- 31 Dec 18
To commemorate the enforced 1988 shutdown of the country's unlicensed broadcasters, STUART CLARK casts a nostalgic eye over the likes of Radio Nova, Sunshine Radio, Radio Luimni and the Tramore station that brought him to Ireland, ABC Radio. Note: He still doesn't have any records by The Angelus!
It had all started in 1976 with a landmark court ruling.
Charged with the illegal operation of a transmitter, Radio Dublin head honcho Eamon Cooke cited a clause in the antiquated Wireless Telegraphy Act 1926, the legislative equivalent of a chocolate teapot, which suggested that it wasn’t illegal if said broadcasting equipment had an alternate use.
“It gives off heat, so it could be a heater,” Cooke argued. “It gives off light, so it could be a light...”
As preposterous as it sounded, the presiding judge agreed and for 12 wonderfully anarchic years pirate radio was legal in Ireland.
Along with Radio Dublin, listeners in the capital soon had Capitol Radio, Big D, Radio City, Southside Radio, TTTR and ARD to choose from, while the likes of Boyneside Radio in Drogheda; KELO in Swords; Radio Carousel in Dundalk; CBC and ABC in Cork; Community Radio Youghal; Waterford Local Radio and near-neighbour Suirside Radio; Kilkenny Community Radio; Radio Limerick Weekly Echo and its arch-rival Big L, and Independent Radio Galway ensured that it was a nationwide phenomenon. Their notable employees included Ian Dempsey, Gerry Ryan, Mark Cagney, John Creedon, Tony Fenton and an Afro-sporting Dave Fanning.
Word of what was going on in lawless Ireland reached Robbie Robinson, an expat Irishman who’d served at sea during the ’60 with the original Radio Caroline and who was keen to get back into the broadcasting game.
While most of the existing Irish pirates were using homemade transmitters and souped up disco gear, Robinson made sure everything was pro spec when on September 9, 1980 he launched Sunshine Radio from a portacabin next to the Sands Hotel in Portmarnock. The Sands was also home to Tamango (where the gang goes), a pick-up joint nightclub that made Copper Face Jacks look positively sophisticated.
Distinctly unimpressed by a Brit moving on to their turf, an old-school Dublin station owner decided to give Sunshine’s giant mast the oxyacetylene torch treatment.
“It fell across the overhead ESB power lines and crashed down onto a massive diesel storage tank at the rear of the Sands,” Robbie recalls none too fondly. It did little, though, to halt the rise of what was hailed as the ﬁrst ‘superpirate’.
His co-conspirator was Chris Cary, AKA Spangles Muldoon who’d been part of Caroline’s early ’70s rebirth.
“It was actually Chris who hired me for Sunshine,” says Declan Meehan, now the morning show man at East Coast FM in Wicklow. “I’d been ‘Comin’atcha!’ for 18 months with RTÉ Radio 2 but didn’t have my contract renewed, so he rescued me from the dole queue, which being the early ’80s was a lengthy one.”
Ruthlessly ambitious and not in the habit of taking orders from anyone, Cary – metaphorically this time! – jumped ship in order to set up an even more super superpirate, Radio Nova, which made its bow during the summer of 1981.
“Chris asked me to come with him to Nova, but not wanting to be regarded as a station-hopper who ﬂitted from job to job, I waited until July 1982 before making the switch,” Declan Meehan notes.
With their slick American jingles, proper news service and the emphasis on playing music rather than saying “howaya!” to Ma, Da, Rex the dog and the kids in Cabra – one of their USPs was ‘clutterfree’ six-song segues – Nova blew the competition out of the water.
“If Sunshine was a seven out of 10 on the professionalism scale, Nova was an 11!” Declan laughs. “Chris was the polar opposite of today’s focus groups in that if he had an idea – and invariably it’d be a good one – you’d be doing it ﬁve minutes later on air. Instead of being lead by the charts or the record companies, he’d say, ‘Is it a Nova song?’ Tracks like Steely Dan’s ‘Hey Nineteen’, Rick Springﬁeld’s ‘Jesse’s Girl’ and ‘Don’t Talk To Strangers’, John Cougar’s ‘Hurt So Good’, Paul Davis’ ‘65 Love Affair’ and Al Jareau’s ‘Never Givin’ Up’ were hits here because Nova played them.”
While all this was going on here, the teenage Stewie Clark was being arrested in the woods next to West Heath, the exclusive Kent girls’ boarding school that a few years earlier had been attended by Lady Diana Spencer. The joke at the time was that she represented the cream of English society – thick and rich.
Before rumours of ﬂasherdom start to circulate, I ought to clarify that at the moment of my arrest I was pushing a wheelbarrow containing two car batteries, a half-wave dipole aerial, a cassette player and the biscuit-tin sized transmitter used for three hours every Sunday by the not in any way super Radio Mercury.
