien offered a welcome gear change (The Ryan Tubridy Show, RTÉ 1, weekdays). The 11-year-old is familiar to Late Late Toy Show viewers as the visually impaired book reviewer who lost his cool in the most delightful way when he met his hero, Davy Fitzgerald. Michael's charm and enthusiasm hasn't waned in the intervening months, and TV bosses have certainly seen something special in the youngster, as a documentary, When Michael Met Davy, will air on RTÉ One in August. Yet something in this particular radio item, which really should have been an unbridled delight, falls flat. Referring to his visual impairment, Tubridy ventures, "are you blind-blind?", which strikes this listener as a bit, well, tone-deaf.

The Australian-born presenter is wily enough to stuff her slot with bangers and floor-fillers galore

It's not all doom and gloom for the dog days of summer; on Lunchtime Live (Newstalk, weekdays), Ciara Kelly makes a decent fist of putting some meat on the bones of such burning questions as "do you waste water?" ; "are two time zones in Ireland a possibility?"; and "cooking the perfect chicken".

Pedestrian issue

Nearing two years in the slot once held by George Hook, Kelly is moving from strength to strength as a presenter, able to weave between the weighty and the ridiculous. On an item on water wastage and leaks in the Irish water system, Kelly helms a handful of listeners and manages to make a rather pedestrian issue sound vaguely appealing. Not as easy as it sounds.

Speaking of relative newcomers, 2FM's Tara Stewart is the lucky beneficiary of the 7pm slot in the station's latest musical chairs fandango (RTÉ 2fm, Sunday to Thursday). The Australian-born presenter is wily enough to stuff her slot with bangers and floor-fillers galore, all of which nicely offset her own endearing energy and enthusiasm. I would say to expect great things from Stewart in a daytime slot in the future, but, given the dust kicked up recently, perhaps 2FM is done with the schedule-shuffling for the time being. Just a hunch.

Radio moment of the week: Mining Myles’s archive

Known to his mother as Brian O'Nolan, the novelist who became Flann O'Brien (and, in turn, the satirist Myles na gCopaleen) is the subject of The Lyric Feature – Bones Of Contention (Lyric FM, Sunday). O'Brien's life and prolific output is a rich seam to mine, and it would be near-impossible to make his story anything less than absorbing. The 50-minute item occasionally loses its way in the pursuit of historical authenticity but, in the main, this docudrama – a mix of dramatisations and interviews with writers and historians – is vivid, enlightening and informative in spades.