When pirates ceased to rule the airwaves


New Year's Eve 1988 marked the end of one of the more fascinating and turbulent periods in Irish broadcasting, writes Patsy McGarry

SOME 20 years ago, at about this time of year, Irish radio became altogether less colourful when an estimated 70 pirate stations went off air voluntarily.

New Year's Eve 1988 marked the end of one of the more fascinating and turbulent periods in Irish broadcasting.

It is a period fondly remembered by many established names of TV and radio today.

The then Independent Radio and Television Commission had invited applications for broadcast licences but stipulated that anyone on air illegally after December 31st, 1988, would forfeit any chance of securing one.

Illegal broadcasting in the State went back to the 1940s at least, when there was a radio station called "Killeen Road Home Service" in Dublin's Santry. By the 1960s there was Radio Galaxy and Radio Dublin. By 1970, ARD was broadcasting from Cabra, remaining on air until 1980.

Big D broadcast from Chapel Lane off Parnell St in 1980/81 and Southside Radio, based at the Victor Hotel in Dún Laoghaire, was on air from 1979 to 1981.

Radio Leinster, based near Lamb Doyle's in Sandyford Co Dublin, closed in 1983 after two years, in anticipation of long-promised legislation allowing for independent broadcasting in Ireland. Other Dublin stations then included Capital, Radio City which lasted from 1979 to 1982, and TTTR, the city's only specialist (country) music station, which went on air in 1981.

Outside the capital one of the bigger pirate stations was Radio Carousel in Dundalk, on air since 1979. In Cork, both ERI and South Coast Radio were very successful. In fact, there was hardly an urban area in Ireland without its own pirate station.

Midnight on New Year's Eve 1988 also meant an end to the sole surviving "super-pirate" in Dublin - Sunshine Radio. It had been on air since 1980 when it was set up by Robbie Robinson and Chris Carey. Both had worked on Radio Caroline, the pirate station which in the 1960s broke the monopoly in British broadcasting. Caroline was started by Dubliner Ronan O'Rahilly.

A reported "sabotage attack" on Sunshine's aerial - causing £5,000 worth of damage - prompted Chris Carey and Phil Solomon, both among the station's major financiers, to pull out. But Robbie Robinson carried on. Purpose-built studios were soon ready in Portakabins behind the Sands Hotel and the standard of broadcasting set a template for all other pirates throughout the State.

A major breakthrough came in November 1980 when Aer Lingus decided to advertise with it. The station's unexpected success meant Chris Carey had a rethink and was soon back in Dublin setting up "clutter-free'' Radio Nova. He brought in a powerful FM transmitter and nothing was ever the same in Irish broadcasting after that.

Advertisers loved the "no chat, greatest hits" formula. And RTÉ got mad. They began to jam Nova and Sunshine, now also on FM as Sunshine 101.

In November 1982 the new Fine Gael-Labour coalition promised a crackdown on the pirates under pressure from unions at RTÉ. On May 18th, 1983, Sunshine's broadcasting equipment was seized. Similarly, Nova was put off the air, which brought Robinson and Carey together again as they mounted a hugely successful popular campaign with thousands of young people protesting on the streets of Dublin. Soon both stations were back on air to survive further jamming by RTÉ.

It was much the same following raids on other pirates stations across the State.

At Nova there followed a bitter dispute with the NUJ which helped bring about its closure in 1986. Sunshine continued to broadcast right up to December 31st, 1988, and was widely expected to get a licence the following year. It didn't. Carey also applied for a licence and was not successful either.

Later, in the UK, he devised decoders to unscramble satellite television stations and sold them for a small fortune. He was arrested in 1996 and got a four-year sentence. Four months later he walked out of his open prison and fled to New Zealand but was tracked down and received an additional 15-month sentence for absconding. In July 2000, at 53, he had a stroke from which he recovered. He has since died.

Failing to get a licence in 1989, Robinson went to live in Lanzarote with his wife Stella, where they remain today.

Patsy McGarry was head of news at Sunshine Radio from 1983-1987

Memories of pirate radio


I was very low down the food chain when I worked as a researcher for the early morning news service in the early 1980s on Radio Nova. I was paid £100 a week.

Preparing the news, of course, involved the shabby practice of taping RTÉ Radio 1's early morning bulletins, re-jigging them, and handing them to Bob . It was plagiarising of course, and I had sporadic bouts of guilt about the practice, but hey, this was Ireland in the 1980s and there were no jobs.

The fact that I was working on an illegal radio station, a pirate, never troubled me - in fact it was thrilling to be part of something that was taking on the establishment and winning. My big broadcasting break came when I filled in for newsreader Sybil Fennell who had slept it out! I was awful.


I was lucky enough to work for both Nova and Sunshine. Some of my fondest memories as a pirate come from the days spent in the Portakabins where Sunshine Radio flew its Jolly Roger.

The term "good old days" comes readily to mind, but I think it was more the fact that we were young, free and single and willing to work long hours in an exciting new industry. We never dared believe that one day we might be working for companies or corporations that might have an actual licence to broadcast.


Let me be absolutely honest and admit that, while I had two hugely enjoyable years in Radio Nova and that it was an experience which changed the course of my life, I couldn't get out of the place quick enough. Nova was a great radio station that produced some great broadcasting and outstanding broadcasters . . . Most important of all it demonstrated a public demand for an alternative to RTÉ.

But while I loved radio and loved working in Nova, I hated being a "pirate". I could see no future for illegal broadcasting.

We had already been closed down once by the government and it could happen again.

I am glad I escaped the world of pirate radio when I did. But I am also proud that I had the good fortune to begin my career in one of the best radio stations ever to take to the Irish airwaves.

Compiled by Patsy McGarry