Cork man recalls the day TV came to Ireland

60 years ago a lucky few TV owners in Cork sat down to see the launch of RTE's television service. Michael Cronin recalls how his local mountain played a part and the joy of finally getting his own TV set
Cork man recalls the day TV came to Ireland

The Cronin family in 1956 with Michael bottom right. Back, from left, his aunt Han Kelleher, Nellie Cronin, cousin Nell O'Riordan, Richard Cronin. Middle: Denis, Patrick and Sean Cronin. Front: Richie, Joan and Michael Cronin.

I DID not have the privilege of sitting down and watching the birth of Irish television 60 years ago, on Sunday, December 31, 1961. Only about 800 Cork homes had sets at the time. I do, however, remember the build-up to the big launch.

Growing up in Gaeltacht Mhúscraí, we had a good view of the mountains, including Mullach an Ois (Mullaghanish). With a height of 2,129ft (649 metres), located north-east of Baile Bhúirne on the Cork side of the county bounds, this was to be the home of one of Telefís Éireann’s original five main television transmitters, to service Cork, Kerry and Limerick.

Building the transmitters in strategic places to give the best possible picture to the greatest number of people was a major undertaking, When Mullach an Ois was chosen, the first requirement was a road — a big enough undertaking anywhere, but on the side of a mountain a big job. The weather can be an issue, as snow, mist and fog can quickly roll in. Work can start in bright sunshine with visibility good for miles, but a few hours later you may not be able to see the end of your nose.

When the engineers did the first survey, they laid a trail of string behind them so they would not get lost. A good idea, until they discovered the string had vanished — goats and sheep had eaten it.

John Creedon, a local farmer, built part of the road and said: “I first ploughed it with horses, then I drew small stones and used them as a foundation, and then I put gravel on top of the stones.”

The erection of a mast is a skilled job, and transporting sections from factory to site poses problems. When the engineers asked John the best way to haul equipment to the peak, he told them: “Use a tractor along the road, and use horses and drays from the end of the road to the top of the mountain.” A dray is a mechanized cart pulled by a horse or horses.

The engineers’ first job on the peak was to cut through the turf surface to a solid foundation, as the mast has to withstand winds up to 200mph. The first mast erected in Mullach an Ois was 50ft (15 metres) and temporary, the permanent one would be 500ft (152 metres), weighing 70 tons. Both were under construction at the same time, and could be seen lit up in the night sky.

In 2009, at the dawn of digital terrestrial television, a 738ft (225 metres) mast was erected here — the tallest in Ireland.

There were very few TVs installed for the opening night on New Year’s Eve, 1961, in our neighbourhood, in the townland of Cloch Aidhneach (Clohina) in the parish of Cill na Martra, near Macroom — just the few people who owned a shop or pub.

I do recall being told by those who had a set about all the happenings of this new TV world, and the programmes they watched. I was thinking to myself how lucky they were, and how privileged they must have felt. In those days, most people who did have a television rented them.

We had to wait another five years before we got our first TV. In the interim we went to neighbours’ houses to watch — GAA games were always top of our list. We saw All-Ireland semi-finals and finals alongside other neighbours. They were the only GAA games shown live back then, along with Railway Cup finals on St Patrick’s Day.

Of course, there was just the one channel with just two colours, black and white!

I have happy memories of us going to a neighbour’s house to see the 1966 All-Ireland hurling final when a young underdog Cork team beat a fancied Kilkenny. As it was the first All-Ireland senior title to come to Cork in my time, it will always hold a special place in my heart.

I recall going to the same neighbour’s house to see the Eurovision Song Contest earlier that year, when Dickie Rock came fourth for Ireland with Come Back To Stay.

On Christmas Eve that year, 1966, my brother Denis, who was working in London came home for the holidays and brought with him a brand new black and white Pye television. We were so excited, we thought Santa and all our birthdays had come on the same day.

We connected the TV indoor aerial (known as rabbit’s ears) to the set, and made the required adjustments to get the best possible picture and have it set up and ready in time for the start of the TV schedule, which was 3pm in those days.

We saw every programme and every ad on Christmas Eve, from Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, on through Amuigh faoin Spéir and The Monkees, ending with Mass at 11pm. On Christmas Day, we went to mass in Réidh na nDoirí (Renanirree) — back then there were three on the day, one after the other. Some stayed for all three!

Along with a snowy Mullach an Ois, it was also possible to have a snowy TV reception. How often did we see on our screens, to our great disappointment, “Is dona linn an briseadh seo,” (we are sorry for this breakdown), or “We apologise, there is a problem with our transmitter in Mullach an Ois”.

Nevertheless, we were happy with our black and white TV, with just one channel, though as far as remote controls were concerned, they were a thing of the future.

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