I’d had to ﬂee woods, ﬁelds and tower blocks before with the authorities in hot pursuit, but this was the ﬁrst time I’d been read my rights, banged up in a cell for the afternoon and called “an annoying little cunt” by the weasly desk sergeant who didn’t appreciate putting his Sunday lunch on ‘hold’ while he took down my criminal mastermind particulars.
Despite escaping on a technicality and getting my gear and my Dad’s wheelbarrow back – ha, take that Sgt. Weasel! – my enthusiasm for being chased by the Kent and Metropolitan Police Forces and their equally killjoy Post Ofﬁce mates had evaporated.
It so happened that one of my old pirate pals, Kevin Turner, was home following a spell on the aforementioned Suirside Radio whose star DJ was Eddie ‘Supersonic’ Coady, an Elvis lookalike who, aping the Kirsty MacColl song, worked in a chip shop. Mention his name to Waterfordians of a certain age and chances are they’ll quote Eddie’s “Supersonic, he is bionic!” catchphrase back at you.
Taking Suirside and Waterford Local Radio on in their own backyard would at that point have been suicidal, but Kevin reckoned a zero-budget station setting up in Tramore in time for the holiday season could make a killing.
Roping in two more friends, Andy Ellis and Clive Derek, who’d just come back from working on Israeli offshore pirate, the Voice Of Peace, it was worked out that if we pooled together the gear we had and each chipped in £250, the project was a runner.
It was thusly that in January 1981 a red Mk 1 GT Cortina and a Morris 1100 containing four wannabe radio station owners and a junk-shop collection of old record players, tape machines, mixers and World War II-era transmitter parts rolled into Tramore.
Needing somewhere high on the hill above the town to broadcast from, we went on a scouting mission and spotted a rundown mobile home that Dick, the owner of the neighbouring Buywise Carpet Warehouse, rented out to holidaymakers whose circumstances were as reduced as our own.
With two tiny bunk rooms, we’d found somewhere to not only broadcast from, but also live in, for a mere £75 quid a week. No matter that the plumbing was conﬁned to a cold tap outside, ABC Radio was in business. Incidentally, the reason for calling ourselves ABC was that we had a set of jingles from New York’s famous WABC that it was possible to remove the ‘W’ from with the judicious use of an editing block and a razor blade.
By the time broadcasts commenced on March 3, the ABC boss jocks were dirty to the point of being biohazards and down to their last 20 quid. The Hunger Strikes having only ended in October 1980, we weren’t sure how the good denizens of Tramore would react to a radio station run by four English blow-ins of dubious moral standing but, god bless ‘em, they loved us.
Well, mostly. There, at the time, being a three-year waiting list for new phone lines, listeners had to walk up the hill and knock on the caravan-door if they wanted a request played.
This all went swimmingly until one day when I was presented with a little old lady who said, “It’s great that the young people of Tramore have something to listen to. Just one little thing; why don’t you play ‘The Angelus’?”
I couldn’t for the life of me fathom why my “I’m sorry, but we don’t have any of their records” reply elicited such a negative response from the OAP in question. Daggers were also shot when I enquired in the local chemists as to where the condoms were. Asking an engaged DJ colleague of mine how he, you know, had sex with his girlfriend, I was told, “Clingﬁlm and rubber bands.” Inspired by his plight, I became a condom smuggler, bringing dozens of packs of Durex back with me every time I went home to Mrs. Clark in Kent. My mark-up on these bedroom essentials was minimal.
Kevin had given us a crash course in how to pronounce Irish names, but I still made a complete ﬁrst-day balls of Dearbhla (Dee-arr-ber-her-la), Siobhan (Sigh-oh-barn) and Caoimhe (Car-o-im-he). It’s 34 years after the fact, but I’d like to apologise to renowned local tradsters Bodhrán for making an unintentional mockery of their name.
I must also hold my hands up and confess that my going out with several local ladies had as much to do with them living in gaffs that had baths, TVs, fridges, heating etc. etc. as it did their feminine attributes.
Despite having to ﬁnd someone else’s pot to piss in, Kevin, Andy and Clive’s previous radio experience and having Nova to cadge ideas off, meant that ABC sounded pretty damn shit hot. We were certainly a lot more down with the kids than Waterford Local Radio whose primetime presenters included Sister Eucharia, and more technically savvy than Suirside – who had some great DJs – but audio of the two soup cans tied together with string variety.
When towards the end of 1981 our mast was cut down, it was a DJ we’d sacked for stealing records that wielded the hacksaw rather than one of our competitors who had no interest in triggering a pirate war that would cost us all dearly.
