The Irish Free State and the Radio Age

Official radio broadcasting in Ireland began on New Year’s Day 1926, when the Dublin station 2RN was launched, followed in April 1927 by the 6CK station in Cork to provide something closer to national coverage for what would become the national broadcaster Radio Éireann in later years.  The history of radio in Ireland is much older than that however.  Indeed Guglielmo Marconi himself had personal connections to Ireland, his mother having been a member of the Jameson family, and had done some of his initial testing of radio ranges from special stations set up in County Cork from 1902.  By the start of World War One, being a wireless operator for ship-to-shore communication (radio’s first purpose, before its broadcast possibilities were realised) had become a job possibility for some aspiring young men and there were businesses offering training courses for this new form of communication.  One such was the Irish School of Wireless on O’Connell Street, which holds the distinction of being the (probable) site of the first proper radio broadcast in Ireland when, during the 1916 Rising, the rebels took it over and used its equipment to broadcast James Connolly declaring ‘Irish Republic declared today in Dublin.  Irish troops have captured city and are in full possession.  Enemy cannot move in city’. 

Before this electrifying message could be sent however, Connolly’s troops in 1916 had to reconstruct the Wireless School’s decommissioned broadcasting equipment, because such apparatus was reserved for military use under special wartime regulations.  The end of World War One, far from ending official concerns about civilian possession of radio equipment in Ireland, only increased it as the country moved into the War of Independence and then the Civil War, although it seems inevitable that there were in fact many sets constructed from the fairly easily-available parts by the technology enthusiasts (ironically many of them deploying skills learned in the military during wartime) who drove the early development of radio in Ireland as elsewhere.  One of the reasons to believe that there were a significant number of ‘illegal’ radio sets in Ireland before the law was changed by 1924 was that as early as December 1923 Ireland’s first radio enthusiast’s magazine appeared.  Cheerfully undaunted by the longstanding  illegality of their readers’ hobby, the Irish Radio Journal: the Official Organ of the Radio Association of Ireland began appearing as a monthly publication full of articles about building, improving and using radio sets, evaluating the various parts needed to do so, and many advertisements for valves, fuses, and specialist wiring.  This magazine lasted only until January 1927, but by then it had been joined by the Irish Radio Review, the Irish Radio and Electric Journal, Irish Radio News and the Irish Radio Trader, as well as a variety of British radio enthusiast publications which were available in Ireland.  Most didn’t last very long, but Irish Radio News and the Irish Radio and Electrical Journal became well-established and both ran more or less until the television era.  A readership which could support these publications was obviously very keen on radio even while it had been technically illegal, a situation which was finally resolved (not without some turf wars between different government departments) ahead of the start of 2RN’s January 1926 broadcasts – thus avoiding a farcical situation in which the Irish state would have been broadcasting programmes which its citizens could theoretically have been prosecuted for listening to.

Just ahead of 2RN’s launch, a Wireless Exhibition was held at the Mansion House in Dublin in November 1925.  This was in part a trade fair for those in the new radio industry, but it was mainly intended to raise public interest in the new medium, encouraging new buyers to purchase radio sets in advance of Irish broadcasting beginning in the new year (the next post on this blog will be about radios sets themselves as expensive consumer items in the 1920s and 1930s).  Many retailers of component parts and complete sets took stands at the Exhibition, including the Marconi Company themselves, and there were also broadcasts by the BBC relayed into the Mansion House, as well as talks and lectures on the entertainment and educational value radio would bring to Ireland. 

Although the early days of radio in Ireland were relatively low-key in terms of the quantity (or, judging by some contemporary commentary, the quality) of programming, it is important to recognise what a watershed moment this was in Irish media history.  Radio broadcasting was at least as dramatic a change in mass media as the arrival of the internet some 70 years later – it was the first time that non-print media became available, it would rapidly come to offer programming formats unthinkable in print form (music, live sports coverage and breaking news), and it would offer it to a genuinely national audience, all listening to the same programme at the same time, in their homes.  You can sense even in ministerial speeches which refer to the opportunities radio will offer for enriching life in the Irish countryside where there are few other amusements, a shadow of the more robust excitement that must have been felt in those country homes as they tuned in their new radio set (usually powered by a rechargeable wet battery since most houses did not yet have mains electricity) and first heard broadcasts from Dublin, London and Hilversum, a world of broader horizons opening up directly in their homes.  

The recognition of radio’s immediate and widespread power also seems to have driven official Ireland’s responses to the new medium as well, in tones of  both approval and deep concern.  Many of the concerns were well-rehearsed during the work of the Wireless Committee which discussed and eventually decided to establish radio broadcasting in Ireland during the very early years of Independence.  Not surprisingly in the aftermath of nine years of more or less continuous warfare between 1914 and 1923, and especially given the anxieties about propaganda that those wars had caused (it is not a coincidence that the first modern assessments of propaganda, such as Harold Lasswell’s work, were published in the decade after WWI ended), some of the concerns about allowing radio into Ireland were driven by a fear of the power which might be exercised by those voices issuing directly into living-rooms and kitchens all over the country – a view ultimately undermined by the fact that Irish listeners could, by 1926, listen to foreign radio broadcasts but not ones regulated by their own government.  The importance of maintaining control of the national airwaves and also a more enthusiastic recognition that 2RN would be understood as the ‘voice of a nation’ by those who heard it internationally also motivated the Irish government’s refusal of several offers to establish commercial stations based in the country by ‘businessmen’ of varying degrees of shadiness.  Given how limited the budget for 2RN was, these offers to bear all the costs of providing radio services might have been very tempting for the Free State government, but the fact that these entrepreneurs’ principal aim was to broadcast intensive advertising across the Irish Sea to the otherwise advertising-free British airwaves discouraged them, as they were acutely aware that this would have resulted in the ‘voice of the nation’ being dominated by advertisements for patent medicines and processed food.

Another concern about the potential power of radio was that the new medium would promote foreign cultural forms and damage ‘native Irish’ culture at just the moment that national sovereignty had been achieved.  This anxiety would be reflected in on-going conflicts during the 1920s and 1930s about broadcasting time given (or not) to the Irish language and Irish music, as well as particular campaigns against popular music in particular – the unintentionally-hilarious Anti-Jazz campaign of 1934 is well worth exploring for anyone unfamiliar with it.  The early years of radio in Ireland were often marked by this tension between official (or self-appointed) guardians’ anxieties about its impact on Irish culture, language, morals or politics, and the fairly enthusiastic response to 2RN and other stations which could be picked up in homes around the country.  As JJ Walsh, the first minister to preside over Irish radio put it, in his own burst of considerable enthusiasm in his speech at the Wireless Exhibition in 1925,

“Hearing is surely the most precious sense mankind possesses; through it he receives the most rousing appeals that can be made to his reason and to his imagination.  Powerful as the written word may be, how much more powerful is the living voice which adds to the matter of the discourse the impetus of that subtle quality, the personality of the speaker?”

References

Richard Pine, 2RN and the Origins of Irish Radio (Gill & MacMillan, 2002)

Maurice Gorham, Forty Years of Irish Broadcasting (Talbot Press, 1967)

Johannah Duffy ‘Jazz, Identity and Sexuality in Ireland During the Inter-War Years’, Irish Association for American Studies, No. 1 (2009)

Irish Broadcasting Hall of Fame Blog, at https://ibhof.blogspot.com/