Sunday, 26 April 2020

The Irish Legacy of Ronan O'Rahilly and Radio Caroline


In The Beginning, the Irish Dimension

With the passing of Ronan O’Rahilly in April 2020, a colossus of radio broadcasting has left a legacy that will stand the test of time and has made a massive impression on radio broadcasting in Ireland. While his beloved Radio Caroline was a familiar sight off the South East of England, its influence on both radio and music in 1960’s Britain cannot be underestimated. It forced the British Government to enact new legislation outlawing the almost a dozen pirate radio ships that blasted pop music into Britain and it forced the BBC to reorganise and compete with the opening of a dedicated pop channel in 1967, BBC Radio One. In the month when Ronan passed onto the afterlife, both BBC Radio One and Radio Caroline still broadcast today. But while Caroline’s history focusses mainly on its influence on Britain, Ireland has played a key role in that colourful history and this is that story.

At the helm of Radio Caroline was Ronan O’Rahilly. He was born in Clondalkin, Dublin in 1940, his father Aodogan was a well-known and wealthy businessman, regarded as an influential ally of Eamon DeValera, while his grandfather Michael O’Rahilly was better known as The O’Rahilly, sacrificed his life during the 1916 Easter Rising having been shot dead while leading a charge on a British position at the end of Moore Street.

While still a teenager Ronan left Dublin and made his way to the centre of the new music industry, London’s club scene. In Soho, the young Ronan began to manage a music club and saw some of the up and coming artists including the Kinks and the Animals make their first steps into the limelight.  Despite managing several pop acts one of his favourite was Georgie Fame. He recorded a Georgie Fame record on his own independent label, unheard of at the time. He took the record to the BBC to try to get it played. He discovered that the record industry was dominated by EMI and Decca. He then tried to get it played on Radio Luxembourg, the Great 208, who were the commercial pop station most listened to in England at the time and O’Rahilly discovered closed doors and that the shows were 'owned' by labels like EMI, Pye and Decca. They were essentially 'payola' shows and featured only music from the paying label. He said, "I have recorded the guy, so I can't get it played, so we have to start a radio station."

The ship was originally a Baltic ferry the MV Frederica built in 1929 and purchased by Ronan O’Rahilly for the reported £20,000. It was taken to the port of Greenore in early 1964 to be converted into a radio station including a 180-foot aerial and renamed the MV Caroline. He chose the port of Greenore as it was at the time privately owned by his father Aodogan O'Rahilly who died in 2000. At the same time, the Caroline was being fitted out as a radio station a second ship was in the port also being fitted out as a radio station, the MV Mi Amigo which would broadcast as Radio Atlanta. Atlanta planned to be on the air first but technical issues forced into port for repairs and did not get on air until May 1964.

A parent company was registered in Ireland to operate Radio Caroline in 1964. The company Planet Production Limited was dissolved in 1981. A second company was registered to sell advertising for the ship with Planet Sales Limited also registered companies in Ireland. When the ship left the port, it carried out test transmissions as it sailed through the Irish Sea. The authorities were informed that the ship was heading to Spain but as it passed Lands End it took a sharp left and headed up the English Channel, maintaining radio silence, to anchor of Felixstowe on England’s east coast. Their signal would cover most of the south coast of England including the important advertising market of London. On Easter Saturday, 28 March, it began regular broadcasting at noon on 197.3 metres/1520 kHz announced as 199 as it rhymed with Caroline, with the opening conducted by Simon Dee. The first programme was hosted by Chris Moore. Within months the station was boasting audiences of 7 million listeners. The rapid sales of portable transistor radios across Ireland created a wider audience with radio shop advertisements stating that purchasers would easily listen to Radio Luxembourg or Radio Caroline.



In July 1964, Radio Atlanta and Radio Caroline's parent companies merged, with Allan Crawford, an Australian music publisher and Ronan O'Rahilly as joint managing directors. Radio Atlanta closed at 8 p.m. that day. It was renamed Radio Caroline South and MV Mi Amigo remained off the English east coast while MV Caroline broadcast under the name Radio Caroline North. MV Caroline sailed to the Isle of Man and her new anchorage at Ramsey Bay, on 6 July 1964. The two stations were able to cover most of the British Isles.

