It’s just one single sentence in Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline“
“I was 19 when I left Dublin, crossing the Irish Sea on the Liverpool ferry, like so many millions of emigrants before me”.
Just a single sentence in the precis of the events that propelled me to the right place, at the right time, to get sucked into one of the most wonderful life-changing adventures of my years to date.
But behind that one sentence is a life-changing moment of its own, of course.
As that leaving of the city of my birth took place 30 years ago tonight, maybe now is the time to remember . . .
I was 19 when I left Dublin, crossing the Irish Sea on the Liverpool ferry, like so many millions of emigrants before me.
Standing out on the deck of the B&I Line ferry Munster as we sailed from Dublin port on the night of Friday May 4th, 1984, I felt very alone, and already cut off from my former life, friends and family. This was despite the fact that my parents were actually on board the ship, having offered to drive me down to London where I would be staying with my aunt in Harrow until I could get on my feet and find a place of my own.
Although emigrating at a time when huge numbers of young people were leaving the country as part of the 80s recession, there seemed then to be nothing different or defining about those years – for as long as anyone could remember times had always been tough, and jobs always scarce. Getting on the boat to go to England was just something you did after leaving school.
In some ways I was one of the lucky ones, I had managed to eventually find work in a small computer company, but for almost slave wages, and with no prospect of advancement. I had pretty quickly come to the decision that I needed to cross the sea to England to find a better job with more opportunities, and had planned for this moment for ages, but theory and practice are two different things.
Over the past few weeks as I prepared to move, I had been too excited in planning my new future to think about what I was leaving behind, but now, standing outside on the back deck of the ferry as we prepared to leave the port, it suddenly hit me that my entire life up to this point was being jettisoned. All the friends I had made since leaving school, my colleagues at work and the customers I supported, some of whom I had become quite close to, the friends at various groups where I volunteered and spent my happy weekend hours. My new job would be exciting, and possibly form the foundations of a career, but there would be a huge hole in my life, a lot of friends and regular activities left behind.
But it would be the city itself that I missed the most.
From an early age I had been an explorer, and there was hardly a laneway or mountain road in Dublin and Wicklow that I had not explored on my bicycle in my teenage years, not a housing estate that I did not know.
I had roamed unchecked through long summer holidays, poring over maps and exploring every side turning or interesting looking road. Even the Dublin city bus timetable had been a thing of wonder to me, a treasure trove of names of unexplored places and strange footnotes, and I had explored the city by bus too, taking two months during the summer holidays of 78 and 79 during which I spent every day travelling end to end on as many bus routes as possible, becoming familiar with all the suburbs and the far flung estates, charting my progress in red marker on a one inch Ordinance Survey map, sometimes doing routes several times in order to experience the extended or diverted r outings in the footnotes.
Unremarkable and frequent routes to places such as Blanchardstown, Bohernabreena, Dalkey and Dollymount would be explored alongside the rare and infrequent workings to places such as Hollywood Cross, Burrow, Oldtown, Shop River and the piece de resistance: Newtownmountkennedy, which not only had the longest placename in the Dublin city timetable, but was only served once a week to boot.
It was dark as the ferry sailed at 1030pm, and many of the further flung parts of my empire could not be seen, though the Dublin mountains were visible as a dark brooding presence on the skyline, bereft of lights. But as we moved out of the port heading towards the bay, there was muchmore that could be seen. On our starboard side was the Great South Wall, where my father used to take us as children, terrifying us with the thought that he might accidentally drive the car off the unguarded side of the roadway into the sea. This was a fate which, he told us gravely, had befallen a schoolteacher by the name of Mr. Ring many years earlier, hence the fact that the area was known as “Ringsend”.
On the other side, the Bull Island and the Northern walkway stretched out into the sea, reached by the wooden bridge from Dollymount. Many a Saturday I had gone out along it as far as I could on my bike, enjoying the wind and the salt air on my face, staring out to sea and imagining all things that lay to the east.
Now I was on that sea, and heading east, and looking back at the walkway, and it’s giant Virgin Mary statue, and wondering when I would be there again.
