Death of a broadcasting legend who loved the west

The first time I ever met with Jim Fahy, the legendary RTE Western Correspondent, I was on the set of the RTE Fair City soap opera programme in Donnybrook. It was way back in 1995. A cub reporter, I was up in Dublin at the time for what was called a trial weekend of TV news production, part of a two- or three-stage process to try and get an actual job in RTE News.

  Our task was to go out with a camera crew on a sort of a ‘mock story’ which was to be filmed some place around the campus in Montrose. We were to show what we could do in the generation of the plot for the story, the filming of its detail, interviews with the various key ‘mock’ contributors, and the editing process that would follow. We were told to come back in an hour with a decent showreel for our efforts – albeit with content that the former President of the United States might accurately call ‘fake news’.

  None other than Jim Fahy was called in that weekend to assist the juniors in the training workshops. Throughout the morning he sat in the classroom surroundings with us in a very casual and carefree style, only rarely showing any form of animation or energy for what was going on in the theory section of our training day.

  An hour later it was a very different story when the ‘practical’ session began. We made our way firstly as a group in the company of the grey-haired old fox down from the newsroom to the set of the Fair City show at the back of the complex in RTE. There, we prepared to put our plot in place for the story to be shot just outside the façade of McCoy’s fictional public house. The ‘story’ we were to shoot was a contrived protest that was to be filmed…and would involve a group of local residents allegedly opposed to the development of a new crèche in the area.

  Now the vastly experienced Western Correspondent soon shot into action. Jim quickly organised the camera crew and the cub reporters with their tasks and within minutes the camera was rolling. In 1995 this was a very tame and very green young reporter from the midlands who was behind the camera – in quite a nervous state. In contrast, Fahy, the veteran, was full of high octane energy and took over the set like a frenzied director on a Hollywood film shoot. The man was running around the street, buzzing with ideas and suggestions for both the reporter and the cameraman, and within a few minutes I was settled down to carry out a set-up interview with a man who was supposed to be the key promoter behind the new creche development.

  As the camera rolled, this journalist was asking a few tame enough questions in front of the ‘pub’ – but little did I know that the Western Correspondent had more drama in mind for the background to the interview, suddenly emerging into the corner of the screen shouting and roaring at the interviewee in front of me.

  “Get out of our town!” Fahy yelled repeatedly – waving a rolled-up newspaper at the interviewee and then running up and down repeatedly towards our camera, and even taking a swipe at the cameraman and the interviewee who was in front of it (with his folded-up paper).

  The scene in front of me had now turned into one of anarchy. Fahy was the master in churning up both drama and action on the set. It is fair to say that as a rookie reporter, this young journalist was left speechless by it all. I was certainly given a baptism of fire on TV news and filming – thanks to the great master from the west. He was such a powerful character – and full of life and mischief too!

  Jim Fahy was reared in the east Galway village of Kilrickle and always said he originally wanted to be a pilot, but his application to Aer Lingus was turned down on eyesight grounds. In fact his natural calling was journalism, and in 1965 he was taken on by Jarlath Burke, then editor of the Tuam Herald, the start of what was going to be an accomplished career as a storyteller and bard with RTE.

  In the early days in the Herald Jim developed a successful social diary called ‘Nitescene’. He left the Herald in March 1974 to take up the position of RTE’s Western Correspondent, a post he held until his retirement in December 2011. He was RTE’s longest serving regional correspondent and it was there he put his own personal stamp on journalism with a style that won him award after award, year after year, over the next 40 years.

  These were of course non-digital days of radio and TV, and Fahy travelled around with a big and cumbersome reel to reel tape recorder in the car to record what was to be a fantastic series called ‘Looking West’ on RTE Radio One. In over 450 radio programmes, Jim brought the nation the unique stories of the diverse lives of storytellers and musicians and wise old men and women and characters in remote locations all over Galway, Mayo and Roscommon. My favourite was a wonderful exchange in the kitchen of an elderly lady in the heart of the Aran Islands. Jim was in full flow with the questions and the interviewee was responding in equally descriptive terms in the English language when suddenly the door of the kitchen opening in the background was to be heard on air. In the midst of her answer, the Bean an Tí was clearly being greeted by the family pet who was to be heard attempting to jump up and meet her as she tried to complete her interview. Then came the most delightful moment of radio broadcasting gold.

  “Suigh síos Tadgh” said the woman in the middle of her answer, “suigh síos” – obviously speaking to the dog in the heart of the kitchen and ignoring her interrogator with the RTE mic – but of course the master that was Jim Fahy simply left this magical response in place in the recording and carried on with his own questions. It was the sort of broadcasting style he was to make famous and one that made for such naturally authentic radio. I thought it was a beautiful moment.

  The Jim Fahy TV showreel was equally impressive in later years. Memorable reports included the famous exchange with the late Monsignor James Horan standing by the bulldozers in what turned out to be a runway in a Mayo bog in 1981. When Jim asked him what he was up to, Monsignor Horan said he was “building an airport” but hoped “the Department of Transport doesn’t hear about it!”

  Fahy’s reign on the highways and byways of the west was a fiercely competitive one too. He ‘hunted’ the big stories week after week and told the nation of every development in Derrada Wood, Ballinamore as the army searched for businessman Don Tidey, who had been kidnapped by the Provisional IRA in 1983. He covered the murders carried out by Brendan O’Donnell in Clare and Galway, and later developed a taste for radio documentaries when he made a series of interviews with producer Dick Warner, interviewing Mother Teresa in Calcutta in 1976. He subsequently won dozens of awards at home, and also at international festivals for his memorable television documentaries with producer Caroline Bleahan from Ballinasloe.

  The documentaries profiled the role of Irish aid workers in far-flung corners of the world such as Belarus, Haiti and Somalia, Jim fulfilling a lifelong dream to travel to the island of New Ireland off Papua New Guinea.

  Jim Fahy died at the age of 75 on Friday night last following a short illness. He lived in Gardenfield in Tuam. He was a superb colleague. We all extend deepest sympathy to his wife Christina (nee O’Reilly), their children Shane and Aideen, grandchildren, extended family and a long line of friends. We will not see his likes again. May he rest in peace.