Sunday 25 March 2018

Radio: Pesky do-gooders in the likeness of Ned Flanders

Chris Donoghue, Newstalk presenter
Chris Donoghue, Newstalk presenter
Damian Corless

Damian Corless

As the name suggests, CountryWide (Radio 1, Saturday, 8.10am-9am) presented by Damien O'Reilly has a roving brief, and it roves all over the place to very good effect. The programme shifts with the seasons, which can become very sluggish at times, but it really comes into its own during the summer months when the land puts on a growth spurt and there's so much more to see and do.

This week CountryWide shone its light on the warmly received contribution to Irish society of the Quakers. The warmth was slow in glowing, given that at the time of their arrival they weren't remotely appreciated by the natives.

This branch of the Christian religion came over with Cromwell, but they landed here already branded with a health warning from their former partners in the split with Rome. Many Quakers fled England for Ireland because they couldn't find ready acceptance where they started. They were headstrong, pesky do-gooders, like an entire God-fearing commune modelled in the likeness of Ned Flanders. (Or a bunch of Ned Flandersses, as Homer Simpson would put it).

The Quakers were simply far too broadminded and easy-going for some scriptural hardliners. CountryWide traced the tracks of one William Edmundson, a former soldier in the ranks of Cromwell's New Model Army, to a farmland just off Mountmellick in Co Laois.

Edmundson had been forced to leave the allotment gifted to him in the Armagh settlement of Lurgan because his Quaker beliefs were a bit too far-lefty and lovey-dovey for his staunch Puritan new ­neighbours.

This week, ending tomorrow, Mountmellick commemorates the big-hearted contribution Edmundson and his fellows made to the life of the county and the country as a whole. Having arrived as hated conquerors, the Quakers found a beloved place in the hearts of the Catholic Irish two centuries later during the Great Famine.

One of the great conspiracy theories of the day amongst the famished majority was that the life-giving free soup dished out by the Church of Ireland had been laced with forbidden meat on Fridays. This was supposed psychological warfare of the darkest kind. But the Quaker soup, it was believed, was safe to consume, because they were just too honest to get into that type of mischief. The wholesome brand names nurtured in the district included Cadburys and Fry's.

When Ivan Yates (Newstalk Breakfast, 7am-10pm weekdays) mispronounces Hiqa (the Health Information And Quality Authority) as 'Sick-qa', as he seemed to do on Wednesday, should we take it (as we legally should) as a slip of the tongue or a bit of fun? It's impossible to know with Yates, who has managed to reconstruct himself into the most entertaining conundrum on Irish radio. There are times you're sure he's trying to play the great surrealist Eric Morecambe and then he delivers a devastating critique of some State statement that cuts surgically to the nub of the matter.

Ivan Yates is so Right that he can sound like a throwback to the Blueshirts of the Thirties, and then the next moment he throws in something that's so right you find yourself nodding away in the kitchen to the bemusement of the cat or dog that just wants its breakfast. For instance, and not wishing to diminish the gravity of any particular item this week, Yates questioned why anyone would feel the overwhelming urge to climb the world's most dangerous mountain (one in four die in the attempt) when they might have a family to take care of, and when there are so many softer and better, and frankly more sensible, things to do. Reports elsewhere concentrated on the supposed heroism of the mountain climbing effort. Ivan brought the voice of reason.

Liberal, likeable and young enough to be Ivan Yates' eternally, infernally, embarrassed son, Chris Donoghue makes for the perfect foil. It's a double act that runs rings around the rest of the start of the morning competition.

But back to CountryWide which gave unexpected accounts of Piggy Racing in Arklow and a bicycle tour of the Boyne Valley 150 years after cycling got an early hostile reaction in parts of Ireland. Back in the day, one alarmed rural dweller reacted to his first sight of a cyclist by hurling stones at the strange fast-moving contraption. A diary entry of a bicyclist approaching the Galway village of Spiddal in the 1880s foreshadowed a scene from the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

As darkness began to fall, the trio of new-fangled cyclists switched on their lamps and stuck awe into the locals. According to the ­account: "It happened to be a Roman ­Catholic holiday and, as is customary in that district, the people had assembled in crowds at every convenient place along the roadside to chat or indulge in rustic games. As we noiselessly approached, every voice grew silent and they gazed, awestruck, at the mysterious light now seen clear against the murky sky."

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