Eighty candles for Gaybo, the slightly fussy man from Rialto
Gay Byrne turns 80 on Tuesday. This small, reserved man revolutionised Irish broadcasting, busted taboos and helped to drag Ireland into the modern era. Which isn’t to say he was ever a saint
Reeling in the years: the many faces of Uncle Gaybo, including, top left, with his portrait in the National Gallery of Ireland in 2000; bottom left, the motorcycling enthusiast; inset left, on The Late Late Show in 1966; centre, presenting his Lyric FM radio show last year; middle right, shaking hands with Charles Haughey at a surprise party at RTÉ in 1998; and bottom right, as chairman of the Road Safety Authority in 2007
At the heart of all great talent, and of all great change, is a mystery. Analysts can dissect the components that went into making a particular performer, or a significant cultural shift, but in both these matters there is a secret ingredient that won’t be analysed and cannot be named.
So it is with a small, conservative, slightly fussy man from Rialto in Dublin, who revolutionised Irish radio and television, and, in doing so, walked Ireland into the modern era.
Gay Byrne will be 80 years old on Tuesday. But only this year he made a challenging and potentially controversial documentary, Gay Byrne: My Father’s War about his father Edward’s service in the 19th Royal Hussars during the first World War, and his return to Ireland afterwards. He brought to the film an energy and a commitment that would shame most presenters a quarter of his age.
In front of a camera, Byrne is something of a genius. In RTÉ, the studio crews have promised to sneak the broadcaster Claire Byrne into studio the next time he is recording so she can watch him in action. “They say it’s just a natural aptitude; it’s not a learned thing,” says the Prime Time presenter. “He never crosses his body, never puts an obstacle between him and the audience.”
Earlier this week a spokesperson for RTÉ said the station has no plans to celebrate Byrne’s 80th birthday. “Radio might do something,” said the spokesperson. “Marian might do something. But you know how it is: they don’t want to commit themselves at this stage.”
It is difficult to explain to people younger than 25 – people who never saw The Late Late Show when it was the nation’s townhall meeting; people who never listened to his taboo-busting radio show – just how important a figure Byrne is.
A pioneer of ‘soft power’
His career was conducted in the softer, female area of broadcasting, as opposed to news or current affairs. At times he was dismissed as the housewives’ pet and a bit of an old woman himself. But Byrne understood the essence of what later came to be known as soft power before the phrase was coined. No one who worked on any of his programmes – as I did, for a year, on his radio show – ever doubted where the true power lay.
It is fair to say that the impact Byrne had on his native culture is unparalleled by any broadcaster in any other European country, or indeed in any country on any other continent, as far as we can tell.
This is not to say that Byrne was ever an intellectual heavyweight or a social campaigner. As anyone who has ever seen him warm up a studio audience – he never used a warm-up man – will tell you, his professional roots lie on the lower slopes of show business, in the variety theatre of his youth. His personal style is dapper. His fondness for cravats is well-known.
It is not to say, either, that Byrne was ever a saint. He had a prolonged period of crankiness in his 50s. He seems never to have met a millionaire he did not like. He has a weakness for conventional glamour in women. (On the radio programme in the 1980s, he suggested that his predominantly female team would look better if we wore flesh-coloured tights. At the time, we were all dressed in black trousers, flat shoes and wore no make-up before noon, if then. Our main accessories were exhaustion and stress. Byrne always looked immaculate.)