Charlie Bird obituary: One of Ireland’s best-known journalists for nearly 40 years

Bird’s determination in pursuing stories, a distinctive, exuberant reporting style and empathy with subjects propelled his career

Born: September 9th, 1949

Died: March 11th, 2024

Charlie Bird was one of the best-known broadcast journalists in Ireland for nearly 40 years. As chief news correspondent or special correspondent for the national broadcaster, RTÉ, he reported on most major Irish and international news stories from the early 1980s until 2012, and he made a series of TV documentaries that attracted some of the station’s largest audiences.

He was born in Dublin, the youngest of four boys of Delia Murray and Jack Bird, a ship’s engineer who was often absent on long voyages. Growing up in Sandymount, and later in Goatstown, Charlie began work at eight years of age delivering newspapers for a neighbouring shop. While attending Sandymount High School he worked as a lounge boy in a local pub, the Goat Inn. Despite failing his Leaving Certificate examination, he lobbied journalists who frequented the pub until one of them, Donal Foley of The Irish Times, helped him secure a job in the newspaper’s library.

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Bird joined RTÉ as a researcher in 1974 and he quickly gained a reputation for diligence and resourcefulness on programmes including Seven Days and The Late Late Show. Recruited to the newsroom in 1980, his reports from the scene of the Stardust fire tragedy in 1981, and from the prison cell of the wrongly-jailed Irish priest Niall O’Brien in the Philippines in 1984 brought him to national prominence.

His determination in pursuing stories, a distinctive, exuberant reporting style and empathy with subjects propelled his career. He specialised in reporting from outside parliament, “doorstepping” politicians and nurturing contacts to establish a foothold on the political beat that he never relinquished.

A doorstep of Nelson Mandela in South Africa’s first post-apartheid general election in 1994 scooped the world’s media and featured in Mandela’s autobiography. Investigative work led to him being named Journalist of the Year, jointly with colleague George Lee, in 1998, for investigating allegations of tax evasion at National Irish Bank (NIB).

Challenges to the NIB investigation in the High Court and Supreme Court, including a failed libel action by Fianna Fáil TD Beverley Cooper Flynn, lasted more than three years, testing his resolve and costing him more than a stone in weight. He was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws by University College Dublin in 2004 for his journalism. His year-long RTÉ News series on road-traffic casualties won a Law Society Justice Media Award in 2006. A serious assault while covering a riot in Dublin in 2006 and an unhappy and foreshortened spell as RTÉ's Washington correspondent from 2008 were low points.

He played a significant role covering the Northern Ireland peace process, as the sole RTÉ contact person for the IRA through two ceasefires and the decommissioning crises. His frequent foreign assignments covered earthquakes, famines and wars, as well as travels with successive taoisigh and with president Mary Robinson. The aftermath of both the New York Twin Towers attacks in 2001, and of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake that killed and injured 500,000 people were among his most difficult and memorable assignments.

“I loved every day of my 38 years in RTÉ. I have never been afraid to say that I clawed my way to the position of chief news correspondent by my fingernails,” he wrote in his 2022 memoir Time and Tide.

Before retiring from RTÉ in 2012, he made documentaries about his voyages to the Arctic and the Antarctic and about his journeys along the entire lengths of the Amazon and Ganges rivers. Retirement from RTÉ News allowed him to become involved in campaigning for a Yes vote in the 2015 Marriage Equality Referendum. His 2016 book about the campaign, A Day in May, was adapted as a stage play. Retirement from RTÉ also allowed him to re-engage with the families and relatives of the Stardust fire and to support publicly their calls for new inquests.

He married Claire Mould, his partner of almost a decade, in 2016. He adapted his journalism to podcasting, initially for the Senior Times website, before illness unexpectedly ended his career.

He was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in October 2021, more than seven months after suffering the first distressing symptoms. He went public about his illness on social and national media, often accompanied by his beloved dog Tiger. Public reaction to an impromptu remark on a December Late Late Show about wishing to climb Croagh Patrick prompted him to launch the Climb With Charlie campaign that raised more than €3.3million for the Irish Motor Neurone Association and the mental health charity Pieta.

In September 2022 he was conferred with the Freedom of Wicklow, becoming only the third person to be so honoured by the county council. Climb With Charlie topped listener polls on RTÉ radio and Today FM.

He arranged for his ashes to be buried on Inis Óirr, the smallest of the three Aran Islands at the mouth of Galway Bay. He had been a regular visitor there for more than 50 years. He said that RTÉ was his second home and that Inis Óirr was his home from home. His dying wishes included that peace would endure in Northern Ireland and that the Stardust families would learn how their loved ones died.

He is survived by his wife, Claire; daughters Orla and Neasa; brothers Colin, Frank and Richard and grandchildren Abigail, Charlie, Edward, Harriet and Hugo. He was predeceased by his first wife, Mary O’Connor.

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