Could this be the last All-Ireland the Irish in Britain will hear?
Elderly Irish rely on the longwave service, which is still in danger despite research proving its worth
Noreen Bowden’s father listening to the All-Ireland final on her iPad in 2012.
“If you had to leave home because of unemployment, or you just wanted to see the world, don’t feel left out because you are with us today in spirit and in mind… We are thinking of you, because we are Irish and we are family.”
Marty Morrissey’s beautiful words on last week’s Late Late Show paid tribute to the power of the Irish bond abroad, to the GAA, to the internet, and the radio. He spoke of growing up in the Bronx, recalling his father on All-Ireland Final day, “I remember him going around with his big transistor and the big antenna, opening up the window to the fire escape trying to get the signal… And then the smile would come when he’d hear Mícheál Ó hEithir.”
I know the power of radio to evoke that smile. The radio belonging to my late parents, the big 1970s-era box that has sat atop our refrigerator in New York for my entire life, is the family heirloom my sister and I most treasure. There is so much power in the memories of our lives with that radio: my parents kept it on as a constant companion, and on weekends it was tuned into WFUV, the Bronx-based station that featured music and news from Ireland.
I remember dancing in the kitchen to an old-school Irish waltz with my mother, joining my parents on the porch listening to the All-Ireland on a summery September day, my parents telling us to quiet down at 2pm on a Sunday so they could hear the reporter coming in from Dublin with the weekly news review.
One of the last pictures I took of my Kilkenny-born father is of him with my iPad, watching his home team lose the 2012 All-Ireland. He could have listened, as he always had, to the local broadcast on WFUV, but we were enjoying the novelty of having him watching on this little flat box, even if he did keep knocking off the broadcast by accidentally touching the screen.
My dad - who left school at the age of 13 and made his way to New York where he spent his working life as a city bus driver, never learning to use a computer - was lucky: he had a willing helper at his side to find the internet broadcast, and to handle all the minor technical mishaps that repeatedly derailed the streaming.
Others are not so lucky, and we should remember this as we keep the Irish abroad in mind this Sunday. Some listeners will be struggling, like Marty Morrissey’s dad in the Bronx all those years ago, to tune in on their radios. Many of them will be fearing that this could be the last All-Ireland they ever hear, as we all await news regarding the future of the RTÉ longwave service, which serves listeners in peripheral regions of Ireland and Northern Ireland, though out Europe, but particularly in the UK.
RTÉ’s first attempted the close the longwave service in 2014, announcing its intention with just a few weeks’ notice. This threat caused an outcry among the Irish in Britain, who have relied on an RTÉ radio link since the 1930s. Thousands signed petitions protesting the move, with so many of those signing noting the vital role that Irish radio played in their lives, and many calling it a “lifeline”’.
In response, RTÉ and the Government listened, and the closure was postponed. The Department of Foreign Affairs announced that it would fund research into the needs of listeners. That research was released earlier this year, and it proved the need for the service conclusively: RTÉ’s longwave service is used and treasured by the oldest, most vulnerable, and least technically-savvy of listeners.
Over 3,000 Irish people living in the UK completed the survey, with respondents overwhelming researchers during the short six-week response period. A remarkable 92 per cent listen every day or most days. 45 per cent are over 70. A third of them live alone. 59 per cent of them have no contact with Irish organisations in the UK. Unsurprisingly, the researchers noted, “Longwave was seen as a ‘lifeline’ for the majority of respondents”.
The research demonstrated the lack of suitable alternatives to the simple radio set for this audience. Only 7 per cent listened on a “computer/audio device”. Only 21 per cent had ever used a smartphone to listen to a radio programme while only 22 per cent expressed confidence in accessing RTÉ Radio 1 using digital platforms.
In addition, the report expressed uncertainty about the ability of listeners to adapt alternative digital platforms as many are isolated. Irish community groups also expressed uncertainty about the extent to which their members could obtain support in moving to digital platforms.
As RTÉ executive JP Coakley noted, “This is a strong insight into an important community”. Agreed. But he added, incongruously, “These listeners are engaged and technically quite savvy”. That is a most optimistic spin on their technological ability: 70 per cent of respondents said they would require assistance to switch to a digital service, and two-thirds said they knew no one who could help them.
Despite the research which proved the value of this service beyond a doubt, RTÉ has not announced its decision on the status of the service. Of the service’s future, Mr Coakley simply said that “We look forward to working more closely with the Irish community in Britain and with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to chart a path forward”. Months later, listeners have yet to hear an update, and RTÉ did not respond to my request for information.
But RTÉ has recently reduced the power to the transmitter, so much so that the service is unusable for many at night and subject to much interference during the day. Reducing the power has also increased the problem of interference from an Algerian station that serves their diaspora in France.
In addition, the service has been frequently shut down, often for hours at a time, with at least 10 outages since the start of June. RTÉ claims this is for maintenance, yet the level of maintenance needed seems extraordinarily high for a modern, efficient transmitter that was only purchased in 2007 and has a life expectancy of 40 years. And instead of being done at night, when fewer listeners would be affected, these maintenance shutdowns are being conducted at peak listening hours.
The service has declined so much that the situation has led some listeners to speculate that RTÉ is degrading the service with the intent of frustrating listeners so they lose hope and give up on this valuable lifeline. This situation is not a problem with the longwave technology itself; it is in how the service is now being run. Raising the power to its former level would allow for a clear signal.
Additionally, the interference from Algeria is fixable: Comreg could simply request that RTÉ’s channel be moved slightly up the dial, to 261, a frequency recently abandoned by Radio Bulgaria. This would require a small amount of negotiation but opposition to the move is extremely unlikely; once permission is granted, the simple technical aspect of changing the frequency could be accomplished overnight.
Ordinary Irish people understand the power of the links that Marty Morrissey articulated so well: “The Irish cling together, and support each other”. They do indeed. And so many tremendous strides have been made in recognising the contribution of the Irish abroad and in strengthening the relationship between the Irish at home and abroad.
But anyone who is concerned about this relationship should view keeping the longwave service - at a usable, listenable level - as a top priority. Many of Ireland’s oldest, most vulnerable, and most loyal emigrants depend on this link. The sacrifices of this generation must never be forgotten - and particularly not now, when Ireland is seeking a new relationship with the Irish abroad.
There is probably no group to whom Ireland owes more than the 1950s and 1960s-era emigrants - and as a means of repaying that debt, it is hard to think of a simpler, more cost-effective solution than keeping this lifeline alive. The service is not expensive - RTÉ has said it costs about €250,000 a year to run. Few annual spends of this amount could possibly mean more to more people.
On behalf of the many thousands of listeners, I am appealing to RTÉ’s executives, the Board of RTÉ, Comreg, Minister for Communications Denis Naughten, Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan and Minister for Diaspora Joe McHugh: Work this out. Ensure ring-fenced funding, if money is the stumbling block. Commit to saving the service until there is a viable alternative for this group of listeners. Restore the station to full power; resolve the interference problem; and let these citizens, whose extraordinary contributions should never be forgotten, keep this treasured lifeline to home.
Don’t let this be the last All-Ireland many of these loyal Irish men and women will ever hear.
Noreen Bowden is a diaspora advocate and co-founder of VotingRights.ie, campaigning for a vote for the Irish abroad.