Joe Taylor was on the radio tonight, playing what RTÉ describe as “(almost) everybody else within earshot,” opposite the monologue of Mulligan, the character played by John Kavanagh, in the play “Quarks, Quavers and a Pea in the Gods” by Austin Kenny and Shay Healy.
Joe Taylor’s talent for playing multiple parts in a single performance became famous in the early 2000s when he would appear on the Vincent Browne programme and speak the words spoken by the great, and by the not so good, at that day’s hearings of the various tribunals of inquiry into alleged corrupt activities.
There was one night from those times that was particularly memorable, Joe Taylor was on the programme and there were no parts for him to play; perhaps a hearing had been unexpectedly adjourned, or perhaps the material before the tribunal had been so complex, or bound up in legal jargon, that it did not bear repetition. Anyway, Vincent Browne was on air and Joe Taylor was in studio and, driving south from Belfast after a meeting that had not finished before ten o’clock or so, it was going to be interesting to hear what might be broadcast.
Instead of talking about the tribunals, Joe Taylor talked about his father’s life as a prison officer, in the days when there was still capital punishment in Ireland. Joe Taylor spoke of how it was customary for one of the prison officers to remain with a condemned prisoner on their final night. Preparations for the execution had been made; the hangman Albert Pierrepoint had arrived from England; the prisoner had been measured and weighed; it was only a matter of hours before the condemned man was led from his cell at Mountjoy. Joe Taylor’s father was the man who sat with the prisoner through those long hours. The experience must have been almost indescribable. At 4 am, the prisoner and Officer Taylor received news through the prison governor that the death sentence had been commuted to one of life imprisonment.
It was an extraordinarily powerful piece of radio. Joe Taylor spoke of how that night had made his father a passionate opponent of capital punishment; his calm and gentle telling of the story retains its power, even a decade later.
The rapid and continuing expansion of media, on satellite and online, has brought with it the diminution of the chance of such serendipitous moments. Radio narrowcasting and television which is no more than video on demand has meant that our future will be one where such conversations will not take place.