I’ve been making ‘top ten podcasts of the year’ for ages now. But there’s hardly ever been anything Irish on it. Because, to be honest, it’s been slim pickings. And the American and BBC stuff was miles ahead.
But something has changed. The audio revolution has hit Ireland. And to some extent, even Northern Ireland…
And it’s brilliant!
People are making amazing stories and sharing alternative perspectives, in our own accents, with our own reference points. Often with our own messed up sense of humour. It’s a total joy.
These are some of my favourite episodes from the year.
1. The Irish Passport – The Knowledge Gap
If one of your abiding political memories of 2017 is contained in the composite sentence ‘Little Leo, the Indian, should shut his gob’ (courtesy of Edwin Poots, Lord Kilclooney and the Sun), you should check this out. It explores many English people’s lack of knowledge about Ireland and Northern Ireland. And comes as close as anything I’ve heard in unpacking how we got here. The last few months of Brexit in a nutshell, basically.
The Irish Passport is one of my favourite podcasts of 2017. A crash course in Irish history, culture, politics and society by Naomi O’Leary and Tim McInerney. Brave, fair, clever reporting.
This is the podcast of a live storytelling event each month at the Blackbox in Belfast. Think the Moth, but more ‘us’ – i.e. less epic drama and more wry self-deprecation. I love the way that conflict often weaves in and out of these stories – never in a sectarian way, but as the taken for granted backdrop to our ordinary lives. The comedy night, broken into 2 parts, is a good place to start. Sean, waiting for the internet that never comes in Warrenpoint, at the end of part 1, is a glorious rant that properly cracked me up.
3. The Blindboy Podcast – Did you read about Erskine Fogarty?
I don’t even know where to start with this rambling thing of genius. It’s a surreal, sometimes dark, but totally uplifting audio adventure. Mostly tangental thoughts and some short stories. It comes with a massive trigger warning for swearing, which may be a terrible or an excellent thing, depending on your point of view.
Part of me thinks that if loyalists in Northern Ireland could connect with Rubber Bandits (of which Blindboy Boatclub is half), things might work out a little better. Their furious anti-elitism, sacrilegiousness, engagement with the reality of drink, drugs and mental health might resonate.
I was at a loss as to which episode to include here, so I went with the first story. It’s not necessarily representative. But I’m guessing that you will either love this podcast and inhale every bit, or absolutely hate it and send me bad emails.
4. Stories in Sound – A Question of Identity
So, after saying there has been a podcasting revolution in Ireland, my next few highlights are from traditional media companies. There are some fantastic producers at BBC and RTÉ, who may have access to a bit more time and budget to produce tightly made docs than the indies. Stories in Sound is where BBC Radio Ulster gather the best locally made content.
This exploration of Northern Irish identity by Mark Carruthers is a tonic in a time of polarised politics. It’s as much about our different layers of identity, as Northern Irishness per se.
5. Stories in Sound – Songs for the Dead
From the same podcast, Marie-Louise Muir explores keening, a grief-stricken wailing for the dead. Mostly by travelling to the West of Ireland and talking to auld ones. The recordings of keening from the archives send shivers down my spine.
6. The Untold (BBC) – A Habit of Hoarding
Somewhere hidden in Belfast’s BBC building there is a producer called Conor Garrett, and he makes the most beautiful documentaries. This one is about David, an elderly guy who lives in south Belfast and is a chronic hoarder, and consequently, semi-hermit. It’s a really warm, free-range piece, hanging out with David as he copes with dry rot and is forced to let builders into his house, wondering if this might extend into allowing his daughter inside.
I love the open-ended feel of Conor’s pieces, with no forced settling of the stories. Lacrimosa is another of his from a few years ago, which I still think about. It was made with Proinsias O’Coinn, who, for so many reasons, wanted to be able to cry…
7. RTÉ Documentary on One – Saved!
RTÉ’s Documentary on One is classic radio with some unbelievable gems. ‘Saved’ (originally aired in 2014) is a beautiful and conflicting story about an Irish Traveller and caravan salesman who becomes a born-again preacher, travelling north and south for Bible missions. I love pieces like this, that leave you with as many questions as answers.
Conversations about abortion began on this podcast in 2015, when Róisín Ingle and Tara Flynn talked about their experiences in the Irish media. If you’re interested, start there. Listen to the tentative sounds of the conversation beginning. And then compare it to the confident emotion of this Repeal Project episode from April 2017. This is excerpts from a live event, held coincidentally on the same day that the Citizen’s Assembly emphatically recommended to liberalise Ireland’s abortion law. In the latter episode, Róisín’s mum Ann, aged 77, talks about her own abortion in the 1960s. And we see how our hidden Irish abortion stories are slowly being revealed and understood.
Men Talk About Abortion sees a different kind of conversation beginning. One we don’t hear often. Where men talk about their abortion journeys with their partners. There is so much depth here. Far away from the yelling and black and white opinions, these are the places we must go if we want to get inside other people’s shoes and imagine how we might feel, if faced with the same questions. Which seems like good practice, whatever we end up thinking about it all.
9. Motherfoclóir – The Secret Diary of a Cinnire, Age 16 1/2
A Cinnire is kind of camp leader in the Gaeltacht. Having grown up in the Prod version of Northern Ireland, I have no experience of this. But it sounds a bit like some of the Bible camps I attended. In that there was a fair amount of snogging, and making mix tapes for people afterwards. This episode captures this teenage moment in the 1990s perfectly.
Motherfoclóir is a podcast about the Irish language, in English. Which I love because it opens up something previously inaccessible to monoglots like me.
10. The Heart – God and the Gays
I’m cheating here, because this is an American show. It has nothing to do with Northern Ireland. And yet it has *absolutely everything* to do with Northern Ireland.
This episode sees Phoebe, a former born-again Christian, talk to her Christian friends about her sexuality. She’s queer. She loves her friends, and they love her. It’s not a debate about opinions. It’s some difficult and achingly human encounters. I can’t put it any better than my friend Pádraig O’Tuama did on twitter – ‘what a skilled, perfect and artful uncovering of the love and shame at the heart of LGBTQI+ lives in conversation with (certain) Christian ones. Damned brilliant’. There is no neat resolution in this episode. As in life. But it pushes our understanding forward. Which we need so badly in this part of the world.
So this has what’s made my brain and ears happy this year. It’s more a people watcher’s list than that of a hardcore politico. It’s also a very Irish list. Say it’s a top ten. Make it twelve. Take away the one that’s actually American…
The best thing of all, is that this just scratches the surface of what’s starting to happen. I have a bad habit of falling asleep half way through podcasts, so I’m sure I’ve missed some crackers. If you’re looking for more, check out Headstuff (an Irish podcasting network, releasing new shows at breakneck speed), the first Dublin Podcast Festival in 2017, and the Hearsay Festival (the Irish home of international audio gorgeousness).
One last shout out to a few brand new politics podcasts, which I have loved so far and am keeping my eye on for 2018. The Echo Chamber (Ireland), Speakeasy (Northern Ireland) and Stories from Border Kitchen (self-explanatory). And to one of the pioneers of Irish podcasting, An Irishman Abroad, which I still never skip.
Please do tell us your favourites too! I’m sure there is a football shaped hole…