Charlie Bird’s wife Claire on his last story: ‘I will try to live my life without this great man beside me’

A new film documents the former RTÉ correspondent’s last job, as wife reflects on a ‘brave man’ who ‘didn’t let his terminal illness stop him from getting to the heart of a great story’

Charlie Bird walked into Fahy’s pub in Clonakilty, Co Cork, one day last June.

He was pursuing a story, as ever, this time the tale of a little remembered ransom demand issued by shadowy figures to officials in the Department of Agriculture back in 1979. The gang threatened to release foot-and-mouth disease into the bovine population, a move that would have had a devastating impact on what was then the bedrock of the economy. There was a further layer of intrigue when the gang communicated with a small circle of government officials and investigating gardaí, who knew of the plot through the small ads column of The Irish Times. Charlie knew this was his last story.

Claire, Charlies’s wife and also an executive producer on the documentary that ensued, Ransom ’79, was in Clonakilty last June. Wherever Charlie was, Claire was there too – not just as his partner, but also as his carer as motor neuron disease (MND) colonised his body.

“When we started filming Ransom ‘79 we were bangsmack right in the middle of MND,” Claire says now. “Charlie was a year-and-a-half into what would be a three-year illness. But he never gave up on life; he was not one to sit around and feel sorry for himself even though he feared what was physically happening to him.”


The story, the thrill of it, drove him on. Just months before his death in March, Charlie spoke about how Ransom ’79 began: “The story just dropped on to my lap,” he said. “I had been working on a few podcasts, and I came up with the idea of maybe chatting to a couple of retired senior gardaí. This happened before the pandemic. I phoned my colleague Tom McCaughren, who had been RTÉ’s security correspondent for many years.

“I asked if him if he had any suggestions of retired senior guards who might have interesting stories. And he suggested a number of guards, including Willie McGee. I didn’t know much about Willie, who had been head of the fraud squad, but I reached out to him. Someone who was working with me on the podcasts made the initial contact for me. And he came back and told me that Willie told him about an attempt back in 1979, to extract five million pounds from the State over a threat to spread foot and mouth around the country.”

That was the start. John Kelleher, a friend and former colleague who Charlie had known for 50 years since RTÉ’s current affairs programme 7 Days, came in as producer. “He felt the story would make a great documentary and asked me would I be interested in producing it,” Kelleher says. “I immediately said ‘I’m in’.” Yet even as they welcomed Colm Quinn as director, there was a gathering shadow sliding into the picture.

“At that stage, Charlie had premonitions that there was something very wrong healthwise,” Kelleher says. “His voice was beginning to slur, and he suspected the worst.”

The team had already pitched the ransom documentary to RTÉ, but the subsequent MND diagnosis meant a change of tack. What became Charlie Bird: Loud and Clear, a documentary about his condition, went into production and aired on RTÉ in June 2022. Later that year, RTÉ turned down Ransom ’79, opening the way for Virgin Media to come on board. But as work continued in pursuing various leads, all with the aim of finally uncovering who was actually behind the ransom demand, the gang communicating in The Irish Times as “Tom Smith”, Charlie’s condition called for further changes.

Kelleher says that writer Colin Murphy, who had previously worked with Charlie on his play about the marriage equality referendum, A Day In May, was brought on board with Charlie’s “enthusiastic” backing. As Ransom ’79 unfolds, there’s something of the mercurial detective duo about the pair. According to Quinn, Charlie would prepare questions in advance of each interview on an iPad using voicebank software developed by Keith Davey from Marino Software, and would sometimes write down subsequent questions on a notepad, which Murphy would then voice. The younger man would often intuit what the veteran reporter meant. The signal that everything had been interpreted correctly was Charlie’s emphatic thumbs up.

Charlie’s health was always the top priority.

“I did, on a number of occasions, ask him ‘why are we still doing this?’” Murphy says. “Effectively I was asking him, look, do you want to give up? I was saying to him it was okay if he did. Obviously, the most important thing all along was Charlie’s welfare and quality of life and state of mind so we did want to foreground that. I had a duty of care to bring that up occasionally and I just always enjoyed the kind of humour with which he says ‘f**k off’, basically – this is a story and we are following it. That’s what he did.”

Claire and Quinn planned shorter shooting days so Charlie’s health wouldn’t be compromised. Leads were chased down remorselessly. At one stage, Murphy asks Charlie what the story means to him. Charlie responds, via a scribbled note: “It’s keeping me alive.”

