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Brendan O’Connor brings his contrary streak to a cosy conversation about immigration

Radio: Even at his most factually minded, the RTÉ presenter can’t resist being mischievous

A man who knows his own mind in print, Brendan O’Connor (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday) is less forthcoming as a broadcaster, more moderate even. But he still finds ways to challenge and provoke when the opportunity arises, as demonstrated during Sunday’s newspaper panel. Discussing the Anglo-Irish spat over asylum seekers, the broadcaster Wendy Grace says only a minority of the population have a “fear factor” towards immigrants, prompting a rejoinder from O’Connor.

“We might not like it, but in polls that are done, it does seem that a majority of people think there needs to be tighter migration, that there are too many migrants,” he says. “It’s not just the so-called far right.” In pointing out these recent shifts in public opinion by way of corrective to his guest’s statement, the host, a long-time newspaper columnist, displays journalistic rigour and balance. But his deployment of a doubtful caveat in his description of the extreme right isn’t as clear-cut, either healthily sceptical or overly indulgent, depending on one’s view.

Such moments show O’Connor’s contrary streak but also highlight his ability to keep the pot bubbling even as he keeps guests on track. Even at his most factually minded he can’t resist his mischievous side. After his laudably in-depth if legalese-heavy interview about the international protection process with the barrister Sunniva McDonagh, the presenter quips: “Right, everyone clear now?”

If O’Connor is in puckish form, it’s maybe because he senses his panel’s conversation about immigration is, despite the charged topic, too harmonious.


The mood grows more anxious when talk turns to overcrowding in the health service, possibly because it affects everyone directly. One consultant, Dr Mick Molloy, recalls spending four days on a trolley in an emergency department last year, his medical credentials useless when it came to getting a hospital bed. “It’s a very efficient form of torture, because you can’t sleep,” Molloy says, adding that the solution to the trolley crisis is, well, more beds. It’s a notable contribution, marrying professional expertise with personal experience as a patient.

Saturday’s edition provides the platform for O’Connor’s interviewing skills, as he speaks to Salman Rushdie about the author’s near-fatal stabbing two years ago. Having written a new book about the incident, Rushdie requires little encouragement to revisit it: “I could see this enormous and increasing lake of blood all around me,” he says. “I thought quite matter of factly this is probably it.”

If Rushdie is naturally loquacious, O’Connor’s irreverent observations add to the open atmosphere of the encounter. When his guest says there was no “tunnel of light” as he lay near death, the host remarks, with a chuckle, “The people on the other side knew you were an atheist.” On the other hand, when Rushdie says the whole experience has made him a gentler character, O’Connor is candid about his own instinctive reaction: “I think I’d be much angrier and more bitter than you are.” It all makes for an absorbing item, emphasising that, when he’s on form, O’Connor is arguably the most accomplished interviewer on Radio 1. Just don’t expect him to hide his feelings.

Anger and bitterness are rarely in evidence when Seán Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays) is around, thanks to his seemingly inexhaustible interest in idiosyncratic subjects from the margins of life. Even by that measure, however, Tuesday’s conversation with the podcaster Susan Bluechild constitutes the Platonic ideal of a Moncrieff item, as his guest tells how her mother became a dominatrix in the recession-hit Dublin of the 1980s.

Bluechild, a teenager at the time, explains that her mother, unable to find a job, turned to the sado-masochism scene out of necessity. “She didn’t have to have sex,” Bluechild says, “just put on a pair of boots and whip a few geezers on the backside.” But despite the ostensible sauciness of the story, Moncrieff – an Irish Times columnist – eschews the nudge-nudge, wink-wink approach, sounding genuinely curious when asking, “Did she learn on the job?”

Instead the segment focuses on the personal circumstances that led to this peculiar career choice, such as being stuck in a failed marriage. “Desperate people do desperate things,” says Bluechild, who occasionally witnessed submissive clients obligingly doing household chores around the family home. Like Moncrieff’s most effective items, it’s funny and offbeat but also provides intriguing insights into lesser-seen aspects of the world.

For many years classical music was decidedly lesser-heard on Irish airwaves, making the 25th birthday of Lyric FM a milestone worth celebrating. The station duly does so with a gala edition of RTÉ Lyric Live (Wednesday), featuring a menu of orchestral favourites and new works. But while Lyric’s core classical credo is well served during daytime, much of its most exciting and compelling music is found on the nocturnal fringes of the schedule, from Mystery Train with John Kelly (Sunday-Thursday) and Vespertine with Ellen Cranitch (Friday-Sunday) – which recently featured the cult presenter Donal Dineen as guest host – to the self-explanatory Ambient Orbit (Monday midnight). In giving a platform for such horizon-expanding shows as well as the mandatory full scores and live concerts, Lyric remains a vital asset in the Irish radio world, albeit an undervalued one. That the station came perilously close to the axe some years back is an indictment of RTÉ mismanagement that always bears repeating.

There are similar festivities on An Taobh Tuathail (RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta, weeknights), as Cian Ó Cíobháin’s alternative-music show marks a quarter-century on air. Ó Cíobháin has been unstinting in his mission to introduce curious listeners, regardless of their (lack of) fluency in Gaeilge, to adventurous sounds from the other side. Fittingly, the presenter’s playlist throughout this landmark week is full of new work by innovative musicians from Ireland and beyond, including the Welsh indie star Gruff Rhys, a long-time fan of the show. Prime-time radio may command our attention, but the durability of Ó Cíobháin’s night-time slot is further proof that the most rewarding material is often found at the so-called edges.

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