THE HOT PRESS INTERVIEW
In a searingly honest interview, Today FM's Fergal D'Arcy talks about losing his father whilst a teenager; the mental health struggles that followed; and his recent brush with cancer.
No one can accuse Hot Press DJ of the Year, FERGAL D’ARCY, of not putting his heart and soul into his radio show. In a searingly honest interview, he talks to STUART CLARK about losing his father whilst a teenager; the mental health struggles that followed; and his recent brush with cancer. Plus, we get his thoughts on Caroline Flack, Mary Lou McDonald, Tony Fenton, Dave Fanning and what’s right and wrong about Irish broadcasting.
“Idon’t want to sound pornographic, but I’d almost be on a raging semi coming out of the studio. The endorphins will be running wild in there. I get turned on by it. Often times I’d come in and be thinking, ‘Mic, you and I are going to do great work.’” If rampant enthusiasm for one’s job was an Olympic sport, Fergal D’Arcy would be a cert to bring gold back from Tokyo this summer. That’s if the Coronavirus doesn’t force the cancellation of the XXXII games starting in July. Instead, the 35-yearold Today FM aftertoon man has a mantlepiece full of PPI Radio Awards and, now, the honour of being crowned Radio DJ of the Year in the Hot Press Readers’ Poll.
It’s 4.31pm on a Friday afternoon, and the proud son of Ballinasloe has just finished another week of getting up close and personal with the microphone in Marconi House. He’s the same bundle of endorphinous energy in real life, telling me with a dramatic wave of the arms how great two of his recent interviewees, Tim Wheeler and David Gray, were and how much he’s looking forward to seeing Gavin James’ headlining turn tomorrow night in the 3Arena.
Gav entrusted picking his opening act to Fergal’s 105,000-plus listeners who helped alt. folkster Eoin Keely get the gig. Like the great Tony Fenton before him, D’Arcy has garnered a reputation for going the extra mile for Irish acts with Ann Marie, Ódu, Dan Elliott, Delush and Cathal Flaherty also feeling the radio love from him recently.
Bidding ‘adieu’ to County Galway to study media at DIT in Dublin, Fergal landed his first radio gig at Clare FM before being head-hunted by regional youth station iRadio where, in addition to dance music duties, he helmed the Go Home drivetime slot.
His JNLR figures screamed out to the then Today FM CEO, Peter McPartlin, who didn’t have to do too much persuading to bring Fergal back to the capital. It was Tony Fenton’s tragic death in March 2015 that resulted in his move from evenings to the afternoon, which he loves because it doesn’t interfere with his frenetic gig-going.
While the tone of the show is predominantly upbeat, Fergal has talked candidly about his mental health struggles, which revolve in part around losing his dad when he was 15, and the shock of discovering three years ago that he has polycythaemia, a rare form of blood cancer. He’s been at the forefront of Today FM’s Dare To Care fundraising efforts and last year made a powerful contribution to Hot Press and Pieta House’s Now We’re Talking event. We’ll discuss all of that in a moment, but first to matters musical...
Stuart: An easy one for starters – first record bought and gig attended, and no saying Nick Drake and Nirvana if it was actually Chris de Burgh and Take That!
Fergal: Shit, rumbled… no, it was The Pale locally on the back of a lorry at the October Fair. My first real gig was Radiohead and The Cardigans in Castlegar Sports Grounds, Galway. There were two first records I spent my Christmas money on – Prince and the Batman: Original Motion Picture Score, which was probably the best thing about the film, and Michael Jackson’s Bad, which I have to this day on cassette.
“We don’t play Michael Jackson anymore on Today FM.”
Can you still listen to Michael Jackson in the same way after all the revelations?
Yeah, I love that album. I’m dubious about a lot of this stuff, and I’ll tell you why, right? The FBI went into this man’s house, and searched through all of his stuff. It went to trial and he was acquitted. Ten years after his death they released this new documentary featuring two people who previously said he didn’t do anything. In fairness, there’s no smoke without fire, but it’s just not clear-cut enough for me. Perhaps the FBI weren’t thorough enough in their investigation but I find that highly unlikely. They normally get their man or woman.
I’ve had this conversation with loads of people because we don’t play Michael Jackson anymore on Today FM.
Was Ballinasloe a good place to grow up in?
It was actually a very lively and interesting place to grow up in. In the ‘80s it had three big international factories – Square D, Dubarry and AT Cross, the pen company. There were two hospitals, a multitude of schools and the technical college. It had a healthy economy and was a great place for families to settle. However, in the naughties all that declined pretty dramatically.
