In the 1940s and 1950s, children's radio in Ireland reached a creative peak that has not been attained since. Under the careful guidance of the late Kitty Roddy, head of children's broadcasting, presenters cast off their roles as amiable "uncles" and "aunts" and became much-loved personalities with loyal followings among child listeners.
Radio Eireann's programmes for children evolved in the late 1920s in the form of The Children's Hour, which lasted for 45 minutes each weekday evening. A jolly band of contributors provided a lively mish-mash of banjo playing, Shakespearean recitals, serialised stories, parlour songs and improving tales. One of the earliest musical playlets was The First Visitors To Mars, performed by Margaret Pigott & the Little Minstrels, while Hilda Shea's hard-working trio offered The Haunted House - A Weird Affair.
One of Roddy's "finds" in the 1940s was Marion King, one of the first and longest-enduring personalities in Irish children's radio. King's slight speech impediment made her a rather unlikely presenter, and it is quite possible that she would have failed an audition today, but she had such a talent for communicating with young people that she remained in the often transient world of children's broadcasting for 20 years.
In 1943, King suggested a radio programme for children interested in learning to draw. The late Seamus Kavanagh, who would later take over from Roddy as head of children's programmes, recalled that the reaction at Radio Eireann was understandably negative.
"The idea did seem ridiculous, but Miss Marion King enthusiastically pooh-poohed objections and set to work. She announced flatly that she did not intend to "teach", at least not in the school sense of the word, but that her objective was to awaken the imagination of the children and to encourage them to draw," he said.
Drawing and Painting was born. King invented a character called Sean Bunny, a dungaree-wearing rabbit and, after relating Sean's adventures on the radio, she invited her young listeners to draw pictures of him. Although originally aimed at very young children, the age limit for King's drawing competitions was raised to accommodate young people up to the age of 17. When King first introduced another character, Cushaboo, a Pinnochio-style doll with a feather in his cap, a number of photographers appeared at the Henry Street studio to capture his image for the newspapers. Maev Conway Piskorski, then assistant to Seamus Kavanagh, recalls being cajoled into the photograph when King refused to have her picture taken: "I was in my mid-20s, trying to impress the fellas, and to be seen in the papers with this big doll. The embarrassment!"
On another occasion, King was horrified to learn that Cushaboo had been put into a cupboard when she had gone out to do her shopping; she thought he should have been out in the fresh air. King, possibly unintentionally, introduced a basic but effective method of audience research. When requesting children to send in their drawings and paintings, she would tell them to put a special mark on the paper - a star or cat, perhaps. If that mark was not on the drawing, then the child was not included in the competition. In that way, the programme makers were able to determine how many children were listening, and how many were sending pictures in automatically in the hope of obtaining a prize. According to Conway Piskorski, "there were hundreds of paintings coming in. It was the biggest part of our mail by far. Absolutely huge."
Roddy retired in 1954 but left a strong legacy in the form of a solidly popular group of broadcasters who kept children tuned to the radio. Another children's presenter, Dr Michael P. O'Connor, was a born broadcaster with a genius for story titles. Snitch the Snitcher and Rumbunculus were just a few of the tales he told every week for 17 years. Born in Galway, he joined the British Colonial Medical Service as a doctor in 1927 and, with his wife, he was interned in Borneo by the Japanese for nearly four years during the second World War.
In 1949, after 22 years in the Far East, he retired to Ireland and wrote two novels, a volume of short stories and his autobiography. But it was as a broadcaster for children that O'Connor excelled, according to a tribute to him in the RTE Guide after his death.
"His rapport with his audience was extraordinary; his voice deep and kindly, talking gently to his favourite grandchild just the other side of the microphone."
O'Connor apparently never spoke of his horrific experiences during the war. It was, according to the RTE Guide, "as if he wanted to keep away from his young friends the memory of horror he hoped had taught the world to spare them."
J. Ashton Freeman presented rambling, excited dialogues about harpooning whales and the like, creating his own sound effects in the studio. Seamus Kavanagh recalled that there was once a frantic telephone call from a mother asking how she should treat her son's pet tortoise, which was listless and was refusing to take food. The inquiry was sent on to Freeman, who dealt with it in his usual capable fashion. But there was another incident when his advice was not so sound.
A listener wrote in to ask what he should do about his dog that kept running after cars. Freeman gave him a solution. He told the man to tie a rope around the dog's neck and attach it to the car, then drive along dragging the dog behind. He said that would stop the dog chasing cars. The broadcast prompted an official complaint from the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
It seemed that anything was possible on children's radio in those days. Even on-the-air swimming and cooking lessons were provided by Dorothy Dermody and Monica Sheridan. In his celebratory report in the RTE Handbook in 1955, Seamus Kavanagh acknowledged the quality of his staff.
"The children's section in Radio Eireann is particularly lucky in having a permanent small group of freelance broadcasters who have proved really first rate. There is always room for new material and new people, but it is also most comforting to realise that there is a hardcore of excellent artists standing by.
"Every child listener in Ireland knows the names of Marion King, Michael P. O'Connor, J. Ashton Freeman, Peadar O Dubhda, Tomas Luibheid, Eamonn O Fadlain, Fay Sargent and Kitty O'Callaghan," he said.
The golden age did not endure, however. With the advent of television in 1961, talent began to filter away from radio and towards the newer, more tempting, medium.
There was brief and unexpected flowering of children's radio broadcasting in 1979, with the launch of RTE's second station. Poparama was broadcast on Radio 2 for young listeners every Saturday and Sunday morning. Produced by Kevin Hough, it launched the career of the Today FM presenter Ian Dempsey. And in what seemed like a throwback to children's programmes of years gone by, the show included storytelling contributions from Aunty Poppy (Jean Darling). A former child actress and member of Our Gang, Darling acted with Mickey Rooney and Laurel & Hardy in US in her youth. She came to Ireland as an assistant to her magician husband and wrote stories for the BBC's Listen With Mother. She contributed to Poparama until it ended in the mid-1980s.
But radio seemed an increasingly restrictive medium for children who, it was believed, needed visual stimulation to hold their attention. The Ivory Tower, RTE's recent concession to children's programming is welcome, but its boy hero is unlikely to inspire the level of nostalgia produced by the likes of Marion King, Dr Michael P. O'Connor and J. Ashton Freeman.