Obituary: Joe Barry, former RTÉ director-general who stewarded transition to a 24-hour model and presided over Ireland’s Eurovision heyday
Former director-general of Raidió Teilifís Éireann Joe Barry, who has died aged 90, was a highly significant figure in Irish broadcasting who steered RTÉ through some challenging times.
uring his five-year term as DG, from 1992, RTÉ hosted the Eurovision Song Contest four times, in 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1997.
The 1994 contest included, with his encouragement, an interval performance of Riverdance, which soon became a major part of Ireland’s cultural heritage.
He also oversaw the launch of Teilifís na Gaeilge (now TG4) in October 1996 as well as RTÉ’s online services in the same year and the opening of new studios on Father Mathew Quay in Cork city the previous December.
Barry laid the groundwork for regional studio expansion and helped RTÉ’s services in their transition to the 24-hour model that allowed it to compete with international services coming to Ireland at that time.
In a eulogy at Barry’s funeral, his eldest son, John, recalled how the family celebrated their father’s 90th birthday in April: “We’re so grateful to have had him for so long.”
He said his father’s work as an outside broadcaster had suited him well, and ranged from covering Olympic Games and All-Ireland finals to visits to Ireland by Pope John Paul II and US presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Barry enjoyed his time as director- general, although there were some anxious moments — for example, when Gay Byrne interviewed Annie Murphy on the Late Late Show in April 1993 about her relationship with Bishop Eamonn Casey.
It was widely criticised for what people saw as a patronising tone on Byrne’s part. Meanwhile, Gerry Adams’s appearance on the programme in 1994 was his first TV interview after the Section 31 broadcasting ban on Provisional Sinn Féin was lifted.
Barry was “deeply proud” of having produced, for many years and all over the country, the bilingual TV series Trom agus Éadrom with his friend and fellow Corkman, the late Liam Ó Murchú. He was also involved in the creation of the series Nationwide, which reflected his ambition to create “a news programme that would go out almost every day that was only going to give good news and make people feel good and that would happen all over the country”.
Denis Joseph Barry — but always known as Joe — was born on April 18, 1932 in the west Cork town of Dunmanway. His father, Eugene, was a professional tailor while his mother, Catherine, came from a farming family, and they lived with their four children on Castle Street in the town.
Barry’s father died when Joe was only four, although a modest fund had already been set aside for his education.
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He eventually left school at 16 or 17 and played an important role as a family breadwinner along with his elder sister, Sheila, who became a nurse in Cork.
Young Barry got a job as a technician in Cork in 1956 with the Department of Posts and Telegraphs (later absorbed into the Department of Communications, in 1984), which oversaw Radio Éireann at the time and he transferred later to Dublin.
The radio service was transferred in 1960 to a separate broadcasting authority that would also became responsible for the new television service and later became known as Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ).
Barry developed a role as an engineer, specialising in outside broadcasts. He was immensely proud of his skills in resolving the difficult problems that arose in that area.
Having served as Head of Outside Broadcasting, he was appointed director-general of the station in 1992, a post he held until he reached the retirement age of 65 in 1997.
In her book, Inside RTÉ: A Memoir (2014), former radio and TV producer Betty Purcell recalls how, in 1995, having been elected as a staff representative on the RTÉ Authority, she set about fulfilling a promise to issue a monthly newsletter to colleagues.
Barry initially opposed the idea on the grounds of confidentiality, but eventually conceded on condition the document could be checked in advance to ensure no commercial information appeared that might benefit rival broadcasters.
Another member of the authority at the time was Connemara film-maker Bob Quinn, who pressed very hard for a total ban on advertising and sponsorship during children’s programmes.
Barry responded that an outright ban would cost €4m and 50 jobs would be lost, but he came up with a detailed set of restrictions himself, including limits on the timing and frequency of commercial breaks as well as the removal of sponsorship.
In a tribute on RIP.ie, broadcasters Bryan Dobson and Sean O’Rourke wrote: “Joe Barry showed great corporate humanity and generosity in the aftermath of South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 when Baldwin Freeman, who had been RTÉ’s driver and fixer during those historic days, was murdered in Johannesburg.”
A Baldwin Freeman Fund, including quiz nights, was established in RTÉ for his dependants, and Barry ensured the station matched any funds raised.
In retirement, he was appointed to the RTÉ Authority in 2000 by then Minister for the Arts Síle de Valera and served for four years, during which he became chairperson.
He was also asked to sit on the board of the National Gallery of Ireland, which he found enjoyable.
On the personal front, he and his wife, Aileen (née McGahey), had a family of four children — John, David and Brian, and a girl, Linda, whose death in San Francisco two years ago was a cause of great sadness.
In a statement the day after his passing, President Michael D Higgins said: “As Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, I had the privilege of regularly engaging with Joe and greatly valued his enormous contribution over those years, which had so many highlights that included the hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest, setting up the Irish Film Board and the launching of RTÉ radio’s 24-hour service in 1999 and Lyric FM.
“His invaluable stewardship of the establishment of TG4, then Teilifís na Gaeilge, in Baile na hAbhann in 1994 was a seminal moment in Irish public broadcasting and brought a new energy, respect and creativity to the Irish language as well as creating employment for a whole new generation of Irish speakers.”
In a statement after his passing, current RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes said: “While I didn’t know Joe personally, I was aware of his legacy in driving greater levels of regional representation and employment by RTÉ, his tenacity in transitioning our services to the 24-hour model that we know today and his passion for strong national public service broadcasting, particularly in the face of increasing competition.”
Joe Barry died peacefully on July 6 at the Blackrock Clinic in south Dublin. Predeceased by his daughter, Linda, he is survived by his wife and sons, daughters-in-law Maureen and Deborah, his nine grandsons, brother Billy, sister Sheila, nieces, nephews, extended family and friends.
His funeral mass took place on Tuesday morning in the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, Foxrock, followed by cremation in Mount Jerome. A video recording of the mass was made available at www.churchservices.tv/foxrock.
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