Brendan O'Connor: The Cork broadcaster on disability services in Ireland and finding his true voice

After a disastrous start to their interview, Brendan O’Connor talks with Donal O’Keeffe about his new career in radio and why he wouldn’t be from any other place but Cork
Brendan O'Connor: The Cork broadcaster on disability services in Ireland and finding his true voice

Brendan O'Connor: took the presenters' chair vacated by the passing of Marian Finucane. Picture: Bríd O'Donovan

On the phone, Brendan O’Connor swears quietly. He is waiting in Sophie’s restaurant in the Dean in Dublin, and meanwhile in the Dean in Cork it has slowly dawned on his hapless interviewer that there is more than one Dean. 

As stupid mistakes go, it’s an absolute doozy, and it’s one hundred percent the interviewer’s fault.

O’Connor sympathises, and laughs, saying the best thing would be for both of us to head to our respective homes and pick up this up in 20 minutes.

“Ready whenever you are”, comes the text, and the first thing he says on the phone is “Listen, if you don’t want to mention we had to do this over the phone, I won’t say a word, okay?” 

Being this far on the back foot isn’t a great position from which to start an interview, but the veteran journalist and broadcaster gives an hour of his time, and is forthright and engaging throughout.

It’s just over two years since he quit his Sunday Independent job and took over the RTÉ Radio 1 weekend mid-morning slots, filling a vacancy created by the passing of trailblazing icon Marian Finucane, and debuting just as Covid-19 stopped being a foreign news item.

“The circumstances of me coming in there were obviously quite sudden and very sad,” he says. “I don't think anyone could replace Marian, who was, let’s face it, a class act and in a league of her own.” 

He describes a balancing act between not trying to take Finucane’s place and not doing anything wildly different, something he says his colleague Anne Farrell achieved with the show’s “superb” production team. 

Throughout the interview, he credits his team as primarily responsible for the show’s success, repeatedly saying how lucky he is to work with them.

Brendan O'Connor: 'there was a moment to be met every week'. Picture: Bríd O'Donovan
Brendan O'Connor: 'there was a moment to be met every week'. Picture: Bríd O'Donovan

He suggests the shock of the pandemic shielded him from attention. “There was no ‘He’s no Marian Finucane’, because there was a moment to be met every week, and it was almost incidental that I was the person doing it.” 

RTÉ certainly appears happy with the person doing it, and although O’Connor’s listenership dipped slightly on the most recent Joint National Listenership Research (JNLR) figures – on Saturdays he lost 15,000 listeners and on Sundays he was down 6,000 – his overall figures are stellar.

With 351,000 listeners in the last JNLR, his Saturday show is the third-most listened-to programme in the country, and the most listened-to Saturday offering. 

On Sundays, O’Connor had 323,000 listeners, making his the seventh-most listened-to programme in the country and the most listened-to Sunday show. The next JNLR figures are due on June 1.

He says he realised early on that people seemed to be want the show to succeed, recognising that he was in a tricky situation. “Wherever you go, people will tell you how you're doing. Even the other day, a fella said to me ‘I think you’re starting to get the swing of it’. Which I'd want to be after two years! But it’s nice that people feel an ownership of it, and they're part of it.

“I do think the pandemic showed that radio is a collective, in a way that I don’t think television is. Radio is more intimate and immediate. I’m sure everyone else knows that already, but I came in a 50-year-old man, and I’m learning all this new stuff, which is great.

“I’ve learned so much in the last two years, about radio, about people, about myself, it’s extraordinary, it’s intense.” He laughs when asked how involved he is in the process of picking guests for the show. “Generally, producers hate when presenters start having ideas, but they’re very tolerant of me, and it’s very much a collaborative process.” 

Brendan O'Connor: 'still caught up in the momentum'. Picture: Bríd O'Donovan
Brendan O'Connor: 'still caught up in the momentum'. Picture: Bríd O'Donovan

He says he doesn’t miss his old Sindo job, preferring to live in the here and now, and he claims he hasn’t really had the breathing space to reflect on the similarities between a weekly newspaper and a weekly radio show. 

“Two years into it, I’m still caught up in the momentum of surviving from week-to-week.” 

A stand-out interview with Richard Dawkins last year saw him quietly confront the British scientist about his claim that it would be “immoral” to knowingly bring a child who had Down syndrome into the world. 

O’Connor’s daughter Mary has Down syndrome, and the broadcaster asked Dawkins where that view of immorality came from.

He says he feels it important to engage with people with whom we disagree, something he worries we don’t always do.

“I do think we are getting into a situation where there isn’t a diversity of opinion tolerated anymore, and also, I’m curious, like, where is Dawkins coming from with this? Has he thought it through? Clearly, I don’t think he had thought it through a lot, because I guess guys like him don’t get challenged.

“I thought it was pretty basic stuff, I don’t think I was that clever, I just asked him basic questions and he didn’t seem to have basic answers, but I respect him, he’s done a lot more than I’ll ever do, he’s a lot smarter than I’ll ever be, but I was genuinely curious about where he was coming from, and I’d be curious about where anyone is coming from.” 

Brendan O'Connor: wonders why so much of disability service relies on charity. Picture: Bríd O'Donovan
Brendan O'Connor: wonders why so much of disability service relies on charity. Picture: Bríd O'Donovan

I remind him of a comment he made in 2019 on his former television show, Cutting Edge, about the usage of words like “disabled” and “handicapped”. “You know the word we have in my house for my daughter?” he had asked. “Mary.” 

