‘One of the outstanding journalists of his generation’: President leads tributes to Charlie Bird

Former RTÉ journalist, who has died aged 74, ‘redefined our collective perspective on terminal illness’, says Higgins

Tributes have poured in for “leading light”, former journalist and charity campaigner Charlie Bird, who has died at the age of 74.

The former RTÉ chief news correspondent’s death comes following his diagnosis with motor neuron disease in 2021.

President Michael D Higgins described Mr Bird as an exceptionally talented broadcaster and a truly remarkable man “driven by a deep sense of social justice in the most positive sense”.

Mr Higgins said Mr Bird’s intuitive nature, dedicated pursuit of the truth and immense ability to build warm relationships “made him one of the outstanding journalists of his generation”.

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“The dignity, strength, hope and inspiration with which Charlie carried the burden of his illness was remarkable. In a way that was truly extraordinary, Charlie redefined our collective perspective on the illness of motor neuron disease and terminal illness more generally.

“The authenticity, at considerable personal cost, which he brought to all of this could never have been achieved by any other means of communication. I believe that his experience touched every home in this country and will leave a lasting legacy that will not be forgotten,” the President said.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said that the late Charlie Bird was a genuinely special person and the country would mourn his loss.

Speaking in Boston the Taosieach said he had only learned the news in the past few hours that Mr Bird had died.

“He was a man I knew. I worked with him a few times when he was a journalist and in more recent years when he was a campaigner and an activist. He was a special person, a genuinely special person. The country will mourn his loss. I really want to extend my condolences to his wife and family and friends,” he said.

Tánaiste Micheál Martin said he is “deeply saddened” to hear of Mr Bird’s death, adding he inspired many “with courage, generosity of spirit and dignity”.

Mr Martin noted memorable work from the broadcaster over the years, namely his coverage of the peace process, 9/11 and the National Irish Bank scandal.

“Personable and engaging, Charlie had the public interest at heart, representing public service broadcasting at its very best,” he said.

Since his diagnosis, Mr Bird worked tirelessly to get “people to sit up and take notice of what is truly a devastating disease”, said Lillian McGovern, chief executive of the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association (IMNDA).

She said Mr Bird’s impact on the motor neuron disease community in Ireland and further afield is “immeasurable”.

Ms McGovern said he has left an enduring legacy, whose impact will be written in history “and will be felt by all of us for many, many years to come”.

“His ability to extend the hand of friendship, as he so beautifully phrased it, and bring together thousands of people in every part of the country for Climb with Charlie was incredible,” she said.

“It resulted in millions being raised and marked the beginning of what was, and continued to be, an unwavering commitment to fight MND; to support people living with MND and their families; and to make a meaningful difference,” she said.

Ms McGovern said the IMNDA will be forever grateful to Mr Bird for his fundraising and raising awareness of the condition.

“In many ways, Charlie started the important conversation, and it is up to all of us to continue it in his honour.

“The world has lost a real hero, but his fight for a brighter future for the MND community will continue,” she said.

Sarah O’Toole, executive director for Samaritans Ireland, said Mr Bird will be remembered as a “leading light” for charities across Ireland, including Samaritans, “for which his passion was formidable”.

Just under two weeks ago, Mr Bird announced plans to lead volunteers on another walk in Wicklow next month in aid of Samaritans.

Ms O’Toole credited him with raising the profile of the charity’s services, alongside his wife Claire and dog Tiger.

“He often said he chose Samaritans as he found himself in a dark place following his diagnosis with MND and he wanted people to know that support is available,” she said.

Paying tribute to the “legendary” journalist, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said his work on the Stardust tragedy is a “stand-out achievement of his career”.

Mr Bird was among the first reporters at the scene of the fire in 1981, and had worked closely with survivors and the families of victims since.

Survivor and campaigner Antoinette Keegan who lost her two sisters in the fire said Mr Bird was like family to victims.

“He never forgot any of us, he was like part of our family he was always there supporting us,” she said, speaking on RTÉ Radio 1.

“Charlie was our voice,” she said.

Former Westport priest Fr Charlie McDonald described Mr Bird as the “unelected lord mayor of Westport” following his ‘Climb with Charlie’ campaign.

Fr McDonald said the climb was not just a physical journey but a spiritual one too adding that it was a “great privilege” to witness his “tremendous determination” and his “never-die attitude.”

“He lifted others who were on that journey as well and helped them in their maybe confusion and their anxiety,” he said.

“He did an awful lot physically, but he did a tremendous amount for people as well from an emotional point of view or a spiritual point of view,” he said.

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Claire Byrne, Fr McDonald said Mr Bird found a “tremendous connection” with Westport and the local community.

“He would have visited there five or siz times a year, whenever he could and in the last number of years, both before and since Climb with Charlie, he was like the unelected lord mayor of Westport,” he said.

Former RTÉ presenter Sean O’Rourke said Charlie Bird “represented the best of humanity, the best of RTÉ, and the best of journalism.”

Mr O’Rourke paid tribute to his friend and former colleague saying Mr Bird had been “lucky in life and lucky in love”, and he had been “scaffolded” by his wife Claire and his family in his illness.

Mr Bird was “a genius on-the-spot reporter” who knew it was important to get the attention of those he wished to interview.

“He had a great capacity to connect with people on a human level,” he said, speaking on RTÉ’s News at One.

Mr O’Rourke noted that Mr Bird’s long career in journalism could be traced back to his time spent in the library of The Irish Times.

The two men met in the newsroom in RTÉ in 1982 and from the first quick handshake “I knew I had a friend for life.”

“If Charlie was in the house, you were safe. You knew you wouldn’t miss anything,” he said.

There were many examples of his “dogged determination” during his career and in his campaign following his diagnosis.

“He was so open about his illness, his fears. He was terrified,” he said.

He said Mr Bird who had a “brilliant nose” for journalism had never lost his sense of wonderment.

“Once he looked at you with his sincerity you couldn’t not answer the question,” he said.

Sharing a photo of him with Charlie Bird at the summit of Croagh Patrick, former Late Late Show host Ryan Tubridy thanked him for “bringing us to the top of the mountain where perspective reigns supreme”.

“I will never forget his fortitude, forbearance and fearlessness in the face of a cruel illness. He raised awareness and funding for charities that needed it most,” he wrote in a post on Instagram.

Separately, the Chieftains musician Matt Molloy said his bar became the “unofficial office” of the Climb with Charlie campaign and despite living in the shadow of Croagh Patrick for 34 years, he had never climbed it and did so when asked by Charlie.

“He convinced me to do it and it was a wonderful experience. He was just such a remarkable man. We became instant friends,” he said.

Mr Molloy who is also a musician will perform at the funeral service at the Mansion House on Thursday, as requested by Charlie.

“I had the highest regard for him and I am honoured to be asked,” he said.

Meanwhile, in closing the News at One, Bryan Dobson paid tribute to his former colleague.

“Perhaps I’ll share with you one message that I had from Charlie when I announced my retirement from RTÉ earlier this year.

“His message was: ‘Please enjoy the next phase of your career. I would just love to hug you.’”

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