Ronan O’Rahilly obituary: Founder of Radio Caroline captured spirit of the swinging 60s
Dublin-born maverick who launched pirate station was son of 1916 rebel The O’Rahilly
Ronan O’Rahilly, third from left, with former Caroline DJs Tony Blackburn, Tom Lodge, Johnnie Walker, Mike Ahern and Mark Sloane, on a visit to the Radio Caroline ship at Canary Wharf, London, in 1997. Photograph: Glen Copus/Evening Standard/Rex/Shutterstock
born 21 May 1940
died 20 April 2020
Aodogán Ronan O’Rahilly, who has died aged 79 after suffering from dementia, was the Irish maverick who took on the British political and broadcasting establishments by launching the UK’s first offshore pirate station, Radio Caroline, on Easter Sunday 1964.
The swinging 60s were under way, but the BBC, which had a monopoly on radio broadcasting, played few pop records on its Light Programme (the forerunner of Radio 2), so Radio Luxembourg – with its powerful transmitter beaming programmes across Europe – was the sole refuge for those seeking the revolutionary new music. Also, the BBC played singles only by established artists, while a handful of record companies had a stranglehold on Radio Luxembourg airplay.
So, influenced by offshore stations in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, O’Rahilly decided to launch Radio Caroline outside British territorial waters off the coast of Essex to beam its broadcasts to the mainland.
Although he later said his name for the station was influenced by seeing a picture of President John F Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, on the cover of Life magazine, friends said it came from his then girlfriend, Caroline Maudling, who wrote a Travelling Teenager column in the Daily Mail and was the daughter of the Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, Reginald Maudling.
At a port owned by his father in Greenore, County Louth, O’Rahilly had a former Danish passenger ferry, the MV Fredericia, fitted with studios, transmitters and a 180ft-high mast.
Not Fade Away
From the station’s opening with the Rolling Stones single Not Fade Away, Caroline captured the spirit of the age, becoming a musical and cultural phenomenon, with other pirates such as Radio Atlanta, Radio London and Radio City following.
Ultimately, its success led to the BBC’s launch in 1967 of Radio 1, Britain’s first legal pop music station, which became a natural home to some of those DJs who had served their apprenticeship with O’Rahilly in gale-force winds in the North Sea – including Tony Blackburn, Johnnie Walker, Simon Dee, Dave Lee Travis and Emperor Rosko.
The 1967 Marine Broadcasting Offences Act made it illegal for British citizens to be associated with Caroline. It continued to broadcast, but its influence diminished further after the launch of commercial radio stations in the 1970s, despite O’Rahilly rebranding it as a showcase for album tracks.
After going through five different ships – one of them sank – and being supported by benefactors such as George Harrison, the station closed in 1991 when the final vessel, the Ross Revenge, was shipwrecked.
Seven years later, the station was revived from land-based studios with satellite transmissions, then online, before being awarded a community radio licence by Ofcom, covering Suffolk and north Essex, in 2017 – finally making it part of the broadcasting establishment.
Radio Caroline’s story inspired the writer-director Richard Curtis’s 2009 pirate radio feature film The Boat That Rocked.
O’Rahilly ventured into films himself as executive producer of two 1968 productions: The Girl on a Motorcycle, memorably starring the singer Marianne Faithfull as a newlywed clad in black leather on a visit to her former lover, and Two Virgins, a short accompanying John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s avant-garde album of that title.
He also made Universal Soldier (1971), featuring George Lazenby as a mercenary in Africa. It came two years after Lazenby’s starring role as James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which not only flopped, but was notable for O’Rahilly having disastrously advised Lazenby – whom he managed – not to sign a seven-film deal because he doubted that the 007 craze would last.
His last attempt at feature film production was Gold (1972), a hippy story influenced by the counterculture of Easy Rider, but O’Rahilly’s legacy remained in the history of radio.
He was born in Dublin, the third of five children of Aodogán O’Rahilly, who had business interests in manufacturing and shipping, and his wife, Marion (nee O’Connor). Aodogán’s father, Michael (The O’Rahilly), had been a leader of the nationalist Irish volunteer force and one of those rebels killed by British soldiers in Dublin during the 1916 Easter Rising. He died off Moore Street on the last day of the Rising.
Ronan inherited the business acumen and rebellious nature of his forebears, trading in stamps and fizzy drinks at school. He claimed to have been expelled from seven schools before heading to London in his teens.
As manager of the Scene club, in Soho, he was acknowledged by Alan Price, who performed there, as helping to form the band the Animals. After spotting the talent of Georgie Fame, another regular there, he organised the recording of a promotional single. Then, on discovering that the policies of the BBC and Radio Luxembourg meant the single would never be broadcast, he set up Radio Caroline.
In 1966, when it needed a financial boost, O’Rahilly gave Phil Solomon, a Northern Irish talent manager with acts such as the Bachelors, a 20 per cent stake in the station. The pair then founded the Major Minor record label, whose artists such as the Dubliners and the folk singer David McWilliams were steered to success with airplay on the station.
O’Rahilly also briefly managed the American rock band MC5 during their final year, 1972, two years after his idea of launching Caroline TV failed to take off. He then spent much of the decade promoting the spiritual teacher Ram Dass’s hippy philosophy of “loving awareness” on Radio Caroline. He even formed a band with that name who released a 1976 album of the same title, with Beatles-like songs mostly produced by Harrison. The musicians went on to become Ian Dury’s band, the Blockheads.
In 1993, O’Rahilly married Catherine Hamilton-Davies. He was diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2012 and, a year later, moved back to County Louth with Inês Rocha Trindade, who looked after him during his illness. She survives him, along with Catherine, his stepson, Caspian, and his sisters, Nuala, Roisín and Iseult.