Power to the People: Best Irish Podcasts of 2018

2018 has been a great year for alternative media in Ireland. The podcast scene, in particular, has provided an important anchor in a year of political turmoil.

Beyond the spun headlines of rage and fury, simplistic panel set-ups for and against, the cat-fights of social media, podcasts have have created space for challenging conversations and depth of analysis.

They have provided journalists with a platform to tackle difficult questions, given all kinds of activists a voice, brought historical depth to current issues, and arguably done a better job than traditional broadcasters at getting to the heart of what matters on the ground.

Here are some of my highlights from the year…

1. The Irish Passport Podcast started in 2017 and remained pretty peerless in 2018. Naomi O’Leary and Tim McInerney’s blend of journalism and history is the perfect antidote to an often nonsensical news cycle. They unpick current events, peeling back historical layers of meaning, getting to the heart of every issue rather than getting lost in the froth. It’s hard to highlight just one of the many excellent episodes this year. But their Brexit updates, especially the most recent, made me nod along vigorously and laugh out loud. Their northern adventures were very well done, and it was fascinating to hear about events in Derry and Belfast around 12th July from their perspective.

2. The Echo Chamber Podcast was started in 2017 by Tony Groves and Martin McMahon, and was joined by sister podcast Reboot Republic this year, presented by Rory Hearne and Tony Groves. Common themes emerge across the combined 150+ episodes, such as the financialisation of the Irish economy, the inherent conservatism of the Irish state, and the power of social movements. They have offered up an unrelentingly brilliant series of interviews with activists, writers, journalists, grassroots political figures and TDs. Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin, talking forensically about housing reform, and Independent TD Catherine Connolly on the same topic, bookended the year, and were excellent. Green party researcher Sinéad Mercier’s lazerbeams of knowledge and general arse-kicking about Irish climate change also stood out. As did the searching Brexit chat with John Harris.

3. Mothers of Invention. This is an Irish-based podcast about global climate action. In a year where news of climate breakdown has been overwhelming, this podcast is actually quite hopeful. It reports stories from around the world, focusing on how people on the ground, often women, are pioneering radical change. There’s a rather odd pairing of former Irish president Mary Robinson and comedian Maeve Higgins as co-hosts. But somehow, the awkward chemistry works, bringing both intellectual weight and accessibility. There are only 6 episodes, from legal class actions to food security, all of which are worth listening to.

4. RTÉ’s Brexit Republic with Tony Connelly  and Colm Ó Mongáin is a no-brainer for inclusion on any ‘best of’ this year. Always on inside track of what’s happening in Europe, and the unfolding Irish response to Brexit, this is compulsory listening for anyone who wants to expand their understanding about Brexit beyond a British perspective. Their analysis is consistently brilliant, and very cool-headed. I find listening to it in conjunction with the BBC’s Brexitcast, which also hones in on the EU 27’s experience of Brexit, interpreting it for a British audience, is a good combination.

5. Irish History Podcast. In a year that has felt heavy with colonial overtones and historical amnesia, the Irish History Podcast – which is always fantastic – has taken on a new significance. Fin Dwyer’s deep dive into the history of the famine – over 29 episodes – is excellent. I love how Fin gathers up ordinary voices, uses diaries, inserts women back into the story. It’s never just about high politics. It’s well worth dipping in, even if you don’t have time for the full whack. The newest episodes on witchcraft trials in medieval Kilkenny (1 & 2) are also fascinating.

6. The Suss describes itself as ‘the political podcast for the locked out generation’. And that’s exactly what you get. Its presenters – Stephanie Costello and Glenn Fitzpatrick – are in the early stages of forging their own careers, trying to make rent, grappling in their own lives with  the issues they’re talking about. So it feels direct, heartfelt, sometimes angry, often funny. Their interview with Senator Lynn Ruane on social class was excellent, as was their almost real-time coverage of the Dublin housing protests.

7. The Blindboy Podcast. The surreal, erudite, potty mouthed, ever hopeful Blindboy Boatclub released so many episodes this year I could hardly keep up. The ones I caught were great. No stories like last year, more loosely structured rambles. The part where he slags off the ads, just before the ads, always makes me laugh. But it was Blindboy’s live interviews that have provided most food for thought for me this year. The first one with Donzo, aka Paul Donnelly of Dead Centre Tours, is excellent. It’s not just what gets said, but also feeling the tension in the room as a down-to-earth Protestant interviewee sometimes cuts to the chase, sometimes delicately manoeuvres his way around awkward political questions, for (what I assume is) a mostly Catholic audience. It’s a familiar awkwardness, and there is so much to be gained from pushing right through it. Episodes with Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, David McWilliams and Tara Flynn are also well worth your time.

8. Tenx9. If your weary soul ever needs restored, listen to these stories. Curated by Paul Doran and Pádraig Ó Tuama, recorded mostly in Belfast’s Blackbox, but also Derry, London and other locations, these are real people telling quiet, beautiful secrets, embarrassing confessions, hilarious rambles. Raw self-deprecation, black humour, guts and heart. An important reminder that although our politics has shaped us northerners, it certainly doesn’t define us.

