Tuesday, July 01, 2008


Latest updates: 5 December 2008 (to include link to Peter Braun essay on the launch of the International Features Conference: see Michael Littleton entry)

This is a small archive of photographs taken in and around RTE Radio's Features and Current Affairs (FCA) department, then led by Michael Littleton, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Accompanying the pictures are short vignettes of some of the people who worked there at the time.

There are pictures of a Women Today election special in Studio 1, of Community Radio West, one of the last such projects with the Mobile Radio Studio, as well as some occasional photos taken in and around the Radio Centre; perhaps a hundred images or so in all. Clicking on most (but not all) of these images will enlarge them to full-screen.

I was then a producer at RTE and took many of the photographs. Perhaps it is in the nature of radio that the visual record is so sporadic. Nonetheless these picture offer small glimpses of RTE Radio's history -a history that has not been chronicled in a considered way since Maurice Gorham's Forty Years of Irish Broadcasting in the 1960s. Some of the pictures that will eventually appear transcend mere sentimental interest and hint at how Ireland was then beginning to change.

It was a strange time at RTE. The optimism of the 1960s was spent, and Ireland was in the grip of the second oil recession and a crippling budget deficit. Emigration started again (I was one migrant, albeit by choice) and I remember a Gay Byrne Show from Sydney (produced by John Caden) hymning the joys of life in Australia. The Tiger Economy was, by the lights of the time, unimaginable. Yet, there were other currents at work in Irish life. Women Today notably crested a new wave, while the Pope's visit in 1979 - a huge challenge for FCA - was a high water mark for Irish Catholicism. The future for the church was as unimaginable then as was that for the economy.

Yet there are parallels between RTE then and now. For our generation, every year brought cutbacks as the organisation struggled with recession. I imagine today's producers know a similar experience. They can take assurance from the fact that creativity often thrives in times of recession; indeed the architecture of today's Radio 1 was put in place in the late seventies and early eighties. While I only listen to RTE on visits to Ireland, it still seems recognisably the service for which I worked twenty five years ago.

The Feature and Current Affairs department was a veritable kaleidoscope of Irish life. Nonetheless there were notable absences. When I joined, there was one woman producer, Petronella O'Flanagan, who had produced a woman's programme, Between Ourselves for Radio Eireann in the 1950s. (It was presented by Ginette Waddell who was one of the treasures of the REP). Petronella retired in 1975, and for a time FCA was an exclusively male preserve (on the producer side) until the arrival of Clare Duignan and Betty Purcell, both of whom were to feature large in the story of Irish broadcasting. Indeed, after a long stretch in television, Clare is back in the Radio Centre as managing director of the service.

For me the clock stopped at RTE, and indeed on much of Irish experience, on 4 February 1983, rather as the characters in Fellini's Satyricon are stilled forever in the tesseras of a Roman mosaic as the closing credits creep across the screen. Ephemeral though that world seems now, it mattered intensely to us at the time, and several of my then colleagues matter greatly to me even now.

This site is an act of pietas. I recently met some old RTE colleagues, some of whom I had not seen for twenty five years. As we talked, I realised that these photographs deserved a better fate than to lie forgotten in an attic in West London. My original plan was to publish the pictures with a light linking text. But as I began to write, I also began to remember......

The logo on the home page template was RTE's corporate symbol from the late 1960s until the early 1980s, a stylised version of St Bridget's Cross, designed by John Cogan, who was then head of corporate design. St Bridget's Cross in various guises remained the corporate symbol until it was quietly 'designed out' several years ago (a straw in the wind, perhaps, that Christianity was no longer seen as an essential anchor of Irish identity).

I also hope to add to and annotate individual postings - the pix and comments are a first take. Also, the posting dates have no significance. Blogging was the easiest way to get this material online quickly. I hope, in time, to create a proper website. And if former FCA colleagues chance to see this, and would like to add thoughts or pix, I'd be delighted. I can be contacted via the 'View my Complete Profile' page.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

New Picture Gallery - Patricia Lyons

(31 March 2008)In the coming days I'll be adding a new set of pictures to the site in a separate gallery. They were almost all taken by our much loved colleague Patricia Lyons (Patricia Murphy, as we knew her then) in May 1984. For the shot above, Patricia had handed the camera to a colleague so that she could step into frame. From left: Patricia Murphy, Freda McGough, Ann Daly, and Mary McAleese, then a reporter in FCA, now President of Ireland.

There never was a FCA 'family photo', so the photomontage above (which has some key omissions which I hope to make good) is as near as we get. It includes (reading from top left and line by line):

Rose Doyle, Proinsias O’Conluain, Diarmuid Peavoy, Tom Manning, Mary Curtin, Maxwell Sweeney, John Skehan.
Seamus Heaney, Pat Kenny, Donncha O’Dulaing, Ronan O’Donoghue, Sean MacReamoinn, Freda McGough, Patrick Farrelly.
John Bowman, Phil Crotty, Mary McAleese, Marian Finucane, Padraic O’Neill, Donal Flanagan, Brendan McCarthy.
Patricia Murphy, Kathleen O’Connor, Michael Littleton, Padraic Dolan, Des Hickey, John Caden, Betty Purcell.
Rodney Rice, Pat Leahy, Clare Duignan, Doireann Ni Bhriain, Colm Keane, Patrick O’Gorman, Micheal Holmes.
Dick Warner, Muiris MacConghail, Ed Mulhall, Bernadette O’Sullivan, Jim Fahy, Ingrid Miley, Micheal Johnston.
Micheal O hUanachain, Eugene Murray, Valerie Kane, Brian Reynolds, Liam Nolan, Jim Lyons, Cillian de Paor.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Michael Littleton

Michael Littleton, the Head of Features and Current Affairs (HFCA), was at the centre of our little world in the Radio Centre. When Michael died in the Summer of 2002, I was in Canada and couldn't get to the funeral. Like, I'm sure, many others, I felt his death deeply.

