National treasure – Alison Healy on RTÉ's online archives

An Aladdin’s cave of news reports on quirky events from a long-gone Ireland

Would you care to step inside a portal and be whisked back to an Ireland that seems vaguely familiar but also slightly surreal?

It’s a place where you can see a priest suspending his niece on three swords in mid-air. Or you might enjoy some German Shepherds singing opera? Where is this magic place I speak of? Let me introduce you to the Weird and Wonderful Exhibition from RTÉ's online archives.

It’s a veritable treasure trove of news reports on quirky events from a long-gone Ireland. Let’s start with the sword-wielding magical priest. This was brought to us by reporter Cathal O’Shannon on the Newsbeat programme in 1971. There are many spectacular things to see here, but perhaps the most spectacular is the reporter casually waving around a cigarette while conducting his interview with Fr Richard Horan.

The priest is at Purteen harbour on Achill Island with his niece Eileen, and an assistant. He begins his trick by hypnotising the youngster and balancing her on three upright swords. A local man sits in the background performing a tension-building drum roll as Fr Horan removes two swords, leaving her balancing precariously on the tip of one sword.


Fr Horan reassures Cathal O’Shannon that it’s not black magic, thus cleverly fending off any investigations from his superiors. The men chat away amiably for a few minutes while Eileen is suspended in mid-air with only a sword under her neck. Hearty applause rings out from a small group of delighted locals when she is finally awoken from her hypnotic state.

Cathal O’Shannon had a keen eye for these surreal slices of life and several of his reports feature in this archive. A 1969 report puts the spotlight on three Loch Ness monster experts who travelled to Ireland to investigate claims of strange creatures lurking in the lakes of Connemara.

And in 1966 he reported on the opening of a horsemeat butcher shop in Phibsboro. Because horsemeat was cheap, he innocently wondered if it would be easy to swap horsemeat with beef without anyone noticing. Well, we all know the answer to that one.

He interviewed one departing customer who kept his back to the camera, as though he had just emerged from a drug den. Perhaps he was shielding his identity from his children, because he told the reporter that he had fed them horsemeat without telling them what it was. They enjoyed it until he revealed the source of the meat “and they nearly got sick”.

The butcher, a Mr Hickey, said he was doing a great trade with “a lot of continentals coming in” and locals arriving “by degrees”.

“I think when we really get going that it will be all horse flesh in Dublin. People will turn over to horse meat,” he predicted with great confidence.

Another entrepreneur whose vision wasn’t entirely embraced by the nation was amateur inventor Laurence Ward. In 1976, reporter John Howard brought us the news that Mr Ward was seeking a patent for his invention which, he declared, would bring the Lollipop Man into the space age. The school traffic warden business must have been entirely male-dominated back then as there was no reference whatsoever to the Lollipop Lady.

His unique contraption involved an upturned plastic basin suspended over the head with luminous stick-on letters declaring “stop” and “go”, all mounted on the shoulders with lightweight tubing.

He was hoping to persuade local authorities to swap their boring old lollipops for his new invention. But, because a prophet is never recognised in his own land, it didn’t catch on.

A quick perusal of these archives suggests there was no such thing as a slow news day, especially when there was a slow-moving steamroller passing by. Intrepid reporter Kevin MacDonald brought us the story of the steamroller that was travelling from Longford to Dublin, for reasons unknown, in 1965. He hopped on to the machine when the driver Joe Tuffy was 26 miles from the capital. Mr Tuffy had already spent three days in the steamroller and agreed that it was a bit slow but said he was used to it at that stage.

When he had exhausted his line of questioning, the reporter hopped off the steamroller while it was still moving, leaving Mr Tuffy to continue his lonely odyssey eastwards.

You could lose many happy hours watching footage from these archives. The next time RTÉ executives are hauled in front of a Dáil committee and asked to justify the licence fee, they should bring a few of these videos with them, click play, and sit back.

They would probably leave with a 20 per cent increase in the fee.