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
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.”