We’re kicking off August by going back in time, thanks to some of the best history podcasts out there. Killing Time with Rebecca Rideal (widely available) has carved out an enjoyable place at the nexus of crime and history. In each episode, Rideal and a guest investigate a dark moment of the past to illuminate a wider history. She describes it as “not the gore, but the bigger stories surrounding notorious crimes and deaths”.
Did you know the term ‘plastic surgery’ dates back to 1798? In recent episode The Facemaker of World War One, she and historian Dr Lindsey Fitzharris discuss surgeon Harold Gillies, touching on the bias about disfigurement that persists in Hollywood’s depiction of villains. While fixing the faces of men wounded in battle, Gillies invented many new techniques, some of which remain in use today.
Also excellent is The Complicated World of Endeavour Morse, in which Rideal and Russell Lewis, screenwriter and creator of Endeavour, consider the various depictions of Colin Dexter’s inspector, from the original books to the TV adaptations.
Donal Fallon’s Three Castles Burning (widely available) spins fascinating stories that tease out individual experiences from Dublin’s lived environments. Whether it’s the history of tattoo shops, wondering just what was it about JM Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World that caused riots in the Abbey in 1907, or the events of the day before the Easter Rising, his scholarship and subject choice is wide-ranging and refreshing.
I loved recent episode The Stolpersteine of Donore Avenue, about the six new ‘stumbling stone’ plaques installed in Dublin 8 to commemorate Irish victims of the Holocaust. Begun by artist Gunter Demnig in 1992, and now in over 1,000 towns and cities, each plaque notes the name and dates of a victim of the Nazis. When talking in such vast numbers as the Holocaust, it’s easy to forget each person lived their own unique existence, and stolpersteine are a small but significant redress on behalf of each individual life lost. To date, Demnig has installed over 75,000 stolpersteine around the world. These are the first in Ireland.
In Talking History (broadcast on Newstalk; podcast widely available), Professor Patrick Geoghegan delves into some of the world’s most important political, social and cultural events and the intriguing personalities behind them. He clearly enjoys unravelling gritty, difficult and uncomfortable stories and examining them for future lessons rather than past failings. Like Fallon, he often takes a small ‘h’ approach to history, which makes for an accessible angle on topics, such as recent episode Irish Artefacts, in which he and guests discuss what constitutes an artefact, and Ireland’s most interesting ones.
This episode coincides with Lorcan Walshe’s The Artefacts Project exhibition in the Hunt Museum, Limerick (to September 11), which gives visitors the chance to witness familiar objects from pre-colonial Ireland in a new light.
The proliferation of TV and online food programmes proves that it’s easily possible to keep an audience’s attention when we can’t taste or smell what’s being made. With Proof (America’s Test Kitchen, widely available), host Kevin Pang shows that sight isn’t necessary either. Now in its 11th season, Proof plunges into history, culture and science to uncover hidden backstories to feed our food-obsessed brains.
Pang does a great line in witty, food-inflected puns: an episode about black walnuts is called Get Rich or Die Cracking, and the one featuring family recipes is The Pho Must Go On. I loved recent episode They Know What You’ll Eat Next Summer, in which reporter John Ringer goes behind the scenes at the Kerry Group food factory and lab, tracing its journey from a small dairy co-operative in the 1970s to a worldwide ingredients company, claiming to feed more than one billion people. Ringer wryly notes: “Kerry seems to make everything for everyone”, before going on to explore whether data is more important than taste testing, what our “centre of indulgence” might be and what “disruptive snacks” might be hitting the supermarket aisles next year.
With her chef extraordinaire mother Lennie by her side, musician and former journalist Jessie Ware hosts Table Manners (Acast and Island Records, widely available) at her own table. As with their cookery book of the same name (I love that it has sections called Effortless and A Bit More Effort), the show is friendly, funny and likeable. Designed to encourage unfiltered chat, oversharing is pretty much guaranteed.
The impressive range of guests in the back catalogue includes Paul McCartney, Kylie Minogue, Ed Sheeran and Nigella Lawson. Some episodes are recorded with a live audience; a good place to start is season 13, episode 18, in which Jessie and Lennie entertain/interrogate This is Going to Hurt author Adam Kay about vending machine hospital snacks and his obsession with cheesy chips.
Do you pay much attention to where your food comes from before it hits the supermarket shelves? Even when looking out for specific aspects of production, we have become very distanced from its origins. Food Done Right (GIY, Apple podcasts) presenter Mick Kelly opens by telling us that growing food “completely changed the course of history”: “It led to settlements, cities, industrialisation and, ultimately, a deeply complex food system.”
The problem with this system is that it is characterised by corporate power, environmental decay and waste. Across seven episodes, Kelly — founder of GIY, social entrepreneur, author and TV presenter — and a range of guests explore how we eat and why we need to rethink the system we’re part of. Episodes feature the food needs of Irish rugby players, the role of chefs in creating food trends, the importance of quality food in schools and care settings, and how to change from the ground up.
True crime has broken into most other podcast genres, and nowhere are the results more fun than the comedy-crime crossover Drunk Women Solving Crime (widely available). Hosted by Hannah George, Catie Wilkins and Taylor Glenn, it’s the “true crime podcast with a twist of lime”.
