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Fintan O’Toole: Gay Byrne held the key to Ireland’s locked room of secrets

There is no other country in which light entertainment could lead into such dark territory

Gay Byrne in 1979: He was everybody and no one. File photograph: Eddie Kelly

In September 1993, I went on Gay Byrne's Late Late Show. I had been writing in The Irish Times about Stay Safe, a schools programme designed to give children an appropriate language in which to discuss bullying and abuse. There was a very strong campaign to oppose it, run mostly by right-wing Catholics. As one priest put it, "the claim that a child owns its own body is at odds with Christian tradition". I agonised about whether or not to go on the show, knowing how effectively Gay Byrne would turn it into a ding-dong battle of equal and opposite passions. And after the show, I was full of regrets. Byrne had indeed run the segment like the consummate ringmaster that he was, serving up yet another little episode of an apparently endless cultural war between tradition and change in Ireland. It felt pointless.

What I didn’t know was that in a housing estate somewhere in Co Offaly, an 11-year-old boy was watching The Late Late Show that night with his mother and a neighbour, a man of 75, who usually came in to view the week’s one unmissable programme with them. When the item about the Stay Safe programme came on, the neighbour had become uncomfortable. After a few minutes, he made an excuse and left. The mother could feel a sense of expectation. Her son then asked her what sexual abuse was. When she told him, he asked her how she would react if one of her children had been abused. She said she would be supportive.

The boy said, "Mammy, I was abused." He then told his mother that the neighbour who had been watching the Late Late with them a few minutes earlier had raped him about 20 times in the previous four years. In 1996, the neighbour, having pleaded guilty to two sample charges of rape and two of sexual assault, was jailed for five years.

Gay Byrne, then 43, compere of The Late Late show since 1962, photographed in 1979 at RTÉ. Photograph: Eddie Kelly/The Irish Times

What happened when the Late Late was on that night was revealed in court at the sentencing hearing. Otherwise, I would never have known about it. And never have understood quite so clearly how, in a particular time and a particular culture, a smooth, superbly professional broadcaster could, in his mere pursuit of gripping entertainment, hold the key to a nation's locked room of secrets.

Patrick Freyne looks back at the career of the multi award-winning broadcaster Gay Byrne. Stills: The Irish Times/ As credited
Gay Byrne, TV presenter of The Late Late Show, talks to Henry Kelly in 1974. Photograph: Tom Lawlor/The Irish Times

It is very hard to think of any other circumstances or any other place in which a 75-year-old man, an 11-year-old boy and a middle-aged woman would all be sitting down at 10pm on a Friday night watching a debate about the prevention of child abuse between an obscure journalist and a barely less obscure academic. And it is very hard to imagine that, after the death of Gay Byrne, any broadcaster will ever again have the kind of familiar, perhaps even familial, place in Irish people's lives that he acquired.

The trivial and the serious

In some respects, this is a bad thing – we must mourn the passing with him of a culture in which there was such a thing as a national TV show, a weekly cabaret of the trivial and the serious that was compulsory viewing if you wanted to be part of next week’s conversations at work, in the pub, in the kitchen, over the farm gate: “What did you think of your woman on the Late Late?” But in some respects, it is a good thing. Byrne’s extraordinary power could not have existed in a healthier society, a more open culture. Ireland needed someone very particular – someone with a strange combination of unthreatening charm and utter ruthlessness – to disarm it into opening its dark places, to make it say in public what it could not even admit in private.

Byrne's key attribute, before his quick intelligence and his nervelessness and his appetite for dog-hard work, was that he had a kind of beauty for many Irish people

I remember, some time in the early 1970s, being in my friend's house in Crumlin when the Late Late was on. Again, there was a neighbour – an elderly lady who lived a few doors down. I don't remember what was on. Part of the secret of the show was that quite a lot of the time it was bland and boring. But I do remember that elderly lady. She sat rapt on the sofa and every few minutes she would simply let out a deep sigh of pleasure and say "Gay Byrne! Isn't he beautiful?" It was the most rhetorical of questions. It is not easy to recall now, but Byrne's key attribute, before his quick intelligence and his nervelessness and his appetite for dog-hard work, was that he had a kind of beauty for many Irish people. He was beautifully dressed, beautifully mannered, beautifully spoken, beautifully poised – at a time when most of us were none of these things. He understood he was not just putting on TV and radio shows. He was making a show of himself. It was the show that a country emerging from poverty and economic backwardness and shame needed most – a show of confidence.

