Ronan O'Rahilly with the original Radio Caroline ship's bell. Photo taken at the ‘Pirates Of The Irish Sea’ exhibition on the Isle of Man in 2008 by Declan Meehan.
The Pirate Radio Hall of Fame was sad to hear that Ronan O'Rahilly, the father of UK offshore radio, has died at the age of 79. He was the man who revolutionised British broadcasting.
Those who weren't around in the early sixties may find it hard to appreciate just how dreadful radio was, especially for fans of pop music, until Ronan intervened.
Ronan was the third of five children born to an Irish father Aodogan O'Rahilly and his American wife, Marion. He entered the world on 21st May 1940. Aodogan was a successful businessman and a director of Bord na Móna, the Irish
Peat Board. He also owned the port of Greenore which was to play a pivotal role in the Radio Caroline story.
Ronan's school career was unspectacular. He was not particularly academic but he was a bright boy with plenty of charm and wit. Around 1961 he arrived in London with £100 in his pocket, provided by his father. He began to take drama
classes, learning “method acting” as devised by the Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski. He became friends with a couple of students in his class - Giorgio Gomelsky, who later managed pop groups including the
Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds, and Cyril Nicholas Henty-Dodd who, as Simon Dee, became the first voice on Radio Caroline. Together with his friend Michael Joseph, O'Rahilly and Henty-Dodd launched their own
acting studio, Studio 61.
Ronan O'Rahilly in the sixties. Photo courtesy of Robbie Dale.
Britain's capital city in the early sixties wasn't yet the “Swinging London” that it would become a few years later but it still provided plenty of opportunities for someone like Ronan. He had enthusiasm,
charm and ideas - and could usually find someone else to provide the finance. Based in Chelsea, where he would remain until the last few years of his life, he became involved in the movie industry - attempting to make an unfinished
film called High Heels - nightlife, running the influential Scene Club in Ham Yard with a South African called Lionel Blake, and pop management with Rik Gunnell. It has often been reported that Ronan managed singer Georgie Fame.
This is incorrect - Gunnell managed him - but Ronan was very much involved too. He also played a part in the early career of The Animals.
At some point, probably during 1963, Ronan met an Australian music publisher called Allan Crawford. Crawford had been planning to launch an offshore radio station off the British coast for some years. Raising the necessary backing
for his Radio Atlanta was a slow process and he was still looking for investors. Crawford thought that Ronan's father might be interested and handed over copies of his plans. Ronan was fascinated. It is thought that O'Rahilly and
Crawford may have worked together on the project for a short while but Ronan quickly decided that he wanted to launch a station of his own. This he did - using Crawford's plans.
His friend Christopher Moore had been in the merchant navy so had some nautical experience. And more importantly, Christopher's friend Ian Ross had a rich father. While it had
taken Allan Crawford years to raise the money to launch his Radio Atlanta, it took Ronan no time at all to find the finance he needed. And while Crawford was methodically working round the legalities of how to take money out of the
country to buy his ship, Ronan dispatched Chris Moore with a suitcase full of bank notes to obtain their vessel, the mv Fredericia, a former Danish ferry.
The ship needed to be fitted out for her new role as a floating radio station and Aodogan O'Rahilly's port, Greenore, was an ideal place to do it. Ronan also offered the port to Allan Crawford for his ship, the mv Mi Amigo. The two
were moored side by side as the work continued but, with Ronan's family connections, it is not surprising that his ship was ready first. The Fredericia left Greenore towards the end of March 1964 and dropped anchor off Felixstowe on
Good Friday. Ronan's grandfather had lost his life in the Easter Uprising of 1916. Now he was to launch his own Easter rebellion. Radio Caroline started transmissions on Easter Saturday with the first two voices being Simon Dee (the
newly renamed Cyril Henty-Dodd) and Chris Moore. The station played records all day, every day. No one else was doing that in the UK in 1964.
Ronan O'Rahilly, left, and Allan Crawford. Photo courtesy of ‘Offshore Echo's’.
