Charlie Bird dies following 2021 motor neurone disease diagnosis

Charlie Bird has shared an update on his health. Picture by Mal McCann
Charlie Bird has died. Picture by Mal McCann

Former RTÉ correspondent Charlie Bird has died aged 74 after a long battle with motor neurone disease.

The veteran broadcaster, who reported on a variety of issues from the Stardust fire tragedy in 1981 to the peace process, has been vocal about his terminal diagnosis.

He helped raise more than €3.3 million for charity in a campaign that saw him climb Croagh Patrick mountain in Co Mayo in 2022.

Tánaiste Micheál Martin said Charlie 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 Mr Martin.

“As a journalist and broadcaster for RTÉ, 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.”

Croke Patrick

Singer Daniel O’Donnell, who joined Charlie Bird on his charity walk up Croagh Patrick has paid tribute.

Prior to his death, Mr Bird revealed he always carried a set of rosary beads that the singer had once given him and that he wanted to have the beads in his hand when he died.

“I felt so grateful that I did what I did,” Mr O’Donnell said of giving Mr Bird the rosary beads.

“You know, I wasn’t trying to push religion on him or anything. It was just something that was important to me that I could give to him, hoping that he would get strength from it. I just never imagined that it would mean so much to him. I know it did because that he told me every time we talked and, in latter times, texted because that’s all the way we could communicate.”

Charlie Bird was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) in 2021

Speaking to RTÉ Radio One, Mr O’Donnell recalled the moment Mr Bird reached the top of 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,” he said.

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.”

RTE journalist for nearly 40 years

President Michael D Higgins said: “Perhaps above all else, Charlie will be remembered for the deeply moving contribution which he has made since his diagnosis with motor neurone disease in 2021, having first noticed that something was not right three years ago this week on St Patrick’s Day of that year.

“It is hard to understate the impact which Charlie’s work to ‘Extend the Hand of Friendship’ has had on our country. His many initiatives, such as Climb with Charlie, raised incredible levels of funding for so many important causes and organisations. A contribution for all generations that will endure.

“Even more than that, the dignity, strength, hope and inspiration with which Charlie 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.

“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.

“It was a great honour to welcome Charlie, his wife Claire, and their dog Tiger to Aras an Uachtaráin in June 2022 and to personally thank him for all that he has done.

“As President of Ireland, may I express my deepest condolences to Claire, to Charlie’s daughters Orla and Nessa, and to all his family, colleagues and many many friends.”

RTÉ director general Kevin Bakhurst said Charlie 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.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar paid tribute to Charlie Bird as a “hugely talented journalist” and an “inspirational person” 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. His wife Claire played a hugely important role in helping him continue to live his life to the fullest extent possible, with his best friend Tiger (Bird’s pet dog) always by his side.

“My sincere condolences to his wife Claire, daughters Orla and Neasa, and to all his many family and friends.”

Seamus Dooley, Irish secretary of the NUJ, said of Mr Bird’s death: “Although we have been expecting this news, it is still a moment of enormous sadness.

“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.

“He 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.

“In retirement from RTÉ he enjoyed the freedom to pursue new projects. His commitment to the marriage equality referendum campaign reflected his genuine interest in social justice.

“I extend sympathy to Claire and to all who will miss Charlie, including so many NUJ colleagues and friends.

“Charlie was a lifelong member of the NUJ and a former chair of Dublin broadcasting branch.”