The most recent episode of Irish political and culture podcast The Irish Passport sees its hosts, Naomi O’Leary and Tim McInerney, leave their usual studio for a Dublin pub. The sound quality is echoey, the background noise distracting, but the joy is palpable.
Giggling and distracted amid the shock and glee, the hosts recap witnessing a 66 per cent vote in favour of repealing Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion. O’Leary takes her microphone out to Dublin Castle and records the ‘jagged release’ of the crowd in celebration of the news. ‘It feels like we’re in a new Ireland!’ says one woman. ‘We’re a better country than we thought we were.’ You can hear the smile in her voice.
Researchers looking at modern history have long used the vast media industry as a primary resource. News, the ‘first rough draft of history’, captures stories in the moment, and with the internet, we are creating more (and perhaps rougher) drafts than ever before. It’s interesting, then, to think of podcasts – and, in particular, their interviews recorded both in the studio and as vox pops on the street – as a new source of first-person references for the history books. The recent Irish referendum, and the podcasts that focused on and sprung up around it, offers a look at how this history might be shaped in real time. The podcast format, ranging from independent productions on a shoestring through to commercial media enterprises, creates both a depth and a breadth of conversation, expanding out, perhaps, from the radio with its larger historic considerations of audiences and scheduling.
The recent Irish referendum, and the podcasts that focused on and sprung up around it, offers a look at how this history might be shaped in real time.
Arguably, the most influential politics podcast is also one of the oldest. Slate’s Political Gabfest has been running since 2005, in a round-table format with hosts discussing three topics a week (the referendum got a brief mention on Gabfest, tying into a discussion on abortion rights in the US). Gabfest’s stylistic influence is clear in podcasts produced in the UK and Ireland which looked at the referendum, such as the Guardian’s Politics Weekly, the Progressive Britain Podcast, and the Irish Times’ Inside Politics all folding the discussion into their regular programming.
But discussions bleed out beyond the political: The High Low spoke about abortion between pop culture news and analysis of the joy of watching the Royal Wedding; The Standard Issue built a two-part documentary looking at the history of the debate and the current climate; in the great tradition of comedians-talking-to-comedians podcasts, The Alison Spittle Show hosted comedian and abortion-rights activist Tara Flynn.
Most interesting, though, were the singularly focused podcasts: the documentary podcast The Eighth, where pro-repeal producer Ciara O’Connor Walsh carefully worked to talk of and to both sides of the debate, and Don’t Stop Repealin’ – created, says co-host and nail salon owner Andrea Horan, for her friends who ‘couldn’t give a crap about reading opinion pieces.’
Over the campaign, Don’t Stop rose from a small, independently-funded weekly podcast dreamt up in March, to the top of the Irish iTunes charts, with Horan and her co-host, journalist Una Mullally, interviewing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in his government office.
Over the campaign, Don’t Stop Repealin’ rose from a small, independently-funded weekly podcast to the top of the Irish iTunes charts.
Don’t Stop was a place to listen to interviews, to find out information about events, to critique both sides of the media, to celebrate the voices of those who have been fighting. Horan and Mullally always knew the difficulties that they would face: their first episode lists ‘five ways to stay sane during the campaign’. But it was an activist space of joy and fun and hope, carving out its own critical space in the media.
The Eighth did not have these same feelings of joy. Weaving together conversational interviews, produced documentary, crafted biographical audio stories and historical accounts, and personal confessional, the ten-part series is a remarkable real-time record of the debate. O’Connor Walsh’s podcast often makes for harrowing listening: she dives deep into the stories of women who travelled to have abortions – including her own – and integrates the way this process creates feelings of guilt and secrecy which wouldn’t be present in a society with access to abortions.
She speaks, too, to people voting No, from young university students to moral philosophers. She visits an anti-repeal march, and the audio captured there is difficult to listen to. More acutely than any other podcast I listened to, she spoke about the ways the Eighth Amendment, and the patriarchal system it folds into, impacts women during labour in often difficult, if not downright terrible, ways.
