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
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.)
In the vicious world of broadcasting, he was a street fighter who saw off rivals and dealt with an RTÉ management that was often ambivalent about his success. His career was built on grinding hard work, and his output was prodigious: almost 10 hours of radio over five days per week, and 2½ hours of live television on the sixth (in those days The Late Late went out on a Saturday).
So of course, there were stretches of boredom, items that didn’t work and approaches that were ill-advised. Perhaps the most memorable failure was the Late Late interview with Annie Murphy, the mother of Bishop Eamon Casey’s son, which was a misogynistic disaster.
A pushy young man
Ground-breaking is an abused term in modern media, but Byrne came into radio and television when they constituted an unpatrolled frontier where a pushy young man could make his mark. And he continued pushing at the frontier, not out of any great philosophical or political conviction, but as a result of his own character: from sheer curiosity, ambition and nerve.
His instincts were extraordinarily sound. In his radio career, he went from presenting a programme sponsored by chocolate brand Urney to conducting a national debate on the death of Ann Lovett, a schoolgirl who died in a graveyard giving birth to her son in secret. He moved from presenting the Calor Kosangas Housewife of the Year competition to channelling the reaction in the Republic to the Provisional IRA’s bombing of the Remembrance Day ceremony at Enniskillen in 1987. In November 1988, he considered wearing a poppy to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the first World War. In the event, he did not.
In 2014 he again talked about how he had thought about wearing a poppy for his father and his six uncles, who had also fought in the war.
In this way, Byrne represents a connection to Ireland’s pre-1916 history – particularly its working-class history – which was so polite and silent that it was almost wiped out by the new State. In the documentary, you could see Byrne pull those memories back from the abyss by bearing witness to his father’s life. At the same time, in his excellent autobiography The Time of My Life, written in 1988 with Deirdre Purcell, he makes it clear that he does not support Section 31, which banned IRA spokespersons from the airwaves until 1994.
Byrne was never an exotic flower. He grew up the youngest of five children on the South Circular Road in Dublin. His older sister, Mary Orr, remembers that the focus of the family lay on their three significantly older brothers. “We were just the background,” says Orr. “Ernest, Al and Ray: that’s where the excitement was. Gay wasn’t noisy, he was just there,” she laughs. “He wasn’t troublesome, nothing like that.”
Byrne’s childhood friend Tony Bennett turned 80 on June 12th. Byrne and his wife, Kathleen Watkins, were the only non-family at the party. “I told him he’d have to practise saying ‘octogenarian’,” says Bennett. “Because it’s quite difficult. Back then Gay was much the same as he is now.”
Tony Bennett remembers Byrne’s mother as “an extraordinarily formidable woman.” Byrne himself has said he grew up in “an extraordinary enclave of mothers”. His mother was highly organised and hard-working, and in another time and place might well have run her own business. “Not having that opportunity, she substituted her family, and ran it with success and expansion in mind,” he writes.
He was educated by the Christian Brothers at Synge Street, which he did not complain about. “After Synge Street, the rest of life is a doddle,” he writes. He does not know whether to blame his mother or Synge Street for his caution. “I know I am reserved and do not take emotional risks,” he writes.
How dreadful, then, to be swindled out of his hard-earned life savings, and driven into debt, by one of the people he loved best in the world, his accountant friend Russell Murphy. This was a calamity that is now lightly borne by Byrne. When he had worked at Granada in Manchester as a young talent, his mother took care of his finances. The urbane, sophisticated Murphy, with his cigarette holders and his social connections, must have seemed like an expert pair of hands.
Accepting of difference
In broadcasting, Byrne has worked with very impressive people who were frequently far more politically engaged than he was, and far to the left of him in the days when such things mattered. He has never demanded that people resemble him. John Caden, the producer of his radio show in its glory days, is one example of this, although their relationship could be fractious. Pan Collins, Brigid Ruane, John McHugh, Philip Kampf were all promoted and given breaks by Byrne. He knew he needed them.
The broadcasting veteran is an experienced counsellor of the young. Claire Byrne first approached him for advice nearly 10 years ago. She last saw him on his bike, “in all the gear, with the Velcro gloves like a man half his age”, she says. “He told me to slow down my delivery on radio. I take that advice on board. I wouldn’t take it from just anybody. He’s not someone to shout the odds at you.”
“He’s the only one I’ve seen who just throws his head back and laughs,” says Bennett. “Give him a comedian and he’s happy. He’s a pal.”