Donegal’s radio pioneer celebrates historic anniversary

Michelle Nic Phaidin

Reporter:

Michelle Nic Phaidin

Four decades ago the Irish language in all its rich historical beauty was spoken by generations throughout the country. Absolute in its origin, it remained stifled as Ireland became acquainted with media with the establishment of RTÉ on December 31, 1961. Eleven years later, Raidió na Gaeltachta was established, an outlet that would ignite a new energy, inspire enthusiasm and conserve an ancient language. Tantamount to the success of this station was the team of young reporters who would cultivate this medium to make it a national success. Leading the team for Donegal was Timlín Ó’Cearnaigh from Machaire Chlochair who worked the reigns expertly, travelled the country and later the globe to contribute to the success of a station that has become a household name and this Monday celebrates its fortieth anniversary.

Four decades ago the Irish language in all its rich historical beauty was spoken by generations throughout the country. Absolute in its origin, it remained stifled as Ireland became acquainted with media with the establishment of RTÉ on December 31, 1961. Eleven years later, Raidió na Gaeltachta was established, an outlet that would ignite a new energy, inspire enthusiasm and conserve an ancient language. Tantamount to the success of this station was the team of young reporters who would cultivate this medium to make it a national success. Leading the team for Donegal was Timlín Ó’Cearnaigh from Machaire Chlochair who worked the reigns expertly, travelled the country and later the globe to contribute to the success of a station that has become a household name and this Monday celebrates its fortieth anniversary.

“In October 1971, I was chosen to be a member of Raidió na Gaeltachta. In January 1972, the training began. We were priviledged as we were trained by the greats, Andrias Ó’Gallachóir, Ciarán Mac Mathúna, Muiris Mac Conghaile, Bridget Kilfeather and Una Sheehy among others. We received expert training for two and a half months. Then the work began in earnest and we began working stories throughout our own regions that would be suitable for broadcast,” Timlín who now lives in Mín na Cuinge said.

The new station was officially blessed by a local parish priest, an tAthair Tomas Ó’Concheanain, and then went live with the broadcast of a recorded welcome from President Eamon de Valera. It was followed by Sean Ó’Riada’s Mass as Gaeilge and a mixture of music and interviews. The first day was a seven-hour marathon compared to its usual schedule over the following months of two hours each evening.

From that moment on, remote houses with smoking chimneys on the edge of the wild Atlantic ocean tuned in on mediaum wave to a station that adhered to their way of living and understood them and their way of life. Initially the new station was only available along the western seaboard. Many of its listeners had never tuned into radio before.

“We were all hopeful that the establishment of this medium would help cultivate and grow the Irish language for years to come. The Irish language, indeed the Irish culture, the music, the tradition had no real stage at that juncture in time. The station began with two people working in Donegal, two in Kerry and three in Galway,” he said.

The team of seven reporters spent the first twelve to fifteen months travelling the country. “When we had recorded our pieces we had to then travel to Casla, to edit them and braodcast them. This entailed a lot of work, a lot of travelling and a lot of organisation. We were collecting everything from news, current affairs, debates and music,” he said.

The boundaries of the Gaeltacht dictate that the rich linguistic qualities of Irish in each region differ from that of the other, affiliated with the different streams of language that has evolved over hundreds of years is a difficulty for one region to understand that of another. According to Timlín, Raidió na Gaeltachta has played a vital part in dulling the linguistic boundaries and differences between each dialect and helps each region understand another enhancing a common understanding to a rich, complex language.

“The station played an essential part in helping people from the islands in Kerry understand the people in Toraigh island. It helped people from Gleann Colm Cille to understand someone in Casla. We all used the same language and at times used different words for different things, this helped us recognise the words and understand eachother in the same language,” he said.

The station changed to FM in later years and gave people from Rath Cairn to Dublin and Belfast the opportunity to tune in and listen. Timlín was paramount to the station in the initial years. He interviewed Pádraig Ó’Gallchóir, the last remaining survivor from the Arranmore tragedy which occurred on the night of November 9, 1935, when nineteen islanders lost their lives on the short sea journey home from Burtonport.

He was one of the first to interview, Bridget McCole from Gaoth Dobhair, a victim of a botched blood transfusions which led to national scandal. One of the best radio shows that Timlín recalls is the 1992 programme that came live from the Portobello pub in Dublin ahead of the All Ireland game. Spirits were high and the traditional pub was packed with people from Donegal ahead of the big game. Máire Brennan was feeling left out as she was sitting in her home listening to the show listening to the electric live banter and feeling the charged atmosphere so she left her cosy home and drove straight to the canal bank pub. She sang a few songs and became engrossed in the evenings activities.

Timlín also recalls the excitement of following the Irish Team during the 1994 World cup. He stayed in the same hotels, boarded the same flights and travelled everywhere with the team.

He was also one of the reporters to get on the first flight from Ireland to America and report from Ground Zero. He also feels priviledged that on many occasions it was he who reported from New York for TG4 and RTÉ for Saint Patricks day. His intellignece and his ability to break stories has seen this man present at more general elections than former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. He also played a pivotal part in the reportage brought from Stormont on the days leading up to the Good Friday Agreement.

It was Timlín who was one of the first reporters on the scene after three young boys tragically died as a result of an arson attack in 2005. The Orange Order’s Co Armagh Chaplain Rev William Bingham expressed his sorrow to his loyalist congregation: “No road is worth a life let alone three lives of three little boys.” The event marked a turning point in the history of the north.

The Gaoth Dobhair based newsman whose love of news has brought him from being instrumental in the establishment of RnaG in 1996 to the newsroom of TG4 has been a significant player in making Irish language stations a success in Ireland. Now retired, the communities from Kerry to Donegal await his next move. He and his wife Bríd had three of a family, Séamus who lives in Donegal, Aoife who has recently married and the youngest Neasa an award winning garda who works in Sligo.

Now broadcasting on 92-94fm and with a budget of over €10m a year from RTÉ, the RnaG has an estimated weekly listenership of 150,000. As part of its 40th anniversary celebrations, this Easter Sunday, it will return to Carraroe, the location of Ó’Riada’s Mass which featured in the first day of broadcasting for live music and programming.