Repealing the Eighth was won, in no small part by women’s stories, and The Eighth shined a considered and detailed light on these stories, without shying away from listening to people on the No side. O’Connor Walsh cries through much of the last episode, watching the results come in. ‘This was worth it,’ she says. ‘It was worth it to sit in front of people who disagreed with me, or who were ambivalent, and to say: I had an abortion.’
In the light of the overwhelming majority voting to repeal, it would be easy to look back and think the choice was inevitable; the conclusion will certainly shift memories. But these podcasts – now largely consigned to the past as the political podcast wheels keep turning – become a historical document of the fears of progressive voters: fears of a ‘silent majority’ of No voters; of polls overestimating the number of Yes voters; of numbers that wouldn’t match the ‘stonking win’ of the same-sex marriage referendum (which came in at 62 per cent).
‘It will be close,’ you hear said over multiple podcasts.
‘A horrible part of me thinks that it will be women’s Brexit.’
Repealing the Eighth was won, in no small part by women’s stories, and The Eighth shined a considered and detailed light on these stories.
Time and time again, the various podcasts looked back to the 1995 referendum on allowing divorce: the Yes vote won with 50.28 per cent. One vote changed at each box, says one guest on The Standard Issue, and the vote would’ve fallen to the other side. Of the podcasts I listen to, Inside Politics was the only one truly confident of a Yes vote, putting their faith in the polls. But even then, they warned that the predicted 58 per cent Yes vote would probably go down.
In much the same way as major political events find their way into our day-to-day conversations, podcasts filtered the referendum through lenses of history, comedy, pop-culture, and broader progressive movements. It was looked at from inside Ireland for an Irish listenership; outside Ireland for an international perspective; from inside Ireland looking out – podcasters knowing they were taking these stories to the world.
These stories came largely from women, but also from men. I listened to young women who came into their politics following the death of Savita Halappanavar; older women who have been fighting for this repeal since the amendment was introduced in 1983; women in tears, and women breathless with relief.
I tried to seek out podcasts from both the Yes and the No side of the debate – but, overwhelmingly, I could only find those from Yes positions. In light of a 66 per cent vote to repeal, this perhaps isn’t surprising. But it speaks to the young and progressive population that exists in both the making and consuming of podcasts.
Both sides of #RepealThe8th debate have been at fault, whether it's the NO side lying about being nurses, slandering marchers as fascists, assaulting hospitals with traumatic images and suppressing young voters, or the YES side [checks notes] recording podcasts.
— Seamas It Ever Was (@shockproofbeats) May 3, 2018
Like The Eighth, the Irish Times’ The Women’s Podcast also looked at both sides of the debate – most interestingly hosting a conversation between two 79-year-old friends on opposite sides. But the podcast itself came down for Yes: much like The Irish Times published a pro-Yes editorial, The Women’s Podcast read out their own editorial for Yes.
The one podcast I listened to from an avowed No voter (although in one episode he describes himself as ‘undecided’ and ‘sceptical’ about voting Yes) was The Stand with Eamon Dunphy; perhaps the podcast to break most loudly through the noise into the traditional media, thanks to prominent No campaigner John Waters storming out of an interview with the ostensibly like-minded Dunphy, yelling ‘You’re bollocks! You’re a fucking bollocks!’
In much the same way as major political events find their way into our day-to-day conversations, podcasts filtered the referendum through lenses of history, comedy, pop-culture, and broader progressive movements.
‘Fuck off and talk to Una Mullally!’ – Waters’ parting words as he left the room – became a T-shirt, a remix, and a rallying cry for the Yes vote. It was, as Inside Politics, described it, ‘a sense of release’ to laugh at this man’s rage and ire. But when Dunphy does indeed fuck off and talk to Mullally, he comes across as a genuine and sensitive interviewer, prepared to have a thoughtful conversation with the other side of politics. Still, after months of debate, you cannot help but feel the exhaustion of Mullally and other campaigners, and the strain of these continuing conversations.
This new media form of engaging with politics, perhaps, has the power to make us narrow our perspectives – but it also allows focus, elevating those we feel we need to listen to, those we haven’t listened to enough before. The distribution of political discussion no longer sits with a handful of editors: the plurality of voices heard on podcasts during the referendum places the discussion firmly in the hands of the people, believing in the power of their voice to make a change – or at least to have fun in the process.