Would there have been a big drinking culture there?
It was typical of all rural Irish towns in that there were thirty to forty pubs all doing a roaring trade. Now there’d only be four or five that
would be open all week. You have to take into account that the laws have changed. There was a time when a lad could go down to his local, have four or five pints and deem it okay to drive home without anyone really giving out to him. That doesn’t happen anymore, which is a good thing, but nevertheless it has lead to local pubs that were people’s entire social lives in rural areas closing. Whether it was the well-off bars, the middle of the road places or the really run down ones, every pub had its alcoholics.
Quite a few people have died recently in Connemara as a result of boy racers dueling it out on country roads. Was that a thing in your day?
Guys driving around in the souped up Micras? Yeah, they had all sorts of small cars with stickers on and chromes put up. I’m into cars, but not the doughnuting/boy racer side of things. I didn’t start driving until I was 23. My first car was a Toyota Corolla. I’ve bought a load since. I had a BMW 30 and a 525. I found an A-Team van in deep rural Galway outside of Arranmore, which we gutted, stuck a Detroit V8 engine into and re-sprayed. It’s a party wagon used for going to festivals. I interviewed The Script in it. I gave Danny a pen to sign something and he went up and wrote on the side of the van. With a sharpie! I was disgusted: “You little shite, I’ll come round and scribble on whatever you’re feckin’ driving!”
When was the first time you thought, “I want to work in the media!”
One of my earliest memories is being in national school at seven or eight. My dad had access to a photocopier in his factory. So a friend, Anna Maguire, and myself got loads of stickers and things and stuck them onto pieces of copybook paper and made our own little magazine. My dad photocopied it and we handed it around to people. When I was in secondary, we had a school mag called The Fountain, which for some reason didn’t come out one year. So myself and another pal, Eamonn Lally who’s since passed away, produced our own bootleg version of The Fountain. Doing the Leaving Cert, journalism was my fifth choice. I got the points to do law but I was like, “No, this has been calling me. I’ll regret it if I don’t give it a go.”
Who else was in the house besides your dad growing up?
My mum and my sister who was a lot brainier than me. Mum was a psychiatric nurse and dad was an engineer. He died when I was 15.
I know from my own dad dying when I was 15 that that’s not easy for a lad. How did you react?
By suppressing my emotions and becoming the man of the house. We were lucky in that we had phenomenal aunties, uncles and cousins and seven or eight families down the road who minded each other. “Can I get a cup of washing powder?” That kind of craic went on. The neighbours would swap; one lad would give another lad a bag of spuds and get a load of beetroot in return. My dad was mad into pickling and preserving and had loads of jars in his shed. That’s what gave me my love of food. Losing dad did have a profound effect on me. I became very independent and worked two or three jobs. I threw myself into everything – plays, musicals, debating, the swimming team, the rugby team – I played for Connaught schoolboys. I made the mistake of not taking the time to grieve. My Uncle Sean, who lost his dad when he was young, said, “You can’t bottle it up; the grief has to come out.” It didn’t hit me until I was in my twenties. And then I had a massive breakdown.
Were you working on radio at the time?
That was part of it. For the first time ever, I took a gamble after leaving college and took a job in a town I didn’t know – Ennis – with Clare FM who I’ve a lot of respect for. I started working with a disc jockey who told me on my first day, “I don’t know if this relationship’s going to work out.” So I was there worrying that I might not have a gig in two weeks. Shortly after that I crashed my car and didn’t have it in my heart to tell my mother who had all these other pressures on her shoulders. I knew it’d only make her worry about me 24/7 so I said nothing. I was stuck in Co. Clare on minimum wage trying to figure out how to get the money together to fix this car and getting it back on the road because writing it off wasn’t an option.
I remember you telling me at the Pieta House event what an incredible person your mum is.
Yeah, she is and one who went through hell. She’d been widowed at 47 and lost her own dad young.
One of the features of my dad dying was that I then only had my mum to rebel against – and, boy, did I rebel!
My mother would have had a very rural upbringing and would have been very conservative. My dad was more free-minded and liberal and gave you greater leeway in certain things like, “If you want to have a pint, have a pint.” My mum’s a teetotaler and would not like to see my sister drinking. She’d give you money going off to college, but not to be sitting in the pub. I learned to fend for myself because I’d seen my sister and what she’d been through and knew what was coming down the line. I had the break up of four-year relationship going on at the same time, so it was coming at me from all sides.