I was one of Michael's producers in the 1970s and 1980s, until I left to work in London. I didn’t know it when I worked in RTE, but I would never again in my life have a better boss than Michael. He was a very exceptional man and I respected him for his intelligence, his integrity and his complexity. He was good to me (and indulgent with it) beyond any reasonable bounds. As a young man one takes indulgence for granted – indeed as one’s right. I certainly never thanked him, as I should like now to have done. Probably had I tried, he would have waved my words away and changed the subject. (There was a side to Michael that was very private and very resistant to others’ praise).

What I also loved about Michael was his passion for RTE Radio and his rugged defence of its best qualities. While he represented the ‘apostolic succession’ from the old Radio Eireann, he wasn’t sentimental or boring about it. He had perfect pitch for contemporary Ireland. He kept the radio service relevant and he kept it honest. The RTE that I loved - and that I can still relate to - is Michael Littleton’s RTE. There have been a number of controllers and directors of the radio service. But for some of us Michael was always ‘the real Controller’ and the service rested heavily on his moral authority.

I read about his death on the RTE website, while sitting in a bookshop in Vancouver. I had been thinking of him only an hour before. He was a formative person in my young life and I owe him a debt of gratitude.

Link: Peter Braun on the launch of the International Features Conference (mentions Michael)


Irish Times 31 August 2002

This is the very perceptive obituary that appeared in the Irish Times after Michael's death. I have only just read it (November 2006) - four years later. I wonder who the obituarist might have been? Muiris MacConghail? Ed Mulhall? Adrian Moynes? Rodney Rice? All praise to the writer.

The piece is astute - and full of surprises, in particular his ability as a pianist and his interest in choral music. I'm shocked, even this many years on that I - of all his colleagues - never picked up on that (and, in particular, given the tracks I was eventually to follow). There was a closeness between us - and I felt a real sense of communion sitting with him in his office at the back of the Radio Centre unpicking the details of some programme or other. Kevin O'Connor used words like 'Jesuitical' or 'casuistic' about Michael, but that completely missed the point. Michael had a nose for nonsense and an instinctive moral sense, one which reminded me of my grandfather, also from Clare, a schoolteacher. I loved the man, it was a friendship that I should have tended better, and I wept the night I heard Michael had died.

MICHAEL LITTLETON: He was totally committed to public service broadcasting and fiercely loyal to RTÉ and his fellow-workers.

Michael Littleton, who died on August 21st aged 64, was one of the most influential and innovative broadcasters in the history of Irish radio. Much that is taken for granted in daily broadcasting is attributable to him.

He was a pioneer in general election coverage as well as in features and current affairs. For many years he produced the Thomas Davis Lectures series.During his term as head of Arts and Features, RTÉ radio documentaries won the Prix Italia two years in a row, an outstanding achievement. During 40 years' service with RTÉ radio, the positions he held included assistant head of features, magazines and current affairs department; head of features and current affairs; acting controller of programmes; and managing editor features and arts programming.

Michael Flannan Littleton was born on March 5th, 1938, the son of Michael Littleton and his wife, Bridget (née Long), of Tulla, Co Clare. He was educated locally and at St Joseph's College, Roscrea. Having studied arts at University College Dublin, he graduated in 1959.He went to work with Radio Éireann in 1961 and was appointed assistant to the general features officer, Francis McManus. Soon after his appointment, Telefís Éireann began broadcasting, and the radio and television services were joined under the banner of Radio Telefís Éireann.

There were fears that radio might lose out in terms of resources and, for a while, the radio service did become, in the words of Sean Mac Reamoinn, "the junior partner in a dual monarchy", but over time a more equal and productive relationship evolved. Michael Littleton's creativity, intelligence and wit were to the fore in the development of daytime radio, which was introduced in 1968. Until then, RTÉ closed down after the news at 9 a.m., returned for an hour-and-a-half at lunchtime and went off air again until 5 p.m.

Current affairs coverage was expanded and a regular mid-morning slot was created for Here and Now, which was presented by Liam Nolan and later by Rodney Rice. John Bowman took over the same slot with Day by Day and Pat Kenny is the current incumbent. Women Today, initially presented by Marian Finucane and then by Doireann Ní Bhríain, broke new ground, providing a platform for women and reflecting their changing role in Irish society. Elements of the programme survive today in Liveline. Today at Five, Saturday View and the Sunday Show are other programmes that originated with the support and encouragement of Michael Littleton. And two great Irish passions, religion and sport, were catered for by The Godline and Sportscall respectively.

Michael Littleton's rural origins meant that he had a good insight into another Irish passion, parish-pump politics, and this proved invaluable in the coverage of elections. With an unprecedented five general elections in the 1980s, in addition to emotionally charged referendums on abortion and divorce, he showed himself to be both sure-footed and even-handed. Likewise, the approach to coverage of Northern Ireland in the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s was a model of objectivity.

Michael Littleton did not neglect established programmes. He was responsible for maintaining the exceptionally high standards of the Thomas Davis Lectures series of which for many years he was general editor. He was a producer who valued the spoken word and he insisted on crystal-clear delivery. He did not hesitate to correct the most eminent scholars if, in his opinion, their use of language was sloppy. He also oversaw the publication in book form of each series of lectures.

He didn't see minority broadcasting as a ghetto but as an opportunity to entertain and enlighten. He sought to preserve the best traditions of the service that he entered as a young man, and ensured that there was room in the schedules for talks and discussions dealing with literature, ideas and philosophy. He saw a role for radio in supporting literary endeavour and initiated the Francis McManus Short Story Awards.

He was a respected broadcaster whose advice was frequently sought and highly valued by his colleagues. While he insisted on the highest standards from his staff, he never made unreasonable demands, and it is generally accepted that he was most agreeable to work for. He was totally committed to public service broadcasting and fiercely loyal to RTÉ and his fellow-workers. Always receptive to new ideas, he was similarly ready to nurture young talent. Documentary programme-makers in particular found him supportive. He was a mentor to many of today's leading broadcasters.

