Obituary: Brian Mac Aongusa, broadcaster, former head of RTÉ Radio One, and a leading railway historian

Brian Mac Aongusa had a passion for railway history and he wrote a number of books on the subject

Deaglán de Bréadún

Former head of RTÉ Radio One and a leading railway historian, Brian Mac Aongusa has died at the age of 87 years. He also served as head of Raidió na Gaeltachta and chief executive of the Irish language organisation Gael Linn.

Brian Adrian Talbot Mac Aongusa was born in Dublin on May 29, 1935. The inclusion of Talbot in his name was a tribute to the manual labourer and devout Catholic from Dublin’s North Strand, the Venerable Matt Talbot (1856-1925).

Mac Aongusa’s father, Tadhg, who was a civil servant and his mother, Cáit, lived on Temple Park Avenue, Seapoint, in south Dublin. It was an Irish-speaking home and Brian was educated through Irish, at primary level in Scoil Cholmcille and later as a secondary school pupil in Coláiste Mhuire, now based in Cabra but located at the time on Parnell Square.

After finishing school, he worked as a clerical officer in the Electricity Supply Board before becoming a civil servant in the Department of Finance, where he spent 12 years from 1958 to 1970 and worked under the legendary T.K. Whitaker (who was Secretary of the Department from 1956 to 1969).

​Brian also studied in the evening at University College Dublin, where he acquired a Bachelor of Commerce degree. He went back to UCD many years later after retirement, where he was awarded a BA and his range of subjects included Greek and Roman Civilisation, English and Geography. He married Máire Ní Bhaoill, a teacher by profession, on August 22, 1963.

Mac Aongusa left the Department of Finance in 1970 to join Raidió Teilifís Éireann, where he worked initially as secretary of the RTÉ Authority, predecessor of the RTÉ Board.

The Fianna Fáil government in 1972 dismissed the authority after RTÉ had broadcast a report of an interview by Kevin O’Kelly with Seán Mac Stíofáin, then chief of staff of the Provisional IRA, which was seen to be in breach of a directive under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Authority Act. Brian also served as secretary to the new RTÉ Authority appointed at the time.

In 1975 he was appointed as RTÉ’s Head of Engineering Administration and went on to become head of Raidió na Gaeltachta (RnaG) from June 1978 to October 1980, working out of the station’s Connemara headquarters in Casla. He had been a member of the founding committee of RnaG in 1972 and later chaired the advisory committee on the establishment of Teilifís na Gaeilge (later known as TG4) in 1995.

In 1980 he was appointed as RTÉ Assistant Director General before moving to a new position in 1982 as head of RTÉ Radio One, spending six years in a particularly demanding role with a lot of responsibility.

During his time in the job, he did his best to serve listeners who spoke a little Irish and to encourage their interest in the language by including a bilingual element in news headlines and interviews. He left RTÉ in 1988 and moved on to a new role as Chief Executive of Gael Linn, where he had previously been a member of the Board of Directors and the organisation’s General Advisory Body.

He retired at the age of 60 to spend more time with his family and pursue a range of special interests such as railway history. His many books include: Hidden Streams: A New History of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown(2007); The Harcourt Street Line: Back on Track (2003); Luas: Harcourt Street Memories(2004); Broken Rails: Crashes and Sabotage on Irish Railways (2005) and, in the Irish language, Traenacha in Éirinn (2014).

Published by Currach Press, Luas: Harcourt Street Memories describes how the new tram system used the foundation of the former suburban railway known as the Harcourt Street line which closed on December 31, 1958.

Brian writes that the line was affectionately regarded by its passengers, including Samuel Beckett who was born in Foxrock and used the service for many years.

Beckett wrote a radio play, All That Fall, at the request of the BBC in 1956 which was set in Foxrock Station and included a small part played by Dubliner Jack MacGowran, who went on to achieve renown for his portrayal of Beckett characters.

The play is accessible online on YouTube and Mac Aongusa’s book quotes stage directions which convey the excitement Beckett felt at the Foxrock location: “Bells. Whistles. Crescendo of train whistle approaching. Sound of train through station.” Brian points out that the view from the station features in Beckett’s novel Watt where he writes that “the sky falling to the hills, and the hills falling to the plain, made as pretty a picture in the early morning light, as a man could hope to meet with, in a day’s march”.

Mac Aongusa also says that Brendan Behan wrote affectionately in his Irish Presscolumn of how drinks could still be purchased in the Refreshment Room at Harcourt Street Station when the pubs were closed for the “holy hour” between 2pm to 3pm, provided the customer had bought a ticket for a journey of at least 12 miles.

The book also includes a spectacular photograph of a dramatic accident at Harcourt Street Station on Valentine’s Day 1900 when a cattle train from Enniscorthy crashed through the wall and was perched nine metres above Hatch Street, although nobody was killed.

An interview with Mac Aongusa conducted by Leo Enright about the station featured on RTÉ Radio One’s archive programmeBowman: Sunday: 8.30 on April 16 and can be accessed on the RTÉ website.

Brian Mac Aongusa died suddenly and unexpectedly on March 24 at his home in Co Dublin and is deeply missed by his beloved spouse Máire, children Bairbre, Conall, Rónán, Cáit and Alastar, his sisters Clodagh and Gobnait, his brother Seán and all his relatives and friends far and near. His funeral mass took place at the Church of the Guardian Angels, Newtownpark, Blackrock, followed by cremation at the Victorian Church, Mount Jerome, Dublin.

​In a tribute on his passing, former RTÉ Director General Cathal Goan said: “It is not fashionable these days to speak of love for one’s own country. But that love was front and centre in everything that Brian did. He was a public service man to the bone. He was loved by all of his colleagues and was a man who did nothing but good deeds in his life.”

Ceannaire of Raidió na Gaeltachta, Gearóid Mac Donncha, said: “Brian was appointed Ceannaire, or Head of Service, of Raidió na Gaeltachta in 1978, but prior to that he had been a central figure in the planning work for the station and its establishment in 1972.

“He was a driving force in developing the morning schedule on Raidió na Gaeltachta during his time as Ceannaire. He also focused on growing the outside broadcasts, a technical challenge at the time, and in developing internal structures which helped as the service expanded.”

Pádhraic Ó Ciardha, Chairperson of Gael Linn, said: “We all held Brian in the highest regard. He was a true gentleman and highly erudite. He brought his experience and understanding from other sectors to the benefit of our own organisation.

“We are greatly indebted to him for his dedication as a visionary leader.”