As he returns to our TV screens with a new season of The Meaning of Life, Joe Duffy talks to Janice Butler about the standout moments of Liveline during the pandemic, how he kept busy during lockdown and being surprised by guests on the new show.

Joe Duffy’s voice has been a presence on the Irish airwaves for over 20 years with the phrase 'Talk to Joe’ as synonymous in Ireland as Brennan’s Bread. During the pandemic, however, his repetition of ‘Wash Your Hands’ became a national catchphrase. "I was really taken aback by the amount of people who said; ‘Your radio show really helped us during the pandemic’," says Joe when we catch up after his daily Radio One Liveline gig as he makes his way home to Clontarf.

"Radio became really important during the pandemic; people couldn’t go out into the world by walking out the hall door, but you could go out into the world by turning on your radio. I was very conscious that it was a really important time and that we had to be on top of our game," he adds.

He was on air every day during the pandemic, coming into the studio with a small team. He says working from home wasn’t an option for him and the type of show they do. "You need to be there with the people that are putting through those calls, you have to trust them completely, it’s a very intimate environment. The best moments on Liveline turn on a dime".

Was he ever concerned about his health, coming into work, especially in the early days? "I was very strict; I just went in and came straight home, we were all worried about our health, but the Radio Centre was practically empty at the time, it was quite eerie, especially at the start."

In the last year, Liveline threw up many standout moments; one of the most memorable at the start of the pandemic was the conversation that erupted when Sally Rooney’s Normal People aired on our screens and consumed viewers. One caller phoned in to say that the televised adaptation starring Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones was like "something you would expect to see in a porno movie". To which Joe replied with a deep sigh, "what would you see in a porno movie?"

The debate then sparked more discussion on social media regarding the show, which was one of the most talked-about Irish programmes for some time; even the director, Lenny Abrahamson weighed-in on Twitter with a meme of Joe.

"That certainly got everyone talking," laughs Joe. "Our audience went up over four hundred thousand during that time, which is an incredible figure," he adds.

More recently, Joe took on some anti-vaccination campaigners when he talked to a caller, Deb Cahill about her late sister Nicole. These campaigners were falsely attributing Nicole’s death to the Covid-19 vaccine and using her image to promote their protests. The family were deeply upset about this and reached out to Joe.

"That was the lowest of the low," says Joe. "I’ve been wanting to call them out for a long time, people seem to be afraid of them," he adds. "But they’ve spent the last week putting up videos of me and calling me every name under the sun and every insult, but that’s okay, I’m well able for that, I’m a presenter now for 25 years at this stage, I can handle it."

Always very passionate and empathetic in his approach to people – a throwback to his days as a social worker before he went into broadcasting – it was no surprise that last year, Joe took over from his good friend, the late Gay Byrne on the spiritually-based interview show, The Meaning of Life.

Now in his second season as presenter, the show, which initially aired between 2009 and 2016, saw Joe speak to some of the biggest names in showbiz and politics about topics such as morality, addiction and abuse.

Returning this week with legendary actress Jane Seymour as the first guest, Joe admits he takes the TV role very seriously. "I read everything that’s ever been written or said about the person before I meet them – you’re trying to get the best you can out of the person. It is called The Meaning of Life – you’re trying to go a little bit deeper with people and I think that works, I like that style."

In a world where we’ve become a lot more open about expressing our feelings and anxieties, does he find that people are still hesitant to talk about their religious beliefs? "Yeah, they can be; a lot of people don’t like talking about religion or their beliefs and that’s understandable," he replies. "I think I’ve been aware of that over the years. Gay Byrne once said to me ‘never mock anyone’s religion or beliefs’. I take that very seriously and I don’t mind if people check me if I say something that’s insulting to their religion."

Speaking of his first guest, Jane Seymour, he admits to being surprised at how open she was as they spent a day together in Dun Laoghaire during the summer. "I was surprised with Jane, but in a lovely way. She’s a superstar and she gave us the guts of a day, on a Sunday while she was filming in Dublin. She was very giving, very generous and very insightful."

Someone else from this season who seems to have made an impact on him is fellow broadcaster, Eamonn Holmes, who opened up to Joe about his experiences as a child growing up in Belfast during The Troubles.

"We dad a full day with him in a venue of his choice, which was his old school in Belfast. Once the cameras started rolling, I thought he was very giving," he says, adding: "He broke down twice during the interview when he talked about his family and growing up in Belfast during The Troubles. He was in a Catholic school located in a Protestant area and he used to walk home every day with the compass from his geometry set, hidden up his sleeve in case he was attacked. We forget about that; the fear people had in their daily lives in Belfast, you could never let your guard down."

When I ask does he set out to make people cry, like Piers Morgan has often been accused of with his in-depth interview show, Life Stories, he doesn’t take too kindly to the comparison.

"That’s an insult – no, you’re not trying to get someone to cry, you want people to be honest with you and tell you what they feel comfortable telling you. If that was your attitude in life, you’d be a deeply cynical person and shouldn’t be anywhere near broadcasting. You have to care about people and like them, you’re not trying to use them for a reaction."

Having turned 65 this year, Joe has no intention of hanging up the Liveline mic; he’s a contractor to RTÉ and he maintains that his future is in their hands. "That’s RTÉ’s call, they can decide in the morning they don’t want me anymore," he says. "That’s why we get the RTÉ Guide next week, to see if I’m still on!" he laughs.

"I love my job, it’s a privilege to be there, even more so during the pandemic, it was a privilege to be with a great team and to be able to stay healthy during it."

Apart from work, he kept busy during the lockdown tipping away with a crime novel, but having written many books over the last decade – two of which have won National Book Awards –he doesn’t have as high hopes for this one. "It’s fiction based on real events around the crash. Half the time I think it’s a crime novel and it will be a crime if it’s ever published," he laughs. "I’m doing it for my own mental health; a novel lets you get a lot off your chest, it’s not you talking, it’s the narrator or characters."

He went for walks when the gym was closed, listened to audiobooks, did some painting and spent time with his triplets, Ellen, Sean and Ronan (26) who have flown the nest recently.

"We were all home together during lockdown, so it certainly wasn’t quiet," he says. He’s not one to binge on a Netflix series; nature or train shows are his viewing of choice, so you won’t find him watching crime drama like RTÉ’s new series, Kin or the previously popular Love/Hate, in fact, Joe, originally from Ballyfermot takes great offence to them.

"That’s real people’s lives, that’s my sister's life, my family live in Ballyfermot, I hate their travails being exploited by middle class actors who are putting on their thick working class Dublin accents and then go back to eating their foie gras during their lunch break. The thing that kept me going during the lockdown was Paths to Freedom, the RTÉ show that’s on the Player now, I must have watched every episode about six times. It’s easily the funniest thing RTÉ has ever broadcast, intentionally," he laughs.

In fact, he enjoyed it so much, he took pen to paper and wrote to one of the stars of it, Deirdre O’Kane, during lockdown.

"I wrote to her while I was watching it, because I was so conscious of actors who had lost all their work during the lockdown, it must have been very tough on them."

And that remark sums up Joe and why he’s always been a man of the people.