Adios Mi Amigo – Ronan O’Rahilly

If the Beatles, ‘All You Need Is Love,’ summed up the sixties then Radio Caroline’s founder, Ronan O’Rahilly, 1940-2020, embodied the era. Although pirate radio started from a ship, the Cheeta, anchored off the south Swedish coast in 1958, it was Ronan O’Rahilly and Radio Caroline that gave us rock and roll radio as we know it today. His impact on libertarians and free thinkers was deeper still.

Originally from County Louth in Ireland, Ronan O’Rahilly was a pop impresario in London. Like his grandfather, Michael – who took part in the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin, Ronan was a rebel. ‘There was a whole group of us,’ he said, ‘Who were pretty young and very rebellious.’ This was an era when the pubs shut at 11PM and pop music was hard to hear. Managing pop groups and running night clubs in the early sixties O’Rahilly understood the imperatives of rock and roll right from the start. Here was a phenomenon articulating the angst and excitement of the post-war generation.  These were not old musical hall tunes. Raw and urgent, the phenomenon grew out of the blues sung by the enslaved, the lost and forgotten of America’s deep south. It was a cry for freedom. In a generation taking a long, hard look at the recent past this music posed questions of an establishment uncomfortable with progress. Pop music had become a language of protest. Many of the songs were love songs, others more troubling essays on liberty, war and betrayal. By the sixties it was less than clear that the good guys won in the end. Compounding the situation was the lack of a free media.

Back in post-war Britain radio was subject to a monopoly exercised by the BBC. Pop music was thought to be inconsequential and silly and was not welcome on the airwaves. The establishment never understood our hunger for pop music the way Ronan did. Radio Caroline started broadcasting in 1964 at Easter. Despite heavy seas, gale force winds, towering battleships and the frowning disapproval of police and coastguards the little ship sailed on. Over the months and years ahead she was joined by a fleet of pop stations broadcasting from ships and forts just outside British territorial waters. The excitement generated and the dangers involved gave the music an added urgency. Disc jockeys knew the risks they ran and played up accordingly. ‘The ship’s really rolling tonight but we’ll keep the music coming if you keep on listening.’ Many was the night I fell asleep wearing a transistor radio earpiece, the sound of Caroline breathing tales of freedom and excitement through the night. It was all over too soon.

Yet even when the Labour government under Harold Wilson closed the pirates down, Caroline carried on till March 1968. It was one of the worst winters she had ever endured. In March she was taken off the air because of unpaid bills. Dutch creditors towed her away. With both her ships impounded in Holland it looked like the end. Heartbroken, all we had now was the ridiculous BBC pop station – a few hours a day – and the night time Radio Luxembourg service.

Then Ronan pulled off an audacious, buccaneering sleight of hand. Caroline returned. The Mi Amigo, it emerged, had slipped out of harbour right under  the noses of the authorities. Engineers and disc jockeys repaired her at sea. What bliss to hear her again. Mi Amigo, broadcasting Caroline, my friend indeed.

Her name has become synonymous with the fight for freedom. With a sniff of distaste the establishment referred to stations as pirate radio. The term annoyed some of the businessmen behind the scenes making it all happen, but we loved it. After 1967 and passing of the Marine Etc Broadcasting Offences Act it became a crime to listen to pirate  stations. We didn’t care, not for one second. Pirate radio? Great, now I was a pirate too, I was out there with my heroes. Years later three of us – delinquent students all – built a transmitter and hung the aerial out of an attic in Muswell Hill. It felt great to be a pirate. This was in the mid-seventies and we played punk rock – which the Beeb, of course, had banned.

Caroline survived and now has a short range medium wave license and internet studios in Ashford in Kent. Her ship, the Ross Revenge is in good working order and is anchored off the Blackwater Estuary in Essex.

Thank you, Ronan for Caroline, for rock and roll radio, and for advancing the troubled  cause of freedom. As Caroline sailed into illegality at midnight on 14 August 1967 she played the Beatles ‘All You Need Is Love.’ The pirates might have existed on slender advertising revenues, a wing and a prayer but we loved them. Inspired by Caroline a generation of writers, singers, broadcasters and entrepreneurs set sail in search of fulfilment. Ronan made this seem as easy as it was daring. He was a quiet man and sparing with advice. That first record Johnnie Walker played just after midnight sums up what Ronan O’Rahilly gave us and what he stood for. Thank you Ronan, rest in peace. All you need is love, indeed.