On the 91st anniversary of the birth of our national broadcasting service, Mary Sheerin traces its origins and development.
Most of us take RTÉ for granted. We are not unduly impressed with its four radio stations and its three television stations. Younger readers who engage with a plethora of technological devices might be baffled to learn that less than a century ago, their forebears were glued to crystal sets – or cat’s whiskers – as they were called, as they listened in awe to Ireland’s first radio station called 2RN on January 1st, 1926.
The origin of the name is quite clever, yet simple at the same time. It was chosen because 2RN reproduces phonetically the last three syllables in the title of that well known song Come Back to Érin. It wasn’t until 1936 that the familiar bars of O’Donnell Abú became the station’s signature tune.
Dr Douglas Hyde, later to become Ireland’s first President, performed the opening ceremony. Also present at this historical event was the station’s Director, Séamus Clandillon (pictured below), Musical Director, Vincent O’Brien and station announcer, Séamus Hughes.
The station – which in effect was but two rooms – was located in Little Denmark Street over an employment exchange.
The ‘studio’ had fawn drapes, to drown out sound, and one microphone that broadcaster and journalist, Terry O’Sullivan later said was like a large black jam jar. Whilst one of the regular singers at the time drew comparison with an old fashioned camera where the photographer was obliged to put his head under a black sheet.
Pianist Dina Copeman, one of the performers on that famous opening night, recalled many years later how peculiar it all was “…ramshackle, dark and dismal, not like a studio at all”.
That aside, the opening programme was ambitious with sixteen items including a weather report. The Station Director, Clandillon sang a number of Irish songs as did his wife, Mairéad Ní Annagain.
In fact one of the complaints against 2RN was that she was heard too often, to the extent that some smart alecks labelled her ‘Mairéad Ní On-Again’.
A key reason for this, of course, was lack of resources. Seamus Clandillon was expected to run the radio station on a shoestring. Thus, he was constantly calling on the goodwill of family and friends to perform for the love of it and not expect any fees.
Fortunately, Clandillon moved in artistic circles and had good contacts. A former civil servant who was seconded for the job, he was well used to singing in public and organising feiseanna and concerts.
This may not have endeared him to his civil service bosses but it stood him in good stead in his new role as Station Director.
Also performing on that night was the No. 1 Army Band under the direction of Col. Fritz Brase, who had composed a new work for the event, Fantasia, a rousing and dramatic composition which one can still hear and enjoy to this day.
The Army No 1 Band was relayed from Beggars’ Bush Barracks. Vincent O’Brien’s Palestrina Choir sang sacred music – they were then, as now, attached to Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral. That first broadcast ran from 7.45 pm to 10.30 pm.
It is significant to note that Dr Douglas Hyde’s opening speech was relayed by the BBC. Reports from England indicated that listeners there enjoyed it – even the Irish Gaelic which they could not understand. Belfast too praised the diction and sound even though they, as admitted, couldn’t understand a word.
That said, all was not sweetness and light. No, there were complaints. Cork was not pleased. According to the Corkonians it was a total failure and they alleged that the ‘listeners in’ (for that was the term used then) could hear not one thing – despite the use of an expensive six valve set.
On the other hand, however, a listener in from Lancaster no less, said they heard every word on a one valve set.