Raidió réalteanna: Raidió na Gaeltachta marks 40 years
LIMITED TRANSMISSION, poor roads but virgin territory – such was the landscape explored by the seven broadcasters hired for the State’s first Irish language radio station which marks its 40th birthday today .
When Raidió na Gaeltachta came on air at 3pm Easter Sunday, April 2nd, 1972, notions of wi-fi enabled digital audio broadcasting, online media players, podcasts or smartphone apps were but a distant dream.
In some locations the Irish language audience did not have wireless sets and neighbours gathered in kitchens to hear history being transmitted.
One Sunday newspaper even reported that the Easter Mass broadcast with Seán Ó Riada’s music was from “a pub”, having misunderstood the station’s reference to the “teach an phobail” or church in Carraroe.
Kerry journalist Breandán Feiriteár, who became ceannaire or head from 1985 to 1994, recalls that the first dedicated studio in Casla was not quite ready. And the Kerry and Donegal studios were still under construction.
He had to present that Easter Sunday programme from RTÉ’s studios in Galway city “on an old Telefunken tape deck the size of a big trunk”.
“The first ceannaire, Pádraig Ó Raghallaigh, opened it and we had a recording from President de Valera,” Feiritéar recalls. “Muiris Mac Conghail* and Breandán Ó Ciobháin were sent from HQ, along with technician Jim Power, to give me a hand.” The station grew out of a campaign by the Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement, which had set up a pirate station Saor Raidió Chonamara in Ros Muc, and broadcast initially at Easter 1970.
The initial seven staff – Feiritéar, Timlín Ó Cearnaigh, Máirtín Ó Fátharta, Seán Ó Tuairisg, Maidhc P Ó Conaola, Mícheál Ó Sé and Feardorcha Ó Colla – broadcast for just over two hours a day initially.
“It was revolutionary, as we were interviewing people who had nothing to sell, who weren’t involved in politics or community affairs and who were being asked to talk about their lives and themselves, “Feiritéar says.
Máirtín Ó Fátharta (Meaití Jó Shéamuis), from Indreabhán, Co Galway, head of music for years, recalls few if any records of Irish singers or musicians at the start.
“I myself couldn’t speak English until I was 15 years old. And we were giving a voice to several generations of native speakers and linking emigrants to families at home,” he says. “Of course, we were mostly men – Aingeal Ní Chonchubhair was our first female and had to work with us chauvinists – whereas now there are many women, including the station’s ceannaire, Edel Ní Chuireáin,” says Ó Fatharta.
Timlín Ó Cearnaigh, from Gaoth Dobhair, opened the station’s Donegal studio with Feardorcha Ó Colla. He was also hired for Teilifís na Gaeilge when it began broadcasting in 1996.
“Raidio na Gaeltachta recorded the very early Clannad, along with Altan’s Mairéan Ní Mhaonaigh when she was only 10 years old. And we gave a stage to many traditional musicians starting off,” recalls Ó Cearnaigh.
The broadcasters were required to do everything from news to sport and had to cross the Border at a time when having an Irish language surname could prove “very difficult at army checkpoints”, he remembers.
The original seven have all left or retired, but several of the children of the Gaeltacht civil rights activists are involved, including leascheannaire or deputy head, Rónán Mac Con Iomaire, whose father Tomás was ceannaire from 2000-2006.
Five of the first broadcasters are due to be interviewed on the station by Seán Bán Breathnach at at 3pm today.
On Easter Sunday the station will broadcast from Carraroe, where O’Riada’s Mass was first recorded for the 1972 opening.
* This article was amended on April 3rd, 2012, to correct a factual error