Something had to give, which at this point was your mental health…
Yeah. After eventually getting the car fixed, the first place I drove was to my father’s grave and I just broke down. It was the first time I found myself crying out of nowhere. Coming back on the road I met my Auntie Anne who looked at me and went, “Oh my God, Fergal, turn the car round, I’ll go back and meet you in the house.” She’d never seen me in that state.
It must have been a difficult conversation.
I broke down again crying and told her, “I don’t know what to do.” I told her I’d crashed the car and she said, “Probably right you didn’t tell your mother!” People have had it a lot tougher than me but that was the one time I was like, “Dad, where the fuck were you when I needed you?” I didn’t have him to mind me and get me out of this situation. What’d really kill me was that I’d go into bars in Ballinasloe and see kids my age having a pint with their dad. There are still little things that annoy me like not being able to buy him an iPhone or watch the Star Wars prequels with him. He loved all that stuff. I don’t want to be giving you a sob story – to be honest, it’s made me a stronger man – but right then, I was down for the fucking count.
Did you manage to keep broadcasting through all of this?
Yeah, I stayed on the air. I’ve had several of those breakdowns, but I’ve always felt that the show must go on. Foul form or not, once the mic goes on it’s the audience that matters, not you. When I got Tony Fenton’s slot, I always thought it was a blessing because Tony was my dad’s name. And of course, I’d have looked to Tony for inspiration the same way I looked to my dad. He was so easy to talk to. Part of every DJ in Ireland died along with Tony Fenton.
“It didn’t hit me until I was in my twenties. And then I had a massive breakdown.”
Do you have carte blanche over the music you play like Tony did?
No, the system’s changed. Things are run off a playlist. I have a feature, called The People’s Playlist so I either get stuff in that way or break the rules. It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission! So I’m getting to champion the new guys coming up like JC Stewart, Lyra, True Tide and Brave Giant. One of the guys I think we’ve had a huge impact on is a young Waterford artist called Moncrieff.
Do you think that there should be a strict Irish music quota for radio stations here?
Absolutely. There are friends of mine who’d say that’s absolute shit, but I think it’s very important. It’s idiotic to not have it. There are loads of Irish artists like Dermot Kennedy who’ve had to go abroad to get exposed. Ruth-Anne Cunningham’s another. When she came in here first, she had almost no followers on social. She’d been working her goddam ass writing for people like JoJo and John Legend in America and just needed somebody to introduce her to people at home. That five-minute slot you give them is worth its weight in gold.
Along with your mental health, you’ve had cancer to contend with recently.
I came in here one morning in 2016 and was like, “Lads, the power in me arm isn’t quite right” and straight away Colm O’Sullivan and Ed Smith were, “Get you to the doctor now, boy!” So I go off and they did the ECG. The doctors had told me for years that I have this problem with my blood, hemochromatosis, which is an overload of iron. You have to drain it off. But in St. Vincent’s they did the check and said, “We think you have polycythaemia. Now if you’ll just wait there…” and the doctor left me in the room for 15 minutes.
It must have been a long quarter of an hour.
I did what any intelligent Irish man would do, which was take out my phone and Google polycythemia. Turns out it’s a cancer of the blood. The doctor comes back and straight away I go, “Is this cancer?” and he says, “It is and it isn’t. It’s not full-blown cancer.” My body creates too many red blood cells, which means I have too much oxygen and iron in my body. At some stages I can be full of energy, but if I hit tiredness it hits me bad and you have to drain blood. It’s smoker’s polycythemia so one of the things you can do is get the hell off the fags.
And have you?
I used to smoke twenty a day, easily, but now I only smoke when I’m having a drink. I’d smoke between three and eight. It’s totally gone down now so I’m not producing as much iron. I still go in to get the blood drained occasionally; in fact I’m in next week. So that’s where we are with it.
Ed Smith is very good at giving medical advice but shite at taking it.
Yeah, he meant to get his heart checked, but didn’t and had that major episode at Electric Picnic. I left Ed, who’s my best mate, at the bar at three o’clock in the morning and woke up to find he’d been rushed to hospital. It was a warning sign. Shots fired. The first thing I said to him when we spoke the next day was, “Please mind yourself. I lost my dad when he was fortyseven.” He doesn’t need to die that young. He’s got a young daughter, a great life ahead of him. Since then I’ve watched Ed turn things round. I’m so proud of him.
Your first award was a National Student Media one for a documentary about mental health.