Michael Littleton was quiet and self-effacing, with a wry sense of humour. He was slow to make friends, but his friendships lasted. Musically talented, he was an above-average pianist with a particular liking for Baroque music. He was also something of an expert on the work of Johann Sebastian Bach and had a deep interest in church choral music.

He excelled at chess. He played for UCD and Collegians chess clubs and was twice Irish champion, in 1962 and 1965. He was a member of the Irish team in the 1967 European championships and represented Ireland with distinction in five chess Olympiads between 1960 and 1974. He also broadcast on chess matters. Bridge was another interest, and he kept himself in intellectual trim by solving crosswords and answering the questions in Leaving Certificate honours maths papers.

Michael Littleton is survived by his wife, Terry, brothers John and Matthew, and sisters Anne and Margaret.

JJ Walsh, the Irish Times Chess writer, added his own tribute (11 November, 2002) and continued: "Michael had a great natural talent for the game and possibly possessed the abilities necessary to become a strong master and perhaps even reach grandmaster status but he wisely opted instead to concentrate on his successful but demanding career...."

When eventually RTE instituted the Michael Littleton Memorial Lecture in his honour, the inaugural speaker was Mary Robinson, who introduced her lecture with a tribute: "Although a very modest and unassuming man to meet, Michael had a wide-ranging impact on the development of Radio 1. He could also be very persuasive. And I was glad to have been persuaded to give one of the Thomas Davis Lectures he organised as it gave me an insight into how committed Michael was to equality, social justice and human rights."

Nollaig O'Gadhra,himself a former FCA producer, wrote this appreciation for the Sunday Independent, published on 1 September 2002. Nollaig picks up on Michael's presentation of The World This Week, which Kieran Sheedy produced, and to which I remember listening while at university. Michael had a really good broadcasting voice, a sharp interviewing technique and I often thought it a shame that he stopped presenting. Before TWTW, Michael had produced the programme Round Table on World Affairs, Radio Eireann's first current affairs programme of any kind, presented by Kevin B Nolan. The various obits skirt around Michael's demons but Nollaig is right about the shyness. While Michael had an apparently brusque exterior, that was as far as it went.

Nollaig O Gadhra on a man who had a huge influence on modern radio

THE recent death of Michael Littleton marks the end of an era in RTE Radio. He was one of the most committed public service broadcasters in the land over the past four decades. A native of Tulla, Co Clare, and a graduate of University College, Dublin, Michael joined the national radio service in 1961 as a programme assistant. He worked diligently throughout the Sixties, becoming a producer mainly concerned with evening schedules and combined with Donncha O'Dulaing for the launch of the new RTE 'Round the Clock Radio' that came on air for the first time at the end of 1968.

He developed a considerable talent as a broadcaster himself, concentrating on arts and current affairs programmes that laid the foundation for the modern Radio 1 we still know today.Known by some in Montrose (though he spent over a decade in the old Henry Street location) as "the father of the current daytime schedule on RTE Radio 1", he survived the various broadcasting upheavals, conflicts and lack of clear broadcasting policies by successive Irish governments to make a remarkable contribution in the various senior editorial positions he held. He was appointed managing editor of arts and features programming in Radio 1 in 1994, and became evening and programmes and deputy editor, Radio 1 in 1998.Mr Adrian Moynes, Director-Designate of RTE Radio said Michael "was innovative, he was influential and he made an epoch in modern Irish radio."

Yet for all that, he remained relatively unknown to people, even in RTE itself. An essentially shy workhorse, a back-room boy in the best public service broadcasting tradition, he realised that radio, good radio, also required a huge dollop of common sense, commitment and fairness if it was to retain the confidence and the loyalty of the widely diverse audiences that listen to radio today.

Michael had his own prejudices and biases, his own commitments to things he believed in, and his own "pet projects" of which he was extremely proud. First was the Thomas Davis lecture series, recognised as a gem throughout the world. He also recognised the place of good, diverse and popular documentaries in any decent radio schedule and in a station which believed it advertised to broadcast, not broadcast to advertise.

He was also a devil for accuracy, correct pronunciation and an editor who believed in delegation of authority. Though not particularly committed to the use of Irish personally, he always insisted on equally high standards in a schedule which, he accepted, had to reflect the realities of our bilingual society. He always approached current affairs, and indeed political controversies, with an "overview" approach, accepting that there were usually at least three sides to all good stories that of the government, that of the opposition, and the truth which was usually somewhere in between.

One of his proudest achievements was his presentation of The World This Week in the new radio schedules of 1968-69, when the dramatic expansion of radio not television is blamed by some for the take-off of the Northern Civil Rights Campaign. Michael was a quiet, reserved person whose only hobby was chess. He was chess mad, and could be challenged to a game at the strangest of times.

Was it his unique command of that calculating game that made him such a rock whenever there was a crisis? Perhaps.


Diarmuid is one of the legends of the radio service. Stories about him are legion and are scarcely exaggerated in the retelling. He joined in 1968, the year of Round The Clock Radio. Incredibly the radio service broadcast then for an hour in the morning, two hours at lunchtime, and from 5.00 to 11.00 at night. Diarmuid along with Brian Reynolds, the late Howard Kinlay, Michael O'Donnell was recruited by Donncha O'Dulaing, who succeeded Francis MacManus, the old head of features.

Extraordinarily, Diarmuid still works for RTE. This picture was taken in Paris in Summer 1987 - the year that Stephen Roche won the Tour de France. Obviously much more to say about Diarmuid, and more pix to follow.

Shadows, presences, absences

The picture above would not be possible now, as a new multi-decked car-park obscures the reflected view of the houses behind the Radio Centre. Michael's old office is on the left of frame.

