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Music

How Ronan O'Rahilly and 'Radio Caroline' changed the face of rock music forever

Ronan O’Rahilly, like many people from Ireland, was a pirate. Yes, he was a pirate, keen to bring his rebellious spirit to the high seas. And with the rise of rock in the United Kingdom, he had a medium by which he could showcase his rebellious voice, one that catered to the wants and needs of the countercultural movement. And by bringing his radio to the high seas, he had the freedom and the foresight to carry this medium of escapism to the many multitudes of teenagers who were starved of the appetite for rock that they were craving.

He was inspired by the Scandinavian and Dutch radio pirates of the high seas, by picking up a 702-ton former Danish passenger ferry Fredericia, which led her to convert the ship into a radio station at the port of Greenore. What the boat brought wasn’t just clarity and cohesion, but context, gifting the listeners a chance to look at the water around them, and recognise the potency of the region. And buoyed by a photo of the Kennedy family – Caroline Kennedy was the daughter of the Irish man who led the country – O’Rahilly was inspired to take this sense of harmony to the living rooms.

The music was dangerous, deadly and done with great interest in the world at large. Pop was making an impression on the public in the way that jazz and blues weren’t, and even bands with blues or jazz proclivities (The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Who) were making a sidestep into the more commercial world of pop.

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They were selling sex to a country that was caught up in Victorian principles, capturing an essence of youth that was bursting with possibility. Contraception was on the rise in Britain, and the bands that were playing to the world at large were throwing themselves into the mercy of the world at large. London was happening, and like many of the Irish diaspora that helped build the world’s greatest city, O’Rahilly was excited by the possibility of travel and demonstration.

As it happens, O’Rahilly’s heritage helped him keep the boat afloat after the UK Government enacted the Marine, & Broadcasting (Offences) Act in 1967, which outlawed advertising on unlicensed radios. It didn’t suit the ship to bow down to the regulations of Her Majesty’s government, and even James Bond himself was won over by the perfume of the free-wheeling impresario.

George Lazenby hinted that O’Rahilly persuaded him that the Bond gig was finished, especially since the tuxedo-wearing, gadget-snatching civil servant was at odds with the rebellious spirit of rock. Little wonder Lazenby’s next gig showcased his beard, bare chest and long hair, creating a new form of secret agent the 007 series would never have countenanced in the early 1970s.

Instead, the O’Raghallaigh – as he was known in parts of Ireland – demonstrated a certain sartorial flair, by advocating for the length of hair, bringing rock back to his native island, an effort that took in Dublin, a city that was experiencing change and cohesion. At that time, Ireland was embracing the beginnings of rock through the showband movements, and in the tradition of the island, Ireland was exporting great musicians out to the London across the seas, decorating the exhibition with a collection of sparky hooks and barrelling drum designs.

Without O’Rahilly, Britain would never have opened their barriers to Bono’s soaring voice or Phil Lynott’s propulsive bass playing. He was determined to hold up the values of his native island, which is why Richard Curtis’ decision to cast an Englishman as his representation of O’Rahilly in The Boat That Rocked was a disappointing one. But the film introduced a new generation to the importance of the pirate spirit and the adventures that awaited listeners beyond the high seas.

“There was three radio stations for the entire United Kingdom,” UK broadcaster Johnnie Walker broadcaster admitted in 2020, eulogising the late Irishman. “When pop came along, when The Beatles happened, the BBC thought it was going to be a five-minute wonder. It’s just a craze. It’ll come, and it’ll be gone. And so you couldn’t hear The Beatles. You couldn’t hear The Stones. You couldn’t hear The Kinks. You couldn’t hear The Who.”

“And Ronan O’Rahilly, who was a great rebel,” Walker continued, “Whose grandfather was shot by the British Army in 1916 in the famous Easter uprising – so he had that rebellious streak in him. So he thought, to hell with this. I’ll start my own radio station. He bought a ship. He had a very big advantage in that his father owned a port in Ireland. So that port was used for fitting out an old Dutch ferry called the MV Frederica (ph). And that was the original home of Radio Caroline, which started in 1964.”

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