Like Chris Cary, we were more interested in what sounded good on the radio than was in the charts, with John Ratcliff’s ‘Kerry Girl’, Loverboy’s ‘Everybody Working For The Weekend’, Michael Franks’ ‘Rainy Night In Tokyo’, .38 Special’s ‘Caught Up In You’, Toto’s ‘Africa’, Auto Da Fe’s ‘November November’, Wah Heat’s ‘The Story Of The Blues’, Steve Miller’s ‘Abracadabra’, J. Geils Band’s ‘Centrefold’, Quaterﬂash’s ‘Harden My Heart’ and Bertie Higgins’ ‘Key Largo’ (“We had it all, just like Bogie and Bacall...”) among the 7” singles we wore smooth.
One of our stranger A-List picks was The Wolf Tones’ paen to the Irish founder of the Argentine navy, ‘Admiral William Brown’, which was played during the Falklands War to demonstrate that we weren’t ﬂag-waving Little Englanders. Had Margaret Thatcher found out, I’m sure we’d have been done for treason.
In addition to my weekday 7am-10am breakfast shift, I bagged myself the Wednesday night rock show, which organised a mini listeners’ outing to Dalymount Park in August 1983 for Black Sabbath’s Kings Of Rock gig with Mötorhead, Twisted ‘Fucking’ Sister and Anvil whose ‘Metal On Metal’ was a caravan favourite. On the Irish front, we couldn’t get enough of Sweet Savage, The Mama’s Boys or Neuro, a Waterford outﬁt with a penchant for Bowie’s Berlin trilogy who Phil Lynott took a shine to.
At ﬁrst, I was fastidious about getting up at six o’clock to ensure that I was in super-chirpy waking the-Southeast form, but after a few months I’d leave it until two minutes to seven before semi-nakedly crawling out of my bunk, and had to wait until Andy read the news at eight for the chance to stick a pair of trousers on over my Y-fronts. Thank God there weren’t studio webcams back then...
I left Tramore in 1984, but ABC kept broadcasting right up until June 1988 when the new Radio and Television Act – boo! – spoiled the party. By then they’d moved into Waterford city centre, bought themselves a motherfucker of a medium-wave transmitter and joined Nova, Sunshine, South Coast, ERI, Coast 103 and Q102 as one of the aggressively commercial superpirates who didn’t win a licence because they didn’t have any church, GAA, Macra na Feirme or Chamber of Commerce members on the board. Yep, it’s nearly 30 years later and I’m still bitter! Chris Cary pulled the plug on Nova in March 1986 following a two-year row with the National Union of Journalists over working conditions that became increasingly nasty.
Deeply unimpressed by Nova’s record-breaking 62% share of the Dublin audience, RTÉ unilaterally started jamming their transmissions, but were ordered to stop by Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald who realised that pissing hundreds of thousands of listeners off wasn’t going to help Fine Gael’s reelection chances.
What happened to Cary after leaving Ireland is inﬁnitely stranger than ﬁction. Having always been a computer buff, Cary devised a way of pirating the smartcards that unscramble premium satellite television stations. Selling them for £450 each – a fraction of what was charged at the time by the likes of Sky – he was pocketing £20,000 a day until arrested in 1996 by British police.
Not impressed with the four-year term given him by the courts, Cary absconded from Ford Open Prison just four months into his sentence and ﬂed to New Zealand. An equally unimpressed Rupert Murdoch – who’d been stung for an estimated £30 million – sent private detectives to get him back. They successfully tracked him down and Cary was handed an additional 15 months.
His woes continued when, still serving time at Parkhurst Prison, he suffered a major stroke. Chris, recovered sufﬁciently to return to Dublin in 2007 for the Hot Press Music Show, but suffered another stroke the following year whilst in Spain on business and died aged 67.
A controversial ﬁgure, yes, but also a visionary one who gave the likes of Colm Hayes, John Clarke, Bryan Dobson, Ken Hammond, Anna Cassin, David Harvey, Gareth O’Callaghan, Greg Gaughran, Chris Barry, Aidan Cooney, Martin King, and Scott Williams their big breaks.
Eamon Cooke sadly turned from hero to zero, with the Radio Dublin boss found guilty in 2007 of 52 counts of indecent assault against two girls during the ’70s. Having lost his latest appeal against his 10-year sentence last July, Cooke remains in jail.
Of course, Chris Cary wasn’t Irish pirate radio’s only maverick. Billy Connolly was among those who couldn’t believe what they were hearing when John ‘The Man’ Frawley came up with the money-making wheeze of reading the death notices out on Radio Luimni. The likes of Charlie Cloud, Sammy Sunshine, Ronnie Rain and Willy Wind starred in his weather forecasts, and a member of the Garda Síochána was left shame-faced when Frawley live reported on him going into a pub at 9am on “urgent business” and not emerging until midday, by which time he was inexplicably wobbly on his feet.
From the cute hoors and the crooks to the future stars and comically bad no-hopers, the Irish pirates of the ’80s make what came after them seem awfully tame at times!
Main pic: Radio Nova supremo Chris Cary