In the company of comedian and crime writer guests, they love to flex their drunk detective skills. Running since 2018, the show has reached almost 200 episodes. It has all the easy fun and humour of a night out with friends spent talking nonsense while failing to solve the world’s problems (“I could be wrong, ’cos I’ve reached that level of gin” is a typical mutter). Guests share their personal experiences of crime and in each episode, the boozed-up panel tackle personal crime stories, solve true crime cases and seek justice for listener crimes.
Welcome to the badlands of blue rinses and bloody murder. Curl Up & DI (Folding Pocket production, widely available) is set in a “salty, shabby” North Yorkshire seaside town. Once popular, the only thing distinguishing Slatby these days is its unsolved murders, currently racking up at the rate of 200 a week.
Gemma and Andy (Katherine Kelly and Mark Benton) are the town’s clueless coppers. They are so useless that they seek help to crack cases from crime fiction-obsessed hairdressers Yacky and Reuben, played by Morgana Robinson and Jim Moir (aka Vic Reeves). The salon, rather than the police station, soon becomes the base of operations.
With its 1970s cop show soundtrack, deadpan John Cooper Clarke-style introduction and lyrical off-kilter nods to Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, it is energetically bizarre (a typical crime report goes “20 people slaughtered at Greggs”). It also enjoys indulging that particularly British love: toilet humour. First episode Feathering the Waddle opens with Andy doing his best to push through his constipation and reporting his progress through a door to Gemma. It’s as daft as you’d hope anything with Vic Reeves would be, and all the more fun for it.
With crossovers all the rage in podcasts, Greg Jenner’s You’re Dead to Me (BBC Sounds, widely available) is a masterclass in using comedy to share stories from the past. Author, historian and “chief nerd” on the show Horrible Histories, Jenner brings together the best names in comedy and history to learn and laugh about the past and find the fun lurking inside serious topics.
In Grainne O’Malley, Jenner is joined by Dr Gillian Kenny and comedian Catherine Bohart to examine the life of Ireland’s very own pirate queen. His shows about Christmases past are funny and quirky, especially his “contractually obligated festive special” The Victorian Christmas. Also worth checking out is The Bayeux Tapestry. “You might be picturing pointy men with pointy helmets on pointy horses doing pointy killing on a sort of yellowy-brown background,” Jenner says, preferring to approach this “medieval craft project” as artwork rather than a source of historical information about the Battle of Hastings.
It may not be many people’s idea of literature, but celebrity memoirs sure can be fun. It’s a genre I enjoy flicking through for the juicy bits, yet rarely read to the end.
Thankfully, New York comedians Claire Parker and Ashley Hamilton completely get this. In Celebrity Memoir Book Club (widely available), they read cover to cover so we don’t have to. Shamelessly talking about people behind their backs and then broadcasting it, these two best friends say whatever they want and spare nobody’s feelings, yet come at it with empathy. A good starting point is Denise Richards is the Real Girl Next Door, in which they describe “sex symbol royale” Richards as, “the most beautiful, innocent, pure-hearted dummy that we could find”.
Although sometimes overlong, it’s also enjoyable for the best-friend digressions about pets, hairdos, daily fails and random irritations, such as being shamed for being single and not having a plus one at a friend’s wedding. (“I’m not alone! I’m here with 45 people that I know!”) Dua Lipa described this show as “vicious fun”. Nailed it.
No holidays this month? You’ll be on the beach in no time thanks to Coastal Stories (widely available). Relax and let author Charlie Connelly’s soothing tones and the faint sound of waves lapping on the shore wash over you. Whether heroic, disastrous, startling, hilarious, mysterious, tragic or just plain WTF, Connelly tells unusual and often little-known stories from around the coasts of Britain and Ireland.
Recent episode Love in a Bexhill Beach Hut traces the origin of this “direct descendent of the bathing carriage”, some of which now change hands for up to a quarter of a million pounds.
Over the Sea to Wexford tells a story I had never heard before; that of Denys Corbett Wilson, who, having taken up flying only seven months earlier, on April 22, 1912 became the first person to fly between Britain and Ireland. He had an undignified landing when his plane ended up in the undergrowth in Enniscorthy, “but the achievement stood”. This was only a week after the Titanic sank, and Connelly notes, “newspapers that carried news of Corbett Wilson’s achievement also detailed on the same page how bodies were still being retrieved from the North Atlantic”.
City of Books (Dublin City Libraries, widely available) is a monthly show in which author and Irish Independent journalist Martina Devlin talks all matters booky with interesting booky people. This Dublin Unesco City of Literature project, in association with MoLI, features Irish and international writers.
I particularly liked Carlo Gébler on the Power of Greek Myths (Episode 34) in which the author reckons the Greek classics continue to fascinate us because we live in a world “in churn”, and people have lost trust in institutions and governments. In The Road Less Travelled (Episode 31), Devlin interviews Rosaleen McDonagh about her activism, disability campaigning, Traveller culture and settled culture, and her powerful essay collection Unsettled. Previous guests include Lemn Sissay, Richard Ford, Anne Enright and Sarah Webb.