It’s that time of year, when a wise old man seeks to bring happiness to children, while checking to see who’s on his naughty list. Yes, Sean O’Rourke spends much of the week trying to prevent a nightmare before Christmas for the nation’s pre-schoolers. And while O’Rourke doesn’t bring gifts to kids around the world, is conspicuously beardless and, to be fair, isn’t really that old, in his coverage of the crises enveloping the childcare sector, he’s keen to discover who are the bold boys and girls responsible for the mess.
On Tuesday's programme (Today with Sean O'Rourke, RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), the host starts by looking at one worrying development in the childcare industry – a supposedly high number of creches at risk, as reported on the RTÉ1 television programme Claire Byrne Live – but ends up exploring a more prosaically pressing threat. O'Rourke interviews Bernard Gloster, CEO of family agency Tusla, to discover why an internal document appears to say one in four creches isn't compliant with regulations, with hundreds rated as category "red".
It’s an alarming statistic, particularly given recently revelations about low standards in some nurseries. But Gloster seeks to calm fears , as much with his bureaucratic jargon as with explanations. He clarifies that the document is not, in fact, a secret list of negligent timebombs but rather “an internal scheduling tool”. O’Rourke cuts through the technicalities for the lay listener, noting the issue is that many just haven’t been inspected for some time. Not ideal, but not the scare story for parents that it first appears.
If Gloster thinks he’s escaped without being thrown on the O’Rourke grill pan, he’s mistaken. The host asks about the high number of childcare providers struggling to find insurance cover, noting one Dublin facility has just announced its closure. When his guest responds by offering sympathy to parents and workers, O’Rourke responds tartly: “They don’t want sympathy as much as action.” Gloster can only reply that his agency is powerless when it comes to the insurance industry.
It’s a refrain that’s become all too common in discussions on key sectors in Ireland, from motoring to childcare. It’s echoed by O’Rourke’s next guest, Elaine Dunne of the Federation of Early Childcare Providers, who claims that many facilities are at risk of closure on January 1st if they cannot get cover from the single remaining insurer in Ireland. “People are so tired, they’re angry, they’re frustrated,” Dunne says, adding succinctly that if creches can’t open in the new year, “the whole country is snookered”.
O’Rourke revisits the story on Wednesday. He hears from two creche owners and Frances Byrne of Early Childhood Ireland, another representative body in a sector which, to the casual listener, seems to possess a Judean People’s Front-esque panoply of organisations. Indeed, as the three guests talk over each other, O’Rourke resembles a harassed kindergarten teacher trying to control unruly charges. At any rate, Byrne relays the good news that a mere 400 or so creches don’t yet have insurance quotes. Admittedly, some other creches have quotes three times their previous amount.
All in all, there’s not much Christmas cheer for worried parents and fearful workers. But if O’Rourke may not quite be Santa, there’s no doubt that the insurance industry is the Grinch of the piece.
It's not all gloom. A tonic comes in the form of O'Rourke's conversation with author and Irish Times columnist Michael Harding, who covers topics from mortality and religion to the good value of charity shops. Harding claims to be "terrified" at the prospect of being interviewed by his host: "It's like sitting outside the principal's office," he says. He need not worry, for O'Rourke sounds enthralled by Harding's company, as the writer rhapsodises about finding the "universality of religion" in everyday life.
Such talk prompts one texter to dub Harding a “communist” for ignoring God, a charge he refutes by reframing the message of Christmas. Speaking quietly but firmly, Harding says this is a season when we celebrate Christ, “the ordinary, poor, human child of a refugee – if you don’t see God there, you can stop talking about God.” O’Rourke, ever alive to the heart of an issue, concurs. “There’s nothing to add there.” In a time of uncertainty and stress, it’s a welcome outbreak of Christmas spirit.
A spirit of generosity runs through the new iteration of The Book Show (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday), as host Rick O’Shea welcomes all authors into his literary tent, no matter what genre, nationality or indeed day job. The first programme in the series, two weeks ago, features an interview with Blindboy Boatclub, the provocative Limerick rapper, comedian, YouTuber and author: thoughtful and entertaining though he is, Blindboy hardly needs another media platform, particularly when many writers struggle to be heard.
But last week's episode is more on point. O'Shea interviews US novelist Elizabeth Strout about her writing process, her career path and her most famous creation, Olive Kitteridge: the conversation has admirable brevity, whilst being amiable and enlightening. O'Shea, whose voice is so smooth that to call it honeyed is to ascribe it a harsh astringency, also meets Irish novelist Eithne Shortall, who fields pre-recorded questions from members of the Between the Sheets book club, a saucy name that causes much good-natured mirth for host and guest. But the segment, along with O'Shea's easygoing, affably well-read manner, also emphasises the show's core message, that books are not an elitist pursuit, but something everyone should enjoy. Reading, like listening, is for life, not just for Christmas.
Radio Moment of the Week: Kelly remembers Arty
On Wednesday evening, John Kelly opens Mystery Train (Lyric, Sunday-Thursday) with an evocative guitar instrumental, before speaking with uncharacteristic hesitancy. "There's nothing worse when you're about to start a radio programme and somebody sends you a message that you don't want to get," he says. "Very sad news, Arty McGlynn has passed away." Audibly moved by the death of the influential Irish guitarist, Kelly continues, "Arty's an old friend, a legend, and one of the great musicians." He then plays another McGlynn track, this time featuring their mutual friend, the late singer David Hammond. "Two legends," a melancholy Kelly notes. It's a reminder how bittersweet this time of year can be for so many people, but it's a heartfelt tribute to a wonderful artist.