Radio Caroline North had operated off the coast of the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea from July 1964 until March 1968 and was well received and popular across the West coast of Britain and across both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It meant that Caroline’s audience was now in excess of 25 million. The station continued as the new Marine Broadcasting Offences Act came into force, anchored in international waters outside the 3-mile limit. The two ships were supplied from ‘foreign’ countries namely Holland through Amsterdam supplying fuel and food supplies by tender for Caroline South off Felixstowe and from Dundalk for Caroline North. The Dutch tug ‘Foreshore III’ was originally used to supply the MV Caroline from the Isle of Man but with the introduction of the new Marine Offences Act, the tender sailed to Dundalk, loaded with supplies and sailed back and forth to the ship. The new Act which put pressure on advertisers meant that some bills to Dutch firms were not being paid and in a co-ordinated operation, Dutch tugboats seized both ships in March 1968 and they were towed to Holland.



Caroline Showband & Musical Interlude
The showband scene was exploding in Irish dancehalls in the early sixties and as with the pop music explosion, for airtime exposure, showbands would have to turn to the pirates. Radio Eireann played little or no modern music on its single channel. The opening of Radio Caroline in 1964, helped showbands reach the top of the charts. To ride that wave, Radio Caroline launched their own showband in Ireland, The Caroline Showband in 1964. The band, a publicity exercise to advertise Radio Caroline around the country, received extensive newspaper coverage especially as their lead singer Earl Jordan was a coloured singer. Jordan, although born in Buffalo, New York, came to England with the US Air Force and following his departure from the USAF, he arrived in Dublin in December, 1963.The band would be managed by Caroline’s representative in Ireland at the time, Kilkenny born Jim Craig. The band made its debut at a reception in Dublin's Gresham Hotel on Tuesday, December 22nd, 1964. The original line-up included: Kevin Brady (RIP-Dublin-drums), Earl Jordan (Buffalo, New York-vocals), Tony Kearns (Drogheda-sax), Reginald Dunne (Dublin-guitar), Kevin Gregan (Dublin-bass), Tony Coffey (Dublin-keyboards), Harry Burrows (Birmingham-sax), and Michael Burns (Sligo-trumpet). The manager was Frank Traynor of Dublin. On stage the band wore dark blue suits with Earl decked out in a white blazer. One of the highlights of their early success was headlining at a gala ball held at the Powerscourt Estate in County Wicklow attended by Irish born Princess Grace of Monaco.

While the showbands were hugely popular with a certain generation of music listeners and goers and in rural Ireland, the rural popularity of Radio Caroline and with the showband fans was relatively weak. The Caroline showband were excluded from receiving airplay on Radio Eireann and this seemed to detract from their reach in places like Galway, Kerry and Cork. This need to expand their reach and incidents around a barbeque held in Brittas Bay that led to violence, in July 1965, The Caroline Showband and Jim Craig end their association with Radio Caroline. Shortly after Jordan would leave the band, they would take on a new manager and would be renamed.


The barbeque was a PR disaster for Radio Caroline in Ireland in 1965. In June 1965, Radio Caroline through its subsidiary Club Caroline advertised and sold tickets for a barbeque to be held on Dalkey Island. The club was run by Dennis Binns and Jim Craig. The event was to take place on Saturday June 26th 1965. The tickets were an immediate and popular success. Over one thousand tickets at a guinea each were sold and the plan was to transport guests across to the island by boat from Coliemore Harbour. Several acts promoted by Radio Caroline, including the Caroline Showband, were to appear on the bill. A week before the events the local council stepped in and announced that no permissions had been sought or given for the event to take place within their jurisdiction. The Gardai were placed on standby to prevent the event taking place in the upmarket area of South Dublin. With mounting opposition with the local community, Caroline’s organisation in Ireland decided to change the venue and moved to a privately owned beach at Brittas Bay in County Wicklow. Unfortunately, the event in Wicklow was not all smoothly run, the lighting failed and the grills failed to work. In the early hours of the morning, according to one newspaper report ‘just be before dawn’, frustrations and excess consumption of alcohol led to violence and the intervention of the Gardai riot police.

Another group to receive a significant boost to their careers were The Dubliners. The Ronnie Drew and Luke Kelly led group released ‘Seven Drunken Nights’ in March 1967. The single was released on the Major Minor label that was owned by Phil Solomons, see Solomons later involvement in Irish radio’s revolution in 1980 later in this article. The song, despite not receiving any airplay on BBC Radio, reached No. 7 UK charts and led to an appearance on BBC TV’s Top of the Pops and as a result of its chart position was played on the radio. Because of the raunchy lyrics in the last two verses of the song, the track was banned by RTE Radio. Because it was Solomons’ record label who produced the track, Radio Caroline heavily plugged the song and with its reach into Ireland, Seven Drunken Night reached Number One in the Irish charts.

