Tuesday 17 January 2017

Radio: Different sides of Ireland's culture club

Published 20/11/2016 | 02:30

Jeff Buckley
Jeff Buckley

Since Donald Trump's election there have been thousands of words written about "culture wars", in the US and around the world. The soul of a nation, or a people, is expressed in its culture, I suppose.

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Here in Ireland we consider certain things an intrinsic part of ours: music, language, Gaelic games, that fabulous literary heritage. But there's another, unheralded one: science.

In a recent interview, Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin lamented how the Irish scientific tradition isn't celebrated as much as the arts, and it should be: this country has produced a great number of scientists whose work has been truly pivotal.

One of those is John Holland, who made for a fascinating documentary, How Irish Scientists Changed the World, on East Coast FM (Sat 7am). He's the first of six subjects explored by documentary-maker Sean Duke: others will include mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered pulsars, and the first person to split the atom, ETS Walton.

Born in Liscannor, Co Clare, John Holland is now known as "the father of the modern submarine". As Duke pointed out, Holland didn't exactly invent the idea of a submersible vessel - that concept has been around since ancient times - but he was "the first to come up with a design that actually worked".

After school with the Christian Brothers, he quit Ireland for the US in the late 19th century, where he fell in with the Fenian Brotherhood while pursuing his Icarus-in-reverse dreams of creating a boat that could travel underwater. After a few false starts and some hair-raisingly courageous (even reckless) experiments, Holland succeeded.

In 1900, the US Navy bought Holland's design to produce the world's first combat submarine. Other countries, including Britain and Japan, quickly followed.

This was a riveting, rollicking story, parts of which came across more like a work of fictional Victoriana than real history. Man, they really bred them differently in those days.

Another side of Irish culture, of course - possibly its greatest expression - is music, be that in terms of what we produce here or the Irish influence globally. Sin-é: Jeff Buckley's Irish Odyssey (Radio 1, Sat 7pm) looked at the latter through the prism of the late singer, who would have been 50 this week, if he hadn't tragically drowned in 1996.

Buckley was of Irish stock on his father's side, and got his entrée into the business at Sin-é, the semi-mythical (and now defunct) Irish café which caused a storm in New York's East Village during the early 1990s. Steve Cummins' documentary unpicked the threads of Buckley's other Irish links, including friendships with musicians like Glen Hansard and Mark Geary, and a trip to Dublin to play, rather amusingly, the Trinity Ball.

Buckley came across in contributors' reminiscences as a sweet-natured guy, though, naturally, what strikes most is that absolutely incredible voice. It might seem wrong to say this, in the immediate aftermath of Leonard Cohen's death, but Buckley's cover of Hallelujah is not only the song's finest iteration - it's one of the most spine-tingling vocal performances ever committed to record.

A third side of this week's cultural triangle is the GAA, which featured on The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, Mon-Fri 9am), broadcasting from the 2016 Science Summit at Croke Park. Pat spoke to stadium director Peter McKenna and Dublin football hero Philly McMahon.

McMahon was an intelligent, perceptive and very interesting interviewee, especially when talking about the scourge of illegal drugs in Ireland.

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