For about twelve years after I left RTE, I made occasional visits to the Radio Centre, particularly to see Kathleen O'Connor, who, for me, embodied much of what I cared for in the old department. Kathleen had been Sean Mac Reamoinn's PA in his time as controller, and then ran the admin side of FCA. On one of these visits, I met Liam O'Muirthile, who had once presented Gaeliris, along with Padraic Dolan. "Brendan - I haven't seen you for ages", he greeted me. "Are you still doing community radio?" (I had been ten years with the BBC by then).

I had assumed that Brian Reynolds was similarly lost in some remote annexe of the organisation and was shocked to hear from Diarmuid Peavoy, who read one of these entries,that Brian had died some time ago of cancer. "I believe", Diarmuid wrote, "that he crashed a party before he died and insisted on turning it into his premature wake, all in very good humour."

How characteristic. Brian had worked in sound and left RTE to live in Germany after he met his wife Helga. After several years with Deutsche Welle, he returned to RTE, this time as a producer, in Donncha's time as head of features.

Brian was immensely kind. I found his sins against the English language awful: his years in Germany must have had something to do with the labyrinthine techno-babble which was the stuff of his daily conversation. But I gladly listened to him, because he had a huge and very attractive heart. He notably liked women. Not sexually merely - there was real emotional empathy.

If I have an enduring image in my mind, it is that of Brian holding court in Madigan's, surrounded by some of the girls from the switchboard and the typing pool. Then Helga stormed in. Helga was a formidable woman of Wagnerian force, and definitely not to be trifled with. The moment was truly operatic. "You will come home Brian", she ordered, "And you will come home now". And he did.


'I bear orders from the Captain'

I met Donncha again last week after almost 25 years - talking to him and retelling and rehearing the old stories prompted me to put these photographs online (they had been gathering dust in my loft and they deserved to be shared). I've always had a soft spot for Donncha - that twinkle is still in his eye and his energy is prodigious. Working for Donncha and John Skehan (Donncha's editor -as if anyone could have edited Donncha!)was my very first job at RTE. Over time I hope to fill out this blog with some of the old stories. I wonder if Donncha remembers Billy Flynn and Lady Londonderry (this was a series of dreadful talks about a Cork gillie which Skehan commissioned and which DOD sent up mercilessly)


This pic of Doireann was taken during the warmup for the live Women Today debate during the 1981 election. There were several photographers there and the pics are in the Women Today election special picture gallery.

This was the moment, caught by an Irish Press photographer, when a lesbian feminist election candidate, Liz Noonan, decided to engage the panel at close quarters. On the panel were Gemma Hussey (Fine Gael), Mary Robinson (Labour - later to be President of Ireland) and Eileen Lemass (Fianna Fail).


This is Ronan O'Donoghue - an incredibly bright, charismatic, and then rather dissolute colleague who joined the department a year or two before I left. He edited a regional newspaper, and now works for Newstalk.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Betty and Patrick

This must have been taken during the Day by Day programme, as (if you click on the photo to enlarge it) you can just see John Bowman at the presenter's table in Studio 10. Betty Purcell is in the producer's chair, while beside her is Patrick Farrelly and behind them Jim Jennings, then a young researcher. Mick Bourke is on sound. He and I overlapped only slightly at RTE, but I remember him as being really excellent, friendly and 'can-do'. Later he was one of the staff representatives on RTE's Editorial Board. Now, along with Emer Woodfull (also after my time), he runs an innovative charity Stride Ethiopia (Link), a project to encourage young gifted Ethiopian athletes.

Studio 10 was very state of the art back then. Apparently it has had a makeover and this is what it looks like now.

On the road

The OB radio engineers were among RTE's treasures. On the right is Brian Mulvihill. If you were a producer bringing a programme on the road, it was incredibly reassuring to realise you'd be in Brian's hands. A real pro with an infectious sense of fun. This pic was taken in the Mobile Radio Studio. I'm not sure who Brian's colleague is. I think he may have been Paddy Cosgrave, but someone may correct me on that.

It was always a pleasure as well to see Ted Berry (nach maireann). He was an explosive character, fiery and irascible - a stalwart if he was on your side, heaven help you if he wasn't. (One of the legends was that he had once physically removed one of our more demanding colleagues from a control cubicle in Henry St). But bright, infectious, funny, extravagant in language and gesture, and full of humanity.

Ted went to RnaG with Muiris MacConghail, who attempted to appoint him leas-ceannaire, to the fury of the clar-reachtairi whose amour-propre was offended (and none of whom had such experience at the time as might have justified such hurt feelings). So Ted was 'extracted' to the safety of OBs instead.

I talked to Ted once after I left RTE. One evening, when I was producing PM on Radio 4, we had a circuit from a EU summit in Dublin. As we waited for the line to be handed over, I heard Ted's unmistakeable voice cut through the static on the prefade speaker. We exchanged greetings as Gaeilge, as those around me in Studio 3B at Broadcasting House listened bemused.

Brian Mulvihill died on 29 August 2009. He was a delightful man and a first class colleague. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.

Radio Centre - February 1983

Des and Patricia

Des Hickey and Patricia Murphy (later Patricia Lyons) were two of my dearest friends at RTE. Des died tragically young of cancer. This photo was taken probably in Studio 4 during a recording of Appraisal, RTE Radio's weekly arts programme in the 1970s and 1980s, which Des presented, and which I of which I produced two series.

Women Today

This picture was taken in Studio 1 during a Women Today election debate in 1981. Gerry Fitzgerald was the sound engineer; Brendan McCarthy, the producer; Phil Crotty (left), then a researcher; and Patricia Murphy (back to camera), then Women Today's broadcasting assistant.

That programme was very much Doireann's idea. My contribution was one of deception. RTE left to itself would not have allowed an audience show on the floor of Studio 1, and we were only day or two from transmission when reality dawned that this was what we intended. By then it would have been embarrassing to stop the programme in its tracks - so it went ahead. It was during this broadcast that a lesbian protestor heckled the panel; the effect was rather lost on listeners because Gerry Fitzgerald, the engineer (and whose forte was radio drama), simply faded her out.


