In April 1978 one of the most infamous instances in Dublin’s radio history occurred when a new station, Big D Radio, was formed by mutinous Radio Dublin staff whilst Éamonn Cooke, the station owner, was on holiday.
Everything about the incident is quite remarkable, made all the more so by the fact that so much of it was played out in the media.
Having taken himself off on a week-long holiday to Spain courtesy of a freebie offered by one of Radio Dublin’s advertisers, Cooke returned to a radio station left in ruins.
He had left Dublin on Sunday April 2nd. The following day Radio Dublin – The Big D was now identifying exclusively as ‘The Big D’ and arrangements were in place to set up a new station in different premises.
On the Tuesday it was announced that the station was no longer in the care of Cooke.
In the days before mobile phones and internet access, Cooke was unaware of developments playing out back in Dublin.
Cooke was met at the airport on his return on Sunday July 9th by James Dillon and Gerry Campbell, who explained the situation to him.
Front page Sunday World headlines of a mutiny within the station also made him aware of what had happened and as he made his way to the Radio Dublin studios, which were situated in his home at Sarsfield Road, Inchicore in Dublin 8, the only station he could find on the air was ARD.
On his arrival in Inchicore he was met with a scene of devastation and chaos. The vast majority of the station’s personnel had left, claiming they were unhappy with his management, unhappy with their levels of pay. and particularly unhappy about some extremely serious allegations that were being made against Cooke.
Radio Dublin had been ripped apart and was off the air. The transmitter was destroyed. Cooke claimed sabotage. The departing staff say they had intended to keep Radio Dublin on air until Cooke returned but the transmitter had burnt out early on the morning of his return.
With the help of one or two of the remaining staff, Radio Dublin returned to the air on low power on the Sunday evening.
The new station, Big D Radio, arrived on air from studios at Chapel Lane in the city centre, in the early hours of Monday morning.
More newspaper coverage was to follow, including these front-page stories the following day.
From this point, as you follow the story through the newspapers and recordings, it is exactly how it all unfolded for the general public back then.
NEWSPAPERS APRIL 10th 1978
On the Friday, Cooke went to air with this astonishing piece of radio
Radio Dublin – Éamonn Cooke – April 14th at 1pm
The Sunday Press visited the new station
Click on the heading to open.
It seemed like the whole of Dublin were tuned to Radio Dublin on the Sunday
Radio Dublin – Éamonn Cooke and DJ Sylvie – April 16th at 1.30pm
Monday’s Irish Press reported Cooke’s News from the day before
Click on the heading to open.
Another Dublin pirate Capitol Radio gave Big D a chance to tell their side of the story – unfortunately, this is all that survives of the intervew.
Capitol Radio News Report – Alan Russell interview with James Dillon of Big D
Looking back it’s hard to deny, given what we now know to be the truth, that Cooke played a blinder.
By putting the abuse allegations front and centre of his broadcasts he made it appear that he was the victim, that if he was guilty surely he’d be behind bars.
They say that predators choose their victims carefully, he obviously banked on the fact that the young girl whom he’d molested would not come out into the open.
It took her a long time to tell her story but it can now be read in the book on the right. It is a harrowing read.
To get the Radio Dublin ‘The Big D’ story from the other side this June 19th 2016 Irish Independent interview by Kim Bielenberg with James Dillon is a good place to finish.
‘The rampant paedophile hidden in plain sight’
By the early months of 1978, eight years before the disappearance of Philip Cairns, ‘Captain’ Eamon Cooke was the acknowledged king of pirate radio in Dublin.
As teenagers in the 70s, we were starved of pop music on Irish radio, and Radio Dublin and other pirate stations were our only alternative to the stodgy middle-aged fare on RTÉ.
“It was seen as a David and Goliath battle at the time between the pirates and the authorities, and the evening papers and young people were supporting the pirates,” Dave Fanning, who worked at Radio Dublin for a short time, tells Review.
But already by April of 1978, Cooke was a rampant paedophile hidden in plain sight, whose story has striking similarities to that of Jimmy Savile – himself a visitor to the station, according to Hot Press this week.
Young girls and teenagers were frequent visitors to the station at its ramshackle premises in Cooke’s home in Inchicore – and an incident that month should have finished him off.
James Dillon was an afternoon presenter on Radio Dublin at the time and also sold advertising for the station.
This week, Dillon recalled how he was told by another staff member that Cooke had molested a child.
A young girl who lived near the Radio Dublin studios told an older friend that Cooke was “doing things to her” – and this was relayed to staff. As Dillon recalled in an interview on East Coast FM: “The suggestion was that it was of a sexual nature. I was shocked and I didn’t know what to do.”
Dillon organised for the older girl to record her friend as she talked about the incidents involving Cooke in order to verify the claim.
When he listened to the tape confirming what had been said, Dillon decided to act and called together the staff.
