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Addiction

IN the first review of Joe Duffy's autobiography, an image of a man who had to fight his way to the top is revealed.

"You think you are Marian Finucane or Gay Byrne," he said, "but you are only a waster."

Reading Duffy's honest, thoughtful and surprisingly downbeat autobiography Just Joe, you get the feeling that he has spent much of his life trying to prove those critics wrong.

As the presenter of Radio One's Liveline, he has become one of the most popular and recognisable broadcasters in the country.

At heart, however, he is still the chirpy working-class boy from Ballyfermot who is deeply suspicious of the establishment and will never feel fully part of it.

Duffy was born in a tiny bedsit at the top of Mountjoy Place in 1956, the second of six children.

He has researched his family history thoroughly and provides a vivid description of what his parents had to endure, growing up in the early 20th century when Dublin had the worst slums in Europe.

When the family was awarded a three-bedroom house in the new suburb of Ballyfermot, they felt as if they had won the lottery.

Duffy grew up in an era where sugar sandwiches were a luxury, televisions were rented with a slot for the money and cowboy films were the height of sophistication.

He never felt deprived but, like most of his friends, was terrified of getting on the wrong side of a priest and being sent to an industrial school.

He loved reading adventure comics such as Victor, while the only newspaper in the house was (naturally) the Herald.

At primary school, his teacher told him that he was "the most curious boy in the class".

He took it as a compliment, since he has always seen education as the ultimate way for people to better themselves.

"I still relish the unread book, the yet-to-be-seen painting, the soon-to-be-met stranger, the unheard piece of music," he writes.

"I say to people in their darkest moments, just think of all the things you have yet to see, eat, drink, love, hear or experience. Life is worth enduring and experiencing for all the surprises ahead."

Duffy does not bother to hide the pain in his own family.

He says that he was never close to his father, who emigrated to England to find work and became an alcoholic.

On one occasion, the 12-year-old Joe had to throw his drunken dad into the garden, which prompted the man to put his fist through a glass window.

Duffy's brother Brendan is still alive, but "crippled, ruined, wrecked by a savage addiction".

When things got really bad, he "morphed into the antichrist".

As a result, Joe has a visceral hatred of drugs and has always been totally opposed to their legalisation.

Because his brother Aidan was ten years younger, Joe looked after him like his own child.

He had just come out of an RTE studio on the day he heard that 25-year-old Aidan had been killed, hit by a truck when the front of a van he was driving collapsed.

While his mother pleaded with God for it not to be true, Joe remembers "punching the wall and screaming with anger and pain".

Prison

Going to Trinity College, he says, "changed my life forever". During his first year he was so frightened and lonely that he spent almost all his time hiding in the library.

Eventually he emerged and became involved in student politics, angered by the discovery that a child from Mount Merrion was 44 times more likely to attend university than someone from Ballyfermot.

Duffy took up residence on the steps of the college dining hall, telling students through a loudhailer that Trinity represented everything wrong with Irish society.

He had a heavy beard, a chocolate-coloured crucifix and was nicknamed 'Joe Duffel' because of the coat he wore. Elected president of the students' union, he spent two weeks in Mountjoy Prison after leading a protest against medical card cutbacks.

Despite his image as a quasi-communist, the young Joe was also a committed Christian. He went to the college chapel every day and spoke at a Mass in Galway when Pope John Paul II came to Ireland in 1979.

The masters of ceremonies on that day were Bishop Eamon Casey and Father Michael Cleary, both ending up in disgrace when it was discovered that they had fathered children.

After graduation, Duffy became a social worker and spent some time as a probation officer in the same jail where he had been a prisoner himself.

He recalls that it taught him how to spot a spoofer, a skill that comes in handy on Liveline today. However, he was still hugely ambitious and jumped at the chance when RTE advertised for trainee producers in 1989.

As a teenager, Duffy had a poster of Gay Byrne on his wall, as well as Che Guevara.

He started out with the Pat Kenny Show but seized the opportunity to join his idol's radio programme instead, even though the move "was more dangerous than scaling the Berlin Wall".

Working for Gaybo involved a lot of "acting the eejit", but he got to do some serious reporting as well and gradually became a star in his own right.

Duffy began filling in for Byrne after the great man cut down on his workload, but was devastated in 1996 when he was suddenly moved off the show.

"I know my Dublin working-class accent doesn't go down well at D4 dinner parties," he writes, "but I reminded [radio director Kevin Healy] in a heated exchange that RTE gets more licence-fee money from Ballyfermot than from Ballsbridge."

After a few years of desperate insecurity and not even having his own desk in RTE, he finally found his niche in 1999 when he was asked to replace Marian Finucane as presenter of Liveline.

Although the show has often been criticised as 'Whineline', he insists that it reflects the reality of Irish society and sees it as a platform for the underdog.

"I am more than happy that Irish people see Liveline as a quasi-ombudsman where they can lodge complaints when they feel they are not listened to by the powers that be."

Perhaps the most famous Liveline caller of all was Susie Long, who told Duffy in 2007 that she was about to die of bowel cancer because of lengthy waiting lists.

He reprints her original email in full over seven pages, comparing her to James Connolly and Martin Luther King.

He also writes that her death was a tragic indictment of our two-tier health system and "a story from the rotten heart of the Celtic Tiger".

Another run-in with Government came in 2006 when the gangland criminal John Daly phoned Liveline from his prison cell in Portlaoise.

Justice minister Michael McDowell went ballistic and insisted on appearing on the show, where he insisted that mobile phones were not tolerated in Irish jails.

Duffy was so annoyed that he considered resigning, but slyly notes that a few weeks later, "hundreds of those non-existent mobiles were confiscated from Irish prisons -- along with plasma TVs and various other treasures, including a budgie!"

Duffy has also had the occasional PR disaster.

In 2002 he was MC at the Phoenix Park homecoming for Ireland's World Cup squad, a campaign that had been marred by the row between Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy.

The players were too tired to talk properly, the crowd was short-changed and Duffy concludes, "I felt I was hung out to dry by the FAI."

Anyone looking for bitchy comments about other RTE presenters in this book will be disappointed.

Duffy still regards Gay Byrne as "a most remarkable man" and even insists that Pat Kenny was "a brilliant presenter of the Late Late Show".



Operation

He also describes the late Gerry Ryan as a genius, although he insists that he never knew the 2FM DJ was taking cocaine and asks bluntly, "Was he mad?"

Duffy does, however, reveal plenty of quirky details about himself.

He has a collection of 200 model fire engines, once took elocution lessons for his "harsh and nasal" voice and loves hanging around public buildings.

He had just parked outside Pearse St library in 2009 when his leg was shattered by a car, leading to a serious operation that left him in intense pain for six weeks.

To his disgust, RTE refused to give him sick pay.

One of Duffy's old schoolmates who emigrated to Sweden recently asked his mother what Joe was up to and received the reply, "Not much, he just answers the phones in RTE."

That's exactly right -- and he still regards it as one of the best jobs in the world.

Just Joe is published by Transworld Ireland