Alf McCarthy: Retiring from radio aged 65 was 'soul destroying'

Alf McCarthy’s honey-coated voice was one of the most recognised on RTÉ Radio 1. For more than three decades he dominated our radio waves with his positive energy and deep-rooted knowledge. LINDA KENNY catches up with him to see how his retirement is going
Alf McCarthy: Retiring from radio aged 65 was 'soul destroying'

END OF AN ERA: An emotional Alf McCarthy signing off RTE’S Cork Local Radio Station in 2000.

ALF McCarthy has always had a love for radio. “When I was a kid, pre-TV, radio ruled the world. It was our lifeline.

“I was fascinated by the fact that you could listen to parts of the world you only visited in dreams. The American Forces Network, which was based in Berlin, played basketball games live from New York. Radio Luxemburg played rock’n’roll, youth music. I loved late night radio too. I have always gravitated towards that my entire life.”

Growing up with his brother and two sisters in Ballinlough, McCarthy was always interested in creating stories and acting. 

“I would put on shows in the garage, with paltry props like a hurley or a tennis racket to dress our sketches. I also had a little projector and would show movies. For the princely sum of 1p a show.”

Sullivan’s Quay School didn’t quite suit the dreamer so he was enrolled in boarding school in Rochestown. Alf’s dad, Buddy, a stonemason, had worked on the altar in the new church in Rochestown and knew the priests.

“I found boarding school very isolating. Even though, I only lived four miles down the road, I went in at the beginning of September and came home at Christmas. Emotionally, it stultified me. I had a lot of growing up to do after I left.”

Despite growing up among the great stonemasons of his extended McCarthy family, whose monumental sculptures and design work can be seen all over Cork, a move into the family business was never on the cards for Alf.

Instead, he inherited an artistic appetite from his father, the late, great Buddy Mac, a hugely popular saxophonist and band leader in the halcyon days of the showbands in Cork until a work accident finished both his music and stone-cutting career.

School was a fertile breeding ground for Alf’s artistic leanings.

“I was extremely shy and a nervous wreck when I had to go on stage.”

But he willingly got involved in shows so the transition to DJ seemed a natural one, once he left school. Shandon Boat Club, Highfield Rugby Club, The Boat Club in Blackrock, and Chandras in the Grand Parade Hotel were regular gigs over his 20-year DJ career.

Linda Kenny with Alf McCarthy during the 
Linda Kenny with Alf McCarthy during the 

Coupled with this, he had started dipping his toes into the acting waters of the Everyman. 

Acting has long been McCarthy’s passion and he has won awards and featured in many plays, on stage and on radio, and film, including the outstanding Woman In Black, The Odd Couple (in which he played Oscar) and A Streetcar Named Desire with the late Mick McCarthy as its “wonderfully passionate director”.

In 1971, Alf and a friend decided to head to Canada.

“We should have gone to London or, at the very least, Toronto or Vancouver.” 

Instead, the naïve duo headed to the prairie state of Alberta where the main emphasis was on cattle, wheat and oil exploration. They arrived in September, at the end of the work season and the beginning of the snow season.

“It was a disaster! We hadn’t a clue!” recalls Alf. It started snowing a few days after they arrived and continued for months. He could only get a job selling encyclopedias! 

“Try trudging through the snow selling encyclopedias with a Cork accent,” he adds with a laugh.

Alf loved Canada though and, listening to his transistor every night going to sleep, he realised the power of late-night radio and decided it was what he wanted to do on his return home.

It only took 10 years to realise the dream, but perseverance was always a trait. 

“I started applying for every job advertised in RTÉ, from janitor to Director General”, he admits. 

His belief was that if he got into the system, they would realise how talented he was!

Finally, the elusive call from RTÉ Cork Local Radio came. They wanted him to review new song releases on a weekly on-air slot with presenter Mark Cagney. 

“I couldn’t believe it!” exclaims McCarthy. “I wrote the script. It was so full of affectation. Cringe!” he adds with an embarrassed laugh.

The following week, he was in the middle of reading from his “well-honed script”, when Cagney whipped it out of his hands and forced him to ad-lib. 

“I gulped with nerves, then got stuck in,” he adds with a flourish.

And that was the end of the scripts and the start of a 20-year love affair with the people of Cork on Corkabout. Cagney moved to 2FM and Alf got the gig as presenter.

Corkabout became more than just a radio programme. It was a lifeline for the people of Cork city and county. It was referred to as an opt-out service for RTÉ, where the Cork audience would tune into it from the national station at 11 each day.

The staff were like family and believed in the service they were providing “and the possibilities for Cork as a centre of excellence in broadcasting”. They were mavericks. RTÉ weren’t pushing the expansion agenda, the staff were. They approached the government and got the service extended from the initial one-hour slot to ultimately mornings, afternoons and weekend radio.