Strangely this is the only pic I have of Marian, and an uncharacteristic one at that. She had been the first presenter of Women Today and she and Clare Duignan left after a very successful first series, Clare to RTE television, Marian to an ill-starred association with Vincent Browne on a new women's magazine.

Marian returned for the Studio 1 debate, where this pic was taken (there are some 20 pix from that broadcast which I will post over time).

I produced Women Today's second series, and I will write about it(Nell and Bishop Newman etc), when I post the complete set of pix taken in Studio 1.

Open plan

I had to play around with this picture electronically to work out who was in shot, as it was really underexposed. No question about Valerie Kane, facing camera, who's still with RTE, while facing her is (I think) Ann Daly.

This is Rose Doyle, who was a reporter with both Day to Day and Women Today, and now a rather successful novelist. This photo was taken when we met in Paris several years after I left RTE.

--- while this is Catherine Hogan, one of the sterling continuity announcers.(Does RTE Radio still have announcers?)

Doctor Flanagan, I presume?

Donal was professor of dogmatic theology at Maynooth and in midlife he left the priesthood and resigned his academic post. After a year with the Irish Press he joined RTE and eventually became assistant controller.

I believe that the experience of remaking his life softened him. He managed to be empathetic with colleagues who were half his age - and I was struck by the extent to which unbelieving colleagues wanted to engage him about religion. We've now lost touch, although we had kept contact for years. He and his wife Eileen (who was Tim Pat Coogan's PA at the Irish Press) live in Tinahely, County Wicklow.

He was 'Doctor' Flanagan in reality. Seamus Heaney, one of FCA's 'country members', so to speak, delighted in conferring the soubriquet 'doctor' on all and sundry, hence 'Doctor' Sweeney, 'Doctor' O Conluain, 'Doctor Sheedy' etc.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Brendan and Rodney - Canada 1978

It's many years since I last met Rodney. Working with him was a real rite of passage for a young producer: he was demanding, tetchy and difficult (albeit often with good reason). But a pro - and very loyal. Rodney was a Belfast Protestant who moved south and settled there. Under Muiris MacConghail's editorship, he was a reporter with television's 7 Days, and then followed Muiris to Henry Street when Muiris became HFCA.

The pic above was taken in Quebec City on one of the strangest foreign trips that Michael Littleton ever commissioned. I must have been the first and last RTE Radio producer to have chartered a seaplane. This was to visit the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk on the Beaufort Sea. I remember Rodney's t-shirt from that visit, which he wore proudly ("University of Tuktoyaktuk - Tuk U"). The pic below was taken in Banff National Park in Alberta by a ranger from Parks Canada who was very hospitable to us.

More to say about RR - will add to this post later.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Seán Mac Réamoinn

Seán Mac Réamoinn at the Merriman Summer School in 1968. The occasion was the 'turas' - a boat trip to Inis Cealtra on Lough Derg. Photo courtesy of John Horgan (with thanks also to Clare County Library)

At home in Ennis, there is a scrapbook which belonged to Una, my late and much loved aunt. There was a note from her days at UCG, from one Sean MacReamoinn, her fellow-student. "Una, a stor", it read, "is tu a mhairigh mo chiall". If this was even slightly true, Una had much to answer for.

Mac Réamoinn, who died in January 2007, was one of our last links with the postwar generation of radio programme makers. A gifted communicator, he was a passionate man with a consummate sense of the word. He lived his Christianity with urgency and was a memorable colleague, who made an immense contribution to Irish life, culture and broadcasting. It's hard for younger generations to have a sense of the extent to which he shaped the Irish conversation. But he did - liberally, lyrically and wittily. As he himself often said of others, "Ba dhuine uasal é".

There is so much to say about Sean. 'Falstaffian' would only begin to describe him. He was one of my heroes as a teenager, especially for his broadcasts from Rome during Vatican II, which, more crisply than any bishop's pastoral letter, explained the work of the Council to ordinary Catholics. His Catholicism - along with his ecumenism - was deeply felt and I can remember his anguished remonstration on one radio discussion with Joe Foyle, a right-wing Catholic of the day: "Ach cad faoi'n scoilt in eaglais De?" In his day there weren't many like him: he was liberal, Catholic, Irish-speaking, cosmopolitan, and with what Denis Healy calls a sense of 'hinterland'. He was also a socialist - and a passionate member of the then Workers' Union of Ireland (to which radio staff had been recruited by Jim Plunkett). Along with his predecessor as controller, Maurice Gorham, he believed that a true Christian must be a socialist. Indeed I once heard him introduce himself at a public meeting (perhaps it was a Merriman School): "Sean Mac Reamoinn, People of God, Dublin Branch."

At the time, the Irish language was the preserve of some of the most conservative forces in Irish society. Sean - along with people like Liam de Paor and John A Murphy - offered role models for those of us who loved Irish, yet felt ill at ease with the social values that often seemed to come with it. Sean's voice was at once throaty and mellifluous, if that isn't a contradiction, and his command of the spoken word in both Irish and English was a joy. The voice lent itself to caricature: John Keogh's Ray MacSeánmoinn in the satire series Get an Earful of This could be uncannily close to the reality (as indeed was Keogh's 'Sir', Paddy Maguire).

Sean joined Radio Eireann in 1947 from the Department of External Affairs. This was the 'annus mirabilis' (Maurice Gorham's phrase) in which Radio Eireann, then just over twenty years old, acquired a proper staff for the first time (the government of the day had intended to open a short-wave service, a plan which was short-lived, but Radio Eireann got many of the benefits). Sean's generation included Ciaran MacMathuna, Seamus Ennis, Norris Davidson, PP (Paddy) Maguire, Proinsias O'Conluain, men of intelligence and wit, who had a profound sense of the word. Among broadcasters, the only relevant tense is - inevitably - the continuous present, and the contribution of that generation is now fading into history. But it should not be forgotten. Their work was broadcasting's equivalent of Seathrun Ceitinn's Foras Feasa ar Eirinn, or the Down Survey. They created - with great elan -the first sound maps of the Irish cultural landscape.