The origin of the station name has long been debated. Ronan has told the tale that it was named after Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the US President John F Kennedy. O'Rahilly was certainly a huge fan of the
Kennedys and spent many years working on an uncompleted film project about the family, but other theories have been suggested. The rival team at Radio Atlanta thought that the station was named after Caroline Maudling. The daughter
of a Tory politician, she was a friend of Ronan's at the time. Others think that it came from Jocelyn Stevens, one of Radio Caroline's backers. Stevens was the owner of Queen magazine. The magazine's
editor Beatrix Miller had drawn up a style sheet in which she described the young, female, good looking target reader. This fictitious woman had been given the name Caroline. Whatever the true reason, Radio Caroline was an immediate
hit. Although its early programmes, if listened to now, may sound somewhat unexciting, it was the only “all day music station” (an early strap-line) and it quickly won a massive audience. And it wasn't long before the
programmes improved too.
Allan Crawford's station Radio Atlanta joined Caroline off the east coast of England in May 1964. The two rivals battled it out for a while but it took time for advertising to arrive and money was tight, particularly for Atlanta.
In July 1964 they came to a deal. Instead of both stations targeting the south-east of England, one of them would head north. As Ronan's ship was the bigger and stronger, it was dispatched to an anchorage in the Irish Sea, off
the Isle of Man, to become Radio Caroline North while Radio Atlanta became Caroline South. Radio Caroline now had two joint Managing Directors - O'Rahilly and Crawford. They couldn't have been more different. Ronan was young, trendy
and full of ideas. Crawford was middle-aged and cautious. It was not a happy union and many people who worked in Caroline House at the time tell tales of in-fighting and rivalries between the two camps. The disc-jockeys sometimes got
caught in the cross-fire and this is probably best illustrated by how Caroline North, far away from the office politics, enjoyed a fairly stable line-up during this period while Caroline South had a constant turnover of staff.
Ultimately it was the younger man who won. At the end of 1965 Ronan took control. Allan Crawford and his Project Atlanta team were ousted. The Caroline board of directors were concerned that Ronan might need someone with business
experience to help run the station so a former banker, Barry Ainley, replaced Crawford as joint Managing Director. Unfortunately in January 1966 the Caroline South ship, mv Mi Amigo, lost her anchor and was washed up on the Essex coast.
The ship needed a major overhaul. There was also a big new transmitter to install at the same time. This all needed money and a new investor was required. Philip Solomon was the man. He bought a chunk of
Planet Productions, Radio Caroline's operating company, and effectively took control of the programmes. After battling Crawford, and winning, Ronan had now lost out to Solomon.
Radio Caroline continued to be a successful venture and, especially after the hiring of Canadian radio whizz-kids Terry Bate and Allan Slaight, a profitable one too but in August 1967 the British government legislated to
outlaw the pirates. All the other stations closed down. O'Rahilly was determined that Caroline would continue. As offshore radio was still legal in the Netherlands, he closed Caroline House in London and opened an office in Amsterdam.
Caroline South was now serviced from Holland while the north ship was supplied from the Republic of Ireland. The two stations managed to continue broadcasting until March 1968 when the Wijsmuller company, who supplied and crewed the
ships, impounded them for non-payment of bills. The ships were towed to Holland. Caroline had been silenced.
Ronan O'Rahilly with two of Caroline's top DJs, Tony Blackburn (left) and Johnnie Walker (right), at the Radio Academy's Celebration of Sixties Offshore Radio in
2007. Photo courtesy of Martin van der Ven.
Ronan O'Rahilly at the free radio rally in June 1970. Photo taken by Peter Ward and kindly provided by Jonathan Shirley.
Ronan went back to making movies. The first was his most successful: Girl On A Motorcycle (known in the USA as Naked Under Leather) which starred Alain Delon and Marianne Faithfull. He also started
planning Caroline Television, to be broadcast from an aeroplane circling the North Sea, but this never came to fruition. In late 1969 he was contacted by an American comedy troop based in San Francisco who had started making a film
called Gold. Unfortunately they had run out of money and it was as yet unfinished. Ronan got involved but in the meantime he also made an unexpected return to radio.
