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Here was the news


From top left clockwise: Anne Doyle, Brendan O'Reilly, Maurice O’Doherty Don Cockburn, Bryan Dobson and Sharon Ni Bheolain

From top left clockwise: Anne Doyle, Brendan O'Reilly, Maurice O’Doherty Don Cockburn, Bryan Dobson and Sharon Ni Bheolain

From top left clockwise: Anne Doyle, Brendan O'Reilly, Maurice O’Doherty Don Cockburn, Bryan Dobson and Sharon Ni Bheolain

This week RTE raised the curtain on its revamped TV newsroom with its flash decor, fake through-the-window skyscapes and ample floor space for five-a-side kickabouts. Hailed by Montrose as "a quantum leap", the €1.6m makeover will allow RTE's newscasters to, quite literally, follow in the footsteps of their British counterparts at the BBC and Sky as they stretch their legs while bombarding us with the latest shock and awe.

The twin motives for starting an Irish TV service in the first place were to keep up with the Brits, and to keep them out. With the BBC bolstering its signal from NI, and newcomer ITV polluting Ireland's eastern seaboard, Telefis Eireann began life in 1961 as the necessary evil that would re-establish technological parity with the Stormont regime, while providing a homespun alternative to the pagan filth and news propaganda seeping from abroad.

The first newsreader on the air was Charles Mitchel, who had the look of a prosperous farmer in his Sunday best, and read the news in the authoritative tones of a well-bred parish priest. A magnet for well-wishers wherever he went, Mitchel was a star eclipsed only by RTE's three continuity girls: Maire O'Sullivan, Nuala Donnelly and Kathleen Watkins (who later became Mrs Gay Byrne).

The trio were mobbed at public appearances by crowds hoping to hear their oft uttered catchphrase: "We apologise for the break in transmission. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible."

Everyone of a certain age remembers where they were when Charles Mitchel sobbed as he told the nation that JFK was slain. He interrupted an episode of The Thin Man, starring JFK's brother-in-law Peter Lawford, to break the news.

While Mitchel's wholegrain accent was of trustworthy rural stock, current affairs anchor Brian Cleeve was condemned as "Ascendancy class" by a colleague. In early 1966, as Ireland geared up to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, English-born Cleeve was dropped from public view on the grounds that his voice was "too light in tone". Everyone knew that this was code for "un-Irish", and it took a campaign in the print media to shame RTE's political masters into reversing the decision.

On another occasion, Agriculture Minister CJ Haughey reacted furiously when an RTE bulletin balanced his stated position with a rebuttal by Irish farmers.

He picked up the phone to insist that RTE's function as a state body was to be a mouthpiece of the State. The farmers' statement was axed from later bulletins and Montrose top brass outraged its own journalists by issuing a craven apology.

For most of the viewing public, however, the tit-for-tat of the Montrose bunker was of less interest than getting the chance to wave at Don Cockburn as he cycled up the Stillorgan Road to work, or having a chuckle at the unscripted humorous asides that Maurice O'Doherty would slip into his bulletins.

O'Doherty fancied himself as a comic, and when he'd had enough dressing downs from superiors about his ad-libs, he quit the news and toured as a comedy act. Before that, Brendan Balfe and other colleagues once staged a Maurice O'Doherty Impersonation Contest during a lull in the working day. Prevailed upon to enter, O'Doherty could only manage third place.

There were hi-jinks, too, involving former high-jumper Brendan O'Reilly, who read the sports news for many years. O'Reilly was affectionately known to his colleagues as Daddy Longlegs, but they had less affection for his habit of dashing into the studio and taking his seat with seconds to go.

So, one evening, mischievous crew members removed his chair, and he arrived with the cameras about to roll and no time to replace it. He was forced to present the entire segment crouched behind the desk, trying not to grimace as cramps began to torment his spindly legs. Like the pro he was, he managed to fly it with nothing beneath the seat of his pants.

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After four years in the Department of Foreign Affairs, Anne Doyle joined the RTE newsroom in 1978. When she made it centre-stage to front the TV news, she became an overnight sensation, attracting sacks of male fanmail not seen since the early days of the continuity trio.

She jokingly told one interviewer: "There are some well-endowed men in Ireland by the looks of things."

The national broadcaster had come a long way since the first days of the service. The radio service 2RN (to Erin) opened in 1926 having failed to strike a price with the British news agencies, or any Irish newspaper. One reason for the shortage of funds was that four in five radio owners refused to pay the licence fee, and district judges frustrated prosecutions by often siding with the defaulters.

The first regular daytime bulletins started in 1927 with stories lifted from the Evening Herald, material eavesdropped from morse code shipping signals, and some BBC items recycled with permission. (In order to protect newspaper sales, the Beeb was forbidden to broadcast news before 7pm).

The new news service quickly expanded to the point where the lone newsman, the Station Announcer, needed an assistant. The panoramic job-spec of this assistant encompassed reporting on the Oireachtas, covering the money markets, compiling updates on foreign events and alerting listeners to any "important or sensational happenings" in Ireland.

But before he could start spending his £4 weekly wage packet, his contract stipulated that he must "provide a bond for £1,000" to indemnify the Minister for Posts & Telegraphs against any legal action or expenses caused "by any infringement or alleged infringement of copyright".

Sharon Ni Bheolain doesn't know the half of it.

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