He demurs that such a thing is easy to say, and stresses that while he can only speak from his own perspective as a parent and an advocate, he is deeply frustrated at Ireland’s disability services.

“It’s important to say that Mary does have different needs, and kids like her do have different needs, and their needs should be met as we meet the needs of other children, and they’re not.

He notes that while his family has privilege and opportunity, “there are people waiting years to even get basic services.” He says it beggars belief that in a wealthy country, it seems acceptable that the most basic needs of children with different needs are not met.

“It seems to be okay to expect them to wait years for assessments, to give them no services, most of them, to expect them to wait years for services when they can’t wait years, these kids can’t wait years because it’s a ticking clock, they need early intervention, but early intervention does not happen.

“Sometimes I think that if any other group had their human rights trampled over like this, there’d be holy war. There are parents, mothers primarily, all over this country, who have no other existence outside of trying to fight for their kids, and look after them, and do it all on their own.

“It’s fine for people like us, we’re able to access what we need, and Mary’s school is fantastic and really supportive, but outside of that, she has had nothing by the way of services since she was four or five, but you know, it’s fine for us, but it’s not okay for a lot of people.” 

He wonders why so much in the way of disability services in Ireland relies on charity and community goodwill, and, while accepting the role media has in helping people to get the help they need, he asks why such media attention is necessary.

“Like, why are parents having to parade themselves on the Late Late Show to make their point? The vast majority of people don’t want to be parading their family’s private grief on the national media, but that’s where it ends up.

“There are so many desperate people out there, they’re at the end of their rope, they start talking and they start crying, it’s just there under the surface and it starts pouring out.” 

Brendan O'Connor: no regrets over Pantigate. Picture: Bríd O'Donovan
Brendan O'Connor: no regrets over Pantigate. Picture: Bríd O'Donovan

Looking back at his long and varied broadcasting career, he says making the likes of Don’t Feed The Gondolas was great fun, but now he can never watch another panel show, and after hosting The Saturday Night Show from 2010 to 2015, he feels the same about chat-shows.

“I think I’m the kind of person that, whatever I’m doing at the time, I think, ‘This is where it’s at’, but the thing is, in television there are so many layers to everything, everything is quite complicated, so things have to be reasonably planned, and the capacity to surprise can be quite limited.

“Radio is just so much more immediate, and I definitely think it’s so much more exciting, but again, I say that because right now I’m doing radio and maybe I’m new to it, but it just seems to be so much more vibrant.” 

In 2014, O’Connor became embroiled in “Pantigate”, when he interviewed Rory O’Neill, AKA drag queen Panti Bliss. 

When O’Neill claimed there were several prominent homophobes in Ireland, O’Connor invited O’Neill to name them, and RTÉ subsequently paid out €85,000. I ask if Pantigate informed the subsequent decision, a year later, to cancel The Saturday Night Show. Even if the temperature seems to dip slightly over the phone, O’Connor answers the question.

“I wouldn’t think it did, but I wouldn’t know,” he says. “I try not to think too much about events that are outside my control.” He says clearly there was a wrong done, and he could have handled it differently, but it wasn’t a traumatic experience for him. “Do I lie awake at night with regrets over it? I certainly don’t. No.

“I also think that if we zoom out and look at the bigger picture, was that the worst thing that could have happened at that time, and were the consequences and the ramifications that came out of it the worst things that could have happened at that point in time?” He doesn’t regard the episode as a low point in his career, and he says he doesn’t feel bad about it, beyond the hassle it caused his bosses.

“If it was down to me, we would have fought it. Personally, and speaking as a non-lawyer, I’d like to have seen it get its day in court, but that was only going to create more hassle and expense, and I do regret that taxpayers’ money went to those people, I really, really do.” 

As a regular face on television, he says he isn’t bothered by people recognising him on the street. “People will chat to you, or tell you stuff, randomly.” He says he is conscious of his privilege as a broadcaster, and, having a pulpit, he is wary of notions, and becoming “a bit of a prieshteen”, a priestly figure.

“There’s no doubt that you can easily turn into an asshole when you’re in broadcasting, and what worries me is that you’d be the last person to know when you are turning into an asshole.” 

Brendan O'Connor: being from Cork has informed his career. Picture: Bríd O'Donovan
Brendan O'Connor: being from Cork has informed his career. Picture: Bríd O'Donovan

He says he still finds broadcasting “deeply weird”: “It still doesn’t feel natural to me every week to go in there and sit in front of a microphone, and when that goes red, you’re suddenly talking to hundreds of thousands of people.

“I feel so lucky to have this, and part of the buzz is that it’s a massive challenge for me, because I’m not a natural for this, but it’s good to have a challenge.” 

Being from Cork has informed his entire career, he feels, giving him an outsider perspective. Leaving for Dublin after UCC, the Bishopstown native has lived longer there than he did in Cork. 

“I think there’s a certain Cork mentality that I have, slightly contrarian, maybe politely paranoid. Cork people, we all think that we’re more authentic than other people, don’t we? I do share that delusion.” He says he doesn’t understand tribal or nationalistic thinking, but he would not want to be from anywhere else. 

“I think Cork is the ideal place to come from, because it’s got that edge that keeps you on your toes, and I think we have an edgier sense of humour.” 

As we finish our conversation, I thank him for the interview, and apologise again for the inter-city mix-up. 

“Listen to me,” he laughs, “ I’m fecking starving now and I wouldn’t mind only I really liked the look of the burger in Sophie’s, so the Irish Examiner owes me a feed the next time we do this.”

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