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Obituary: Ronan O'Rahilly

The founder of Radio Caroline created a pirate station synonymous with the swinging 60s, writes Liam Collins


Ronan O’Rahilly recognised that there was an untapped underground music scene and launched Radio Carolinethe

Ronan O’Rahilly recognised that there was an untapped underground music scene and launched Radio Carolinethe

Ronan O’Rahilly recognised that there was an untapped underground music scene and launched Radio Carolinethe

Like his revolutionary grandfather, Ronan O'Rahilly was a buccaneering self-publicist. Both delighted at thumbing their noses at the establishment, The O'Rahilly in the GPO in 1916 and his grandson by launching Radio Caroline, the ''pirate'' station that transformed pop radio and defined his generation.

Ronan O'Rahilly, who claimed to have been expelled from seven schools in Ireland, before finishing in Belvedere, was tall, good-looking and stylishly dressed, the perfect creature to surf through the swinging 60s.

Superbly self-assured, he fled Dublin after finishing school to become a well-known figure in Chelsea, riding his Harley motorcycle down the King's Road and hanging out in the Studio 61 drama school in Fulham. Recognising that there was an untapped underground music scene ignored by mainstream radio, he made the audacious move to launch a ship equipped with powerful transmitters to broadcast pop music to Britain from international waters.

He raised £150,000 (over £1m today) from two London financiers and bought an old Danish ferry. It is said that reading an article on his way to Texas to buy the broadcasting equipment, he saw the iconic photograph of his hero John F Kennedy sitting behind his desk while his children Caroline and John Jnr gambolled around the Oval Office. He named his new venture Radio Caroline.

For the next stage of the process he needed his family and the Irish connection.

Ronan O'Rahilly came originally from a wealthy family from Ballylongford, Co Kerry, involved in the shipping, grocery and spirit trade. His independently wealthy grandfather was raised in No 40 Herbert Park, Ballsbridge, and became a prominent member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), styling himself The O'Rahilly.

Although he actively opposed the 1916 Rising, he turned up that Easter Monday in full Volunteer uniform in his De Dion Bouton roadster for what he called "this glorious madness".

He was badly wounded trying to lead a party of rebels through Moore Street and died in Sackville Lane, his mangled car later recovered from the wreckage of the GPO.

Ronan's father, Aodogan, still a teenager when his father was killed, became a close ally of de Valera and a successful businessman. He and his Irish-American wife Marion built themselves a beautiful mock-colonial manor house at the junction of Belgard and the Naas roads, where Ronan was born on May 4, 1940, the third of a family of five.

A rebellious spirit, he bolted for London at the first opportunity. At night he was part of the Scene Club in Soho and promoted singers like Georgie Fame and Alan Price, all the while hob-nobbing with musicians, minor aristocrats, actors and fashion models. "He was hip, he really fancied himself," recalled Alan Price, a member of The Animals rock group.

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His newly acquired ship, the MV Frederica, needing a refit, was towed to the remote semi-disused port of Greenore, near Carlingford, Co Louth, which was owned by his father, a director of Bord na Mona, who had bought it in the mid-1950s from British Rail.

Fitted with a 13 ton, 165-foot broadcasting mast and relaunched as Radio Caroline, it anchored in international waters off the east coast of England and began officially broadcasting non-stop pop music on Easter Saturday, March 29, 1964.

O'Rahilly revelled in his new-found fame as the ''pirate king'', fanning the flames of publicity with press conferences, newspaper stories and stunts.

He was, said one commentator, "the quickest, cleverest and best connected" of a new breed of radio buccaneers.

But he was also regarded as "profligate", spending vast amounts of money on flashy offices for his company Planet Productions.

Radio Caroline effectively ran out of money by 1965 and came under sustained attack from the new Labour government and its postmaster general, Tony Benn, who couldn't stop it broadcasting, but made it illegal for British companies to advertise with it.

Nor was O'Rahilly's judgment always sound. A good friend of the actor George Lazenby, he is said to have talked him out of signing a seven-film contract to play James Bond, arguing that the franchise "wouldn't last". Despite the advice, their friendship endured and Lazenby later acted in the O'Rahilly produced film Universal Soldier.

He was also involved with another colourful Irishman, Phil Solomon, from a Jewish Belfast family steeped in the music business.

Together they formed Major Minor Records, which released early recordings by Van Morrison's Them, Rory Gallagher's Taste and The Dubliners ballad group. They also released the notorious Je t'aime with Serge Gainsborough and Jane Birkin.

By 1966 Solomon invested in Radio Caroline. Described as "hard-nosed" to O'Rahilly's "romantic" nature, Solomon tried to use it as a vehicle to promote bands attached to his label, sacking DJs who refused to play them. By then the BBC had realised the money-making power of pop and rock and began poaching DJs like Tony Blackburn and the buccaneering days of pirate radio were coming to an end.

Radio Caroline continued in various guises and various ships through the 1970s and 1980s with O'Rahilly remaining the guiding light of the enterprise.

He also promoted an eastern philosophy of loving awareness through his radio station and recordings.

The story of Radio Caroline was the subject of a number of books and a film, The Boat that Rocked, starring Bill Nighy and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

In 1993 he married Catherine Hamilton-Davies - they had no children.

Ronan O'Rahilly was inducted into the PPI Hall of Fame at an event in Dublin in October, 2012.

He was diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2013 and returned to live at the Carlingford Nursing Home in Co Louth, where he died on April 20 at the age of 79.

Many of the online tributes acknowledged his long-time friend Ines Rocha Trindade.

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