Then there were the puns. Some of his bon mots can be found on the internet, but the badinage of Madigan's or the Unicorn Minor loses its vividness when reduced to cold text. Two puns I remember which work in print: Sean's sadness at the eclipse of the priest novelist ("We have no Bernanos today"). And there was his complaint to a waiter at breakfast ("This is a very pedestrian croissant"). Not a pun, but I also treasure his fury (voiced to Michael Littleton) at a threatened producers' strike; "I will not tolerate this wild kitten activity." And his riposte to Donal Flanagan in Madigan's who agreed that he would stay on a few more minutes for "a very small Paddy". "Ah well Donal - aren't we all small Paddies in the sight of the Lord." And on his return from Rome to Desmond Williams, who asked him, "How was the Pope, Sean?". "I saw him on Tuesday - and the leg was much better."

From Seamus Kelly's report of a Dublin Theatre Festival press conference, Irish Times, 10 October 1968.

In the 1950s and 60s he presented a radio series called Around the Town, in its way, a radio equivalent of Terry O'Sullivan's 'Dubliner's Diary' for the Evening Press. The programme was an expression of his personality and instinct for conviviality. More importantly, along with figures such as Padraig O'Raghallaigh and Denis Meehan, he was also one of RTE's 'voices of the great occasion'. In the early 1970s he became the founding head of the radio documentary unit (originally the 'social documentary unit'), which was part of FCA.

Seán had a wonderfully sacramental imagination. He was at the heart of a small Catholic intelligentsia in the Ireland of his time. It included, among others, Louis MacRedmond, John Horgan, Enda MacDonagh and Peter Connolly of Maynooth, the Dominican, Austin Flannery, Kevin O'Kelly, Des Fisher and Garret FitzGerald. That group has, sadly, not had a successor generation (a reproach to Irish Catholicism's inability to move its adherents from a childhood faith to an adult and nuanced version which might endure for a lifetime). He loved the church. He loved the old Irish traditions of faith and he was a passionate advocate of the renewal of the Second Vatican Council. He championed a faith that was at once ancient and modern and raged against the caricature of Irish Catholicism as, essentially, a construct of Italianate devotionalism and Victorian puritanism. "You might as well argue that by combining bad Scotch with Nescafe, you can make an Irish coffee."

Seán had intellect, moral stature and charisma - on the face of it, the perfect leader of the radio service, when Roibeard O'Farachain retired in 1974. One of Sean's talents, and, in a way, his achilles heel, was his spontaneity and gift for improvisation. Wonderful in live broadcasting, of course. And I will never forget the cadences, the poetry and the high dignity of his commentary in Irish on Eamon de Valera's burial in Glasnevin.

But Seán had little taste for organisation and detail; in fact there wasn't an administrative bone in his body. "The only good line is a deadline", he once said, and he wasn't joking. It was his management credo. I remember Michael Littleton's despair when the late-night sponsored programmes were phased out. Despite long warning, Seán could not come to a decision about an alternative. Paddy O'Connor from drama and Micheal O hAodha, the assistant controller (as in Ian Priestly Mitchell's "Our thanks to our producer Mr PJ O'Connor, I'll convey, and to our munificient manager, Mr Micheal O hAodha") tried to cobble together a D Schedule from repeats. With the presses about to roll at the RTE Guide, MacReamoinn summoned up a programme title, Sounds around Eleven , out of midair, and it fell to a furious Michael Littleton along with Kevin Roche quickly to put flesh on the bones (Littleton sensed that what Sean really wanted was "Around the Town" redux).

When Seán had - inevitably - to move on from the controllership, it would be more than a generation before another programme-maker would again run the radio service. But Seán did have his successes. Community radio (his idea) brought RTE into relation with parts of Ireland to which it had not hitherto reached. Corkabout - a Cork area opt-out at midday - was the first local radio service in the country (In 1958, Sean had been the founding head of the Cork studios at Union Quay).

Seán and I worked closely together on the Pope's visit to Ireland, notably on a commemorative LP issued shortly afterwards by RTE. Perhaps just one story from that time. He came back to Donnybrook from John Paul's Mass in the Phoenix Park and asked me puckishly as he settled into a booth in Madigan's "Comrade, why is it that one always feels randy after a great ecclesiastical occasion?"

I lost sight of Seán after I left RTE. He must have found the invention of the mobile phone a liberation, as he was forever on the phone, wherever he was. In Madigan's, he would explode in frustration as the caller in front of him wrestled with Buttons A and B, "If there's anything I can't stand on the telephone, it is a f***ing amateur."

In my BBC years there was one figure who reminded me of Seán. That was Robin Day. Both men had a grand style, rapier like wit, a profound instinct for their respective cultures - and surprisingly similar weaknesses (notably a capacity for self-generated fuss). Neither, I feel, would have found easy acceptance in the world of broadcasting as it eventually became.

Seán Mac Réamoinn at the Merriman Summer School in 1968 (also in shot, Maeve Binchy?). Photo courtesy of John Horgan

Link to Seán Mac Réamoinn obituaries

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Roscommon Community Radio

Producers in FCA had, sometimes, to spend a week with Community Radio. This photo, which I think is a gem, is from the Town Square in Roscommon, in October 1978.

Community Radio, which was Sean MacReamoinn's idea, served parts of Ireland which RTE had hitherto neglected. Radio then served Dublin (in the sense of official Ireland) and the West very well, and Clare, Galway and Donegal notably so. But RTE producers mostly ignored the Midlands. Indeed RTE's cognitive map of the country seemed to exclude the Midlands, Waterford, the North East. Community Radio began to address this omission. Along with Corkabout (the Cork area local opt-out service), MacReamoinn envisaged Community Radio as a prototype for a RTE local service.

Community Radio used the Mobile Radio Studio, which at the time was something of a technological novelty. The MRS was borrowed by BBC Wales and BBC Northern Ireland for experiments similar to RTE Community Radio.