Yeah, this was in 2005. As I was saying, my mum was a psychiatric nurse and I’d done mental health public speaking. The documentary was called Can You Hear Me Thinking? and based around the idea that people don’t really understand schizophrenia. Everyone thinks that it’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which it absolutely isn’t. My degree was in Journalism and Irish, but it was always radio that interested me most. No offence, but I didn’t want to be writing for a living. The guy who lectured us in radio, Pat Hannon, would make you sit in a room, turn off the lights and listen to these different documentaries. You almost felt you were Steven Spielberg making packages because he’d say, “Can you hear that soundscape and how it pans from left to right?” He told us about the old Foley sound effects on radio – if you wanted the sound of a seal, you’d fill Marigold gloves up with water and slap them on the floor. I fucking love all that.
You were iRadio’s house and techno man, and still DJ in clubs around the country. Have you embraced the drug culture side of dance?
Everyone smokes a joint and that, but I’ll be honest with you, I never really went down that road. Going from journalism straight into working fulltime in Co. Clare, I wasn’t a member of that scene. By the time around 2007/’08 that I got into iRadio and doing the club deejaying, I was working and saving to buy a house. In any case, you couldn’t have been off your head driving back from gigs.
So you were a keen observer rather than a participant?
Yeah, I was always fascinated by the names like Yellow Smileys and Red Rock Stars and Mitsubishis. If you’ve read Meet Me In The Bathroom – the history of LCD Soundsystem, The Strokes and all those other cool New York bands – you’ll know about the influx of Irish people coming over with these tablets with car signs on them. I’ve been to Ibiza loads of times and seen the total insanity that goes on there. At a festival in Ireland, we were watching this DJ who was so cool and chilled out playing his progressive trance. The crowd on the other hand had jaws like broken typewriters and celestial trumpets going off in their heads dancing to the same beat, over and again. My friend said to me, “You realise that every year that guy finishes off the festival season and goes into rehab for six months because there’s so much partying going on?”
How overt has the drug taking been in the clubs you’ve frequented?
In Galway you very rarely saw people doing ecstasy or coke. You definitely had loads of people smoking weed. The whole squishy hash thing had ended. It was more green and grinders. When I came back to Dublin in 2015, I couldn’t believe it that you had people in pubs and bars quite openly doing MDMA and the girls taking it out of their bras. Every Tom, Dick and Harry was doing drugs. The culture had changed so much.
Do you have any other radio heroes apart from Tony Fenton?
Dave Fanning was God when I was growing up. That man should be knighted for what he’s given to the music industry here. A lot of my friends say, “You speak so quickly at times” and I’m like, “That’s probably because I listen to so much Dave Fanning.” He’s just so giving of his time and still really into his music. I was standing right beside the man at Johnny Marr and he was mesmerised by what was going on on stage.
Have you ever said anything really embarrassing on the radio?
A recent-ish one that springs to mind was one afternoon when myself and Matt Cooper were having our chat on air. He said, “Today on the show we’re going to be talking about erectile dysfunction”, to which I in total innocence replied: “Yeah, I hear that sort of thing’s on the rise.” He just gave me a look, and we don’t do the ‘Matt coming in to talk to Ferg about the show’ bit anymore!
“The PC brigade has ruined Irish radio.”
I was on with Matt when he referred to Nicki Minaj as Nicki Minger – a slip of the tongue that was unmercifully ribbed on the breakfast show by Ian Dempsey and Mario Rosenstock.
Oh God, I remember that! He’s done some hilarious ones. I remember him at one of our parties, which are always great craic, saying, “I don’t have a party piece, but I have put together some of my most entertaining moments of broadcasting…” and there were all these audio clips like the Nicki Minger one.
You were given a stiff talking to by the BAI after a listener complained about your use of a colourful German phrase.
Oh, yeah, ‘Sclappschwanz’, the weak cock. That was nighttime radio when Ed Smith and myself were talking about foreign insults. I was calling him that for weeks, but it’s actually not meant as a term for somebody suffering from impotency. It’s more runt of the litter or wimp. Anyway, this greatly offended somebody.
There was a bit of a social media pile-on when you said you’re not a fan of gender quotas.
I was asked something along the lines: “Do you think there’s a more capable female who should have got the job ahead of you?” I told the individual that question’s a load of shit. I was brought up in a house where after my dad died it was predominantly women. I only ever had a sister. I went to co-ed secondary school. I’ve equal numbers of male and female friends. I would never treat a female as unequal to me. So it’s bit like turning around to someone and saying you have to pick. I’ve never had to pick in my life.
Does it take getting used to that, as a national broadcaster, what you say and do is a potential news story – and by extension a potential scandal?
It does, but you know this stuff at the moment about Caroline Flack?
