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Bird reported on biggest stories during 40-year career

One of Ireland’s best-known journalists Charlie Bird has died at the age of 74 after a public battle with motor neurone disease.

One of RTÉ’s most renowned news correspondents, Charlie Bird reported on some of the biggest stories in Ireland and internationally during his 40-year career with the national broadcaster including the Stardust fire, the National Irish Bank tax avoidance scandal, the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, and the 2004 Indian ocean tsunami.

He also became the Provisional IRA’s sole media contact, often the first to break the news of the many twists and turns in the Northern Ireland peace process.

After he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND) in October 2021, he documented his physical decline and fear of facing death in a series of social media posts; radio, television and newspaper interviews; and through his Croagh Patrick ‘Climb with Charlie’ campaign.

Born in 1949, Charlie Brown Bird grew up in Sandymount and Goatstown in south Dublin.

In the 1960s and 70s he dabbled in a number of left-wing political movements before joining RTÉ in 1972 to work as a researcher.

When he transferred to the RTÉ newsroom he became known for his dogged pursuit of the biggest and most significant stories. His former colleague and life-long friend Joe O’Brien often recalled how as a young journalist he would turn up on time for his reporting shift only to discover that Charlie Bird had arrived in an hour earlier to try ensure he had the best chance of being assigned to the top story of the day.

Charlie Bird as a cub reporter in 1980
Charlie Bird as a young reporter in 1980

One of his earliest assignments was the Stardust fire in Artane in Dublin in 1981 when 48 young people died in the ballroom blaze.

His voice is attached to all of the archive footage of the time, the image of him standing in the charred remains of the nightclub endures and the interview he did with one of the survivors in their hospital bed remains an astonishing piece of television journalism.

In 1984, he was sent sent to report on the arrest and imprisonment of Fr Niall O’ Brien, an Irish Columban Missionary priest falsely accused and detained in the Philippines on multiple murder charges.

In 1998, Charlie Bird, along with his colleague and friend George Lee, uncovered a tax evasion and overcharging scandal at National Irish Bank which led to the demise of NIB and changes in bank regulation in Ireland. The investigation led to a long court battle with the Fianna Fáil TD Beverly Cooper Flynn which the pair eventually won.

In the 1990s Charlie Bird was at the forefront of the reporting of the Northern Ireland peace process when, from 1993 onwards the Provisional IRA chose him as their primary media contact in the Republic. He broke the news of the end of the IRA ceasefire just before a bomb at Canary Wharf exploded in London, killing two men and causing millions of pounds worth of damage.

He was reporting from Colombia in South America for RTÉ News when 9/11 happened. He rushed to Mexico and walked over the border to the US before racing to New York to cover the story. He later travelled to the Middle East to cover the war in Iraq and other conflicts in the region.

In 2006 he fronted a news series about deaths and injuries on Irish roads. The award-winning reports shone a spotlight on rising road deaths and helped instigate legislative change in the area.

Charlie Bird
Charlie Bird reported on some of the biggest stories in Ireland and internationally during his career

After years as Chief News correspondent, in 2009 Charlie Bird surprised many when he applied for and was appointed RTÉ’s Washington Correspondent.

He reported on the re-election of Barack Obama but one of his most memorable dispatches from the US was when he tracked down the former Anglo Irish Bank Chief David Drumm at his new home in Boston after the bank collapsed. Peeping through the letterbox, Charlie asked the former banker why he was hiding and Drumm could be heard telling Charlie to go away.

However Charlie Bird cut his time short in America after admitting in an RTÉ documentary about his time there that he found the experience of reporting from the US isolating and lonely.

He returned to Ireland in 2010 and made a number of documentaries for RTÉ which brought him from the Amazon and the Ganges, to the Artic and the Antarctic but there was a mixed response to the former newsman’s style of documentary making.

His final RTÉ broadcast was in August 2012 when he filled in as a presenter on the Marian Finucane show on RTÉ Radio 1.

But that was by no means the last time the public would hear from Charlie Bird.

He chronicled the stories of those involved in the 2015 Marriage Equality referendum and published a book ‘A Day in May, parts of which were later adapted for a successful stage show.

He also wrote for the Irish Senior Times, presented a podcast and contributed regularly to national radio programmes.

Over the summer of 2021, the man with one of the most famous voices in Ireland began to experience difficulty with his speech. After a tense few months of testing, he was diagnosed with MND in October 2021.

He revealed his illness to Joe Duffy on an episode of Liveline, with the change to his voice already apparent. He also went on the Late Late show with Ryan Tubridy who asked him what he would like to achieve with the time he had left. Charlie said he wanted to climb Croagh Patrick. The host said that the country would climb with him and the ‘Climb with Charlie’ campaign was born.

Charlie Bird climbing Croagh Patrick in 2022
Charlie Bird climbing Croagh Patrick in April 2022

On 2 April 2022, thousands of people climbed peaks around Ireland and abroad in solidarity with Charlie as he made his personal pilgrimage up Croagh Patrick. He reached the summit along with his family, friends and a number of supporters. The campaign raised at least €3.4m for a number of charities including the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association and Pieta.

During the months building up the climb, Charlie Bird’s distinctive voice began to fail. A technology company offered to build a device which would replicate his voice using material from the extensive RTÉ Archive of his reporting and presenting career. The material was compiled by his wife Claire, a producer in RTÉ, and it gave him the ability to continue to communicate through his iPad.

Charlie Bird documented the second part of his career and his experience of being confronted with death in a book written with RTÉ’s former chief news editor Ray Burke called ‘Time and Tide’. The bestselling book was awarded Biography of the Year at the 2022 An Post Irish Book Awards.

In August 2023, Charlie Bird gave a series of interviews about his end-of-life plans in support of the Irish Hospice Foundation.

In a series of posts on social media in the autumn of 2022, Charlie Bird wrote: “I am crying my eyes out this evening because of the way my illness is going. There is no doubt that my health is entering a new phase.” He said he could no longer walk without the aid of a stick and that “other things are deteriorating as well”.

“I want to be honest, my MND is getting worse. But I keep promising while I have a breath in my body I am going to continue to extend the hand of friendship. Love you all.”

Charlie Bird always wanted to be the first with the story. He became one of Ireland’s best-known journalists because of his unrelenting pursuit of the news that was important to Irish public life. That desire to break the news never left him and was evident in the revealing and often raw way in which he determinedly documented the story of his own demise.

The affection afforded to Charlie Bird came from the breathlessness with which he reported a breaking story, his straightforward explanation of the issues at stake, his incredulity at those who refused to answer his questions, and his unintentionally entertaining pursuit of those who tried to evade him. All this resulted in his inimitable ability to almost become a part of the story he was telling.

When he opened up to the public about his illness, they in turn became a major part of his own story. People responded with an outpouring of affection for Charlie. That affection aided him through the darkest days of his daily decline and made him feel his final journey had a purpose.

Charlie Bird is survived by his wife Claire, daughters Orla and Nessa, grandchildren Abigail, Charlie, Edward, Harriet and Hugo, and his three brothers.

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