Gay Byrne and Paul Daniels outside the RTÉ studios in 1985. Photograph: Pat Langan/The Irish Times

He was never, in this sense, a mere medium. He was always himself a kind of message. But the message was potent because it was as fluid and ambiguous and contradictory as the country itself was. If he had been a mere reactionary, he would have been of no great interest – the country was full of them. If he had been a radical, he wouldn't have survived for six months. He thrived because he was both. He was conservative, a good Catholic and a supporter of Fianna Fáil. He was radical, a man who would prance around on live TV with a contraceptive cap on his head when contraceptives were still illegal. He was neat, sober and kind to old ladies, the son every Irish Mammy would love to have had. And yet he was brash, suave, upwardly mobile, the man every Irish Mammy's son would like to be.

He was everyone and no one. Everyone in the sense that his personal story mirrored the country's. He was a microcosm of Catholic Ireland from the late 1950s to the early 1990s. Inculcated with the values of the Christian Brothers (June Levine, who worked with him as a researcher on the Late Late, wrote of him as at times being "like a Christian Brother of the nasty type Irish men have described to me, merciless, unreasonable, relentless in his attack on anyone who fell short"). Emigrating along with everyone else in the 1950s. Returning to the burgeoning boomtime of the 1960s. Getting richer as the country got richer. Suffering financial calamity in the 1980s when his accountant stole his money and publicly contemplating emigration again. Working all the time in the gap between what the nation said it was and what it knew itself to be.

But also, crucially, no one.

An actor

It was not accidental that his two great platforms, the Late Late on TV and the Gay Byrne Show on radio had “show” in their titles. He was an actor. From a very early age he wanted to act and it was in the drama academies and the Dublin Shakespeare Society as a youth that he forged his sense of a public persona.

This was important in two ways. The funny voices, the ever so slightly camp edge, the prancing around, defused everything. It meant that he was always light entertainment, never current affairs. The rules of entertainment are brutally simple – keep us entertained. But they are also highly protective – so long as it's entertaining it doesn't matter whether it's a lesbian nun or a glamour model, a Hollywood star or a row about child abuse.

More than anyone else, he created a culture in which there was no entitlement to be listened to – attention had to be earned and held

He had, in his public persona, the actor's essential emptiness, the ability to replace the self with the role. He was always at his worst when he was most himself, when he allowed his own prejudices to break through, as he did for example when interviewing his friend Bishop Eamonn Casey's lover Annie Murphy, or when he used his radio show to whinge about the high taxes paid by people such as himself. But he was at his best when he was wielding the professional hitman's motto: nothing personal.

It wasn't personal when he ambushed Des O'Malley by asking him about his meetings with Charles Haughey during the arms trial or when he lured Pádraig Flynn, then an EU commissioner, into complaining about how hard it was to keep his three houses going, or when he asked Bernárd Lynch, the priest who was campaigning heroically on the Aids crisis, if he was gay. He was a dangerous host, using his charm to put guests so much at their ease that they sleepwalked into his minefields. Nothing personal – good cop or bad cop were just roles to be enacted for the sake of the show.

This ruthlessness was a challenge to authority. Byrne came into a public culture in which people (actually men) were entitled to be listened to because of the office they held, because they were bishops or government ministers. More than anyone else, he created a culture in which there was no entitlement to be listened to – attention had to be earned and held.

Models Laura Birmingham (left) and Sheila Eustace with Gay Byrne at a reception in Dublin to announce details of the 1991 Late Late Show fashion awards. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times

Boredom was not permitted – you might be a Nobel laureate or a living saint, but if Byrne sensed you were not holding his audience, he went to an ad break and brought on the dancing girls. This was, of course, part of a much wider shift in western culture, but it was especially disturbing in a society where moral and spiritual authority had been so effectively maintained for so long.

Pan Collins, the longest-serving researcher on the Late Late, wrote that her instructions from Byrne were to produce a weekly list of six possible guests: “an intellectual, a glamour personality, a VIP, a cynic, a comic and a kookie character”. The implicit understanding was that the VIP would have to fight for space with the kookie character. The implicit motto was: attention must be being paid.

But this, oddly, created a kind of bond, a sort of trust. Viewers and listeners understood Byrne's rules, knew the question he asked of any story was not whether it was proper or decent but whether it could hold attention for the allotted time. There was an honesty to this. When women wrote to his radio show in 1984 after the lonely death in childhood of Ann Lovett in Granard, telling him of their own experiences of secret births, they knew somehow they would be able to listen back to their own secrets coming from the airwaves in the precise, controlled, supremely calm voice that was already in everyone's heads. He would judge them not on their supposed sins but on the power of their stories.

Gay Byrne used those stories to create the most riveting 50 minutes of broadcasting in Irish history. There was no one else to whom those secrets could have been told, and no other country in which light entertainment could lead into such dark territory.