It’s like, “We need to protect people in the media” but I’ll stick to what I’ve always said which is, “You knew the risks when you went in. You become part of the public sphere. That’s it.” I’m all against invasions of privacy, but once you’re in the public eye your life changes. If you say something and it’s downright wrong, well, then you’re downright wrong. But I’ve often had situations where you say something and it’s misconstrued. There’s a bad-minded side of society that will do that, and still go after you on a witch hunt, even though you’ve justified your situation or apologised.
Did you ever meet Caroline in your travels?
No, never. She was in a bad place. I get that totally and wish she’d been able to see another way out of her situation. There was one particular time when everything was going wrong in my life: it was like a country and western song. I was having troubles financially having just bought a house; I was going through a bad breakup; I was getting abuse of all sorts for this prank call I’d done on the radio. I was reading really hurtful comments on Facebook and other socials that people I know were liking. You’re explaining to them, “I can’t believe you put a like on that; you know I’d never say or do that.” I would urge people to think before they write because the internet is a dark place where everybody can you hear scream. Once you put something there it ain’t going away; it’s there for life. It’s easy to hide behind avatars, but what are your kids going to think when they see it one day – or what’s a potential employer going to think when they look you up, as they all do nowadays?
Is it a case of people wanting to be offended?
The whole hopping on the bandwagon culture; these social media warriors who are great behind a keyboard. You’ll say, “I’m here to talk about David Gray” and they’ll go, “Why is he calling himself Gray? Is he afraid to call himself white or black? Dave, that’s a very blokey name, isn’t it? This year’s love; male or female? I like the way he didn’t just call a gender on it.” And you’re like, “Whoa !!!! ” You need to be brave in the face of that.
I’ve a friend working on talk radio in the UK who says the list of “don’ts” on the studio wall gets longer by the week.
I hate the fact that we’re so regulated. It’s important to say this: the whole idea of the PC brigade has ruined Irish radio. People are allowed to say all sorts of stuff in podcasts, and we’re not. I’m in a situation now where I’ve decided to totally focus on music and not the magazine stuff anymore because I can’t get away with what I want to say even though it’s my goddam show. It’s my name over the door.
What would you like to do that you can’t because it’ll get you into trouble?
Something as simple as taking off accents. You could do that all day long when I was starting off in radio, but do that now and you’re guaranteed to get abuse over it. You can’t do prank calls anymore because people jump on the bandwagon and say, “That’s racist, oh, you’ve picked on an ethnic group.” That’s ruined the idea of the prank or telling stories. Tommy Tiernan can tell a story as a comedian, but I’ve often been here and had producers wince at me because you’ll say something or other. What’s the future of radio going to be if you can’t even look after the present? You can’t do radio by online committee. Opinions are like arseholes; everyone has them and they’re usually full of shit. Whatever happened to the time when we were avant-garde? We’re looking at radio stations in Ireland all doing pretty much the same goddam thing. I’m just waiting for the moment – and I’m hoping that it’ll be Today FM – when we decide to be avant-garde and say, “Right, we’re not going by the same slapdash formula, we’re going to switch this up and be more racy about things.” Make it essential listening like you make your magazine essential reading.
Would you any problem with Mary Lou McDonald becomng Taoiseach?
Absolutely not, I’m all for change. It might not be a bad thing for the country. Fact of the matter is that people don’t want Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, which are technically the exact same party. They’re both conservative parties, they have pretty much the same policies. It’s a bit of a farce, isn’t it? We need to get our political regime right. I see a lot of sloppy work, a lot of broken promises. And I think if Mary Lou has a shot, you go girl. She fought a fair fight. As the policies are implemented correctly. All people want from their politicians, really, is that their true to their words.
As well as getting to champion your favourite bands, Today FM has given you a national platform from which to talk about issues like mental health. Is there a particular moment when you’ve felt like you’ve really connected with your listeners?
The most important moment was when a friend of mine who was quite sick sent me a picture from his hospital bed. He was wired up and his skin, man, he was yellow in colour. It looked like he was having a liver transplant. We were doing one of our Dare To Care fundraising drives, and he said, “Tell everyone out there from me that they need to get checked because I didn’t and my health is like this now.” We’d been doing all these stupid double dares like me being waxed and getting my nipple pierced, and biting into a tomato whilst having a spider on my shoulder, both of which are things I hate, but this time I just told my friend’s story. Róisín Reilly from marketing comes into the studio and says, “Fergal, I dunno what you’re after doing, but over €20,000 has come in for the Irish Cancer Society during the show.” I walked out into the office after and, no joke, everyone just shut the fuck up, stood and clapped. It was my “Oh captain, my captain” moment. I just decided to tell a story. The best radio happens then.