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
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.”