See O’Rahilly Play – Frank McNally on the Irish birth of Radio Caroline, 60 years ago

Caroline proved an instant success with listeners

Sixty years ago last weekend, a converted ferry left the port of Greenore, near Carlingford, and so doing launched a revolution. The ship had been rerigged locally with equipment including a giant mast, which owner Ronan O’Rahilly told one curious reporter was for a marine research project detecting “deep-sea sponges”.

In fact, it was designed for broadcasting. A few days later, now anchored off Suffolk on the waves Britannia had long ruled, the MV Caroline invaded another kind of wave with a jurisdiction less clear. As of March 28th, 1964, Britain’s first pirate radio station, was on air.

Metaphors aside, O’Rahilly was the stuff of genuine revolutionaries. His grandfather Michael J, who styled himself “The” O’Rahilly, helped found the Irish Volunteers and at first opposed the Easter Rising, but hearing it would happen anyway, drove to Dublin to join in.

A week later, fatally wound in a doorway near the burnt-out GPO, he wrote a farewell to his wife and children that concluded: “it was a good fight anyway”.

One of those children later bought the Great Northern Railway’s properties at Greenore. And it was from the only privately-owned port in Ireland that, another generation on, Ronan O’Rahilly launched his more benign revolt against British rule.

The pirate broadcaster’s motivations include another and more literal claim to fame – to Georgie Fame, that is.

As the jazz musician’s manager, O’Rahilly struggled to get airtime on the established stations, the BBC Light Programme and Radio Luxembourg (which was sponsored by record companies that, paying the piper, called the tunes).

Caroline proved an instant success with listeners. But it also earned ardent enmity from the British government, which – the ship’s location in international waters notwithstanding – repeatedly threatened to close it down.

Even in Ireland, meanwhile, observers were not all convinced that O’Rahilly’s rebellion was a good cause.

In a column for the Kilkenny People in April 1964, campaigning broadcaster Proinsias MacAonghusa wrote that the new station had “no useful purpose apart from the desire of her owners to make more money”.

He added: “[I]f the British Government or its agents were to arrange for the sinking of Caroline or its destruction in any other non-legal manner, I do not feel that thinking people would consider it a very great outrage.”

Mac Aonghusa also went on to make a more measured prediction: “And, incidentally, even if Caroline’s owners are able to play ducks and drakes with the present lame-duck Government in Britain, it will be a very different matter when Mr Wilson leads a brand new Administration at Whitehall.”

Harold Wilson shared his confidence. He was indeed prime minister by the time O’Rahilly visited Westminster as a guest of the Conservative shadow home secretary Reggie Maudling, Recognising the Irishman, Wilson jabbed a finger and said: “You’re finished.”

But Radio Caroline was not finished, then or later. Despite the ship running aground in 1966, without political assistance, and an ongoing struggle to attract advertisers, the station survived in various forms and on various vessels until the early 1990s, after which it took to satellite and other platforms.

By the time I first encountered it, as a teenager in the late 1970s, pop music was readily available even in rural Monaghan, thanks to the invasion of our airwaves by BBC’s new Radio 1 (joined, from 1979, by RTÉ's Radio 2).

But Caroline had evolved into a station that played album music, something we cool kids preferred to the terrible, pre-punk singles charts.

I will always remember the thrill of tuning in one night on my parents’ old wooden-frame radio and having my mind blown by a strange but wonderful song that I then learned, even more thrillingly, was by Pink Floyd: a band I had already decided to be a fan of based on their name, hair length, and album covers.

The song was See Emily Play – a single, ironically, from 1967, before its creators gave up such things. It started an intense adolescent love affair with the group, consummated mainly on Radio Caroline until I could afford to buy albums and play them secretly on my sister’s record player whenever she was out.

I don’t remember ads on the station then. The only thing it seemed to be promoting was eastern religion, one of O’Rahilly’s interests. There were regular spacey jingles that urged listeners to engage in “loving awareness”: they didn’t tell us how.

Speaking of Emily, the station’s name is usually said to have been inspired by a photograph of another youthful female at play: a four-year-old Caroline Kennedy dancing in the White House Oval Office while her father, the president, looks on.

This fitted with O’Rahilly’s mission for an infant radio station joyfully interrupting power. But it may be a legend. A more prosaic version is that the name came second-hand from a contemporary women’s magazine that identified its target reader as “a twenty-something non-intellectual who had left school at 16 and was a ‘good time girl’ called Caroline”.

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