Fifty years ago this week, a 35-year-old former passenger ferry was being secretly equipped with a 165-foot radio mast in the privately-owned Irish port of Greenore. The historic Ballymascanlon Hotel in nearby Dundalk was crowded out with strangers who spent their days mysteriously working at the port, which had been virtually disused for years.
It started with a welcome, a frequency number and a track by the Rolling Stones (Not Fade Away). Radio Caroline launched 50 years ago from a ship moored off the Essex coast. But it was a swashbuckling Irishman Ronan O’Rahilly along with a Swedish engineer who made it all possible and changed not just Radio but the whole field of broadcasting, advertising and today Social Media. All this was strictly illegal at the time but Radio Caroline operated outside UK territorial waters and literally outside the law. It operated Radio Caroline South off the coast of Essex and Radio Caroline North off the Isle of Man but both had their origin in the Irish Port of Greenore which was owned by Dubliner O’Rahilly’s family.
Before Ronan O’Rahilly’s swashbuckling vision, which inspired the movie The Boat which Rocked, Broadcasting was like airlines an extension of the Nation State with no competition. It was strictly controlled and indeed it was a means of Social control – originally BBC Television went off at teatime so parents could have tea with their children and it shut down at 10.30 on Sunday night to ensure the nation was not late for work on a Monday morning.. On the BBC you only heard so called Oxford English and the tone was entirely patronising and pro-Establishment. Indeed the counter revolution of the Swinging Sixties would not have happened without Radio Caroline which was both a product and a catalyst for that revolution.
Ronan O’Rahilly (born 21 May 1940) is an Irish businessman best known for the creation of the offshore radio station, Radio Caroline, and the man who convinced George Lazenby to give up the role of British Agent James Bond after only one film. O’Rahilly’s parents owned the private port of Greenore in Carlingford Lough, County Louth. His grandfather Michael O’Rahilly (The O’Rahilly) was an important figure in the quest for the independence of Ireland, a leader in the Easter Rising, who died in the fighting in Dublin in April 1916.
The family owned a place I know well the Port of Greenore at the tip of the famed Cooley Peninsular between Dundalk in the Republic of Ireland and Newry in Northern Ireland. Greenore was always a private port, developed first by the local landlords and English planters the Spencer Family (as in Lady Diana Spencer) and then taken over and developed by the London and North Western Railway as a ferry port to Holyhead on their English system. They built a wonderful hotel and integral railway station and developed the town where you can still find Euston and Anglesey Street (where their other port of Holyhead was located) to this day. After Irish independence the O’Rahilly family bought it. The Railway was closed down in 1951 and extraordinarily the local council refused to list the unique station and hotel designed by James Barton for preservation and after being let rot for many years it was disgracefully demolished in 2006.
Prior to his involvement with Radio Caroline, O’Rahilly ran the Scene club in London’s Soho district and managed a number of pop music artists, including Georgie Fame. He recorded a Georgie Fame record on his own independent label, unheard of at the time. He took the record to the BBC to try to get it played. He discovered that the record industry was dominated by EMI and Decca. He then tried to get it played on Radio Luxembourg and again found that the shows were ‘owned’ by EMI, Decca, Pye and Philips. They were essentially ‘payola’ shows, and featured only music from the paying label. He said “I have recorded the guy, so I can’t get it played, so we have to start a radio station.” He therefore set about creating the pirate radio station Radio Caroline, which broadcast from a ship, the M.V. Caroline anchored in international waters off the coast of Essex, eastern England.
It was Swedish Engineer Ove Sjöström who got Radio Caroline ready and who, on Easter Sunday 1964, pressed the button to broadcast. Ronan O’Rahilly, the founder of Radio Caroline, visited Sweden to see Radio Nord, a Swedish offshore commercial station anchored in waters off Stockholm. He first laid eyes on the Caroline ship – the 702-tonne former Danish passenger ferry Fredericia – when he arrived in Ireland. While in the Irish port of Greenore, the Caroline team carried out a test transmission. Radio Caroline was an offshore unlicensed radio station which helped pave the way for modern commercial radio. Transmitting from international waters, Radio Caroline only became formally illegal in 1967.
The ship is today rusting and forlorn at Tilbury Docks, – like her famous old boys Tony Blackburn and Johnnie Walker – she somewhat past her prime. This is Radio Caroline, the ship that launched a thousand hits, a string of DJs and inspired a new film, The Boat That Rocked. Today the paintwork is peeling, the planks are rickety and the old vinyl records look warped and dusty. But in her heyday, broadcasting from out at sea to avoid the need for a licence, Caroline epitomised the wild, carefree spirit of the Swinging Sixties. And no DJ lived up to the station’s wild pirate ethos quite as grandly as Emperor Rosko. Rosko, now 66, is the inspiration for The Count in the film, played with gusto by the Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Billed as the God of the Airwaves, the character is immersed in the riotous world of pirate radio, replete with naked girls, drugs, booze and wild parties.
He later became involved in the production of a number of films, including as executive producer on the Marianne Faithfull film, Girl on a Motorcycle.
O’Rahilly was a friend of George Lazenby, who played James Bond in one film. During production of the 1969 James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, O’Rahilly talked Lazenby into refusing a seven-movie Bond contract on grounds that the James Bond character was out of touch with the times, and would not successfully continue into the 1970s. Of this advice, Roger Moore said in his autobiography, My Word Is My Bond, “George took some bad advice … I knew George then and have met him many times since. He admits he made a mistake”. O’Rahilly also appeared in Lazenby’s film Universal Soldier where both men were credited as executive producers.
In the 1970s O’Rahilly, noticing that people “found it easier to talk about hate than love”, developed the philosophy of “Loving Awareness”, which has been heavily promoted on Caroline ever since. In 1976 an album of songs based on the concept was recorded by the Loving Awareness Band, a group assembled by O’Rahilly for the purpose. On Monday 3 December 2007, O’Rahilly was inducted as a Fellow of the Radio Academy. Ronan was inducted into the Hall Of Fame at the PPI Radio Awards, held at the Lyrath Hotel, Kilkenny, Ireland on 12 October 2012. In September, 2013, O’Rahilly was reported to be suffering from vascular dementia and to have returned to live in Ireland.
Ronan O’Rahilly changed the world every time we listen to music, turn on a radio, turn on the TV or watch a movie – for he was the first to stand up to suffocating control in all these areas and made the consumer king. This successor to the O’Rahilly who fought and died for freedom is a prophet not without honour, save in his own country.