Jon Faine’s enthusiasm for Ireland is infectious. The Irish Echo felt like a proud parent when talking to him about his recent trip. The fact he has no Irish background makes it all the better.
It was not his first trip to Ireland. “I was there as a backpacker in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s,” he says. “Travelling without money and travelling with a bit of money in your pocket is very different. I know which one I prefer.
“The place is unrecognisable. We had a fabulous holiday. I think partly it’s because Ireland has changed so much. It used to be a fairly inward looking place and now it’s outward looking.”
Faine and his wife Jan made their own way around Ireland, not relying on any preordained routes.
“We’re the sort of tourists who are allergic to tour buses so we hired a car. We didn’t do the Ring of Kerry, but we did do the Dingle and Beara peninsulas because they were quieter and we loved them. We did the Cliffs of Moher and really liked the Burren.”
After arriving in Dublin they went to Kilkenny and then on to Oysterhaven, near Kinsale, Co Cork. “Then we went along the coast to Dingle and Killarney, then got the ferry across the Shannon and went to Ballyvaughan, from where we went to the Burren. Then we went back to Kilkenny and I went on to Dublin to fly home but Jan went to Galway for the arts festival. Jan’s mother’s family are Brennans. She has never
done a family history, but she was quite excited to feel the connection. She got caught up in it all,” he says.
Faine says the personal touch was often the highlight. “We had lots of funny experiences, bumping into people who tell you stories and insist on showing you extraordinary hospitality.
“We were at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin Castle, which is just fantastic. Afterwards we went to the cafeteria to have lunch. A man in a suit, a local businessman, said ‘Is there a spare seat at this table, can I sit down?’ He asked where we’d been, where we were going, all that kind of stuff,” says Faine.
“I asked him what he did and he said he worked in a brewery. I said ‘you don’t look like a brewer, what do you do?’ He said he worked in the office. I said what he did in the office and he said he solved problems. As he was leaving he gave me his card and said if we got stuck to give him a call.
“I looked at the card after he was gone and it said Rory Guinness. I quickly grabbed the phone and looked him up on the internet and it said he was the fourth earl of blah, blah and the heir to the fortune and worth a mere 600 million euro or something. He was just so friendly. It typified the fact that people are so incredibly welcoming.”
Most people he encountered had some connection to Australia.
“You’d go into the chemist to buy some toothpaste and people would ask where you were from and they’d know someone there. Before you know it you’re there for 20 minutes. It’s so overwhelmingly welcoming. We’ve travelled to all sorts of places around the world and really you have to say Irish people are the friendliest in the world. It’s fabulous, a most endearing quality.
“Dublin is a bit different, but once you are out and about, everywhere you went people would offer you food, they’d say have a beer or a whiskey, whatever you like, have a chat. The music scene was great too. If you wanted to sing a song, you could. It’s just a really lovely way of life. The quality of the food was vastly better than you get in rural England, too,” says Faine.
Ireland’s vote for same-sex marriage cropped up in a lot of conversations. “I’m fascinated there’s a country where the clergy were telling people to vote No in the same-sex marriage referendum, but people thought ‘Well, you don’t tell us what to think anymore’. I asked people could they explain that to me, and off you go – we’d have a really good chat about Irish society and culture and the way the country has modernised and changed,” he says.
Faine also learned a bit more about Irish history. “Next year is the anniversary of the 1916 Rising. I knew the vague outline of the history, but I learned more and more and the stories are so well told, especially at Kilmainham jail in Dublin. I could have spent hours and hours in there. I had no sense of just how raw some of those experiences were and how defining they were. I ended up wanting to know more about how they [the British] maintained such a brutal repression for so many hundreds of years,” he says.
Naturally enough, Faine listened to the radio in Ireland. “We listened to RTÉ and it was fabulous. This is somewhat self-interested, but the presenters have shorter shifts than we do. The quality of the talkback on RTÉ1 and the engagement with the callers and some of the arguments that they’d let people have … there was one long, extended argument between two callers about whether Greece should or shouldn’t be bailed out. It was very well informed; the level of the debate was terrific and the presenter was a great moderator.”
“We were just driving along for hours listening to the radio. I was on holiday, so I didn’t want to think about it all too much, but I can appreciate what works on radio is the amount of energy and the authority the presenter has. The authority you can bring to bear and the energy that you inject into your guests to get them to perform, because it is performance. I was really impressed with what I heard,” says Faine.
They also saw some hurling, both live and on television. “It was a schoolboy championship and they were 15- and 16-year-olds. We had a chat to some of the dads about it. We also saw the [Leinster] final between Kilkenny and Galway. Thankfully we were in Kilkenny and Kilkenny won, so that was OK. It’s so quick a stranger can’t quite follow the nuance of it, particularly in a crowded pub, but it was good fun.”
Jill Meagher, the Irish woman who was murdered in Melbourne in September 2012, worked with Faine on ABC. While in Dublin, Faine met her husband, Tom Meagher. “We caught up for dinner and it was a private dinner. It was quite important to me,” he says.
Jon Faine broadcasts on 774 ABC Melbourne from 8.30-11am on weekdays.