In 1970 the Swiss-owned Radio Northsea International had begun broadcasting in German and English from a ship anchored off the Dutch coast. Things had not gone smoothly and, to improve reception in the UK, the owners decided to
move their ship to the British coast. This had prompted the British Labour government to start jamming the signal. In the middle of this, a General Election was called. The station owners consulted Ronan. He suggested that RNI should
change its name to the better-known Radio Caroline and he would run a political campaign for them. Together with his old mate Simon Dee, he toured Home Counties marginal constituencies in a double-decker bus, arguing for free radio,
and a large demonstration took place in London in support of the station. In the first British election in which 18 year olds could vote there was an unexpected result. The Conservative Party won. Unfortunately they didn't stop the
jamming. The station changed its name back to Radio Northsea International, the ship returned to the Netherlands and Ronan went back to his other projects which included, the following month, a rock festival called Phun City held
near Worthing, Sussex, and organised - if that is the right word for such a famously chaotic event - by the underground newspaper International Times. Ronan supposedly filmed the festival although no footage has ever
Ronan's next film starred his friend George Lazenby. Entitled Universal Soldier, it featured a soundtrack provided by singer-songwriter Philip Goodhand-Tait. Sadly the film was a flop. Following Phun City, Ronan was now managing
an American rock band, the MC5, who had performed at the festival. He recorded some material with them and, separately, with a singer who had been heavily promoted on Radio Caroline, David McWilliams. Their tracks were incorporated into
the soundtrack of the now-completed Gold. This film finally saw the light of day in late 1972.
Ronan O'Rahilly in the seventies. Photo from ‘Caroline 319 - Into the 80's’.
Meanwhile the old Radio Caroline ships had come up for auction. They had been lying derelict since being impounded in 1968 and were in a dreadful state. A Dutch offshore radio fan called Gerard van Dam learnt of
their sale. He contacted Ronan and suggested Caroline could be brought back on air for just a few thousand pounds. Ronan thought it might be a good way to promote Gold and was persuaded. He found the funds to buy the former
Caroline South ship, mv Mi Amigo. Although the vessel was barely sea-worthy and the on-board conditions basic, Radio Caroline returned to the air from the Dutch coast at the end of 1972. In the sixties Caroline had enjoyed the backing
of large corporate investors. Now it was a more hand-to-mouth existence and money was scarce. However, with the help of an enthusiastic team and money from Belgian businessmen who bought airtime, it survived. It wasn't the same Caroline
that people remembered from before. In the sixties it had played the top pop singles of the day. Now it was “Europe's first and only album station”. In 1974 the Dutch Government followed the British and passed legislation
outlawing offshore radio. As before, the other stations closed down but Caroline continued. The anchor was raised and the ship returned to the English coast.
With Caroline now operating outside the law, Ronan had to lead a secretive life but somehow he managed to keep the station going. There were good times - such as the 18 month period when Caroline managed to operate a 24 hour a day
English-language service - and bad - like when the ship was raided by the police for broadcasting inside territorial waters - but it survived. At the end of 1978 it looked like Caroline might come to an end. The station
was off the air and, briefly, the ship was abandoned but it still came back. Then, in March 1980, the much-loved but decrepit Mi Amigo sank. Fortunately no lives were lost but it seemed it was all over for Radio Caroline.
It had been an incredible achievement to have kept it going for so long - especially bearing in mind that it had been illegal since 1967. Most people would now have been content to let it rest - but Ronan was not
like most people. He immediately started looking for a new ship, and someone to pay for it.
And, amazingly, he found both. The new ship, mv Ross Revenge, was bought and fitted out in Spain. She dropped anchor in the North Sea in August 1983. On 20th August, after 41 months of radio silence, Radio Caroline returned.
As in the seventies, Ronan had to keep a low profile, ducking and diving, wheeling and dealing, but through it all Caroline continued. In 1986 he confided to associates that since the station launched in 1964 he had
spent millions of pounds of other people's money on the station!
Ronan O'Rahilly. Photo kindly provided by George Hare.
As long as there was a Dutch sister station sharing the ship and hiring the airtime, there was enough cash to run Caroline but following a raid on the ship by the Dutch authorities in August 1989, the money supply dried up. It took
a supreme effort to keep the station going and, when a new Broadcasting Bill was introduced in Parliament, the writing was on the wall. On 5th November 1990 Radio Caroline closed down for the last time at sea. The ship remained at
anchor but a year later the Ross Revenge was washed onto the treacherous Goodwin Sands. The crew was rescued by RAF helicopter and the ship towed into Dover Harbour.
