The chameleon of Montrose

Sat, Feb 13, 2010, 00:00

Once a daily presence in Irish kitchens, Gay Byrne now graces the airwaves only on Sunday afternoons, but he still has views – on the banks, Brian Cowen, and the anxiety that now afflicts his generation. If only someone would ask him for them

IT IS NOT that Gay Byrne particularly wants to behave like the ghost of Montrose but on his weekly visits to the concrete heartland of Irish broadcasting, it just so happens that the car park is deserted, the canteen closed and the corridors are empty of the beautiful people. At the height of his radio life, when his morning shows moved between the whimsical and taboo-breaking with equal ease and when his voice was both a national comfort and a reliable measurement of the despair and absurdity that gripped the country through the bleaker decades, Montrose was his second home. But on these morose winter Sundays, he can roam the place virtually unseen, entering to play his beloved jazz records and then leaving again without encountering a sinner. After 50 years on the air, he finds something blissful in that anonymity.

“As soon as Marion finishes at one, there is a clear-out,” he says brightly. “There are a couple of fellas down the corridor doing sport, and that is about it. You have the place to yourself and it is wonderful.”

Byrne moves so swiftly and unobtrusively in everyday life that he has probably mastered the art of skirting through the public unnoticed. As promised, he arrives in the foyer of Bewley’s Hotel at precisely eight in the morning. Rising ferociously early is a habit from his radio days. He wears a light coat and a grey hat with the soft rim pulled low over his eyes like a sleuth.

Byrne may be the one exception to the rule that you aren’t truly allowed to be famous in Ireland. Even Bono, with the global heft he now commands, understands that to behave like a famous person in his own country is to invite mockery. But Gay Byrne, without having any real conceits or an elevated belief – or interest – in himself as a “personality” has long accepted that his name and that signature voice hold peculiarly intimate associations for several generations of Irish people, for whom his radio show was as important a daily ritual as the first prayer or cigarette.

“Constantly people remind me that they grew up with me as a daily presence,” he says evenly as he leans over a cup of coffee. “They were young wives at the time, stuck in the kitchen. Or they may be remembering when they were children and they were off sick and got off school for the day and the mammy would look after them and Gay Byrne was on the radio. The show was nothing to them, but it was what their mothers did: listen to the radio.

“You get the same messages over and over again from all over the world. To me, the wonder is that I am still getting messages from all kinds of weird places and the fact that they are listening to me. Because when I started they couldn’t hear me much beyond Moate. Now they listen in Manila. And the Toy Show meant a lot to people growing up. So, yes, I am conscious that I was part of people’s life.”

But who was Gay Byrne to you? Was he the cheerful impresario in the Bing Crosby sweater for those Christmas shows or the icily brilliant television host who reeled in Pádraig Flynn with a masterclass in predatory interviewing? Was he the suave and affable host of The Rose of Tralee or the austere interrogator on that tense, ground-shifting night when Annie Murphy, lover of former bishop of Galway Eamon Casey, came on television to give her side of the story? Was Gay Byrne the straight man to Mike Murphy’s hammy and funny impersonation of a meddlesome French tourist or was he the man who, after phoning a lady to tell her she had won the Late Late car prize, learnt that the woman was grieving for a daughter lost just days before, and behaved with such class and control that it was clear then, if not years before, that he had an uncanny genius for this broadcasting business? Was Byrne the dapper, laughing Uncle Gaybo or was he the one constant in the lives of thousands for whom his morning radio shows were the best means of making sense of a country through years that were, it has become apparent now, wildly dysfunctional and little short of sinister?

He was unquestionably the most influential radio and television man in the history of the Irish State. But his greatest trick, surely, is that through all of that he has remained something of a chameleon.

HE HAD Asaying in those years that became a catchphrase: “The whole country is banjaxed.” If you are old enough, you can hear him saying it now in your head, mocking and lightly amused. In the din of the breakfast-time crowd, he nods his head and, with that pursed smile, acknowledges that it has acquired a fresh and terrible relevance.

“It is relevant. What everyone is crying out for is leadership,” he says. “What I would have recommended Brian Cowen to do, had he asked me, which is extremely unlikely, is this: in January 2009, or at the latest midsummer 2009, he should have been on the television every night at nine o’clock instead of the news. Not being interviewed but there to camera, explaining how bad things are. And he should have done this every night for two weeks. And then he should have explained what we will do about it and that it is going to be ghastly and that he will be the most hated man in the world. But to state: we are going to do this. And even now people are crying out for someone. I think Lemass would have been the strongest man that we ever had. I don’t know whether Brian Cowen is a fantastic leader because I just don’t know enough about him. The guy isn’t there!

“Furthermore, I question whether you can be taoiseach and still sit up and have a pint in the local pub. You have to dignify the office. But that is what I would have told him. Had. I. Been. Asked.”

