The Arrival of Radio
Television made its debut along the east coast of Ireland in the late 1950s and early
1960s. At the time there was no signal to receive other than that broadcast by the B.B.C.,
the British Broadcasting Corporation. Reception was dependent to a degree on atmospheric
conditions. Occasionally, freak conditions gave some areas in the west and in Donegal
exceptionally clear pictures, and on a Saturday or Sunday evening, people who owned one of
the new picture boxes would invite friends and neighbours to their homes to watch favourite
programs. All in all, its advent was a marvel.
In the course of time the novelty became commonplace. Telefis Éireann, the national
television service, was established and most houses soon sported TV aerials on their roofs.
Nowadays it is hard to visualize life without television.
The arrival of radio forty years previously had much the same impact. As was the case with
television, the B.B.C. was the pioneer broadcaster of programs, and the national service,
Radio Éireann, did not come into existence until the 1920s.
Our family's first recollection of radio is of Dad, perched high on a ladder, stringing a
long aerial from the top of a tree to a window and hooking it to an early radio set in the
kitchen. Our second recollection is of Dad stringing a long aerial from the top of a tree
to a window and hooking it up to a battery radio set in the kitchen. Our third recollection
is of Dad stringing a long aerial....The tree and the radio might change, but Dad's
fascination with radio was lifelong.
At first a listener could only hear programs when wearing earphones, cumbersome brutes of
things, all metal and bakelite, which was an early form of plastic.
A highly scientific breakthrough was achieved by placing the earphones in an enamel
wash-basin, which magnified the sound, and which meant that a number of people could
listen all at the same time.
Finally came a real radio, a Telefunken, which dispensed with earphones, had a built-in
amplifier, and could be heard out on the street by passersby.
Early radios functioned with the use of batteries and accumulators, akin to car batteries.
They were, in the main, glass boxes, and the contents had to be recharged with great
frequency. As they lost power, so did the sound diminish, until eventually nothing could be
heard, meaning the battery was dead. For those interested in which came first, the chicken
or the egg, dead battery preceded dead air.
The valves in radios, then simply known as wireless sets, came in various sizes and were
subject to burn-out, and when they burned out, new ones had to be bought. In time,
transistors replaced valves after World War II.
Radio brought us our first live sports broadcasts. As a youngster I begged to be wakened at
night to join Dad and my older brothers when they listened to trans-Atlantic fights
broadcast directly from New York, a tremendous technical accomplishment. Any traces of
sleep were quickly banished when a rapid-fire commentator would spiel off, "A right, a left,
another right, another right. Oh, he's got 'im on the ropes! He's staggering. How can he
take it? Another right! Another right! The referee is looking at the corner. The trainer
shakes his head. There will be no towel.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is a massacre!
"It's over! It's over! He's down! The referee is counting--eight, nine, ten! And the
American wins again. Listen to the road of the crowd!"
Joe Louis, Max Schmeling, Buddy Baer, Billy Conn, and the imcomparably gutsy Tommy
Farr--I never saw them fight but I sure heard them fight. Our own Rinty Monaghan was of a
later generation. Jack Doyle carried our colours in wrestling, with his patented throw
known as "the Irish whip", and achieved matrimonial fame by marrying the movie star,
Movita, long before professional wrestling degenerated into its present masquerade. All of
these came into our ken via radio.
Those 2 a.m. broadcasts in the thirties gave me a lasting interest in sports broadcasts of
all kinds. Now there are twenty-four hour international sports television channels to tempt
the most jaded viewer, a surfeit summed up in TSN's mantra, "Eat--Sleep--Sports!"
I'll let you in on a secret. Even with such a superfluity of televised sports, a good radio
sports commentator can give pleasure or excitement to listeners equal to that enjoyed by
viewers hooked on television.
In addition to listening to radio there was the concomitant of writing for radio. In the
1930s and 1940s my aunt, Eily McAdam, wrote a series of plays broadcast by Radio Éireann.
They were precursors of "The Kennedys of Castleknock" and other long-running serials of the
1950s and 1960s. Her sister, Nora O'Hare, wrote for the local B.B.C. service in Belfast.
After the Second World War my brother, Charlie Ward, became a member of the staff of Radio
Éireann and later of Telefis Éireann. His five-minute "Topical Talks" following the noon
news were a very popular radio feature in the 1950s and 1960s.
One short-time resident of Ballyshannon, a young customs officer named Frank McCann, while
boarding with Mrs. Fagan's in the Purt, wrote a radio play titled "In Quest of Susan Ann",
which was accepted and broadcast by one of the major United States radio corporations. His
success, and the remuneration it brought, gave him the courage to chuck his job and join
the internationally renowned Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where, in time, he became its leading
producer of Irish plays. I have a critique in his own handwriting of one of my earlier
efforts at writing a play for the Abbey. "Uncle Eamon" never made it to the stage. His
namesake, however, wound up in Árus an Uachtaran.
This tale of Irish radio pioneers cannot end without a telling once again of the first
day's broadcast by Radio Éireann, which ended with the reading of the ten o'clock news.
After bidding his listeners "Good night", the last words they heard from their announcer,
unaware that his microphone was still alive, were, "Where the Hell's me hat?", this from a
station that daily broadcast the Angelus bells. Many were horrified!
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