Even that wasn't the end for Radio Caroline - it still exists as a licensed, legal broadcaster on land - but it was the end of Ronan's involvement. It is hard to imagine anyone else having the determination, daring and sheer
bloody-mindedness to have kept the station afloat for so long. It can't have been easy, especially in the seventies and eighties. If you need to find cash investors, you may sometimes have to mix with people with shady backgrounds and
he undoubtedly had to do some dodgy deals. Bills sometimes weren't paid, people were ripped off, but somehow Ronan managed to use his charm and ‘gift of the gab’ to get away with it. Not everyone liked him. He has been
accused of being a con man, a chancer, but there are scores of people who knew Ronan well who loved the man. And millions who listened to Caroline over the years who owe him a massive debt of gratitude.
In 2013 Ronan was diagnosed as suffering from vascular dementia. For someone who had been so articulate and quick-witted, this was a sad fate. He returned to Ireland and spent the last years of his life in a nursing home in Carlingford,
near Dundalk. He died at 2.15pm on 20th April 2020, a month short of his eightieth birthday. He was one of a kind.
The tribute to Ronan O'Rahilly broadcast on Radio Caroline on the day he died, 20th April 2020 (duration 38 minutes 2 seconds)
Social media has been full of people remembering Ronan. Here are some of the comments we spotted on Facebook plus a few personal tributes sent directly to us:
Roger Day: “Just heard that Ronan O'Rahilly has died. The man who changed UK radio and let me follow my dream. What is really sad is that we won't be able to give him the send-off he deserves. But we will
when things get better. I hope he knows how much he was loved.”
Andy Archer: “Thank you for everything Ronan. RIP.”
Bud Ballou: “I was saddened to hear of Ronan's passing, although it was inevitable considering his condition. It brought back a flood of memories from my Radio Caroline days. Ronan was, to say the least, an
intriguing person, and one that I was glad to have known. He was a pioneer, a legend, and one that the UK radio industry owes a debt of gratitude. RIP, Ronan.”
Johnnie Walker: “Farewell to Radio Caroline founder Ronan O'Rahilly, the man who made the impossible possible and changed radio forever. Thanks Ronan for the incredible experience of being a Caroline deejay and to challenge
the Government in 1967. You were an amazing man.”
Johnny Lewis: “I've not said anything about the passing of Ronan up till now, just wanted to keep my thoughts to myself. It hit me hard being the person who broke the sad news on air on Radio Caroline
that Monday afternoon. It was the hardest thing I've had to do in over 40 years of broadcasting. The tribute programme was also something both Peter Moore and I did not want to get wrong. I had just 20 minutes from the time I was given
the news of Ronan's death to the time I went live on air. Ronan was an inspiration, a true leader, so passionate about Caroline, and a believer. He made me always feel very wanted and made me believe in myself. He changed my life for
the better at the age of 18 and said those words, I'm sure he's said to many, ‘you could be the next Tony Blackburn’ but hey I did not care, I was on the love of my life, Radio Caroline. That was 1978, now 42 years later,
thanks to Ronan, I've made a great career and life. It is all thanks to him. As Johnnie Walker said ‘Ronan made the impossible possible’. I for one have so much to thank this pioneer of radio in the UK for.”
Tony Blackburn: “So sorry to hear that Radio Caroline founder Ronan O'Rahilly has passed away. I owe everything I now have to the start that Radio Caroline gave me. R.I.P. Ronan.”
Paul McKenna: “I am very sad at the passing of my friend the great Ronan O'Rahilly, founder of Radio Caroline. He was such an important person in influencing world events. Radio Caroline wasn't just about
music - it was a freedom of speech movement. He helped to define modern popular culture and shaped the course of destiny with his extraordinary vision and fearlessness in the face of opposition. Ronan stood up to the establishment and
gave the world more democracy in the form of the spectacular free radio that he created. A personal inspiration and a dear friend, he is definitely someone who changed the world for the better. Rest in peace...”
Tony Prince: “Goodnight and God bless to my great friend Ronan O'Rahilly and thank you for freeing the music.”
Martin Fisher: “For any that hadn't heard ... sad news, the founder of Radio Caroline, Ronan O'Rahilly, passed away yesterday. The man I thank for giving me the chance to fulfil a dream.. an adventure on the North Sea and to
broadcast with Radio Caroline, and all that followed. RIP Ronan.”