Thursday, June 09, 2005


Paddy O'Neill and Eddie MacSweeney (Maxwell Sweeney). Photo by Patricia Lyons

My desk was near Eddie's. When his phone rang, he would lift it and answer, in his nasal singsong, 'Sweeney!'. Eddie (to listeners he was Maxwell Sweeney) produced Dear Sir or Madam and Sunday Miscellany and was the first producer to impose his will on the wayward Ronnie Walsh, who hadn't known similar restraint from Eddie's predecessor. He was a delightful, civilised and mischievous man - and a link with the old Radio Eireann, for which he had presented Film Magazine.

What follows is complete breach of copyright. Hugh Oram's portrait of Eddie was written for the Irish Times. I hope he will forgive my using it here.

An Irishman's Diary

Eddie MacSweeney, better known to generations of RTÉ radio listeners as Maxwell Sweeney, was a genteel figure by today's media standards, but enjoyed a career that was very modern in its scope and diversity, writes Hugh Oram.

He was born in England to an Irish father and an English mother. His father, Dominic, worked for the Royal Mint before coming home to work for the Currency Commission when it was set up in the new Irish Free State.

Dominic also had a close connection with the Holborn Empire in London, one of that city's great variety theatres. He passed on his love of theatre to his son, who subsequently wrote and broadcast frequently on the subject.

Eddie himself started work as a junior reporter with The Irish Times and spent the whole of the 1930s with this newspaper. One of his early "bloodings" came when he was sent to cover a story in Roscommon town, where it had been reported that IRA members were drilling in the castle. Eddie got his story - the reports had been accurate - but not before Jasper Tully, the tempestuous editor of the Roscommon Herald, had been thoroughly abusive in print to the young reporter from Dublin with what he described as an "Oxford accent" . Tully himself earned further notoriety after his wife died and he readdressed letters sent to her, "Not known at this address. Try Hell".

That wasn't the only excitement at the time for the young reporter. Aviation was one of his lifelong passions and when Sir Alan Cobham brought his flying circus of a dozen stunt planes on a tour of Ireland in 1933, Eddie helped with the publicity.

His next big newspaper job came in 1941, when The Irish Times decided to relaunch its weekly newspaper as the Times Pictorial, inspired by Picture Post in Britain. Eddie was made art editor of the paper and, along with his colleague George Burrows, devised and ran a very modern newspaper that broke with tradition and was also a useful training ground for many journalists.

He wasn't without a sense of humour, though he was an essentially serious, urbane man. Eddie and George Burrows devised a wartime photograph showing two men getting a fill-up in a tankard from a petrol pump at the Guinness brewery. Petrol rationing was at its height and the picture was never published because of wartime censorship.

Immediately after the second World War, Eddie decided on a change of career and became publicity manager for Metropole and Allied Cinemas in Dublin. This led to an even more stimulating job in the early 1950s with Rank Films at their film studios in Denham, Buckinghamshire. It must have been fun: the Rank starlets were in their heyday.

Eventually, he returned home to Ireland and developed many other interests. For many years, he edited a magazine about the hotel trade. For about 20 years, he wrote for Fodor's, the American travel guide. He also contributed for many years for the American show-business magazine Variety. He wrote features for Cara, the Aer Lingus magazine, and for Ireland of the Welcomes. He worked for the Law Society.

But his real claim to fame came at RTÉ. He had started freelancing for the old Radio Éireann in the 1950s, contributing many of the Topical Talks that ran after the lunchtime news. Shortly after Telefís Éireann started on the last day of 1961, he hosted a religious discussion programme called Enquiring Minds. When he was put in charge of Sunday Miscellany, which started on RTÉ Radio in 1968, he flourished.

He was its producer for the best part of 20 years, assembling an impressive array of talent, the likes of Agnes Bernelle, John Fleetwood, Shevaun Lynam, John Jordan, Ben Kiely, F.S.L. Lyons of Trinity, Val Mulkerns, Sam McAughtry, Sean MacCarthy, Michael Mulvihill, John Ryan and Bernard Share. The programme was introduced by Ronnie Walsh, the noted actor. It became an unmissable mix of music and musings, mandatory listening for many people on Sunday morning.

It had a wonderfully clubby atmosphere - so much so that many people thought that after each programme had been completed, all the participants repaired to some literary club, where they exchanged bon mots over generous libations. The reality was totally different, of course: there was no "club", as each of the contributors usually came in, recorded his or her piece, then left the Radio Centre in Donnybrook to go quietly about their business. Eddie was a very courteous and calm man, but like all good producers he knew exactly what he wanted, getting quite impatient if it wasn't delivered.

During his time in RTÉ, Eddie MacSweeney, aka Maxwell Sweeney, was legendary. Colleagues often said that he started full-time work at the station at an age when everyone else would have been thinking of retiring. He was working on Sunday Miscellany scripts in his hospital bed until just before his death on June 1st, 1991, just over 14 years ago. He had almost reached his 82nd birthday.

He is survived by two daughters, Anne and Colette. His wife and their mother, Maura, had died many years before, in 1974. She had accompanied him on many of his trips abroad and to the many social functions in the hospitality industry in Ireland.

It is largely a tribute to his theatrical and broadcasting skills that Sunday Miscellany, one of the longest-running of all radio programmes on RTÉ, is still going strong today, But there was only one Eddie MacSweeney.

Saturday, November 06, 1999


Paddy O'Neill (Padraic O'Neill/Paddy O'Neill/Paddy O'Brien) was one of the most talented of us; a prodigiously gifted man and a man with a true instinct for radio. Not an administrator! As a child I remember his scripts for the Lambert puppet TV series Murphy agus a chairde. Try as I might, I've never succeeded in Googling Mortimer, An Crann Feasa ("will you please go away - you're boring me"). Paddy explained to me once that the whole point of the Crann Feasa was that he knew nothing at all.

