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'Now let's go live to the Mullingar one-legged race': Whatever happened to the RTÉ People in Need Telethon?

We take a look at the good, bad and the bizarrre of Ireland’s TV past every Wednesday in The Tube.

0011e224-642 Gay Byrne hosting the 1989 People in Need Telethon. Source: RTÉ Archives

WITH RTÉ SET to air a Comic Relief special on Friday 26 June, we thought we’d take you back to 1989 when Late Late Show host Gay Byrne donned his trademark sweater for the first ever People in Need Telethon. 

The Telethon, which raised millions of pounds for charities across Ireland between ’89 and 2007, aired live from RTÉ studios and became a staple, broadcast every two years throughout the ’90s. 

The Late Late set was transformed into a hub of activity for the night, gathering together talent from across Irish broadcasting to raise much-needed funds for Ireland’s charity sector. 

An RTÉ report from the first ever Telethon remarked it was the single biggest operation the broadcaster had ever mounted on its own at that time with three hundred people committed to work on the broadcast. 

Telethons had been in existence in the United States and the UK before Ireland held its first event.

The concept was simple; RTÉ staff and volunteers would man phones throughout the Telethon and take donations from people across Ireland. 

Yet the undertaking for each Telethon, recalls People in Need Trust Chairman David Harvey, was mammoth. 

“It started up at 4pm, then a break for the Six One News. And then after ther Six One it would really get going,” says Harvey. “Then there was usually a break for Nine O’Clock News and then it just ploughed on. 

“It was a live show, the Late Late-turned-Telethon and it would go on until 2 o’clock, sometime 3 o’clock in the morning depending on how much momentum was behind it.”

To keep that momentum going, and the donations flowing, Harvey says it had to be entertaining. Anyone for ‘Guess the news presenter’s knees’ or a four-legged race in Co Offaly? 

The Monitors Are Glowing

“Studio One in the television building, home to the Late Late Show and, tonight for seven and a half hours, for the People in Need Telethon,” reported Alasdair Jackson in 1989. 

“In the broadcasting room, the links to units in Dublin, the regions and London are glowing on the monitors,” said Jackson. “Six million pounds of equipment ready to meet the Telethon challenge.”

In those early days, People in Need’s Harvey acted as liaison between corporate sponsors and RTÉ, later becoming Chairman of the People in Need Trust. 

The driving force behind People in Need ahead of the first Telethon was Dunnes Stores’ Margaret Heffernan and businessman Dermot Desmond, he recalls. 

Many charities in Ireland back then operated on an ad-hoc basis in small, local communities around Ireland. 

The idea, says Harvey, was to give smaller charities and groups around Ireland a fair whack of the stick. For example, Cavan Wheelchair Association, Kerry Women’s Refuge, Tipperary Day Care Centre. 

“These were all organisations for whom €5,000 to €20,000 would make a huge difference,” says Harvey. 

Broadcaster Richard Crowley stepped in as Director of the first RTÉ Telethon, which aired on 21 April 1989, promising a “a great night of razzmatazz and entertainment.”

Host Gay Byrne remarked at the time that “if everything works, it will go like a dream and if not, the whole night will end in tears.”

It did not. 

The first event was a success, raising £2.3 million for charity and prompting a further seven live Telethons.  

Bog-Snorkelling 

The 1990 Telethon saw Byrne joined by Gerry Ryan and Dave Fanning as co-hosts and the event continued until 2007.  

Local organisations and clubs got involved, holding events in their own county to raise money. 

On the night, recalls Harvey, “you’d say ‘Let’s go to Anne Doyle who’s in Mullingar and the Mullingar one-legged race has raised €5,000. Let’s go to them’ and everyone would hold up their cheques and cheer.”

The concept was to engage the nation for the evening, get them to pick up the phone and donate. 

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“One of the key things we had to do was reporting quite how much money we’d raised each year,” says Harvey.

“This all predates credit card donations, with the exception of the last two [Telethons]. The majority of the donations between 1989 and 1998 were done by pledge.”

“So we were really relying on people to actually follow up on their promise,” says Harvey, who’d then work with his team to gather money from around Ireland to be paid out through a grants application system for charities. 

The atmosphere on set at RTÉ during each Telethon was “great”, says Harvey. “It was really great to see people getting involved around the country. Like, crazy stuff. People organising bog-snorkelling, sponsored swims, line dancing.”

“And Gay Byrne would always wear a specific sweater which would always be auctioned off at the end of the night,” he says. 

‘Like running the Olympics’ 

As the financial crash of 2008 loomed, the final People in Need Telethon was held in 2007. 

Hosted by Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh and Ryan Tubridy, the final Telethon raised €7.5 million, bringing the total raised across 9 Telethons to €35 million. 

It wasn’t just Ireland’s nosedive in to austerity that put paid to future People in Need Telethons, says Harvey. By that stage, many charities around Ireland had become professional, well-structured organisations. And, he says, the logistics of hosting an event like Telethon are considerable.

“It’s like running the Olympics, it’s a very expensive thing for a broadcaster,” says Harvey. “You’ve outside broadcast in 10 places, you’ve got to set up a big studio. You’ve got to devote an entire team for a period of time to develop a Telethon.”

In 2016, People in Need wound down, donating its last €1 million to Saint Vincent De Paul.

Says Harvey: “It was a fantastic thing really. I have to say, there was a great deal of really hard-working people on an operational side and the trust side for years.”

‘RTÉ does Comic Relief’ airs on Friday 28 June at 8pm and will be hosted by will be hosted by Deirdre O’Kane, Nicky Byrne, Jennifer Zamperelli, and Eoghan McDermott.

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