Stevie Lane: “Absolutely the coolest and most influential person I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Words cannot describe the magnitude of his importance in the lives of all of us in the Caroline family and countless
listeners across the world. His achievement and legacy will live on in the history books forever, and our personal memories of this very special man will never fade.”
Kate Cary: “The fun we had in the Hague in 70's... I am devastated and hope somewhere up there you meet Chris Cary who I know would be a comfort to you. Sleep well Ronan and never erase all the memories you
have of Radio Caroline - thanks for everything, the music and all that madness!”
Nick Richards: “My first radio boss and a true visionary Ronan O'Rahilly has passed away ... but his dream lives on ....”
Martin Kayne: “My memory of Ronan is somewhat limited as I only met him once and that was aboard the MV Caroline on the day before the Marine Offences Act was extended to cover the Isle of Man. He quietly
convinced us that Radio Caroline International ‘the continuing voice of free radio’ was a stand well worth taking. I only wish I had kept some of the hundreds of letters from listeners who stated how overjoyed they were
with Radio Caroline defying the legislation and praising Ronan O'Rahilly for his brave decision. For me it was a wonderful 6 month fun-filled (and sometimes slightly dangerous) adventure. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
RIP Ronan, forever in my thoughts.”
Edwin Bollier: “Very sad Ronan O'Rahilly, a great pioneer in the offshore radio world, has left us. We remember the combination "Radio Nordsee International alias CAROLINE" during the British general election - great time.
Bye bye Ronan, best Erwin Meister & Edwin Bollier & Victor Pelli, MEBO Ltd Zurich, Switzerland.”
Dave Foster: “What a fantastic man. I'll never forget him. RIP Ronan.”
Shaun Tilley: “Sad to hear about Ronan, one of the first people I ever worked for on board Radio Caroline! He lived life his own inimitable way and leaves an incredible legacy behind!! RIP”
Dave Asher: “Sorry to hear about Ronan O'Rahilly's passing. The founder of Radio Caroline. He once rang my mum looking for me and was so mysterious on the phone she thought he was a hitman or a secret agent!
Often known by a series of other names ... even the ship was known as ‘the unit’ ... George Lazenby stopped being James Bond because Ronan told him to ... Call me Bobby Kennedy ... ‘don't look at me when I give you
the money ...’ Our world is poorer for his passing. RIP Ronan.”
Caroline Martin: “Sad to hear about the passing of Ronan O'Rahilly. Without him radio wouldn't be what it is today. Without him my dad wouldn't have had the passion for Radio Caroline he passed on to me and without him I'd
never have known about half the musical artists I have in my collection. A great man. RIP.”
Norman Barrington: “I am so sad to hear the news of Ronan passing away. It marks a special milestone in my own life. Having been part of the Caroline family 1972-1974, I saw him quite often during that
tumultuous yet magic time. He gave the go ahead to Mike Hagler and myself to have the Caroline free festival at Stonehenge, which was otherwise in doubt. It was held over the weekend of 21st June 1974. He attended the whole time. He
had a particular impact in my life through my time on Caroline but also more famous DJs from Caroline's first incarnation, and of course many musicians too. He touched the lives of millions of listeners, all simply by daring to be
different. My sadness is tempered by knowing Ronan had an amaaazing (his favourite word) life. Thank you Ronan.”
Keith Hampshire: “In 1966 this handsome man gave a young snotty-nosed kid from Calgary, Alberta a job as a deejay on his little rebel radio ship, Radio Caroline. Little did I realize at the time what an
impact we would be having on the British Isles & the World!! We all want to leave this planet a better place than when we found it, and Ronan O'Rahilly did that in spades. That little rebel radio ship not only changed the face of
broadcasting in Britain, but was greatly instrumental in ‘The British Invasion’! Finally, British musicians could get their music exposed to the general public & the rest of the world. His partner fired me twice for
not playing his records, but Ronan hired me back both times. This great man passed away today at 2PM British time. He has left a hole in my heart that may never heal. Thank you, Boss!!! You changed my life!!!”
Mark Sloane: “I am very sad to learn of Ronan's death, a really great man to whom we owe a huge debt of gratitude. What an honor to have worked on Radio Caroline North and South. Rest in peace Ronan and
you no longer have to answer to Knightsbridge Crown Court to the 98 charges of breaking the marine offences act.”