The Clontarf road was very visible, streetlights spaced all along the seafront, and I could see a number 30 bus making progress out towards Dollymount, a little cluster of lights racing along the seafront, stopping from time to time and being overtaken by seemingly miniature cars. Gradually it fell behind us until the cars and buses could no longer be distinguished from the streetlights, then the great bulk of Howth Head swept past us on our port side, till it too fell behind, and the city was no more a single patch of brightly lit horizon than individual areas.
As the Ferry moved out into the bay, I stayed out on deck in the darkness, long after all the other passengers had returned to the warm and lighted interior.
My parents did not come looking for me, perhaps understanding my need to be alone as I watched the slow disappearance of everything that I was leaving behind.
Radio Caroline celebrates its 50th birthday today, 28th March 2014.
For many, the very founding of the station in 1964 is a major cause for celebration. But I would argue that it is in the station’s long history of survival and independence that the real cause for celebration lies.
Today many people will be celebrating the birth of Radio Caroline in 1964, and it’s founding as the first pirate station off the UK coast by Irishman Ronan O’Rahilly, and rightly so.
Ronan broke the mold, challenged the dominance of established players in both the recording and radio business, and certainly made sure that legal commercial radio on land in the UK was (reluctantly) introduced by the British government probably a decade before they would otherwise have done so.
In the founding of an offshore pirate, Ronan was not unique however. Another station – Atlanta – was being launched at the same time, and was beaten on air by Caroline by just a matter of weeks, and many others followed, including giants such as Radio London (1960s) Radio Northsea (1970s) and Laser 558 (1980s).
No, where Ronan really stood head and shoulders over all others in the field was in his unique ability to make his station last.
To stay on the air, to fight for, and retain independence.
Radio London, and all the other 60s offshore pirates off the UK coast closed down when the 1967 Marine Offences Act became law, criminalising the supply of offshore broadcasting ships, and the buying of advertising airtime on them. But where others left the stage, Ronan fought on, and Caroline continued.
Ronan’s defiance of the Act encouraged others, but none of the offshore stations aimed at the UK in the 70s and 80s managed to last more than a few years. The biggest, and most successful, Laser 558, was only on air for 18 months (and a followup Laser Hot Hits had an even shorter duration).
It was Ronan who stayed the course, and kept Radio Caroline at sea and on air, despite every setback the government or the weather could throw at him. His ability to ressurect the station when it got into scrapes was legendary.
But did Caroline really matter? Once commercial radio had come to the UK, was there a point in Radio Caroline continuing? I would argue that there was, and very much so.
Commercial radio, when it came to the UK, was long over-regulated and tightly bound by needletime and other restrictions which prevented it from funjctioning as true music radio. And stations were often owned by powerful and well-connected people, in effect becoming just as much of an insiders club as the BBC had been in the 60s. Where could you get your music played if you were a new band? Where could you hear album tracks rather than just singles? Not, by and large, on mainstream commercial radio (though there were some honourable exceptions to this).
Caroline continued to stay outside the system, and outside the jurisdiction, right through to the end of the 1980s. And this mattered, not only to the listeners who got enjoyment from it, and the hundreds of staff who passed through it’s doors (well – ok, hatchways) but also to the governments.
Radio Caroline was outside government control, and if there is one thing governments really, really don’t like, it is something outside their control. Especially when that something involves free speech, and the ability to be heard by the masses. The fact that Caroline never said anything seditious, and just quietly got on with sharing great music with its listeners was not the point. There were people out there, on a ship, with a transmitter, capable of being heard, and immune from both government control, and it’s lapdog, big business influence. This had to be stopped.
Did governments really worry that much about Radio Caroline? Oh yes they did . .
Witness the ratification of UNCLOS (United Nations Convention of Laws Of the Sea) by 157 countries around the world, a treaty that ranks offshore broadcasting alongside real piracy (seizure/hijacking/hostage-taking) as well as the slave trade (human trafficking) in terms of a menace that uniquely allows a country to board a foreign registered vessel in international waters.
Extract from UNCLOS:
Unauthorized broadcasting from the high seas
1. All States shall cooperate in the suppression of unauthorized broadcasting from the high seas.
2. For the purposes of this Convention, “unauthorized broadcasting” means the transmission of sound radio or television broadcasts from a ship or installation on the high seas intended for reception by the general public contrary to international regulations, but excluding the transmission of distress calls.
