On Saturday, September 9th, Olivia O’Leary takes over the reins of The Poetry Programme on RTÉ Radio One.
O’Leary has always valued poetry’s ability to truthfully account for the times and historical events that she has covered as a journalist and broadcaster since she joined RTÉ’s then male-dominated newsroom in the early 1970s.
Listen to the first edition of Olivia O'Leary's Poetry Programme below:
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"Poets have an ability to be seers and prophets," says the new host of The Poetry Programme. "Because they stand back they hear the underground rumblings that maybe a lot of us don’t hear because we are tearing around the place in the middle of the sirens. They see the longer-term view… That is partly because they watch, they look, and they listen. They think before they write."
"It is important to read living poets, because the poems are knitted out of the life and events that you are going through."
For O’Leary poetry worked as a barometer of the stories she covered, particularly the political ones, which in her time meant the Northern Irish Troubles.
"The thing about poetry is it’s true. This is one of the reasons that a lot of journalists like reading poetry. Because poetry, like journalism, should be in search of the truth, and it needs to be very honest. You can almost always tell when it’s not."
Seamus Heaney was a poet who mapped the nuances of Northern Ireland onto the page at a time when O’Leary was reporting on the Troubles. His work helped her gain a deeper understanding of the place; his poems recast the borders of our collective consciousness in a way that accommodated the North and its people.
"He made the Northern Ireland landscape a part of our imaginative landscapes. We all know Sligo from Yeats and Dublin from Joyce. We know Kate O’Brien’s Limerick and Frank O’Connor’s Cork. But suddenly he made part of Northern Ireland a part of us.
"I always thought it was extraordinary that he managed to do something imaginatively that politics has failed to do, and which may not happen for a very long time, if it ever does happen."
"She (Eavan Boland) broke down the walls of prejudice against women poets. Because by God it was there, it is still there if we don’t scream loud enough about it."
As a pioneering feminist, O’Leary paved the way for women in the media through her career in broadcasting, which continues to serve as an example for others to emulate. Yet sadly, four decades on from when she started out, we still read reports over recent weeks detailing the inequality in female broadcaster’s pay and the lack of women given opportunities to present primetime shows on the Irish airwaves. O’Leary’s voice remains one of the few exceptions as she takes up her slot at 7:30pm on Saturdays from September.
She joined the current affairs team in RTÉ in 1972 as one of the few female reporters. To her mind things were starting to change by then, thanks to those women that went before. But her achievements and visibility as the first senior female reporter on RTÉ’s Today Tonight, as well as becoming the BBC’s first female presenter of Newsnight, served as audacious and invaluable markers in the media landscape for what women could achieve.
"The people who broke through the barricades for me in journalism were those early women liberationists, Mary Maher, Nell McCafferty, but centrally Eavan Boland. Eavan was out there fighting the good fight for feminism on a whole general political front, as well as writing about it.
"Suddenly, this was a woman who was such a very fine poet, but who unapologetically said the subject of my poetry will be my life, and my life as a woman will have to reflect a domestic life. And that was very difficult; she had to fight for that at that particular period. She broke down the walls of prejudice against women poets. Because by God it was there, it is still there if we don’t scream loud enough about it."
"The big thing we are trying to do on this programme is to make sure that it is packed with poems."
It was when illness struck in her own life that O’Leary found some solace in poetry.
"Poetry became really personal for me in my forties when I got breast cancer. I was ill. I was out of it for a long time… And I think my focus was gone.
"A friend brought me a set of poetry books. I found that they answered a need in me to read something that was a bit deeper… There was something transcendent about the poems that I needed at the time, I really started to read poetry then."
She has carried these benefits through the rest of her career. On the new show, she hopes to expose listeners to the myriad joys and perspectives that poetry gifts to readers.
"The big thing we are trying to do on this programme is to make sure that it is packed with poems. Not just talk about poems, but have lots of poets reading their own poetry."
"The thing about poetry is it’s true. This is one of the reasons that a lot of journalists like reading poetry."
She is keenly aware of how important this platform on the national airwaves is for these artists who are so rarely afforded the time.
"Poets don’t have that many broadcast platforms. So I’m going to make sure that mostly what you’ll hear on this programme is poems. You know that thing they say on commercial radio, ‘Less talk, more music.’ To a certain extent we’ll be operating on that principal."
And beyond giving poets the exposure, what does the show aim to achieve?
"To try to reconnect people who maybe will have put poetry in that dusty little cupboard at the back of their minds…
"Sometimes we forget the power of poetry. And it would be lovely to feel that a lot of people would turn and read new poetry. Because these are living poets and they are writing out of the material of our time, out of the air that you and I breathe. That is why it is important to read living poets, because the poems are knitted out of the life and events that you are going through."
The new season of The Poetry Programme starts at 7:30pm on Saturday, September 9th, on RTÉ Radio 1. More details on the show can be found here.