Radio: To the 1970s and beyond

Bringing people to places they may not usually go is a good mechanism to inform and entertain. Diarmuid Ferriter does it each Sunday morning when he asks a hypothetical ‘what if' question to one or two expert panellists (What If, RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday 10.30am). What if the Abbey theatre had never been founded? What if Ireland did not join the EEC? If the pope's visit had happened later? If Ryanair had gone bust in 1991?

When the show started in 2004 it seemed gimmicky, but two years and a book later, the formula works. What if brings history to people that they may not otherwise hear. It explains contemporary stories when other reporting fails. It allows hypothetical questions to be indulged.

On 7 January, Ferriter took us back to the main political crisis of 1976, as reported in the recently-opened state papers – the resignation of president Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh.

Sometimes subjects like this can go over the heads of all but the most interested, so Ferriter sought to tease out the question of ‘what if' Ó Dálaigh had acted differently and not resigned as president.

The British ambassador to Ireland had been murdered and the Fine Gael-led coalition government was pushing through emergency powers in October 1976. Ó Dálaigh, who had become president by accident after Erskine Childers's sudden death two years before, referred a series of tough state security bills to the Supreme Court despite senior legal advice that it was constitutional. Patrick Donegan, then minister for defence, described Ó Dálaigh as a “thundering disgrace”, which resulted in Ó Dálaigh's resignation. Patrick Hillery became president, where he remained for two terms of office.

The state papers revealed that Ó Dálaigh was very unhappy in office and was looking for an excuse to resign, that he was “astonishingly politically naive”, lacking in judgement and suffering from depression at the time. They also showed that Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave too acted unwisely, and that his failure to fire Donegan contributed to Fine Gael and Labour's subsequent election demise.

In a 30-minute interview with two contemporary journalists, Ferriter's What If communicated the story effectively and with interest.

The first programme in The Big Adventure, a new series by Manchán Magan, failed spectacularly to bring listeners to another place (RTÉ Radio 1, Mondays 8.02pm). It is always unwise to bill a programme so effusively – “a series for nomads, roamers and wide-eyed dreamers... for people willing... to experience life to the max, diving into it, skiing down it, clambering up it with picks and shackles in the face of a force-10 gale...”. Promising such big adventures surely means it's destined to fail. The first programme involved Magan talking to a seal hunter and a travel documentary filmmaker about their ‘travel/work adventures', their near-death experiences, how lucky they are to do what they do. Has no one ever told Magan that there is little in life duller than having to look through other people's holiday photos? This programme was a drearier radio version of strangers' not-so-interesting travel tales. Pure awful.