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An Taobh Tuathail presenter Cian Ó Cíobháin: ‘You meet people who are very passionate about the show. That’s mind-blowing’

The DJ is celebrating 25 years’ broadcasting his alternative-music show on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta, and recalls nerve-racking first show

Next month Cian Ó Cíobháin will have been presenting An Taobh Tuathail, the alternative-music show that he hosts on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta every weekday night, for 25 years. Back in the 1990s he’d been working as an intern at the station’s studios in Casla, in Connemara. The station played mainly traditional music and Irish-language folk at the time, and wrapped up its programming at 8pm. Ó Cíobháin advocated for a contemporary-music programme, and the station gave him a shot. What unfolded is a 2½-decade exploration of sound.

For the first six years Ó Cíobháin used the station’s effective ban on English-language lyrics to his advantage, playing instrumental electronic music, jazz and post-rock. “It was absolutely nerve-racking,” Ó Cíobháin says of his first An Taobh Tuathail. “When the microphone opened and the show was live, and the red light came on, I didn’t have much experience to fall back on. I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe records as I do now. I didn’t even have a glossary, really. My heart would have been palpitating. I would have been very nervous. My voice would have shook.” The first track he played was The Nightside by The Prunes.

Those early days were a shock to the system for RnaG – and for listeners. Go tobann, the musical palette of the station had expanded into new territory. “The show was on seven nights a week. The other presenter was Rónán Mac Aodha Bhuí, who passed away last year. He was a far more polished presenter than I was – actually, one of the best broadcasters I’ve ever come across in any language. I was on the train to Dublin listening to him, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing coming out of Raidió na Gaeltachta, Rónán playing fresh beats, his lovely Donegal Irish.”

Growing up in west Co Kerry, “we only had Dave Fanning on 2FM,” Ó Ciobháin says of his access to contemporary music as a teenager. “We’d record the show and talk about what he played on the show on the bus the next day. I remember him playing Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit – but everyone had misheard it as ‘Smells like tea and spirit’.


“I would have been aware of John Peel. I didn’t have the BBC to listen to, but I would have been aware of his playlists and the odd tape going around of his shows. I loved the very early broadcasts John Kelly and Donal Dineen did on Radio Ireland,” Ó Ciobháin says of the pair’s evening shows on Today FM’s predecessor. “I remember coming back from Donegal, and having the radio on, and they were on for about five hours.

“They were ear-openers for me. Up to then it was pretty much indie rock on Dave Fanning, and he would have predominantly played singles and well-known tracks, whereas these guys were digging into the record collection. I hadn’t really heard radio like that before.”

When Ó Ciobháin went to college in Galway, the then-thriving club scene carved out new aural territory. “There was a whole row out in Salthill of clubs open most nights of the week,” he says. “There was a house night called Sex Kitchen; there was a reggae night; there was Club Chaos; Disconauts had a night called Something Wonderful; there was an indie night called Psychedelia. That was the club night I went to most, run by Darragh Purcell. He was a very adventurous DJ. He was playing Leftfield and things like that when they first came out. I used to go on my own to those nights when I first came to college, because I didn’t know that many people.”

Ó Ciobháin says he feels lucky to have employers who took a risk and stuck with it, “that someone would trust a DJ in this modern age to not have to go by a playlist. It’s a dying breed, to have a curated radio show on a national station. There’s a certain element of pride that I’ve made it this far and I’m still there.”

Many fans of the programme are almost obsessive about its playlists, its progression and Ó Ciobháin’s curation. “You meet people who are very passionate about the show,” he says. “That’s mind-blowing. They have their own notion about what the show is about. It’s a huge part of me, but the show almost has its own personality where I lock into a vibe that’s An Taobh Tuathail.” (To mark its 25th birthday, from Monday April 29th to Friday May 3rd the show will feature exclusive new music, previously unreleased and unheard beyond its makers. The next evening, Ó Cíobháin will celebrate with his club night, Disco Dána, at Cuba in Galway.)

So much has changed in its quarter-century, including the process of discovery. “You literally had to go to subterranean venues back in the day, and only knew about them because you picked up a flyer in a record shop,” Ó Cíobháin says of finding new records. “You had to leave the house. You had to go seek. You had to gather information. You had to figure out where stuff was happening. Now you don’t have to leave the house.”

Ó Cíobháin still stands out in Ireland as a DJ of huge taste and sophistication. “There’s a little bit more weight and heft to this anniversary than previous ones, probably due to the passing of time,” he says. “In the last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about one thing: how many people we’ve lost in the last 25 years. Musicians, artists, producers I’ve played on the show – Susumu Yokota, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Sinéad O’Connor – but also listeners and friends, DJs, people like Andrew Weatherall. You just think, I’ve survived this far, I’m still here, the show is still here. That’s as good a reason as any to celebrate.”

An Taobh Tuathail is on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta at 11pm each Monday and at 10pm from Tuesday to Friday