Dillon then instigated the famous pirate mutiny that was reported on in the press at the time, including the claims that Cooke had abused children.
When Cooke went on holiday to Spain, he returned to find that Radio Dublin had been shut down, and almost the entire staff had jumped ship to a new rival known as Big D.
“I went and met him at the airport and told him that I believed that he had interfered with one of the children, and that he had brought the station into disrepute,” Dillon said.
Using his technical prowess, Cooke managed to get his station back on air at his home, and went live on air to deny the allegations.
A report in Magill magazine, which was published by Vincent Browne, had a tone of scepticism about the reports of child abuse.
As the magazine put it: “They (the defecting staff) allege that the reason for their going was the discovery that Mr Cooke had been molesting children at his home in Sarsfield Terrace. They freely acknowledge that their sole source for this allegation is a 10-year-old girl, whom they are reluctant to identify, even on a confidential basis, to the press.
“They fail to explain how Mr Cooke or anyone else could have enjoyed the privacy in his tiny home, thronged with Radio Dublin employees and fans throughout the day and most of the night, to engage in such activities.”
According to an account this week on broadsheet.ie, the recording of the girl talking about her abuse was given to the parish priest, and her parents were informed. On advice from the priest and two doctors, the matter was not taken further.
So, already almost four decades ago, claims about Cooke’s paedophile activities were already widely known and in the public domain.
It was to take almost three decades before Cooke was finally convicted for sexually assaulting young girls at his home and sentenced to 10 years in jail.
He was found guilty of 42 charges of sexual assault at the Central Criminal Court in 2007 following a 16-day trial during which it was revealed his victims named him “the Cookie monster”.
“Eamon Cooke is a sexual predator motivated by his desire for small children and that is what he is and that is what he always will be,” one of his victims said in her victim impact statement to the court. One has to question why it took so long for Cooke to be caught, and one also wonders what might have been prevented if authorities had been more alert to the dangers of child abuse at the time.
The question of how Cooke slipped through the net will be all the more pressing if the claims that he killed Philip Cairns in the autumn of 1986 turn out to be true.
An apparent breakthrough in Philip’s case came last month when a woman told investigators that Cooke had knocked the schoolboy unconscious at the Radio Dublin studios after hitting him with a weapon.
The witness, who was nine years old at the time of the incident, said she saw the boy bleeding and unconscious on the floor but then fainted.
When she awoke she was being driven away by Cooke and there was no sign of the boy she believed to be Philip.
In its 1978 article about pirate radio in Dublin, Magill described Cooke as the “Godfather” of pirate radio in Dublin – “an innocuous, quietly spoken IRA man”.
He had been a radio and TV repairs man and he started transmitting radio signals in the late 60s, largely as a hobby. He built his own transmitters from spare parts, learning the technicalities as he went along. Initially, he broadcast for a few hours on Sunday afternoons and his DJ at the time was a local butcher, but by 1978, Radio Dublin had a built a mass audience.
Dave Fanning, who had left the station by the time the abuse allegations were made and knew nothing about them, remembers the enthusiasm for pirate radio at the time.
“There was very little competition for the pirates, with hardly any pop music on RTÉ, and there was no internet and computer games – so it was a big deal,” he says.
Fanning says of Cooke: “He was eccentric and slightly odd, but I didn’t really have any dealings with him.”
He may have been quietly spoken, but contrary to the image given by Magill, Cooke was far from being innocuous.
As well as the eventual prosecutions for child abuse, the Captain had a string of other convictions over his lifetime.
As a 15-year-old schoolboy, he is thought to have been prosecuted for a bomb attack on the O’Connell Monument at Glasnevin Cemetery. He was reported to have bought the ingredients for explosives in local chemist shops, and was given 15 months’ probation. Five years later in 1957, when he was working as a clerk and living in Glasnevin, he was sentenced to five years in prison after he fired six shots from a revolver at gardaí at a garage in Bray, Co Wicklow.
During his time running Radio Dublin, Cooke showed a similar penchant for violence and was prosecuted for the 1984 petrol bombing of the home of John Paul O’Toole on South Circular Road.
O’Toole, a former Radio Dublin staff member, had been spotted in the company of Cooke’s ex-girlfriend. Cooke and his accomplices firebombed the house in order to intimidate him, a court hearing was told, and he was given a four-year suspended sentence.
James Dillon recalled this week how at the time of the defections from Radio Dublin, Cooke would intimidate young staff by having them followed.
Just days before his death earlier this month at the age of 79, gardaí were reported to have questioned Cooke at a Dublin hospice about the disappearance of Philip Cairns.
We already know from the child abuse prosecutions that Cooke lived up to his reputation as the “Cookie Monster”. Depending on the results of the next stage of the investigation, we may soon see just how sinister Eamon Cooke was.