3. Any person engaged in unauthorized broadcasting may be prosecuted before the court of:
(a) the flag State of the ship;
(b) the State of registry of the installation;
(c) the State of which the person is a national;
(d) any State where the transmissions can be received; or
(e) any State where authorized radio communication is suffering interference.
4. On the high seas, a State having jurisdiction in accordance with paragraph 3 may, in conformity with article 110, arrest any person or ship engaged in unauthorized broadcasting and seize the broadcasting apparatus.
Right of visit
1. Except where acts of interference derive from powers conferred by treaty, a warship which encounters on the high seas a foreign ship, other than a ship entitled to complete immunity in accordance with articles 95 and 96, is not justified in boarding it unless there is reasonable ground for suspecting that:
(a) the ship is engaged in piracy;
(b) the ship is engaged in the slave trade;
(c) the ship is engaged in unauthorized broadcasting and the flag State of the warship has jurisdiction under article 109;
(d) the ship is without nationality; or
(e) though flying a foreign flag or refusing to show its flag, the ship is, in reality, of the same nationality as the warship.
2. In the cases provided for in paragraph 1, the warship may proceed to verify the ship’s right to fly its flag. To this end, it may send a boat under the command of an officer to the suspected ship. If suspicion remains after the documents have been checked, it may proceed to a further examination on board the ship, which must be carried out with all possible consideration.
3. If the suspicions prove to be unfounded, and provided that the ship boarded has not committed any act justifying them, it shall be compensated for any loss or damage that may have been sustained.
4. These provisions apply mutatis mutandis to military aircraft.
5. These provisions also apply to any other duly authorized ships or aircraft clearly marked and identifiable as being on government service.
(end of extract)
The ranking of stations such as Radio Caroline alongside the slave trade and ships hijacked by real pirates illustrates just how seriously governments regard the ability of individuals to have access to broadcasting – radio or TV.
Think of this: Forget terrorism or drug trafficking (neither of which are grounds for search and seizure of ships in this convention). The one thing that 157 different government agree is the really, really dangerous menace of the high seas, the force that causes most harm to society, is to have a bunch of hippies on a ship sharing their love of the latest Nick Cave album.
In some countries, this fear takes the form of keeping most media state owned. The UK and Ireland, as more liberal democracies, don’t do this any more, though in point of fact they had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the era of commercial radio by the offshore pirates in the case of the UK, and landbased ones in Ireland. But the instinct to control runs deep, and where hard power cannot be used, soft power is always an alternative.
If you can’t restrict access to broadcasting to directly state-owned operations, you can at least operate your licencing system in such a way that those who have control of most of the licences are known, and safe, and establishment.
And safeness breeds sameness and lack of diversity, which is one of the reasons why it is so very important to have alternatives who are outside the cosy circles of the industry, even if to be such an outsider feels, at times, like being a lone voice crying in the wilderness.
Since Radio Caroline came ashore in 1991, there have been many, many opportunities to sell out, and let the brand or the station take investment from big groups or big business.
All of these, while seemingly friendly and from corporations who doubtless would have promised to respect the station’sethos, would certainly have led to the destruction of Caroline in pretty short order – sanitised, corporatised and probably eventually discarded too. This has happened to so many great independent radio stations, so many idealistic groups of individuals. That Caroline stayed away from this temptation is a minor miracle, and here all credit is due to Ronan O’Rahilly and in latter years Peter Moore for refusing to take the easy option and sell out.
Caroline has ploughed a lonely furrow over the years, surviving on the margins, but it has stayed independent, and for that, we can truly give thanks, and wish the station a very Happy 50th Birthday.
Radio Caroline is still alive and can be heard today via the new frontier of independent, uncontrolled speech – online. Tune in at www.radiocaroline.co.uk or download the smartphone app.
Steve Conway – a proud member of the Caroline family
A couple of days before the launch of the new legal Phantom 105.2 in October 2006, I used an all-staff meeting as an excuse to take a “class of 2006″ photo. Here’s how we looked back in those oh-so-optimistic days . . .
Click on the picture for a larger version.
Front row (left to right) Jack Hyland, Peter Vamos, Simon Maher, Brian Daly, Ger Roe, Neil Austin.
Of the 32 faces in the photo, 16 are male and 16 female . . perfect gender balance without even trying.
As pirate and legal station, Phantom employed me for 11 happy years, and produced tens of thousands of hours of wonderful radio.
