From historic to plain silly: RTÉ’s news archive now online for all

RTÉ focuses on 1985-1999 videotape era as primary focus of major digitisation project

A younger, slimmer Des Cahill is reclining on an Aer Lingus plane, being served champagne by a female steward who seems to have been dunked in fake tan.

In his inimitable breathless style, he is telling us about the "sheer luxury with all the trimmings" of the airline's new first class service. This (admittedly unrepresentative) piece of shameless puffery from the 1980s is just one of thousands of RTÉ news clips which people can now enjoy online as part of a new initiative from the State broadcaster.

When RTÉ made the big transition in 1985 from film to video, it had a transformative effect on news coverage. Previously, if a report had been filmed in Kerry, Galway or Sligo, the film had to be shipped to Dublin by car, train or sometimes taxi for processing and post-production.

Kerry Babies

This meant it usually took a day before those items made it on to the evening news bulletin. In contrast, video could be transmitted electronically and broadcast within hours, allowing for same-day TV reports of major stories such as the Kerry Babies inquiry.


But as the years went on, it became apparent there was a problem with the new format. Magnetic videotape in plastic casing was a much less durable format than film. Its quality degraded over time.

That’s why RTÉ, with financial support from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, has focused on the videotape years, from 1985 to 1999, as the primary focus of its project to digitise its archive. The first phase of that project launched on Friday and will be accessible to anyone on the RTÉ website.

“RTÉ goes back around 80 years,” head of archives Bríd Dooley said at the launch in the National Library. “In that time we’ve used every broadcast format imaginable. The important thing is to identify what’s most important and most vulnerable. And, of course, news documents our society and where we’ve come from.”

Almost 1,500 RTÉ news clips, covering the period from March to December 1985, are already available and further content will be posted daily to its online news collection.

Engaged audience

“Every day for the next three years or so, we will be publishing new material,” said Dooley. “We have a fantastic engaged audience on our website who love to share this material online.”

In total, more than 13,000 tapes featuring approximately 9,000 hours of news content have now been digitised. The videotapes travelled from Dublin to Amsterdam where they were baked in specially designed ovens to recover the picture and sound quality before final digitisation. The files are now stored securely and will be managed and preserved for the future.

Searchable by date, topic or keyword, the footage ranges from the historic (the Omagh bombing and the fall of the Berlin Wall) to the ludicrous (Cahill’s plug for Aer Lingus).

The full collection can be found at

Hugh Linehan

Hugh Linehan

Hugh Linehan is Arts and Culture Editor. He also presents the weekly Inside Politics podcast