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A sense of foreboding descends on Liveline. Then Joe Duffy takes an unexpected turn

Radio: Talk of saints and babies has RTÉ broadcaster in flighty mood

It used to an ironclad law of tabloid journalism that if a child was described as a “tot” in a headline, tragedy would follow in the accompanying story. In that spirit a similar sense of foreboding descends on Monday’s Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) when Joe Duffy, so often Irish radio’s catastrophist-in-chief, opens a conversation with a caller by ominously asking, “What happened?” Those bracing themselves for the worst are in for a surprise, however, as the ensuing item turns out to be the exception that proves the rule.

Rather than experiencing a traumatic event, Duffy’s caller, Kenia, has merely suffered a irritating inconvenience. Kenia recounts how she and a visiting friend were left “in the middle of nowhere” when their tour bus departed without them on a trip north. Luckily they were able to get a lift to the bus’s next stop in Belfast – or “the middle of somewhere”, as Duffy chucklingly puts it – while Kenia’s desire for a refund is seemingly satisfied when the bus company’s boss phones in to apologise. It’s obviously good news that no one was hurt in the incident, but even by the prosaic standards of Liveline’s small-claims department this is trifling stuff.

Then again, Duffy is in conspicuously whimsical form throughout the week. He devotes the bulk of Monday’s show to a confab on the origins of the name Gobnait, prompted by the announcement that one of Naval Service’s newly purchased patrol vessels is to be named after the Irish medieval saint. The discussion duly follows a meandering course. For those of us who automatically associate the name with the late Frank Kelly’s comedic creation Gobnait O’Lunacy, Duffy reveals that the original Gobnait was the patron saint of beekeeping. But there are tangents into the supposed bad luck of changing a ship’s name, as well as Duffy’s oddly peeved aside about the number of buildings, boats and bridges named after James Joyce and Samuel Beckett – “two men, by the way, who hated the country”. Yeah, go back to France, ya moaners!

... by the time the host has whittled the potential baby monikers down to a shortlist of four, the listener has lost interest, while Nicola merely sounds relieved

The host is in even flightier mood on Wednesday, when he returns to the nomenclature theme, helping an expectant mother choose a name for her soon-to-be-born daughter. Nicola, a Chicago-based Meath woman, is seeking ideas for an Irish girl’s name that is easily spelled and pronounceable for Americans, an ostensibly simple request that somehow ends up filling the entire programme. “We thought it would last three minutes,” Duffy observes.

Not that he’s hurrying things along. The host quizzes Nicola at length about her interests, his queries at times sounding more applicable to a dating-service questionnaire than a phone-in show: “Are you into astrology?”

As the suggestions flood in, Nicola must wonder what she’s let herself in for: Duffy chats to callers about the back story to each suggested name, which frequently diverge from the brief, while bemoaning the mundanity of his own.Joe, what a boring name,” he mutters. But that it was the only dull aspect of proceedings: by the time the host has whittled the potential baby monikers down to a shortlist of four, the listener has lost interest, while Nicola merely sounds relieved. At least Duffy doesn’t start talking about “tots”. Then we’d really be in trouble.

The Liveline presenter doesn’t completely neglect heftier matters, occasionally breaking off his various chats to keep tabs on Simon Harris’s election as Taoiseach on Tuesday. But given the sense of anticlimax surrounding the new leader’s ascension, Duffy’s hands-off approach is probably the correct one.

In contrast, Today with Claire Byrne (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) is almost entirely given over to coverage of the Dáil vote on the matter. Despite the vainly heroic efforts of Byrne and her cast of pundits to fill airtime, it’s all a bit underwhelming: a rambling colloquy on saints’ names suddenly seems like essential listening.

It’s more lively later in the day on The Last Word (Today FM, weekdays), where Matt Cooper, its presenter, has the advantage of following the slightly more unpredictable spectacle of Harris’s Cabinet reshuffle. Though the much-anticipated ministerial shake-up turns out to be a damp squib, it’s grist to the mill of Cooper and his guests. The columnist and former minister Shane Ross, an erstwhile Cabinet colleague of Harris, is typically blustery as he lays out the new Taoiseach’s positives – “a young man with great ability” – before twisting the knife about his cautious changes: “He’s completely and utterly bottled it.”

Cooper, though restrained in any criticism of his own, doesn’t sound displeased by such harsh verdicts, which keep the show bubbling along. The host only really gets worked up when one texter disparages Harris for not getting elected as a TD until the 15th count in 2020: Cooper delivers an impromptu homily on the workings of proportional representation, emphasising that the result is what matters, not the process. It might seem a strange thing to get exercised about, but it speaks to Cooper’s otherwise low-key sense of propriety.

If national politics seem strangely muted despite changes at the top, the atmosphere is more heated at local level, with Cooper hosting a spirited debate on the introduction of “bus gates” in Dublin city centre. The move, which will initially see arterial routes along the Liffey closed to cars in August, is derided by the Independent councillor Nial Ring, who says it discriminates against disabled residents in particular, while claiming the inconveniences outweigh any environmental gains: “We’re putting the cart before the horse, because we don’t have proper public transport.” The Green Party councillor Michael Pidgeon disagrees, and although he doesn’t convincingly rebut all the objections, he says “this is about pushing efficiency, speed and reliability in our buses”.

At least the buses will hopefully run on time. Just don’t get left behind.

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