Radio is special. In a world where the image is king, the loveliness and serenity of radio is a kind of escape. Today we are not just hooked on images of course, but on moving images. This usually means TV, which has become increasingly characterised by frenetic, almost chaotic, fast paced, images. Typical now are rapid montages with knife edge editing, dizzyingly moving camera angles, and graphics splashing and clashing and rolling incessantly. Music, quiz shows, and advertising are of course the worst offenders, taking the concept of movement and graphic to delirious levels. But more sober programs and broadcasters have been infected by the same virus.
Radio for the most part is immune to this pathology. It is a medium where you are still treated with dignity. You are a listener, not a mere consumer. And free from images the spoken word is particularly powerful on radio. There is an intimacy with radio that is utterly impossible on television because the paraphernalia of television doesn’t allow it. The visual staging, lighting, and makeup on television set up an artificial environment. And the camera creates a battle between the eye and the ear which obscures the delicate meaning carried by voice alone.
The listener to radio creates their own mental image of the speaker, matching the tone and texture of a voice to a face that is either remembered or imagined. Radio unlocks the power of words, which are the true channel to the human heart. The human facility of speech is unique and magical. It is an essence of humanity, and radio renders it faithfully. Television destroys it.
That is why radio was perfect for the interview of Nuala Ó Faoláin by her friend Marian Finucane. Words are the stock and trade of Finucane, just like they were, in a different way, for Ó Faoláin. The interview was utterly captivating.
I tuned in by chance at the beginning, without knowing in advance what the program was about. Finucane was speaking and when the other voice answered I recognised Ó Faoláin.
After a few words from Ó Faoláin, and before I’d heard enough to know her situation, something grabbed me. I turned around to the radio an turned it up. The timbre of her voice was quivering with the purest sadness I have ever heard, and it was clear that it was coming straight from a heart that had just been irreparably shattered. I stood motionless listening, absorbing the raw emotions wavering out from the wireless.
At various points in the interview Ó Faoláin would slide into her horrendous abyss, her voice channeling nothing but an overwhelming, insurmountable despair. This happened for example, when she mentioned a cancer hospital in
The interview, I learned just after it had finished, had been recorded. It’s not easy to know what amount of editing took place, though it felt as if very little. In any case Finucane was excellent and, given that she was interviewing her friend in those circumstances, admirably strong and clear headed. She nudged the interview forward with a light touch, inviting her guest and friend to do the talking and to open up. Which is precisely what Ó Faoláin did.
In the course of the interview she delved way down into her dying self and bravely wrenched out chunks that mattered or that once mattered. It was clear too, and desperately sad, that she felt the whole thing, the accumulation of pain and the bank of joys and the factory of creativity that was her life, the whole thing, seemed pointless and in the end had no meaning or no redemptive power. It was as if she had endured the odyssey of life and reached the destination to find there was nothing there. Her trembling hopeless voice carried all the horror of seeing the richness and tumult of an entire existence reduced to a singular and infinite nothingness.
And yet despite her hopelessness, and a feeling she called her ‘sourness’ with life, which came across like a mixture of anger and despair, there remained a humanity. She had lost her love of reading, and the power of music had faded from the heights of redemption and joy to something no better than palliative. Food was still enjoyable, sometimes. Her friends and family were never far away. Her concern about putting them out if she went on one final valedictory holiday was particularly touching.
She cried when she thought of the Irish song Tráthnóna Beag Aréir. It brims with nostalgia: a Rí na glóire gile, tabhair ar ais an oíche aréir - O King of shining glory, Bring me back last night. Ó Faoláin said she didn’t believe in an afterlife, but confessed somewhat reluctantly, that the question of whether there was a God was different. Perhaps there was a pinhole in the black despairing sky, a tiny gap that refused to close. I was left wondering if hope refused to die.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam dílis.