Ralph McGarry sits in the café inside the arts centre, next to a wall of windows letting in the early evening sunlight.
It’s 5pm and, outside, a stream of people rush in and out of The Square in Tallaght. They head for the bus, the Luas, laden with shopping bags.
McGarry’s still in his work gear – a crisp blue and white striped shirt, nice shoes. It’s office get-up.
He gets a laptop out of his bag, then a pair of big headphones, and pulls them over his ears. He plugs a small shiny microphone into the computer.
In less than a minute, McGarry has transformed from council office worker into an international country music deejay, radio producer, and station manager.
“It’s just a hobby,” McGarry says, of his radio station. After all, he’s got a day job.
McGarry works in South Dublin County Council in Tallaght, as he has for most of his adult life. That’s his full-time gig.
But he lives in Inchicore. And on the side, for a little more than a year now, he has been transmitting country music over the Internet, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – under the banner of Total Country Inchicore (“Country to the ‘Core”).
Lots of people have hobbies. Somebody might do a bit of knitting in front of the TV. Or go to a book club once a month. Football on a Thursday evening. Not McGarry.
In his free time, a substantial chunk of it, he lines up playlists, records promos, and assembles an Inchicore-Kilmainham news roundup.
It takes him about 10 hours a week to keep it all going, he says. On Mondays, he spends about five hours, from 8pm to 1am, queueing up the week’s schedule.
He steals a minute or two whenever he can on other days, and keeps things ticking along from his phone. It’s flexible that way. He likes that.
He was up last night scheduling Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts for today. “More and more people are getting to be aware of it, so you have to be consistent,” he says.
He doesn’t have a studio or piles of kit. This set-up on the small café table is it. He could do it all from his mobile phone if he wanted to – and, sometimes, he does.
McGarry pulls a phone from his pocket and taps open the TuneIn app, presses play. After a few seconds, Total Country Inchicore starts playing. It’s drowned out by the pop music on the café’s sound system.
He leans in to hear.
“She’s even kinda crazy ‘bout my farmer’s tan. She’s the only one who really understands what gets me. She thinks my tractor’s sexy.”
After another few taps on the phone, a tiny Norwegian flag pops up. This tells McGarry that, at that moment, one person in Norway is listening to Total Country Inchicore.
There is one person in Norway out there listening to Kenny Chesney sing about his tractor, and that person has been tuned in for 55 minutes.
McGarry pulls out a piece of paper with numbers written on it. He started the station in January last year. That month, there were 46 listeners. The next month, there were 1,050.
The numbers have kept rising. Last year, almost 22,000 people listened to the station, he says.
“It’s not bad. I’m actually a little bit impressed with myself. Because country music is not everybody’s cup of tea.”
Country music is McGarry’s cup of tea, though. And his mam’s.
She listened to a lot of country music when he was growing up – Dolly Parton, in particular. McGarry doesn’t know if it’s a coincidence or not, but his sister is called Jolene.
He used to be more interested in ambient and electronica – Orbital, Aphex Twin, the Chemical Brothers. He still likes that stuff.
“And then I turned 40 and something happened,” he says.
It was a couple years ago. McGarry’s family got him tickets to the Country to Country festival that’s on in Dublin every year.
That got him hooked on “stadium rock, the new country”. The kind of country that, if nobody told you it was country, you wouldn’t think it was country.
“It reignited a dormant flame. Sounds like the words to a country song, doesn’t it?” he says.
But he still has a soft spot for Dolly Parton. She doesn’t take herself too seriously, he says. Her songs have warmth, like “Coat of Many Colors”, but they’re fun too, like “9 to 5”.
“There’s a warmth there and there’s an accessibility, and she is an icon, and she’s good fun … To me, she is country music,” he says.
Every night, at 10pm, McGarry plays an hour of nonstop Dolly. “It’s just Dolly and liners,” – the short promos that identify the station – “there’s no voiceovers, no introductions. It’s just the music.”
McGarry made a conscious decision not to go into the radio industry. He didn’t want to lose the magic. He saw it happen to a friend, a long time ago.
“A hobby is something you really look forward to doing. You grow with it and you meet new people,” he says. “And it makes you passionate about it and you’re really interested and creative.”
Make it a job and you might lose that, he says. “You might. I’m not saying people do. I didn’t want to risk that. I didn’t want to risk my hobby.”
He never plays the same songs over and over. “If you are too familiar with something, you might get too bored. Whereas, it surprises me sometimes.”
At first, his hobby was setting up licensed radio stations. McGarry is a “competent” broadcaster, but he prefers the background stuff. He’s a details man.
