Wednesday 18 September 2019

Vintage radios: Reconnecting with the past

Sound man: Pat Herbert pictured in the Ye Olde Hurdy-Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio in Howth
Sound man: Pat Herbert pictured in the Ye Olde Hurdy-Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio in Howth

Eleanor Flegg

Twentieth-century valve radios are beautiful objects in their own right. Now, the originals are collectors' items and mainstream shops are full of retro radios that mimic vintage designs. Both hark back to a recent past when radio was a luxury that not everyone could afford.

"I grew up in a village in Co Mayo. We had no radio, no electricity," says Pat Herbert of the Hurdy Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio in Howth, "very few candles, even. When it was dark, it was dark." It was 1947, the year that the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final was played in the Polo Grounds in New York, and Herbert was 10 years old.

"We got word that one of the neighbours had bought a wireless. It was the Lamonds, of course. They were the only family in the village with a slate roof. The rest of us had thatch."

The match was played 10pm in mid-September and the streets were dark as the whole village trooped down to the house where the brand new Cossor radio was on display. "There was no room for any more people in the house, so the children had to listen from the garden." Then the match went on air.

The legendary Micheal O'Hehir provided the commentary for Radio Éireann. The broadcast depended on a landline from the Polo Grounds, connected to a transatlantic cable, which fed through to transmitters in Dublin, Athlone and Cork.

The international call was pre-paid and pre-booked, until a certain time. As that time drew near, with five minutes still to play, O'Hehir appealed on air: "Just give us five minutes more." The broadcast continued until the end of the match and O'Hehir reflected later that: "It was the first time that I felt that I was doing something special for ordinary people in Ireland." Cavan beat Kerry and many credited their edge to a choice of air transit ahead of Kerry's much longer boat trip.

Back in Co Mayo, the young Pat Herbert had listened in wonder. "The bulbs in the radio lit up the kitchen and the whole house was filled with artificial light. It was the first time that I had heard radio and the first time that I had seen artificial light. I couldn't understand how this thing could come all the way from New York into a cottage in the West of Ireland."

He dates his lifelong passion for collecting vintage radios to this moment and reflects how the radio replaced the storyteller in rural Ireland. "We saw it on the radio - that's what people used to say." Vintage valve radios from the 1930s, '40s, '50s and '60s are hugely collectible. "We have about five customers a week looking to have valve radio repaired," says Daniel Mooney of the Hi-Fi Hospital in Kells, Co Meath, one of the few places in Ireland that repairs and renovates old radios.

"The vast majority of them are people whose granny or grandpa had one, or they bought it on eBay because it reminded them of something from their childhoods." Although it's frequently possible to upgrade a valve radio for Bluetooth streaming and Wi-Fi connectivity (and many do) it's not what most of his customers want. "They want it to be what it was like when they remember it," he says. "Even though the stations available on a valve radio are limited, the people who love them want to keep them as close to the original as possible."

Having them repaired can be pricey though. "I don't think we've even done something for less than €160, and plenty of people spend several hundred euro," says Joanne Clancy, also of the Hi-Fi Hospital. You also need to allow plenty of time for specialist repair, as the parts can be hard to come by. "We even have to go as far as Mother Russia, where they still make radio valves."

If you find a radio in the attic, whatever you do, don't plug it in. Unrestored radios can be dangerous. "They didn't have the health and safety regulations then that they do now," Clancy explains. "These sets... can in fact be lethal if not correctly handled," she says.

In Irish homes of the mid-20th century, the most commonly found radios were manufactured by Pye or Bush. These companies set up factories in Ireland in response to the tariff barriers created by the Anglo Irish trade war (1932-1938). Bush had a factory in Whitehall, Dublin; Pye in Dundrum.

"Our team always get a little kick out of restoring units built in Dublin in the 1930 and 1940s," Clancy says.

"A Pye or Bush radio from the 1940s or 1950s could cost anything from €60 to €200," says Andrew Mullhall of Anon, a shop on Francis Street in Dublin that sells vintage radios. "People like them as objects and they like the warm sound that they get from a valve radio. I think it's a reaction to throwaway music."

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