“Outside broadcasts were great. You got out and met the people. And if they thought you were rubbish, they didn’t hold back. 

"That was the wonderful thing about local radio. They had direct access to you and you to them.”

Corkonians took to them like family. And the craic was always mighty.

“I remember on one occasion our regular guest chef arrived with no ingredients to cook in-studio. In his haste to get there on time, he had forgotten his bag of ingredients. So, we imagined up a meal. On air. As if he was actually cooking right there. It was hilarious. Lots of noisy banging of pans and questions like “what’s bubbling in that pot?!”

John Clifford, the weekly animal expert who ran obedience classes in Sullivan’s Quay, would give advice on-air and take listeners’ calls. One lady rang in to ask how to stop a dog from pooing in her garden. John’s advice was to put a bottle of water in the garden and leave it there. When the dog would cock his leg to poo, he would see his image in the bottle and be put off.

“I remember spotting water bottles in almost every garden on my walk home that evening,” Alf remarked. 

“It turned out to be an April Fool’s joke by John!” 

Though the people of Cork believed him. 

“I don’t know, though,” adds Alf with a smile, “my mother swore by it!”

The team was flying high. Alf was living his best life. Celebrating and giving voice to all things Cork on Radio 1, co-presenting with the lovely Isabel Healy Down Here With A View To Above on national TV (a precursor to Nationwide, but with a Munster focus), presenting A Night At The Dogs with Ruth Buchanan on National Radio, and presenting outside broadcasts from the beating heart of Cork — at Michael Jackson’s concert in Siamsa Cois Laoi, and interviewing Danny la Rue, James Last, Johnny Cash and June Carter who were over for the Cork Country Music Festival at the Cork Opera House, Carnival Corkabout Week.

Then, out of the blue, they got word that then Minister Ray Burke had rescinded the weekend licence for Cork Local Radio. This was the first nail in its coffin. The opportunity to expand and develop the service suddenly lost its impetus.

ON THE AIRWAVES: Alf McCarthy (left) with presenter/producer Donna O’Sullivan (seated), news reporter Jennie O’Sullivan, and presenter Ger Canning at RTE Studios before the close down.
ON THE AIRWAVES: Alf McCarthy (left) with presenter/producer Donna O’Sullivan (seated), news reporter Jennie O’Sullivan, and presenter Ger Canning at RTE Studios before the close down.

Following this, and further spending and independent production cuts, the decision was made to close the station and it tragically “went without a whimper”, Alf adds.

By then, 96FM was providing the Cork service so there was no major public outcry at the wrapping up of Cork Local Radio.

Alf continued with RTÉ, presenting PM Live with Marty Whelan and Mary Kennedy and a stint on Live At 3 as a stand in for Derek Davis. He loved it all. But his favourite gig was Late Date which ran from 11pm to 2am nightly on RTÉ Radio 1. 

“I adored the intimacy of late-night radio. It was nectar to me. Opening the show each night with ‘Welcome Friends’ fuelled me.”

On one occasion, a man texted the show to say the ‘black dog’ was on his shoulder and he felt he had no hope. Alf was on air, with no back up or technical crew to help out, so he could only talk to him on air, and urge him to not do anything rash. 

“I felt this was urgent. The structure of the programme meant we went off air at 11.55 for 10 minutes to allow for news, weather, sport and ads, etc, and I was truly concerned for him. I asked him where he was and he texted ‘the Midlands’. And later texted ‘Portlaoise’ and that was it.”

A day or two went by and finally the man texted in his gratitude for Alf’s help. His sister had heard his plea and reached out to him.

“In that moment, I realised the real power of live radio, particularly at night. Radio becomes a crucial lifeline for some.”

Having to retire at 65 was a tough pill to swallow for Alf. 

“It was soul-destroying and very upsetting to be told I had to go, when I could see others older than I still working.”

But, as the saying goes, everything happens for a reason. After his retirement from RTÉ, he joined the Everyman Sunday Songbook team, after the passing of the late Michael Twomey, and has toured the great theatres of Ireland for the past three years with his ‘musical family’. 

“We have a wonderful bond of love with each other and with our audiences. It is magical.”

Last August, Alf moved to Rosscarbery after 10 years living in Dublin. 

“In one fell swoop, the pandemic erased my entire year of work and I couldn’t afford to live in Dublin anymore. I hated leaving my partner, Sharon. I miss her terribly but we are in daily contact. I’m truly content living here, though, overlooking the sea. To me, Rosscarbery is an oasis. It lifts my soul!”

“We are all complicated beings,” Alf concludes. “I like to say I’m an actor, broadcaster, writer, producer, friend, dad/grandad, life partner. I’m reaching the stage of life where there is a freedom to being where I am. I don’t get too fed up as long as I’m happy doing what I’m doing.”

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