He’d do the application forms, the funding, the everyday admin. Others did the voices.
Years ago, McGarry set up a community radio station in Wicklow – Blessington FM. There was a core team of dedicated teenagers, trained by professionals. Those kids are now in their 20s, and all working in media, he says.
McGarry has a similar vision for Total Country Inchicore: a community radio station for Inchicore, broadcasting over the FM airwaves.
Locals could get their voices heard, but it would also record and document social history, he says.
He’s not quite there yet. For now, he’s the HQ, and the station is digital.
McGarry looks down at his paper. The vast majority of his listeners are from Ireland, then the UK, Germany, and the US.
He wonders who’s out there listening all the time. He can see “where” from their IP addresses, but he has no idea “who”.
“Which is what Internet radio is about, isn’t it? Communicating and not knowing who the other person is?”
McGarry runs a promo asking people to email in and tell him where they are, how they’re listening, and how they found him. He posts a car sticker with the Total Country Inchicore logo in return, free of charge.
“So there’s cars going around in America, in Russia, in Malta, and in Carlow, with Inchicore car stickers on them.”
Even though he’s sent out around 30 stickers so far, not one person has told him why or how they found the station.
“So I still haven’t got the answer. I’m still left on tenterhooks,” he says.
One time, he saw a Total Country Inchicore sticker on a car in Tallaght, and his heart stopped.
“And then I realised it was my mam’s car.” He laughs.
On a bright Saturday afternoon a few days later, McGarry sits at his kitchen table in Inchicore, ripping CDs he just bought at a record sale nearby.
“I was flicking through some of the CDs and one of the vendors said, ‘Oh, I’ve got loads of country,’ and from underneath the table, he took out a big box.”
McGarry bought some early-noughties Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, and Kenny Chesney.
But he doesn’t choose everything the Inchicore station plays. Others help out, from all over the world.
There’s Finbar in Colorado with The Raggle Taggle Celtic Folk Show – an hour of old Irish and Scottish folk music that arrives in McGarry’s Dropbox every Sunday.
“He goes out and tries to find the most obscure Irish and British folk tracks, on vinyl. Only on vinyl,” McGarry says.
Digitisation makes the records lose depth, McGarry says, but you still get that crackle.
They’ve emailed each other maybe two or three times a week for the past year, says McGarry. Finbar used to live in the house next door before he emigrated to Colorado years ago, but McGarry has never met him.
McGarry has only lived in Inchicore for a few years. Sometimes Finbar asks McGarry to say “hi” to old friends if he sees them around.
A man named Bill Green, who runs a record label in Austin, Texas, sends in a weekly mix of “red dirt”, a hard-to-define style of Texan country music. Shows also come in from people in England, Scotland, and other parts of the States.
McGarry hasn’t met any of them.
McGarry also hasn’t met the American voiceover artist named Kerry who does professional-sounding promos for the station. He doesn’t even know where she lives.
He just emails scripts to her, and she records them. Then Andrew over in Georgia turns them into jingles and emails them back to Inchicore.
They made a whole load of Christmas jingles that way.
McGarry’s in his study now, a quiet room with a whole wall lined with books, floor to ceiling. He sits on the couch with his laptop.
He plays one of the Christmas promos.
“Hi, this is Randy Travis. Hi, we’re the Oak Ridge Boys. Hi, this is Martina McBride wishing you a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year.”
Kerry’s voice, a neutral American accent, kicks in now: “This is Total Country Inchicore. Country to the ‘Core.”
McGarry produces a programme himself called “The Inchicore News Round”. He covers local news out of Kilmainham and Inchicore. He turns up at local events.
He’s made friends with the guys podcasting from the St Patrick’s Athletic Football Club and broadcasts some of their interviews.
He’s done free advertising for local groups, for the Kilmainham Inchicore Musical Society and the Inchicore Variety Group. And more people in those groups are tuning in, he says.
His latest project is a series of vignettes, interviewing people who either live or work in Inchicore. “What Inchicore Means to Me”, it’s called.
“It’s literally 30 seconds, I am such and such and I live in Inchicore, I work in Inchicore,” he says.
He’s interviewed some of his neighbours, former employees of the CIÉ works. One of his neighbours made the uniforms in the 1960s. “So the radio station has given me access to the community.”
Would that interest his listener in Norway? McGarry imagines his listeners are like him.
He likes listening to “mom-and-pop country music stations from the States”, not the big, generic stations that could be from anywhere.
He likes hearing about the local American football team, the county fair. “I’m thinking I can’t be the only person on the planet who finds that fascinating,” he says.