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Joe Duffy interview: 'We've more people than ever calling. The biggest decision you make is who not to put on air. That can be heartbreaking.'

Joe Duffy spoke to TheJournal.ie about Liveline in the time of coronavirus.

Image: RTÉ Liveline/Twitter

WHEN JOE DUFFY calls slightly earlier than the time we’d planned to speak, he asks the first questions.

“How are you getting on? Working at home? Where’s home?”

The fact we’re both from Ballyfermot kickstarts the conversation on how the RTÉ presenter is handling the reality that Ireland and the rest of world is now living through. 

“It’s very challenging. You just have to try to keep your wits about you, get into a routine,” he tells TheJournal.ie. “I can’t see my mother [who still lives in Ballyfermot] who turns 91 next month.”

Liveline on RTÉ Radio One has long been a barometer of the nation, and Duffy says that the number of people reaching out to the show has risen “exponentially” in recent weeks. 

In that time, Liveline has featured incredibly powerful accounts from people who’ve lost loved ones to this virus that has upended our daily lives.

Padraig Byrne spoke about the death of his brother Francis on 1 April, and about how he wished him a last goodbye through the hospital window.

Dorothy Duffy spoke about the passing of her sister Rosie on 4 April, about how she was moved to write a poem about her death and that “it all just poured out” when she started writing. The poem “My Sister is Not A Statistic” was read out in full.

Thomas Gray told the show his mother Patricia had died in a nursing home. “The saddest thing is that she passed away on her own,” he said

Doreen Corrigan died on Good Friday and her daughter Gráinne told Liveline she’d attended her mother’s funeral via Skype. 

As Duffy listens and talks to those people on a daily basis, he is broadcasting the story behind some of these statistics – the real people who are behind them. 

“It’s a privilege to work at RTÉ at the minute,” he says. “We’re privileged to have people’s trust that they do feel if they ring Liveline that one, they might be heard, and two, if they want something done or they need something… that they might get somewhere with it. 

There has been a change of tone. I was very conscious of pushing this right from the start. When you come to such a serious issue as this pandemic, there’s no room for a firing squad. You know we are where we are. It’s not about blame… we just try and get on with it and be supportive to each other.

Numerous people have told their stories to Duffy in the past few weeks at a time when they are grieving for someone that may not even be able to attend a funeral for.

In the case of the Byrnes, the Liveline Twitter account shared a photo of Padraig looking into the window at his brother Francis before his death. 

“It’s an innocent photograph, it’s not a gory photograph,” Duffy says. “In any other context, it could be someone looking in at a new baby or in Switzer’s window on Christmas Eve.

But it’s the whole poignancy of it, the whole story of it, is locked into that image that people are dying and that we just can’t be with them. We can’t hold them. Can’t hold their hands. 

Drawing on a recent tragic experience in his own family, Duffy recalls how his mother-in-law passed away at the end of January. 

In her final days at St Mary’s nursing home in Dublin, she was surrounded by her loved ones with grandchildren and children all around holding her hand, talking to her and singing her favourite songs.

“It’s amazing, you look back at that now as a gift,” he says. 

As the show continues to feature the stories from people around the country affected by this virus, Duffy is struck by how every one is unique but emphasises it’s important that he not become the centre of attention.

“It is my job,” he says. “It’s not my job to break down. My job is to make a programme today, and then make a programme tomorrow and on Wednesday and Thursday. I’m no use if I turn into a blubbering heap with the stories, and every story is different. Every single story is different.”

‘Way before their time’

According to the most recent JNLR figures for radio listenership in Ireland, Liveline is the second most listened to show in the country with over 360,000 people listening every day. 

Interest in news outlets and the content they’re creating is booming – at a time when advertising revenues are slumping – and Duffy credits series producer Rebecca Meehan and the “great team” around them for keeping the show on the road (“I don’t know how I’ll ever repay them”). 

“I was due to be on holidays,” he says of the two weeks either side of Easter. “I didn’t take them. We’ve more people than ever calling. The biggest decision you make every day is who not to put on air. That can be heartbreaking as well.”

Each contributor who talks about a loved one is articulating that very personal grief they feel.

Duffy says: “So many good, good people are dying and they’re dying way before their time. People say percentage-wise we’re better than other countries in terms of fatalities. 

But when someone has died, they’re 100% dead. You know it still doesn’t alleviate the scale of the pain, the grief, the hurt that people feel.

He describes some experiences he’s had recently that will stick with him now into the future, just the way the 9/11 terror attacks stuck with him as they happened at the same time as his own show went to air in September 2001.

“I was driving home the other evening, and a Luas came by Busáras,” he says. “It was rush hour – or would have been – around 5pm. There was one lone person on it, and that person was wearing a mask. 

It was the most eerie scene. All these images keep flashing through my head. A woman walking down the Bull Wall the other morning crying as she walked. I don’t know if she was crying for her grandchildren, her children. I don’t know. I just know these images will never leave me.

‘I’ll never refuse an invite to a party again’

None of us really know what the “new normal” will look like as of yet when businesses begin to reopen and some small features of normalcy return while others don’t. 

Duffy is skeptical that we’ll all come out of this with a greater appreciation of each other and the fine institutions we have like libraries, the arts and music, but he says Irish people have shown a tremendous resilience so far.

“I think we all value each other,” he says. “People who organise things from amateur dramatics, to sport to fishing to competitions, you name it. I’ll tell you one thing, I’ll never refuse an invite to a party again after this.”

For now, he says his own routine of going the gym regularly and going swimming in the mornings is no longer possible (“There’ll be a reckoning with the weighing scales at the end of it”), but it’s a small price to pay.

Our chat turns back to his mother – after he asks me how my own mother and father are – who’s now in her 90s. 

He describes how she is following the cocooning measures to the smallest detail. 

“My brother called up to her the other week,” Duffy says “He’s a taxi driver so would often drop up stuff. He said he was dying to do a pee and says to Mabel ‘will you let me in?’. She says ‘no’.

I called her the other day and she took ages to answer the phone. When she did I said ‘Mabel, where were you’, and she says ‘I was just cutting the grass’.

It’s less than two hours before Liveline starts as we’re still chatting, so my final question to Duffy is one that TheJournal.ie newsroom especially wanted to know.

“Where did Five One Double Five One Wash Your Hands come from?”

On the show every day, Duffy will give the number to text into the programme but has added a “wash your hands” every time he says it, often fitting it in very quickly at the end of a sentence. 

“I’ve no idea,” he says. “I remember one day at the start I realised this was very serious. I don’t think we even had any cases then but the big advice was wash your hands, sneeze properly, don’t touch your face. 

I was trying to think if there was any way I could work it in as a sort of mnemonic. So that’s why. I was coming out of the house this morning and the postman was parked on the road. He rolled down the window and shouted at me ‘Five one double five one wash your hands’… It’ll be on my gravestone.

About the author:

Sean Murray

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