Sunday 25 September 2016

Radio: Surfing the wave of Joe Roddy's extraordinary life

Published 31/01/2016 | 02:30

Beach boy: Ireland's first surfer, Joe Roddy
Beach boy: Ireland's first surfer, Joe Roddy

One of the best things about radio is how it allows programme makers to pursue just about any path they want. Television is expensive to make; unless your budget is huge, you're restricted in what you can do and where you can go.

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For radio, by contrast, essentially what you need is a microphone and tape recorder. I know there's more to it than that: you need time to explore a subject, which also means money to subsist on; and you need both again - not to mention editing hardware and software - to actually put shape on the thing.

But the point stands: ultimately, if someone has time and passion for a subject, they can make a radio documentary, more-or-less alone, without too much pain and hassle.

Because of this, the medium can cover anything under the sun (indeed, if the fancy takes, the sun itself). Nothing, no matter how minority-interest, is off-limits.

Brendan Daly made a very charming documentary on quiz obsessives a few years ago, and returns with Surfing at the Crossroads (Newstalk, Sat 10pm), the story of Ireland's - and probably Europe's - first surfer.

That he gets to make programmes about specialist subjects like quizzes and surfing, I guess, proves my point - as does the fact that this aired on Newstalk. RTÉ obviously has a superb documentary track record, but they also have lots of money. Newstalk's budget is smaller, but again, that doesn't matter as much in radio, and they've really been shifting up the gears in documentary output.

Anyway, the programme itself: Surfing at the Crossroads was one of those documentaries whose true-life story was stranger, and less plausible, than most fiction - which made it all feel even truer, in a counter-intuitive way.

The facts, as recounted in a hugely enjoyable programme, are these: 80-year-old boatman Joe Roddy has been bringing tourists out to Skellig Michael for half a century (he's made the trip some 20,000 times). With Skellig made world-famous by the new Star Wars, this alone would probably merit its own programme. But Brendan, and Joe, were only getting started.

Joe is also a retired lighthouse keeper - another fascinating topic - and was even born in one, Roche's Point in Cork. He grew up on Valentia Island. But hold on, we're still only getting revved up here.

In his teens, Joe's family moved to Dundalk, where he read a Reader's Digest article about the Hawaiian "sport of kings" - surfing. Just like that, he decided to build his own board, literally using bits of furniture. (He'd earlier made snorkelling gear from old shoes and - this gets better and better - an actual gas-mask. Later he crafted a speargun out of rubber bands and a piece of wood.)

Thus, Joe Roddy became Ireland's first surfer, in 1949: at least a decade before the Beach Boys made surfing mainstream, and our nascent surfing culture began to grow. He also, along the way, found time to represent Ireland at the World Spearfishing Championships in Cuba, where he dived a depth equivalent to an 11-storey building.

I mean, what do you say about a guy like that? Terms like "they broke the mould when they made him" are appropriate, but sound somehow inept.

Maybe I'll finish with the words of modern-day surfer Martin Cullinane, who said of Joe's first appearance on an Irish beach, gigantic surfboard in hand: "This guy came out of nowhere. How did he even dream up this board?… He was like an apparition."

On The Last Word (Today FM, Mon-Fri 4.30pm), something almost as eye-opening was revealed by one Richard Wellings, director of the UK Institute Of Economic Affairs. Traffic control measures such as lights, speed bumps and cycle lanes are not only slowing traffic down - they may even reduce road safety.

In Britain, there's been a "massive expansion" in such measures: 40pc over the last 20 years. Wellings described it as a "command and control mentality, rather than leaving people judge for themselves…a negative attitude that people have to be told what to do, to behave in civilised manner."

According to their research, though, removing these controls brings about increased safety: drivers look around more, don't speed to make that green light, drive more cautiously. When left to their own devices, people are more courteous on the road.

Motoring journalist Michael Sheridan agreed, pointing out that human error "is the contributing factor in 95pc of accidents. We switch off and let ourselves be nannied. If we see a green light, it's our God-given right to drive straight ahead - we hardly even look around." Whereas, he added, "Removing road markings makes us pay more attention."

Real food for thought - which, in a funny little irony, was sponsored by Volvo. Another editorial/advertising irony was found on Off the Ball (Newstalk, Sun 12pm), when, after an informative and impassioned debate on how gambling has inserted itself deeply, and worryingly, into sport, we cut to a sponsor's spot… for an online betting company.

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