“Working on Ransom ’79 didn’t extend Charlie’s life but it gave him something to look forward to,” Claire says. “Charlie had an amazing memory, he could remember the finest details on any story, it was quite remarkable. He got very engrossed in this story, his curiosity and journalistic nose kept him focused and made him forget his MND for a short period of time. It made him feel alive.”

Ransom ’79 works as a “whodunnit”, as a love letter to the craft of journalism, as a secret history of Ireland and its various fringe factions at the time, and as an examination of the overlap between criminal gangs and paramilitaries. But it also follows Charlie’s story, with the opening credits showcasing his presence at so many significant national and world events in his role as RTÉ correspondent, how he invariably seemed to be the man on the spot. Kelleher observes that, even in the grip of a terminal condition, there was still that “investigative gleam in his eye”.

Four weeks before Charlie died he insisted that I bring him to the Stardust Vigil as he wanted to hand out all the portraits of the victims to their families. This was something he did every year

—  Claire Bird

“I do think Charlie’s clout helped to open doors and make for smoother sailing,” he continues. “And many of the interviewees we sourced had real affection for him. There was a clear awareness of his predicament and his iconic journalistic status.”

Colin Murphy laughs when he remembers how doors would open merely at the mention of Charlie’s name – “To cold call somebody and say to somebody ‘hi, I’m working with Charlie Bird’, instead of having to awkwardly introduce myself.

“That was what was so interesting about Charlie’s celebrity,” he continues. “I think it was very much based on a sense of affinity and trust that people had in him, from high-level political sources, to the IRA, to the people who greeted him and told them their stories wherever he went.”

He was a long-standing advocate for the victims of the Stardust disaster, with Claire saying: “Four weeks before Charlie died he insisted that I bring him to the Stardust Vigil as he wanted to hand out all the portraits of the victims to their families. This was something he did every year.”

That same persistence was applied to Ransom ’79. According to Quinn: “The very journey we were all on making this film was ultimately down to Charlie’s nose for a good story. As former private secretary to the minister for agriculture Kevin Cassidy says to Charlie in the film ‘Other than you approaching me, I would never have revealed this story.’ Charlie’s instinct for a good story never waned.”

This was evident that June day in Clonakilty – I was there, assisting on research for the team. Charlie moved swiftly, if unsteadily, around Fahy’s Bar as the cameras were being set up. Kelleher believes they visited more than 20 different locations around the country in the course of research and filming. Some, such as the Clonakilty trip, ended up on the cutting room floor, as more leads opened up elsewhere. The pace of inquiry never lagged, even if the schedule slowed as Charlie’s condition worsened. In the documentary, Charlie tells Murphy at an early stage: “I don’t think I will survive for another year”. Then, much later, came a fall – an event which badly shook his confidence. On screen, the impact of his condition is never sidelined.

“When you watch someone you love suffer as Charlie did, it made me realise how fragile life is and how you need to live your life to the full as you never know what’s going to be thrown at you,” Claire says. “Working with Charlie on the documentary was very special for me as I was able to spend all my time with him and you know how precious time can be.

He might not have been able to speak, but he still had a voice and could be heard loud and clear

—  Claire Bird

“MND is a very cruel disease and in the end, it just wore Charlie down. You can’t fight a losing battle.”

The end, when it came, still felt like a shock. There is a palpable sense of sadness that Charlie will not be around to see Ransom ’79 hit the cinema screens.

“He acknowledged how great the documentary was and cried when he watched it, maybe because he knew this was his last documentary,” Claire says. “But his priorities near the end were to be with his family, he wanted to spend time with his daughters and his grandkids. He did, however, put a list together when he was in the hospice of those he wanted to invite to the premiere so he in a way he was always thinking ahead.”

The ransom story has it all: secret codes, Mini Coopers, leather briefcases, outlandish sums of money, the risk of speedboat getaways, even the belief that for some of the protagonists, it was a case of “one last job”. And for Charlie Bird, it was the same.

“He worked so long and hard to get Ransom ’79 over the line, despite his illness,” Claire says. “I hope people will see it not just as Charlie’s last documentary but a piece of great journalism. I would hope that the viewer will also recognise that this brave man, Charlie Bird, didn’t let his terminal illness stop him from getting to the heart of a great story.”

“When the curtain closes I will curl up and grieve my beautiful husband and try to live my life without this great man beside me,” Claire says. “Nothing helps grief bar time.”

“He might not have been able to speak, but he still had a voice and could be heard loud and clear.”

Ransom ’79 will screen at the Fastnet Film Festival in Schull on Wednesday, May 22nd before going on wider release on Friday, May 24th