Portrait of a Pirate Radio Pioneer is a half-hour film by Jackie Jarvis and produced by Kevin Allen for IRISH TV that documents the fascinating life of a television engineer in rural Co Monaghan who set up the first land-based pirate radio station in Ireland. Sean Mac Quillan works locally in Clones as a supplier of televisions, parts and services and in addition to his love for cobbling together old and disused remnants to fix television sets at minimum cost, he also doubles up as an ‘elegant chauffeur’ for debutantes to whom he hires out his vintage 1974 Jaguar. As Mac Quillan recounts poignant moments while painting an ordinary life punctuated by extraordinary moments in laid-back tones, it is clear to the viewer that this authentic Irish character retains a steely determination to work solidly below the radar at what he loves in life while being an undisputed driven entrepreneurial pioneer and local treasure.
In this poignant portrayal of rural life and the human will to survive, Seán Mac Quillan reveals himself as one of Ireland’s most interesting and hidden characters. As he potters about his home-made studio/parts room filled with all manner of television and engineering paraphernalia, the self-proclaimed ‘first land-based Irish pirate radio DJ’ comes across as an expert inventor and fascinating character.
Fearless is the best term to describe this television man who enjoys cobbling together wires and bolts and bits and pieces in order to revive an old television set or re-create a fresh one from scratch. While the finished product might not have the sparkle and panache of the modern day HD sets available on the high street, Mac Quillan’s trademark is all about functionality and service. As long as he can be of service to the neighbours in his rural parish in supplying a series of workable TV sets that can receive the desired broadcast signals at minimal cost, his work is done.
“I worked for a lifetime in a television shop fixing sets. I suppose I was one of those mysterious characters, someone working in a back room, smoking 100 cigs a day”, Mac Quillan reports.
“Then I set up on my own, collecting salvaged and obsolete pieces that might get people’s telly working again. It might look like a lot of junk but it is not. Sales repairs and service for TVs is the business and I also do CCTV observation systems for farming. I also do Freeview, satellite boxes, normal every day aerial work and fixing aerials, which has me up on roofs a lot.
“I have done Lazarus jobs on five-year old TVs, at minimum cost, even using disused parts from other pieces of equipment. In rural communities people are more conservative, they’re not as flamboyant as people living in big cities who throw things away. We do what we can not to create big bills. I would be known as a conservative person myself and not someone to waste things. Anyone who could come through the beginning of colour television in1968 and still survive in mainstream television engineering is a tough cookie I can tell you.”
Considering his many roof-time excursions chasing up television aerials, it is no surprise to learn that Mac Quillan suffered for his art, on one occasion spending six months in rehab after breaking both arms and legs in a fall.
“You do it because you like it and because you have to do it for the public and because I am satisfied doing it. I have no higher aspirations. If you are happy with your lot sure it’s grand.”
In the documentary Mac Quillan is revealed not only as an expert handyman, but also as a pirate radio presenter who remained undetected over the years thanks to his having perfected a quick turnaround disappearing act - in which he could shift his pirating activities between a handful of locations in a mere matter of minutes.
Having started in 1971 with a two-hour Saturday night country and western show which drew in the big names in the Irish showband circuit, Mac Quillan savours the memory of his first outing as a pirate DJ and the wonderful sense of achievement and satisfaction it delivered.
“I felt pioneering, almost Marconi. It was just something to be at and wonderful when you got it done. We didn’t have a telephone or mobiles then; the way you knew it worked was through people writing requests on cement bags and kids copybooks.
“Being pirate meant a copper could be out to nab you, so I had a few moves, where I had to change address. I got it perfectly honed down to 15 minutes. I just needed another aerial and earth system and location.
“We did that 304 times, each time it was the same routine. As there were army helicopters every morning on patrol and the aerial was 60ft high, I would hang a few derelict shirts, ties and knickers so that from overhead it would look like a clothesline. Of course a woman who could hang clothes that high would be a very tall woman. So it was dramatic, good craic and I enjoyed it. I was not breaking the law, just bending it.”
Recounting some of the early milestones and formative moments in his life from learning to drive a tractor aged 10 and gaining basic education in a sparsely equipped national school to living a lifetime of rural self-sufficiency - Mac Quillan’s story through childhood to parenthood paints a riveting picture of the life of a laid-back Irish country character with a love of attention to detail and sharp-budget practice
Producer Jackie Jarvis adds: Seán is just such an interesting character, very intelligent and laid back, and it is fascinating he also a scientist. Everyone knows him in the area and most have probably had something repaired by him. It is not just TVs, he can fix anything. He is the type who needs to be busy and have projects on the go and help people with their electronic trouble. We all need purpose and this Seán Mac Quillan is clearly a man with a purpose.”
PORTRAIT OF A PIRATE RADIO PIONEER AIRS ON IRISH TV ON SATURDAY OCTOBER 8TH AT 8PM.
IRISH TV can be viewed on Sky 191; Freesat 400; Free to Air and www.Irishtv.com