9. Motherfoclóir with Darach Ó Séaghdha and co. has continued to be excellent in 2018. This is a podcast about the Irish language, in English, with a cupla fócal, sometimes more – and is a brilliant entry point for anyone who is curious about the Irish language and the people who speak it. The episode about the 8th referendum, and the different nuances the Irish constitution has in Irish and English was fascinating. They develop this thread with an episode on the fierce Women of the Táin. There’s also just a lot of banter, with episodes on Irish chat-up lines, slang, books and Peig. All good stuff.

10. Feisty Productions with Lesley Riddoch. This one is probably not a strictly kosher inclusion, as its focus is on Scottish politics. But it’s not difficult to read between the lines and extract the learning for Northern Ireland. Lesley Riddoch is a writer, journalist, Nordic politics researcher, Scottish independence supporter. The sense of regional dislocation from metropolitan politics resonates deeply. It’s also a roadmap for how to do politics better, as Lesley reports from local towns and villages across Scotland (and Nordic regions) which are achieving important things at grassroots level – buying back land for local communities, setting up housing co-ops, bedding down sustainable energy production. All very inspiring, hugely relatable, told with wit and humour and some mightily articulate rants.

Ones to watch for 2019

The #Think32 podcast is just getting going, but deserves a shout out for instigating a forward thinking conversation about Irish unity. The podcast is an extension of the #Think32 twitter account, which also began this year, and is part of a wider project of grassroots engagement around unity. It’s been notable to far for its lack of descent into tribal mud-slinging.

Hidden Histories of the Northern Ireland Troubles sees Gareth Mulvenna, a writer and researcher on loyalism, begin a series of interviews, almost oral histories, with people caught up in the Troubles. Loyalists remain a much misunderstood bunch in Northern Ireland, and it is fantastic to to hear people tell their stories in their own words. So far we’ve heard from Beano Niblock, Iain Turner from the Balaclava Street blog, and Henry MacDonald with a different perspective. Lots of prog rock, punk and football. Excited to see where this one goes.

Taranoia is Tara Flynn’s, comedian and accidental Repeal activist, new podcast. The episode with her husband, who is African American, exploring racism in Ireland, and in ourselves, is good place to start. The show has built up a head of steam over just a few months, with some fantastic recent interviews, and is definitely one to keep an eye on.

The Holywell Podcast based in Derry has been running for a few years now, but has taken on a new dimension recently with their Brexit analyses. I’m working my way through the archive, and enjoying hearing about grassroots politics in the north-west, the geography of which weaves through the Brexit discussions too. 

Individual pieces

There have also been some stunning individual pieces this year, mostly one-off documentaries by the BBC.

BBC Radio 4’s A Sense of Quietness is one of the best pieces I’ve heard about Repeal. Produced by audio legend Eleanor McDowell from Falling Tree, it weaves together stories from two generations of women – those who campaigned against introducing the 8th amendment in the 1983 referendum, and those who succeeded in getting it overturned in 2018. As the title suggests, it’s a quiet documentary, where the personal is political. Listen with ear-phones when you won’t be interrupted.

Conor Garrett’s signature loose production style, combined with Leontia Flynn’s unflappable questioning, culminated in a beautiful piece, Crossing the Border by BBC Radio 4. We hear from cosplayers, worshippers, homeless people, tourists, and workers on the Belfast/Dublin Enterprise train. It is lovely to hear these ordinary voices shoot the breeze about the current lightness of our border.

BBC Radio Ulster’s Telling Troubles Tales by Mark Carruthers and Grania McFadden was also a highlight. We meet former protagonists in conflict who are now active in the tourism industry, and understand how telling stories about the past is ’as much about memory as it is about history’. It underlines the catharsis of storytelling in a society where memories are painful and the past is unresolved.

RTÉ’s Documentary on One podcast has continued to blend new pieces with trips back into their archive this year. One piece about the history of Belfast, first aired in 1983, is beautifully old-school in its production, and got under my skin – not least because of the title – A Town No God Could Please.

People are craving depth

2018 shows us that grassroots politics on this island is alive and kicking. Despite our many problems, north and south, 2018 has been a year when ordinary voices have forged out space for themselves – not only to be heard, but to help define the political agenda.

Flickers of people power occasionally weave in and out of BBC and RTÉ programming. But it’s the new wave of Irish podcasting that helps us join the dots. Whether it’s listening to women’s voices, border voices, activists challenging policy in the south, northerners telling their stories with guts and wit, or eavesdropping on Scottish reformers, the sum of all these conversations is powerful. It shows us that something is shifting. That people aren’t waiting to be invited to speak. They’re telling their own stories right now, in their own words and accents. They are cutting through the spin and telling us things that matter.

In a dark yet farcical news year, people are craving real conversations. They are craving depth. And podcasts across Ireland are stepping up to the plate.

****

The above list is completely subjective and reflects my own interests. There’s plenty more goodness to check out at Headstuff and the Dublin Podcast Festival.

Photo by Jason Rosewell is licensed under CC0