Looking at this photo, I'm struck by how frail Paddy seems (he had a history of heart trouble). Paddy harks back to the old Radio Eireann. He had been a member of the REP and the produced drama and variety programmes before moving over to features. But to listeners he was Paddy O'Brien, the greyhound commentator.

One of his real achievements was the priceless Idir Shugradh 's Dairire, presented by Diarmuid O Muirithe and Annraoi O'Liathain. There was a pic somewhere of Paddy and Annraoi with Diarmuid perched precariously on a ladder in TCD library. It's etched on my mind and I really wish I had it here. Idir Shugradh relied on the wonderful actors of the REP: Neasa Ni Annrachain, Brendan Cauldwell - and most especially Ginette Waddell and the magical, but tragically flawed, Eamonn Keane.

Paddy's programmes, as Jim Plunkett's appreciation for the Irish Times recounts below, were an important part of the soundscape of our childhood. He then produced Take the Floor with Din Joe and The School Around the Corner . On my very first day in Henry Street he was in Cub 9 editing that day's edition of Here and Now, the midmorning series then presented by Liam Nolan. Burnout was unheard of then and Paddy continued to reinvent himself throughout his long career.

Paddy had a very mischievous side. It was he who dubbed one of our most colourful colleagues Mr Toad. After some 'mix-up' about a hired car, I can remember Paddy and Michael weeping with delight, as Paddy read from his copy of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (which he always seemed to have at hand) "Toad steals a car - but retribution catches up at the river bank...."

I also can't help thinking of others who must have been just out of frame in this pic: Kathleen O'Connor (of whom mysteriously I can't find a photo), Kevin O'Connor, Kieran Sheedy, Cathal O Griofa, Padraic Dolan. I'm sure there are other photos in trunks and packing cases - I'll add them as I find them.

A point here about Irish society in mid-century. Some of the best broadcasters had previously been primary school teachers (one of the few choices open to the brightest and the best at the time). In my time in FCA, they included Paddy, along with Padraic Dolan and Kieran Sheedy.

Irish Times, 1 August 1995

Appreciation: Padraic O Neill

When I first met Padraic O Neill, he was a member of the Radio Eireann Players company and had taken part in some plays I had written for the drama department of which Micheal O hAodha was head. Radio Eireann had begun putting together the Radio Eireann players (known generally as the Rep) in 1947 and by the 1950s the standard of their performances had won them nationwide popularity.

All across the country, Sunday night had come to be set aside for two compulsive programmes, the first being Question Time with Joe Linnane, followed by the Sunday night play. One recalls highlights in a succession of striking productions. These inclide Siobhan McKenna in Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan; Steeple Jerkin and a number of powerful verse plays on Irish mythological themes by Padraic Fallon which seemed to leap out of the set to fill the whole room with movement and colour. There were memorable guest productions also. Such as Tyrone Guthrie’s Peer Gynt and Denis Johnston’s adaptation and production of The Old Lady Says No with Micheal Mac Liammoir as The Speaker (Robert Emmet).

However Paddy had moved away from the green room (so to speak) to the administration and production side in 1954 and when I myself joined the Drama and Variety Department of Radio Eireann in August 1955, I found myself sharing an office wirh him. I realised that acting was only one of his gifts in the multisided proidfession of radio broadcasting. He bgan the task of introducing me into a complex and unfamiliar world. There were plays upon plays submitted by aspiring playwrights which had to be read, and passed on for a decision to accept or reject, while the variety side of the department had a long list of shows that were revived from time to time for which scripts had to be commissioned and then read for approval, and for which studios or outside venues had to be booked and artists engaged. Among the most regular of these, for instance were Beginners Please; The School Around the Corner; Meet the Mulligans; Question Time – and one which Paddy seemed to regard very much as his own - Take the Floor.

These in turn brought leading entertainers into the office : Joe Linnane, Din Joe, Paddy Crosbie, Jilly O Dea’ Maureen Potter, Harry O’Donovan and several more. Among all these household names, Paddy introduced me one morning to another who dropped along from time to time and who, Paddy had come to regard as an aspiring performer. I was sitting at my desk with the back to the office window, which overlooked the hustle and bustle of Henry Street far down below it, when I was startled by an impatient tapping on the glass. I looked around to find an elderly, grimy looking slouch of a seagull, looking as down and out as a Beckett creation, standing on the window ledge and squinting irritably at me through the glass.

Paddy looked around and began rooting in his desk. “That’s Pete”, he told me. Then he took out some barley seed or nuts, or some such thing, left them on the sill and closed the window again. Pete, he explained, had begin to call when a seafaring series was running which was punctuated frequently by a disc that played in the sound of flocks of seagulls following a ship. Paddy had decided that Pete had heard them and had called looking for a job. There was no way of conveying to him that the sounds were on an effects disc. Pete was numbered among our applicants for an audition but gave up his visits after a while.

In the forty odd years of friendship with Paddy I saw him take part in an enormous variety of productions. They ranged from from current affairs to entertainment programmes such as The School Around the Corner and Take the Floor. He acted as interlocuter on several interview programmes, wrote scripts in Irish for children’s radio programmes and later supplied scripts for Jimmy O’Dea for his children’s series on RTE television called Once Upon a Time. He was narrator on films produced by RTe television also. He administered and acted as chairman of the judges panel for the Francis McManus Short Story Awards. As Paddy O’Brien he did commentaries on greyhound racing and found time to become chairman of Bord n gCon.

But above all that he was a thoughtful and caring friend and a man of gentle and unfailing courtesy for all who worked with him. These were qualities possessed in equal measure by his dear wife Maureen and all his family. They have the deep sympathy of all of us who know them.

JP (James Plunkett)

Sunday, June 07, 1981

Community Radio West

Community Radio West, based in Castlebar, and on which I worked with Tom Manning, was one of my last projects for RTE.

Because there are so many pix, I intend to post them all on a dedicated website and to start adding them in February 2007. I will also post some of the more resonant pix on this site.