Byrne delivers this with the trademark detached, musical clarity that actually stops people in their tracks. Several diners look confusedly in the air above their heads when they come within earshot of his voice, before locating its origins. More than one cannot disguise their delight when they discover that it is being broadcast not from a wireless but from the man himself.

Byrne is immaculately polite and friendly, yet has a reserve of privacy that discourages anyone from lingering too long. It is odd seeing how easily this most polished of frontmen can blend into a breakfast room, how he can become part of the crowd. But then part of his appeal was that he always seemed to speak for the masses as well as to them. Like many, he has felt the sting of the drastic financial implosion and although his anger has always been suppressed, it is there. He has borne witness to decades of mismanagement but this latest calamity will be shouldered not by his children but by his grandchildren.

“It will,” he says. “It will be our grandchildren. All the people of my age, all the grey-haired wrinklies of my age, we all had our little pensions aside. I had a long run of very good years. And I invested in absolutely watertight stuff: AIB, Anglo Irish and Guinness and various shares – all the stuff that you were told that you couldn’t go wrong. And that is all gone! It is wiped out. And it is the same all over the country for people of my age and older. We were never going to live like Tony O’Reilly, but we would have enough to get us through until we are all dead. And my sole worry is that Kathleen will have enough to see her through. The girls, Crona and Suzy are fine, they are set up and doing well. But nobody has been made accountable. And we thought we were paying these high-flying guys enormous sums of money because they were experts. And now we know that they knew nothing more than we did.

“The situation is serious. I am frightened for people of my generation. They have introduced this constant, low-level anxiety into our lives, which we could well do without. It all hangs on a thread anyhow. There is no certainty in life. But the general situation is that people who felt they could settle back now find that they can’t.”

This may be one of the reasons why his Sunday-afternoon jazz show has become important to his listeners. That if Gaybo is on the air then, at least, “they are still here”, he concludes, laughing. It is a source of pride to Byrne that, with no trumpeting (other than that on his vinyl selections), his show has achieved an audience of around 55,000.

“Not a single cent on advertising, not a word in the RTÉ Guidethat Gay Byrne was coming back. This was all word-of-mouth.”

The show happened by accident: he was at the National Concert Hall when he met Aodán Ó Dubhghaill, head of Lyric FM, who suggested that there was a slot on Sunday afternoon.

“I suppose the automatic response was: why don’t I buy the grave now out in Glasnevin and be done with it?” Byrne says. “But Sundays in winter suited me perfectly. And I said: ‘I don’t want to interview or talk to anyone. I just want to play jazz records.’ ”

He was 14 when he bought his first. He went along with two classmates from Synge Street school, Gerry Tierney and Tom Fitzpatrick, and they chipped in for a double vinyl issue by Philips of the Benny Goodman concert at Carnegie Hall in January 1938. Jazz was considered licentious stuff in the 1930s, getting no airtime on Radio Éireann.

“This was American black music designed to inflame the passions of young Irish boys and girls,” Byrne says, smiling. “And if there was one business that Radio Éireann was not in, it was the inflaming of passions.”

But a few years later, he got his first broadcast time on the station with a 15-minute Monday-night jazz show. This seems perfectly apt when you consider the controversies with which he would later light up the Irish skies: denounced by bishop of Galway Michael Browne as a purveyor of filth after he quizzed a woman about what she did or did not wear on her wedding night; bringing condoms on to the Late Late Show; discussing homosexuality; filling thousands of living rooms with the music of The Virgin Prunes back in 1979. It was as if he announced his intentions in those early jazz broadcasts.

Byrne is besotted with jazz, encyclopaedic about it, and part of the appeal of his show is that he tells the story of the players on recordings from the early 20th century. If he could transport himself anywhere, it would be to Carnegie Hall for that 1938 Benny Goodman show, when the jazz movement effectively stormed the establishment. When he explains his fascination with the form, it is obvious that the music suits his personality: precise and complex and deviating into the unexpected.

“It is whatever grabs you,” he says. “Al and I would listen to the technical proficiency and the inventiveness of the players. At its best, whatever the song is, they play the melody the first time around and then they start extemporising, and with someone like Louis Armstrong or Buck Clayton or Jack Teagarden on trombone or Teddy Weatherford on piano, it is listening to what they do off the top of their heads when they are doing their piece. And it can be ordinary or sublime, but they all have their own tricks. And that is what jazz is: what they are weaving around the tune. What is Louis going to do with this eight-bar break? It is what he weaves around the tune that makes it exciting. Will he get into something he cannot get out of?”