 Radio Caroline and RTE appearing side by side in the one advertisement.

This is Your Life on Board, Noel Andrews
A brother of Eamonn Andrews, who famously presented What’s my Line and This is Your Life on TV, Noel broadcast his first show ‘Andrews Live’ on Radio Caroline on Tuesday December 1st 1964 as Caroline was now averaging a listenership in the British Isles of 28 million every day. The first track he played was fellow Irishmen The Batchelors who were now heading for stardom in Britain. A popular broadcaster with the housewives previously on radio Eireann where he presented ‘Housewives Choice’ programmes and also was extremely popular on sponsored shows, many of them produced by his brother’s production studio. Not only was he appearing on Radio Eireann presenting the Irelands Top Ten show (broadcast on a Monday at 6.45pm for 30minutes) When he returned to Radio Eireann he was relegated to presenting Children’s programmes.



Caroline House, Looks Over the Irish Parliament
With the arrival of Caroline off the Manx coast, their transmissions were heard widely across Ireland and an opportunity to grab some of the lucrative advertising pie. With this in mind, Jim Craig was appointed Caroline’s representative in Ireland and they opened offices in August 1964 at 27 Molesworth Street, dubbed Caroline House. Today that building is incorporated into Buswells Hotel. These offices were directly across the road from the Irish parliament building, Leinster House.

Caroline Racing, Speeds into Print
In a further attempt to keep the Caroline prominently featured in newspapers across the British Isles, Radio Caroline began to sponsor a car racing team. They entered a Brabham Formula Junior car in the Irish championship, their car driven by D Romano. The team entered the Leinster Trophy scratch race at Dunboyne raceway and it warranted the arrival of Ronan O’Rahilly himself, who newspapers reported had flown into Dublin on a private jet to be greeted by his father. Unfortunately for O’Rahilly it was a wasted trip as his car failed to qualify for the starting grid. He flew back to London the following day.

The Caroline Shop, Belfast Sales
Radio Caroline proved extremely popular in Northern Ireland. In order to create a buzz and publicity on Saturday December 12th 1964, Radio Caroline opened a record shop on Andersonstown. The official opening was performed by one of the most popular DJ’s on Caroline Simon Dee. He recounted that his arrival at Belfast was greeted like that of a pop star with hundreds lining the street outside the shop in anticipation of his arrival. Also, on hand for the opening was Jim Craig, the Caroline manager in Ireland.



The Holy Trinity, Solomons, Robinson and Cary
A more important link to Caroline from an Irish legacy point of view is not just that it was an Irishman who built up the station but in 1966 the running and financial input from another music impresario into Caroline was hugely significant, the involvement of Phil Solomons. Solomons in the early sixties was the sole Decca Records distributor in Ireland. Two of Caroline’s most popular DJ’s were Robbie Dale and Spangles Muldoon and these three men would revolutionise Irish radio, all directly linked to Radio Caroline. It was Solomons’ money who financed Robbie Robinson’s (Dale) and Chris Cary’s (Muldoon) opening of Sunshine Radio in 1980 broadcasting from the Sands Hotel in Portmarnock. They three men saw the lax Irish broadcasting regime and while their originally plan was to put Sunshine on a ship, they had bought and berthed in Waterford harbour, why go back on rough seas when you could broadcast from plush surroundings of a hotel with little fear of a raid from the authorities and even if you were, the equipment confiscated had to be returned to you. The early sabotage of Sunshine’s aerial, explosives used by Radio Dublin owner Eamon Cooke, encouraged Solomons and Cary to sell their shares to Robinson. Cary having seen the success of Sunshine returned to the Dublin airwaves with perhaps the greatest and most popular station the capital ever saw, Radio Nova which opened in 1981 and the rest the say is history. (See the Radio Nova History in this Blog) All thanks to the connections made at Caroline.

The Legacy
Radio Caroline revolutionized radio for a generation, shining a light on a dark world. It led to the creation of BBC Radio 1 to compete for the ever-growing audience of young listeners. It provided an outlet for new music and it gave enjoyment to millions. It is still on the air, there is a nostalgia and a reverence for what Caroline was. It was a rebel, it was an influencer, it was a genuine attempt to provide what the listening public wanted.

In Ireland, Caroline opened up the possibility of an alternative to State media, and while we never had a pirate radio ship broadcasting into the country, Caroline’s success created a community of pirate radio pioneers across Ireland (some using the Caroline moniker in homage) and this pirate radio tidal wave eventually created the industry that broadcasts today.

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