The history of TG4: Celebrating 25 years on the air

Ireland’s only Irish language TV station turns 25 years old this year. But how much do you really know about the history of TG4?

TG4 launched on Halloween night, 25 years ago.

What first started as a pirate TV station made by and for the Irish-speaking community later transformed into the nation’s beloved TV station, but this was no easy feat.

The late 70s to early 90s in Ireland introduced a fight for language rights, prison sentences, and the personal sacrifice of several Irish language activists.

All of this took place before the concept of TG4 was finally accepted by the state in 1996.

The fight for language equality – TV licenses and more

The history of TG4 involves a fight against TV licenses.

A 2007 documentary by the name of Gan Cead, Gan Ceadúnas (Without Permission, Without a Licence), reveals the history of TG4.

In the late 70s, the Conradh na Gaeilge group and members of the public were shocked at the lack of Irish language content on their TV screens. In fact, only 2% of what was on TV at the time was in Irish.

This sparked a campaign for RTÉ, Ireland’s first TV station, to devote more screen time to Irish language TV programmes.

The campaign, put together by Conradh na Gaeilge, involved a petition whereby anyone who signed it refused to pay their TV license. This was done in protest towards RTÉ.

It was known that those who signed the petition were happy to go to court for refusing to pay their TV licence and would accept any punishment that came their way.

Pay a fine or face imprisonment – the price of Irish language rights

Mountjoy Prison in Dublin.

In total, 15 people went to prison between 1977 and 1993 because they hadn’t paid for their TV licence.

These included Brian Ó Baoill and DIT lecturer/Conradh na Gaeilge member Íte Ní Chionnaith, the first to go to prison in January 1977. She was only 23 years old when she bravely refused to pay the £50 fine.

Instead, she spent seven days in prison. Doing so brought about a lot of news coverage. Car rallies took place throughout Dublin City, and protesters with picket signs gathered outside Mount Joy prison, demanding her release.

The history of TG4 – from pirate radio to TV station

The history of TG4 is amazing.

Meanwhile, film-maker Bob Quinn and Seosamh Mac Donnacha of the RTÉ IT department promoted the Irish language with their own pirate radio station.

Donnacha Ó hÉalaithe, also involved, sailed from Connemara to the Faroe Islands with two others in 1987.

They had heard that the islanders there had a TV station of their own and were curious to know how it worked and where they got funding for it.

RTÉ and the government’s biggest argument at the time was that funding an Irish language station would have costed too much money. However, once the pirate TV station ‘TnaG’ was born, great financial support came from the public.

If a few locals could throw an Irish language TV station together, why couldn’t the government?

How TG4 finally came to be – support from the Taoiseach

Charles Haughey is a former Taoiseach.

A pivotal moment in the history of TG4 occurred when Charlie Haughey became Taoiseach (prime minister) of Ireland.

A newspaper article about the successful pirate TV station piqued his interest, and he wished to see a report on the subject. Support from other politicians soon followed.

It was Máire Geoghegan Quinn who prepared the legislation for the station, and although the proposal failed initially, Ireland’s current president Michael D Higgins revived the project through the government.

This allowed TG4 to air nationwide by its former name of TnaG on 31 October 1996.

Language equality in 2021 – is there room for Irish speakers?

The history of TG4 is fascinating.
Credit: / N Chadwick

Some say the founding of TG4 was the catalyst of hope for Irish speakers globally, and especially in all 32 counties of this island.

In 2007, Irish became the 21st official language of the European Union, following a year-long campaign by the government formed to enhance the status of the Irish language.

Now, TG4 is a haven for all things sport, documentaries, drama, reality TV, traditional Irish music, current events, and children’s entertainment.

It seems only fitting that the anniversary of our nation’s Irish TV station lands on Halloween, the holiday that originated here in Ireland.

The history of TG4 encapsulates the traditions that helped lay a foundation for our culture, and now, TG4 gives our native language a place in the modern world.

So, this Halloween, don’t forget to raise your glass and say ‘sláinte’ to TG4 for celebrating 25 years on the air this year.