It’s not the kind of leaving party that he might have anticipated even a few months ago: no hugs, no post-show knees-up, no large gathering of colleagues, but Friday was Seán O’Rourke’s last day presenting the Today programme and his team ensured it was a suitably impressive occasion. Seán was joined in studio by Marie Louise O’Donnell, Diarmaid Ferriter and Niamh Lyons to talk about the last 7 years of top-class radio. We were treated to a terrific collage of Seán O’Rourke behind the mic since he took the reins of the programme, from producer Alistair McConnell, after which Niamh went straight to Trump’s hair, which, in turn, gave us a chance to listen to Seán’s fine impression of the US President giving out about the reference to the notorious weave in a radio interview back in 2014:
“He came into the room afterwards, shouting, ‘Seán! Seán! I thought you were one of the good guys, but you brought up the hair, Seán, and that’s not good!’ And he paced up and down with his face changing colour.”
Niamh Lyons asked Seán about moments that stood out for him in his time presenting the show and he told her that it wasn’t the politicians – although he was grateful to everyone who joined him on the programme – but it was the regular people who had stories, good or bad, to tell.
“As recently as last week we had people on who were in very difficult positions, like Celine Byrne talking about her lockdown anthem and her dad was at death’s door and he died a couple of days ago and she spoke so beautifully about it.”
Marie Louise O’Donnell spoke about how it’s been a real privilege to be around Seán for the past 7 years. She agreed with the host that the show was really all about stories, and she listed off some of the tales she and Seán talked about over the years:
“I came in with kind of stories about farmers and fishermen and monks and priests and set dancers and thatchers and lambers and mussels at the bottom of the lakes of Mayo, the man from the sewers going down the sewers and the embalmers and also the men with the big, huge muscly arms like tree trunks at the country dancing in Longford.”
It’s quite the intriguing list of stories, all of them received by Seán with typically wry wit and good humour. Marie Louise told Seán that she always had a great listener, how he would be in “adult awe” about the story, sitting and listening and knowing when to come in to push the story on. The story was key, as far as Seán is concerned:
“There was a neighbour of mine, a good friend of my mother’s, and I hope she’s listening now, Mary Joyce, and she often said, ‘Let the story to you’.”
Then Seán turned to the historian in the room: “Diarmaid Ferriter, what are you doing here?” And Diarmaid’s reply must surely have been a relief for Seán to hear:
“I can assure you that I am not here to officially announce that you are history, Seán.”
Diarmaid reflected on how much had happened in the short period since Seán started on the Today programme. One of the early stories the pair brought us was the first official visit of the Irish Head of State to the UK.
“And there was all sorts of talk about the friendship and the warmth that many people thought was not achievable in Anglo-Irish relations… And then, two years later, you were grappling, like so many broadcasters, with this question, ‘What does Brexit mean?’ ”
(It means Brexit, doesn’t it?) The whole 40-odd minutes from the Today programme is available here and very much worth listening to. And you can hear Alistair McConnell’s mash-up of the tenure of Seán O’Rourke on the programme by clicking play above. Go n-éirí go geal leat, Seán.
Niall Ó Sioradáin
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