He seems surprised at the suggestion that while much of jazz aches of being sentimental and nostalgic, he comes across as neither. “I think I am both,” he protests mildly. Perhaps he is in relation to certain values and friendships, but in terms of broadcasting he has always seemed the imperturbable, polished ringmaster. Even on his last Late Late Show, there was no concession to nostalgia. Bono, the frontman nonpareil, was more overcome when he made an honorary appearance with Larry Mullen jnr to present the host with a Harley Davidson. For Byrne to succumb to his emotions would have been inconceivably clumsy, like Fred Astaire stumbling. He kept it smooth and professional to the last. And then he left. “Yes. I see. That was then, this is now.”

He sometimes misses that contact which must be a narcotic to all radio men: the freedom to sound off every day. But the jazz show is far from a trip down memory lane: he will quote from Vanity Fairmagazine or contemporary news stories, opine on this matter or that, and joke lightly (and often blackly) about the vagaries of age and time. Death is one of the chief subjects of his television series, The Meaning of Life, on which he quizzes guests about their faith. But he remains circumspect about his own view of the afterlife.

“I am not going to say, because it would compromise me in terms of the show if people knew I had a position,” he says. “What you find is that they are all searching. No one has the truth.”

AT 76, THEsame could be said of Byrne. Of the thousands of radio hours he has lived, talk almost inevitably turns to the funereal show when he read, with the help of two actors, the letters that arrived in a blizzard in the days after Kevin O’Connor’s radio report on Ann Lovett, the Granard schoolgirl who died in 1984 while giving birth in a grotto after a secret pregnancy. Letter after letter, hand-written testaments of similar heartbreaks, of abuse, of abortion, of rape, of ruined lives and silent acceptance, the confessions that could never be uttered in a box.

“Ann Lovett, yes,” Byrne says. “Kevin did a low-key, beautiful report, and what he didn’t say was important. This guy comes down from Dublin and the community closes in around. They knew bloody well what had happened but weren’t going to tell anyone from RTÉ. And in the course of the report, one of us said: ‘What the hell is this about?’ And the floodgates opened. The response was astounding. That was the first stone lifted to discover what lay underneath in this country. And Christine Buckley came in and she talked, and we got a bag of letters from Goldenbridge girls.

“Synge Street, where I went to school, was a tough house, but I never saw a semblance of sexual abuse. Blood and tears on the wall, yes. There was one lay teacher that I now realise was at it. But the threat that was held over us was Artane or Letterfrack, a place of no return – that was our Korea. And I think the Ryan and Murphy reports are the culmination of what happened then. But I was surprised by the extent of it.”

Recently, he went to the Irish Film Institute to see The White Ribbon, by Austrian director Michael Haneke. It focuses on a baron in the conventional big house and explores the lives of those around him. It struck Byrne as a good representation of the Ireland he spent his working life talking to.

“The movie is about what is going on beneath the surface,” he says. “So it is your typical Irish village. What I am saying, in a grandiose way, is that human nature doesn’t change and what is local is global. I suppose we in Ireland are no better or no worse than anyone else, except that we kidded ourselves for so long that the Holy Mother Church is looking after us and we are so beautiful. You know, there was no such thing as suicide in Ireland! Because we were all so happy! There was just accidental death. And I suppose it all goes back to de Valera, it seems to me. Dev taught us to believe two contradictory things at the same time and to somehow rationalise them. It is there in that answer we all use, ‘yes and no’. It was Wellington who said that the Irish tend to revolt against the tyranny of fact. And we can see that today.”

In his own way, Byrne has always sought to shine a light on those unpalatable facts. And as the years tick on, it is becoming clearer that Gay Byrne may well be the most radical creature that RTÉ has ever produced.

The morning is bright and cool when we leave. Byrne chats pleasantly for a while on the sidewalk and then leaves to stroll briskly across the pedestrian crossing to his home in Sandymount. You would never guess that this sprightly senior was, for decades, a guest in every living room and the owner of a voice that was, to so many in Ireland, a jazz instrument all on its own. Cars idle as Gay Byrne walks past, faces inside dreamily blank behind the windscreens, radios on.

CV

BORN

August 5th, 1934.

EDUCATION

Rialto National School, then Synge Street CBS. Honorary doctorate in literature from Trinity College Dublin, 1988.

FAMILY

Married to Kathleen (Watkins) since 1964, the couple have two daughters, Crona and Suzy.

CAREER

1958: Began presenting shows on Radio Éireann. Also worked on Granada Television, for which he became the first person to introduce The Beatles on a show named People and Places.

1962: The first Late Late Show was broadcast on July 5th.

1999: Presents his last Late Late Show.

2006: After hosting several television shows, begins presenting Sunday with Gay Byrne on Lyric FM. A keen motorcyclist, he is elected chairman of the Irish Road Safety Authority.

2009: Receives the Outstanding Achievement PPI Radio Award.


Sunday With Gay Byrneis on Lyric FM, Sundays, 2-4pm