Homelessness is the issue dominating the media

Only death galvanises the powers-that-be into action writes Brendan O’Regan

No reward for guessing what was the most dominant issue in the media last week. The issue of homelessness was slow burning in the media until the death of Jonathan Corrie. Sad to think it takes a death to galvanise the powers-that-be into action. As has been pointed out by many commentators, the fact that he died near Dáil Éireann made all the difference as far as publicity went.

It would be impossible to deal with all the coverage, but a few items stood out for me. It was probably coincidental but last Thursday night’s documentary The High Hopes Choir (RTÉ1) was particularly well timed. David Brophy, formerly of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, set about establishing two choirs for homeless people and the results were inspiring.

The programme was well named as being in the choir gave hope to the homeless and much more – greater confidence, discovery of hidden talent and a new sense of community. As one woman put it, she didn’t know she had a voice until she joined, and it felt like she meant more than singing.

The individual stories of hard times and degrees of recovery were varied, touching and often surprising. Sadly, one of those interviewed at the start was Jonathan Corrie. I wasn’t expecting that. The homeless charities figured, but in a supporting role. Even their work seemed transformed at times – for example, as the men in Waterford hostel went around singing during the day.

I’ve often given out about the silliness on Newstalk’s Breakfast Show, but last Wednesday morning, in the post 9am slot there was some weighty material, especially on the homelessness issue.

Chris Donoghue gave credit to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin for his intervention in backing up his words with action by offering a 40-bed unit. Ivan Yates doubted they’d be talking about this if Mr Corrie had died elsewhere, while Donoghue reminded us of a similar death in Bray during a recent cold winter, pointing out that the council in Bray had acted decisively in that instance to open up fresh accommodation.

A texter told of his homeless father dying in a laneway, though people had tried to help him, and said you can’t always blame society and government.

An interview with Corrie himself, originally recorded two months ago by reporter Hannah Parkes of Dublin City FM, was broadcast on Newstalk’s Lunchtime Show later on Wednesday. It had “added poignancy” now, as presenter Jonathan Healy pointed out, but Corrie didn’t fit any lazy stereotypes about the homeless, being very articulate and frank about his life in general. He had been living rough “for many years”, homelessness had become “a way of life” for him and now he was “not too pushed about getting indoors”.

Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1) featured many other moving stories of homeless people during the week and I was particularly struck by Tom’s story – after various troubles he regarded it as miraculous that he got his life back on track with the help of the AA and a Christian fellowship group.

His story was repeated on Playback (RTÉ Radio 1) last Saturday morning and for a while I wondered if I was in fact listening to Playback. It was presented by stand-in Ronan Kelly, and his approach to the week’s highlights was quirky, distinctive and even poetic. For example, he described Senator Mary Louise O’Donnell’s regular arrival into Sean O’Rourke’s studio, “sprinkling happy dust everywhere”, and it wasn’t his only striking metaphor. We could have done without some mildly crude extracts from RTÉ 2fm’s Breakfast Republic Show, but I hope we’ll hear from Kelly again.

Finally, a few other items worth checking out – on Joe Duffy’s Spirit Level last Sunday afternoon I was glad to have music back on the show. Soprano Celine Byrne sang O Holy Night and followed up with a lively interview in which she spoke enthusiastically about her Catholic faith. She also contributed positively to the discussion on sin that followed. Meanwhile RTÉ’s Audrey Carville is getting around these days – she presented Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence last week, which among other items featured a thought-provoking item on restorative justice and a fascinating discussion on the ethics of robotics and artificial intelligence, especially as all this applies to robotic weapons. Flawed and all as we are, do we really want weapons with a mind of their own?


Pick of the Week

Joe Duffy's Spirit Level

RTĖ 1, Sun, Dec 14, 5pm

Joe Duffy and his panel explore the phenomenon that is Pope Francis.

Documentary on One: Our Teenage Prison

RTĖ Radio 1, Sat, Dec 13, 2pm

Natasha and Minahil have spent much of their childhoods growing up in the direct provision system for asylum seekers.

Bilbo's Journey: A Catholic Travel Guide to The Hobbit

EWTN, Sat, Dec 13, 7pm

An action-packed production revealing the Catholicity of JRR Tolkien's classic.