The programmes, the personalities, the politics – on and off-screen

The 1960s

Telefís Éireann went on the air on New Year’s Eve, 1961, and so began a new era in Irish broadcasting. The first person to address the new television audience was President Eamon de Valera, who said in his speech: “Never before was there in the hands of men an instrument so powerful to influence the thoughts and actions of the multitude.” The programmes for the evening included poetry read by Siobhán McKenna and Mícheál MacLiammóir, a look back at the preparations for the television service, and an hour of music and song featuring Jimmy O'Dea and Maureen Potter. The highlight was a live broadcast from the Gresham Hotel, Dublin, where cameras filmed the invited guests who dined and danced in the ballroom and the public who danced outside in the snow on O'Connell Street.

Charles Mitchel, who would become Ireland's most recognised newscaster, read his first news bulletin on the opening night of Telefís Éireann in 1961 and would continue until his retirement in 1984. He had been a Gate Theatre actor before his recruitment as newsreader.

The first issue of 'RTV Guide', RTÉ's original programme journal, appeared in December 1961. The first edition offered listings of Radio Éireann programmes and all BBC television and radio listings. It also carried messages from the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Michael Hilliard, and Roibeard Ó Faracháin, the Controller of Programmes at Radio Éireann. According to the first editorial: “This magazine fitly appears just as the twin arms of sound and vision prepare together to make our broadcasting service more topical, wide-ranging and enjoyable than ever before”.

In January 1962 the first episode aired of Radharc, a religious and social documentary series produced by the Radharc independent production company, which had been set up by Father Joe Dunn with clerical staff. The programme became RTÉ's longest-running independent production. Between 1961 and 1996 the Radharc team would produce over 400 films from Ireland and around the world. Radharc means "view" or "vision", and the films often dealt with issues relating to peace and justice, both at home and abroad.

The first broadcast of The Late Late Show in July 1962 was presented by Gay Byrne who continued as presenter until 1999. On that first show, the guests were Count Cyril McCormack, Ken Gray, George Desmond Hodnett and Harry Thuillier. ‘The Late Late Show’ was originally intended as a summer "filler" but proved so successful with the public that it became part of the regular schedule. The idea for the programme came from the show's producer, Tom McGrath, who wanted to present an Irish version of the American talk show ‘The Tonight Show’. “Spontaneous talk, idle chatter, controversy, all unexpected, all unrehearsed”’ said the RTV Guide in its preview of the new show.

Telefís Éireann staff moved to Montrose in April 1962 following completion of two new studios, having been in temporary accommodation in Dublin's city centre.

In December 1962 the first Irish Television Awards sponsored by Jacobs Ltd were held. The event became known as the Jacobs' Awards and ran until the late 1970s.

The visit by US president John F Kennedy to Ireland was televised in 1963. Kennedy wanted all public engagements on his Irish trip to be broadcast live and it was insisted that his itinerary remain secret until shortly before he arrived. This request for saturation coverage would have been impossible without pooling the resources of neighbouring broadcasters. RTÉ enlisted the help of BBC, UTV and Welsh stations. Kennedy’s visit and the fact that it was available to the whole nation through television made an enormous impact.

October 1963 marked the first broadcast of Amuigh Faoin Spéir on Telefís Éireann, a wildlife programme devised by Éamon de Buitléar and Gerrit Van Gelderen.

The pilot episode of Tolka Row, the urban Telefís Éireann drama serial by Maura Laverty, aired in January 1964. The Riordans, Ireland's first rural soap opera began in January 1965. The series was ground-breaking in that it was shot using outside broadcast cameras on a real farm, an innovation that would be copied by other broadcasters around the world. The actual farm was Flat House in Dunboyne, County Meath, owned by Mr William Connolly. The farm house and yard became Tom Riordan's farm, while two of the rooms in the Connolly farmhouse were made into "sets" for the priests’ parlour and the Riordans' kitchen.

Ireland entered the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time in March 1965 with 'I'm Walking the Streets in the Rain', performed by Butch Moore and composed by Teresa Conlon, George Prendergast and Joe Harrison. The show was hosted in Naples.

In 1966 Garda Patrol first started airing requests for the public's help in solving crimes. The weekly broadcast lasted 15 minutes and was on air until 1992 when it was replaced by ‘Crimeline’. This format was a monthly programme with appeals for the public’s assistance along with reconstructions of crimes. ‘Crimeline’ was in turn replaced by ‘Crimecall’ in 2004.

RTÉ's best-remembered children's programme Wanderly Wagon began broadcasting in 1967 and ran until 1982. Three adults travelled in a magical, horse-drawn caravan with puppets Judge, the dog; Mr Crow, who lived in the cuckoo clock; and Foxy, who lived in a barrel fixed to the outside of the wagon. Eugene Lambert played O'Brien, a jovial character who loved sweets; Nora O'Mahony starred as Godmother; and Bill Golding was Rory, the swashbuckling, handsome hero. All of the Lambert children also worked on the show. O’Brien and Judge later went to on to star in the Safe Cross Code ad, while ‘Wanderly Wagon’ led to the spin-off ‘Fortycoats & Co’, starring Fran Dempsey.

In February 1969 the RTÉ office in Belfast opened, and in the years that followed RTÉ provided extensive coverage of events in Northern Ireland, not only to the Irish viewing public but to broadcasting organisations and agencies in Europe and the United States.

Live relays from An tOireachtas in the Mansion House in 1969 marked the 50th anniversary of the first Dáil, which also sat in the Mansion House.