He decided to take early retirement five years ago following 38 years as Ireland’s most prolific newsman. But Charlie Bird has not taken up any new hobby, or — perish the thought — golf.
“I will never! The idea of golf! The only activity I have taken up, and he’s here behind me at the moment, is my dog Tiger.”
The young cockapoo arrived into the Bird household following some gentle persuasion from his new wife, Claire Mould, who he married in a humanist ceremony in Dublin 18 months ago.
“I hated dogs. I could not stand them, and my wife Claire campaigned for so long because she was a dog person and she wanted a dog. In the end I gave in. I got him this time last year, and now I love this animal, I just love him to bits. He makes me so happy. I understand for the first time, I really do, about dogs.”
Though Bird has kept himself busy in recent years — he regularly does talks and released his book on Ireland’s gay marriage referendum, A Day in May, last year — he enjoys his downtime, walking Tiger in the hills, too.
This week he returns to our screens with a different venture that gets to the heart of some of Ireland’s most memorable stories. After The Headlines sees Bird return to some major news stories, exploring with those involved what happened when the cameras stopped rolling and the media spotlight moved on.
The first episode, ‘Lost at Sea’, is a poignant reminder of the tragic events of the evening of January 10, 2007, when two trawlers, the Pere Charles and the HoneyDew II were lost within hours of each other, along with seven fisherman whose bodies were never recovered.
“I think the whole country remembers it,” says Bird now. “We’ve gone back to meet some of the families of those who’ve lost their lives in that tragedy. The Pere Charles had a crew of five and none of the bodies were ever recovered. It was based out of Dunmore East and the HoneyDew II was based out of Kinsale. In the case of the HoneyDew II, there were two survivors but the skipper and one of his crew were lost. The skipper who died was Ger Bohan from Kinsale.”
Several conversations were had with the Bohan family about whether they’d want to talk about their tragic loss.
“Mary Bohan [wife], wasn’t certain that she even wanted to do the interview, but we met her and spoke to her, and then she said she’d go off and talk to her children. They agreed to do it. She’s reared four children on her own since the loss of her husband, she’s just remarkable.”
Two further episodes return to the Stardust fire disaster and the Frank McBrearty case in Donegal, which led to a massive compensation payout following garda harassment and led largely to the establishment of the Morris Tribunal.
“In a way, the whole basis of the programmes are to go back and to visit stories, but it’s not to investigate what happened. We’re just going back to meet the families. This is not about trying to find out what happened, this is just a human-interest story, going back to the people. I’m the conduit for the interviews. I’m just sitting down with them.”
The Stardust is the one story where Bird has a long a connection to what happened. “I wasn’t covering the trawler disaster, or the McBrearty story in Donegal, but I did cover the Stardust fire. It was 48 young people, well over 100 injured with burns. At the time, it transfixed the whole of Ireland, in fact the whole of the world, it was so enormous. You think about 48 young people from one part of Dublin and what it must have been like.
“They have gone through hell, and they feel they haven’t got justice. They believe that nobody has been held properly accountable for what happened in the Stardust that night.”
The journalist is extremely proud of the series, which he believes in one of the best projects he’s ever been associated with. And given how many of us now consume news, blanket covering a story through various medias before swiftly moving to the next piece of breaking news, he feels it’s timely.
“It’s been interesting in a sense because we filmed throughout the whole summer, so it’s not instant news. For me it was a brilliant experience. I’ve loved it and I’ve loved going back, meeting people and sitting down with them, connecting with them. For any journalist that’s just nice to feel. I haven’t been rushing, I haven’t been pushing a microphone under somebody’s nose, doing that instant thing. This has taken time and I think that it shows.”
Yet for almost four decades, Bird was one of RTE’s best-known faces. What prompted him to step down and away from the cut and thrust of live news? The change must have been difficult initially.
“Difficult probably isn’t the word I would use, because I chose to go. I felt that I had done everything I wanted to do in news. I’d worked in RTÉ for 38 years. It’s a long, long time, and I worked as a frontline reporter over 30 years. I also believe, and I mean this sincerely, I believe there’s a time for everybody to move on. Sometimes when we start out in journalism, we feel we’re the only people who can do stories.
“The truth is we’re not, and other people come along and they good jobs as well. Martina Fitzgerald and all the others, it’s just brilliant to see people coming on, taking their opportunities.”
Still, he remains heavily engaged with developments in Irish life, and says news is still part of his DNA. “The skill of journalism in a way is coming back into its own. I think we’re learning something from America. The New York Times, the Washington Post, because of Donald Trump, journalism in America has been revived, in a way. And also here, even in the last couple of weeks, it’s been good journalism and also some good political probing by people.
“I read Mick Clifford’s book in one sitting a couple of months ago and it’s the best piece of journalism, the best piece of writing, that I have seen in years.”
But there is one thing, he adds, that he really misses about life in Montrose.
“The one thing I would say is I miss my colleagues. When you work in a place for so long, you make… they’re not just your friends, they’re part of your life. Like anybody leaving a place, you are to a certain extent, cut off. You have to give in your pass.”
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