Saturday 24 February 2018

'Suddenly two soldiers burst into the room and took up firing positions'

Olivia O'Leary

Journalist Olivia O'Leary recalls joining the RTE newsroom in 1972

T his picture was taken not long after I entered RTE. The station was bustling then. You had a real sense that everyone in the country watched RTE -- which they did, because most people in Ireland only received one TV channel.

This meant that the big faces of RTE, such as Brian Farrell, who presented 'Seven Days', were seen as gods and lionised everywhere they went.

I was a young reporter of 22 coming from 'The Nationalist and Leinster Times' in Carlow, where I had trained as a journalist after UCD.

I remember that first day in RTE -- they put me on the news desk, ringing up whoever needed to be contacted. It was foggy, so I was told to check the airports to see if any flights had been cancelled.

I rang Dublin Airports and they gave me a list of grounded flights, but when I rang Cork Airport they said just two flights had been cancelled.

"Which ones?" I asked.

"The plane that goes to London in the morning, and the same plane that comes back in the afternoon," they said.

Three male reporters had been hired by RTE at the same time as me, and I found out they were being paid more.

When I queried this, I was told it was because they had "metropolitan experience" and I didn't, having come from a regional paper, but it was obviously because I was a woman.

The NUJ threatened to get everyone out on strike when I told them. In the meantime, my editor Kevin O'Kelly went to see the then director general of RTE and the matter was quietly sorted out.

I was doing hard news right from the beginning, which was brilliant.

You really felt as if you were watching history.

There was Northern Ireland. Back then, the roads would be pretty scary but I had to get up and back to Belfast each week.

Then, in 1973, there was a very historic change of government when Liam Cosgrave came in with Conor Cruise O'Brien, Garret Fitzgerald and Justin Keating, all huge TV stars.

Reporting on politics, I learned how the Irish drank politics on TV. I think it's because it's a smaller society, so everyone knows everyone else and, even now, the best way for a politician to get a vote is to personally meet a voter on the campaign trail.

I reported on so many elections, but one that stands out is the assembly elections in the North during the 1980s.

I was up in Derry interviewing John Hume when suddenly two soldiers burst into the room and took up firing positions.

It wouldn't have been such a problem, but I was live on the RTE Radio News at the time.

The last thing John Hume had said was, "and we hope to win three seats".

I was speechless, but somehow had to keep going. "Only three seats Mr Hume?" I asked.

And John said, "But Olivia, we're only running three candidates".

Down the line I could hear them roaring with laughter in Dublin.

Olivia O'Leary is featured in 'Window and Mirror: RTE Television 1961-2011' by John Bowman (Collins Press).

Olivia's political column can be heard every Tuesday evening on RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime from 4.30pm-7pm

In conversation with Ken Sweeney

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