Advertisement

President pays tribute to ‘remarkable man’ Charlie Bird after his death at 74

President pays tribute to ‘remarkable man’ Charlie Bird after his death at 74

The President of Ireland has led tributes to former RTE correspondent Charlie Bird who has died aged 74 after a high profile battle with motor neurone disease.

Michael D Higgins’ words of condolence for the family of the respected broadcaster came as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar hailed Bird as “inspirational”.

The veteran journalist, who covered many of the biggest stories in Ireland and abroad over a long and varied career, had been vocal about his terminal diagnosis and continued to champion many charitable and social justice causes despite his deteriorating condition.

Bird helped raise more than 3.3 million euro for motor neurone disease and mental health charities in the Climb With Charlie campaign that saw him hike up Croagh Patrick mountain in Co Mayo in 2022.

Some of the biggest stories he covered in a 40-year career in journalism included the Stardust fire tragedy in Dublin in 1981, the National Irish Bank tax avoidance scandal in the 1990s and the culmination of the Northern Ireland peace process.

Away from the island of Ireland, he covered the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the Iraq War.

He also had a short stint as RTE’s Washington correspondent.

President Higgins described Bird as a “truly remarkable man”.

“It is with the deepest sadness that all of the Irish people, and particularly all of those who were his allies in campaigning for so many significant causes, will have learnt of the death of Charlie Bird,” he said.

“An exceptionally talented broadcaster, Charlie was a truly remarkable man driven by a deep sense of social justice in the most positive sense.

“Charlie was indelibly associated with some of the biggest stories both at home and abroad during his four decades with RTE, I recall for example being with him in Iraq.

“As an intuitive journalist, Charlie identified with causes from below. His dedicated pursuit of the truth, and immense ability to build warm relationships that would last through life with all those with whom he came in contact, made him one of the outstanding journalists of his generation.”

Charlie Bird charity climb
Charlie Bird with members of the Defence Forces during his hike up Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo in 2022 (Paul Allen and Associates/PA)

Mr Higgins said the “dignity, strength, hope and inspiration” with which Bird carried the burden of his illness was “remarkable”.

“In a way that was truly extraordinary, Charlie redefined our collective perspective on the illness of motor neurone disease and terminal illness more generally,” he said.

“The authenticity, at considerable personal cost, which he brought to all of this could never have been achieved by any other means of communication. I believe that his experience touched every home in this country and will leave a lasting legacy that will not be forgotten.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said Bird was a “hugely talented journalist” who will be sadly missed.

“He had the trust and respect of the Irish people as he reported on events from all over the world as well as here in Ireland,” he said.

“From the Asian tsunami and 9/11, to the peace process and the banking crisis, people knew they could rely on Charlie for the story.

“When Charlie told his own story of motor neurone disease he became an inspirational figure to so many people in the way that he dealt with the physical and mental health impacts of his illness.

“His can-do attitude, his dedication to helping others through charity work, and the open manner in which he discussed the impact of the disease on his life, and on his family, was exemplary.”

Ireland’s deputy premier Micheal Martin said Bird represented public service broadcasting in Ireland at its very best.

“I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Charlie Bird, who inspired so many with the courage, generosity of spirit and dignity he faced his battle with motor neurone disease,” said the Tanaiste.

Charlie Bird
Bird at the site of the Stardust nightclub fire in Dublin, unveiling a plaque in memory of the 48 people who died there on Valentine’s day in 1981 (Niall Carson/PA)

“As a journalist and broadcaster for RTE, Charlie had few peers, memorably covering national and international events such as the peace process, the September 11 attacks on New York, the Gulf War and the National Irish Bank scandal.

“Personable and engaging, Charlie always had the public interest at heart. He represented public service broadcasting in Ireland at its very best.

“Over the past few years, Charlie captured the public imagination, nurturing a true spirit of solidarity through his Croagh Patrick Climb With Charlie.

“His message of generosity, friendship and simply looking out for each other will long be remembered.

“My sincere condolences to his wife Claire, children, wider family and many friends and colleagues.”

Samaritans Ireland impact report 2021
Charlie Bird and his beloved dog Tiger (PA)

RTE director general Kevin Bakhurst said Bird had left a “unique legacy”.

“He was a leader in Irish journalism, dedicated, ferocious in his pursuit of the truth and trusted by the public,” he said.

“He was a fearless reporter, breaking and covering so many key stories over many years including the Stardust fire, the National Irish Bank tax avoidance scandal, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the Indian ocean tsunami.

“He was deeply empathetic and a gifted communicator which shone through in his news reports, major investigations and many documentaries. A supportive colleague to so many younger journalists, he was always generous with his time.

“His campaigning work, especially since his illness diagnosis, has gone on to help so many others, as was Charlie’s selfless way.

“Our thoughts are with his wife and our colleague Claire, his children, grandchildren and many friends.”

Campaigners for the victims of the Stardust nightclub fire thanked Bird for his support for their cause.

Antoinette Keegan, who lost her two sisters, Mary and Martina, in the 1981 blaze in Artane, told RTE Radio One: “He always regarded us as his heroes – we all regard him as our hero.

“He’s always been there and always emphasised how we were treated and everything else – and he was talking the truth.”

Singer Daniel O’Donnell joined Bird on his charity walk up Croagh Patrick.

“Honestly, when Charlie reached the top of Croagh Patrick it was one of the most emotional experiences that I ever had in my life, I’ll never forget it, it was incredible. His strength was inspirational,” O’Donnell told RTE.

The singer added: “Charlie told stories, incredible stories from all over the world, he brought stories to us that we would never know about that were amazing.

“There was no story that Charlie told like the one he told in the last few years, his own story and how he lived the last few years and how he inspired people the last few years. You know, he deserves his rest. I’m sad, of course, that he is gone. But I’m happy that he doesn’t have to struggle or suffer any more. He has done everything that you could imagine a man could do.”

Seamus Dooley, the Irish Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said Bird’s life “should not be defined by his illness”.

Charlie Bird
Bird raised millions of euro for charity toward the end of his life (Niall Carson/PA)

He said: “Supported by his wife Claire, Charlie lived his battle with Motor Neurone Disease in the public gaze, with characteristic determination and searing honesty.

“The qualities he has manifested during his illness – grit, fierce determination and generosity of spirit, were the same qualities which marked Charlie Bird as a journalist.”

Mr Dooley added that Bird, who was a former chair of the NUJ Dublin Broadcasting branch, “was passionate about news and had a unique ability to develop relationships”.

“He was stubborn and relentless in pursuit of whatever he set out to achieve.

“His life should not be defined by his illness but by the remarkable qualities he displayed in the face of adversity. He leaves a remarkable legacy.”

Bird is survived by his wife Claire and his daughters Orla and Neasa.