Tony Palmer: “I met Ronan a number of times and had several telephone calls from him in the late 1980's and early 1990's when I worked for his brainchild, Radio Caroline. Much has been written about this
maverick and eccentric man but I found him to be a thoughtful and charismatic person who would come out with outrageous ideas seemingly from nowhere. He had the same kind of ‘reality distortion field’ often attributed to
the late Steve Jobs of Apple. Ronan was one of life's eccentrics; he would come up with some utterly crackpot idea but, such was the power of his warmth, charm and personality, he would have you believing him - at least until he left
the room. Usually a couple of minutes later you would get a ‘hang on a minute’ thought and you would realise how bonkers what you had just been told actually was. Ronan had a soft half Irish / half American accent and
it became a running joke amongst Radio Caroline staff that if you heard the ‘Old Man’ start a sentence with ‘Hey, I've got this really great idea!’ you knew what followed was going to be challenging, if not
impractical, dangerous, or downright contrary to the established laws of physics - nevertheless, it would always be interesting. I recall that during one phone call he made to me Ronan suggested replacing the antenna system on the
Ross Revenge with a fully grown tree. He thought it would signal the station's support for environmental issues! The idea of using a tree as a radio antenna was of course impossible, impractical and about as left field as one could
imagine - typical Ronan then. In his later years he was crippled by vascular dementia and was moved into a care home in Ireland. Having lost my own father to dementia (albeit of a different type) I know how challenging caring for
someone with the condition can be. My thoughts are with his family in Ireland who have now lost the great, inspirational man, and a truly lovely bloke who changed the face of the British media forever.”
Mike Watts: “Unless you're my age you can't imagine the radio world before Ronan brought us Caroline. He changed everything! I enjoyed his company for the wit, eccentricity, and engaging personality and most
of all for inviting me to work as Caroline's engineer. That changed everything for me... Radiate in peace Ronan.”
Steve Conway: “No matter how much we knew it had to come one day, it is still a shock and a heartbreak. There was something about Ronan that bypassed your defences and got right inside your head. He gave me some wonderful
adventures, and some life lessons. RIP Ronan.”
Tony Gareth: “It was April 1983. Robin Ross who was working on Robbie Dale's Sunshine Radio in Dublin asked me if I wanted to be part of Ronan's return of Radio Caroline, 319mw, from the North Sea. Ronan
was so excited that he had secured the most perfect boat. It was a 300ft long Icelandic trawler. Just perfect for careful renovations to convert this baby into a floating radio ship. The Ross Revenge at that stage in very early 1983
was being kitted out with studio facilities and living quarters in the port of Bilbao, Spain. It would be piloted up through the Bay of Biscay to the wider Thames Estuary for its relaunch. They were good days. Not the easiest, but in
hindsight I'm so grateful for the chance to be there. I met Ronan on a few occasions. I thank him for giving me a break into UK radio. Without him and Robin Ross it probably wouldn't have ever happened. I would have just stayed here
at home. That said, I thank Ronan for the opportunity to work on an amazing radio ship, in the company of a bunch of the greatest, kindest, funniest most talented bunch of lads - some of those gentlemen and good friends are long gone
to the studios beyond. Radio far out to sea, when there's nowhere else to go for weeks and weeks, is a rare chance to realise that before and after your show that's all you live for: Just loving being on the radio, playing great music.
And as you once told me, music is forever timeless. You were right on there. Years later, we shared a long hug and a short chat when I met you in London, Ronan. I remember your belief in Radio Caroline back when I met you in Rose
Street, in Covent Garden, back in 1983. You took a chance on an Irish lad at a difficult time for Irish people living in England. But I always loved how you took chances. They always worked out. I remember meeting you again many years
later when sadly you no longer remembered me. It was so sad and poignant when I think of all you achieved. You were such a modest man, but so funny. But I will always remember you, my dear lost friend. Thank you, Ronan O'Rahilly. You
paved the way for truly great radio, so many great DJs, great stations, and great ideas. Rest well. Much love from all who will forever be grateful to you. Sail away now. It's all calm tonight.”
The Emperor Rosko recorded this tribute in his studio in California shortly before Ronan's death: