Thursday 20 October 2016

Radio: Rising to the Easter challenge in fine style

Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30

Joe Duffy live from Howth Castle.
Joe Duffy live from Howth Castle.

Credit where it's due: RTÉ often gets criticised for being too much the voice of "official" Ireland, for being overly worthy (which usually translates to boring), for taking the safe option. Well, RTÉ Radio 1 put out a fine panoply of programmes this Monday to mark the 1916 commemoration, and it wasn't what you might have expected.

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My worry ahead of time was that this would be dominated by history lessons, stuff about "the relatives", more history lessons, a chin-stroking debate or two, yet more history lessons, possibly something about "what does it all mean?" (accompanied by further chin-stroking), and all rounded off by another history lesson. Just for the hell of it, like.

Au contraire: we had a mixture of music - all kinds - poetry, memoir, Joe Duffy live from Howth Castle (a national event of this stature wouldn't be complete without Joe, in fairness) and, yes, a smidgeon of history. I skipped that bit.

But I didn't skip the thoroughly enjoyable Now That's What I Call Music 1916 (4pm), chaired by Jim Lockhart, which looked back on what was "top of the pop charts" - I believe that's how the young people phrase it - 100 years ago. Keelin Shanley's Centenary Special exploration of the women of the Rising (3pm) was informative; Windharp: Poems of Ireland Since 1916 (6pm) was just lovely. (Lovely book, too, by the way.)

Best of all was the music. The day's programming began with a live event from the National Opera House in Wexford (9am), featuring Iarla Ó Lionáird, the Contempo Quartet and others.

Later, after Drivetime, we were treated to 1916 Requiem (7pm): sean nós and classically trained singers, chamber choir, orchestra, using traditional and early instruments, and inspired by the work of Seán Ó Riada… ideal for this day, really.

There was still time for a star-studded concert at 8pm, with Paul Brady, Maura O'Connell, Andy Irvine and tonnes more, celebrating Ireland and America's musical to-and-fro. And to finish, a non-musical event: The Book on One (11.10pm), in which John McGahern read from his own memoir (he died 10 years ago this week).

Maith thú agus bualadh bos, Radio 1 - a job well done.

Staying with books and (sort of) the past, The Book Show (Radio 1, Sat 7pm) looked at novels based on real people. Host Sinéad Gleeson was joined in studio by three Irish writers "whose work is set in the past and whose novels also blend fiction and history".

Nuala O'Connor's Miss Emily is about the poet Emily Dickinson; Gavin McCrea's Mrs Engels concerns the relationship between Frederick Engels and two sisters; Marita Conlon-McKenna's latest novel, Rebel Sisters, tells an invented tale about a real event: the aforementioned Easter Rising.

Now, I have a bit of a problem with fiction based on fact. It often strikes me as a sort of lazy short-cut to creativity, ie you don't need to invent the character/characters: they already exist, in history.

Also, it irks me no end when writers - not these ones, I hasten to add - use and exploit real-life tragedies for their own cynical, monetary ends. You know what I mean, all those books about the Holocaust, or inspired by actual horrors like the Fritzel case: they know this ghoulish stuff sells to a rubbernecking audience.

However, O'Connor, McCrea and Conlon-McKenna get a pass from the McManus Jury because a) their books are set in the distant past, a century or more, and that makes a significant difference; b) these works aren't exploitative in a Holocaust porn/Fritzel case kind of way; and c) having listened to them describe the process, I realise there is an incredible amount of work involved in writing a book like this.

All that research - how do they do it? You couldn't pay me to write a historical novel. Granted, nobody wants to pay me to write a historical novel, either, but you get my point.

Whooshing forward again now to the present, and The Right Hook (Newstalk Mon-Fri 4.30pm), where newsreader Tara Duggan has been doing a bang-up job as stand-in for the titular George. She's turning into a distaff Shane Coleman, actually - last week Tara showed Coleman-esque versatility by subbing on Moncrieff, this week it's the drivetime current affairs show. (Next week, I predict, either Future Proof or Off the Ball.)

Anyway, Tara roped in political commentator Johnny Fallon and Sheila Reilly, editor of the Longford Leader (and frequent Moncrieff contributor) to discuss the formation of a government. Or rather - oh, you know this yourselves - the lack of one.

Despite not being a politics nerd, I found this strangely fascinating. There's a whole world behind the world of politics, a world of deals and meetings and timing and power-plays and public faces and private stances. It's like Shakespeare, only not quite so poetically expressed. And who'll form our next government? Fine Gael, minority, with independents, supported by Fianna Fáil. Or maybe not. It depends.

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