Transistors in biscuit tins: a look back at the heyday of pirate radio

Irish Pirate Radio Archive is to be donated to DCU and will open to the public on Friday

The Irish Pirate Radio Archive has been donated to Dublin City University. The collection of documents, publications and paraphernalia celebrates the golden years of pirate radio in Ireland between 1978 and 1988. Video: Bryan O'Brien

a
 

A transistor disguised in a biscuit tin so that it could be quickly hidden in the event of a raid by post office officials is just one of the many items from the Irish Pirate Radio Archive that is to be donated to Dublin City University.

The archive, which contains a wide range of documentation, publications and paraphernalia collected by pirate radio fans over many decades, tells the story of a part of the Republic’s media history.

The material was brought together by radio archivist Eddie Bohan.

The donation to DCU is designed to mark the 30th anniversary of the Broadcasting and Wireless Telegraphy Act, which effectively closed down pirate radio in advance of licensed regional radio stations opening.

The public sign a petition against the closure of Radio Nova in Herbert Street, Dublin, in 1983. Photograph: Peter Thursfield
The public sign a petition against the closure of Radio Nova in Herbert Street, Dublin, in 1983. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

The archive will form part of DCU’s media history collection and will be open to the public from Friday.

A digital oral history of the heyday of pirate radio will also be added to the archive over coming months. The initiative will get under way at the Ballsbridge Hotel on October 20th, where there will be an opportunity for those involved in pirate radio – owners, DJs and even those who raided stations – to have their stories recorded.

International outlook

Speaking at an event to announce the donation on Tuesday, Irish radio veteran Declan Meehan recalled how pirate radio kept Irish audiences plugged into the international music scene.

“Radio Melinda was in Sean McDermott Street, where we got raided and fined two quid,” he said. “But we wanted to change the monopoly of Radio Éireann at the time.

“Radio Éireann was on from 8am-10am, and then there was a gap from 10am-1pm. Then there were sponsored programmes from 1pm-3pm. Then from 3pm-5pm there was nothing.

“This was broadcasting in the swinging ’60s. The Beatles were happening. Offshore radio had just happened, and Ireland was so far behind. There was a growing number of teenagers who aligned themselves more with US music like blues singers.

“We wanted to recreate what the pirates did, which was playing popular music for young people. We wanted to replicate the pirates in the absence of the broadcasting scene. A little bit later RTÉ filled in the gaps, but it was pretty bleak.”

Pirate radio fans march in protest following the raid on Radio Nova, Kiss FM and Sunshine arriving at Government Buildings, May 1983. Photograph: Peter Thursfield
Pirate radio fans march in protest following the raid on Radio Nova, Kiss FM and Sunshine arriving at Government Buildings, May 1983. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

Massive adventure

Hot Press deputy editor Stuart Clark recalled how pirate radio hosts would evade the authorities. “The pay wasn’t always great,” he said. “It was never great. But working on them was a massive adventure.

“I love the loophole, which was basically that if you could prove an alternative use for your transmitter, it was that. So if it gave off light, it was a light. If it gave off heat, it was a heater. That was the loophole exploited for quite a few years.”

DJ Pat Mac Mellow working in Power FM. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
DJ Pat Mac Mellow working in Power FM. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Mark O’Brien of the DCU school of communications said the donation would be of interest to international scholars. “It’s phenomenally huge,” he said. “We’re very grateful to all who have contributed to the archive and are donating their material.

“The heyday of pirate radio was in the ’70s and ’80s. Every parish and village had their own pirate radio station, and I think it constituted local and community radio before those terms became fashionable or were even invented.

“It’s really rich media history material, and it will be of interest not just to Irish scholars but internationally as well. Pirate radio is not just an Irish phenomenon – it’s global.”

a