Born of idealism, strangled by corporatism, it will be fondly remembered and much missed.
An A-Z of Great Tracks continues to air each Wednesday evening 8-9pm (repeated Saturdays 10-11am) on 8Radio.com from Dublin.
I’ve waited a week to publish the two most recent playlists together (episode 7, 12th Feb 2014 and episode 8, 19th Feb) as viewed together they show some of the range of different styles and themes that come up as the weeks unfold.
Episode 7 certainly had gaze firmly set further in the past, with Leadbelly and Fats Domino representing the styles of music which inspired many of the later 60s and 70s rock artists. More of a Soul and folk rock feel, while episode 8 had more rock and indie. Quite often this mix is achieved within individual hours, but sometimes, the way the alphabet brings the tracks around, you will get bigger segments in the past, or present.
Arlo Guthrie‘s epic Alice’s Restaurant Massacree took up almost a third of one episode, but is one of those tracks that no self-respecting A-Z could possibly do without, managing to be both a great and entertaining record at the same time as being not only an important example of the protest song, but also an impromptu history lesson into the whole late 60s counterculture and military draft for Vietnam issue/era.
This week’s show was less weighty, but no less fun, with a chance to tease the Alisons of the world by first serenading them with Elvis Costello, before bringing them back down to earth as Steeleye Span describe Alison “the ugliest witch in the north country”.
As always, presenting live, I am open to change based on what feels right at the time, and somewhere during episode 8 a track was dropped less than a minute before it was due to be played as no longer felt right, and another one added later.
I’m lucky to be working on a station where I’m totally free to make whatever changes I like, not to mention being allowed to devise and run this entire mammoth series entirely myself, with no restrictions or input on what music I include in the A-Z.
Here is the tracklisting for episode 6 of An A-Z of Great Tracks, broadcast February 5th on 8Radio.com and due for repeat on Saturday 8th February 2014 from 10-11am.
This week, as well as the wonderful Leonard Cohen making his third appearance, we had forgotten album tracks from Patti Smith and Whitesnake, a nice slice of Nina Simone, and recent tracks from Prarie Dawgs (Irish) and The Phenomenal Handclap Band (International) whose 2012 “Form & Control” was the finest album of the year in my opinion.
The word “Ain’t” seems to draw forth some fine atmospheric contributions, and we continue with this word, and beyond next week in episode 7, when you will also be offered the chance to get anything you want . . .
Here is the tracklisting for episode 5 of An A-Z of Great Tracks, broadcast January 29th on 8Radio.com and due for repeat on Saturday 1st February 2014 from 10-11am.
Week 5 of the show, and I continue to rediscover gems, great and small, that I had all but forgotten.
This week’s surprise for me in my own library was “Adult Education” from Hall & Oates, a track much played on Caroline back in the mid-80s, but which I would swear I have never heard on the radio since. I’ve never been able to quite decide if the lyrics of this little piece represent wordplay of the best kind, or simple frat boy humour: “teachers don’t know how to deal with the student body” but either way, this is a slice of pure 80s, a throwback to a more innocent age, and a gem at that.
JJ Cale “After Midnight” another little piece of audio bliss for me too.
Next week, we come to a word that takes us into rich musical territory.
Here is the tracklisting for episode 4 of An A-Z of Great Tracks, live broadcast January 15th on 8Radio.com and due for repeat on Saturday 18th January 2014 from 10-11am.
Four weeks in, we’re now crossing over from the tracks beginning with the simple word “A” by itself, and into full words beginning with A – and Abacab has the honour of being the first proper A-word track to be played.
Between the two there is a little oddity in the form of A-Punk from Vampire Weekend. I wondered whether I should have moved this up and treated it as if there was a space rather than a hyphen, but in the end a bit of research showed me that the hyphenated version of the title seems to be pretty universal.
That’s one thing about compiling this show – it’s helping me do a top to bottom tidy of my music library, correcting any titles that are misplaced, mis-spaced or otherwise out of sync with reality. An example would be “A Whiter Shade of Pale” which closed off last weeks show – I wondered why I couldn’t find it in the As as I knew I had it, before finding that it had been mistitled as simply “Whiter Shade of Pale” when I copied it from my physical library a number of years ago.
And so, the As proper begin – and continue until around the end of April, by my calculations!