Gay Byrne obituary: The maestro of Irish broadcasting

Gay Byrne’s groundbreaking television and radio shows pushed the boundaries of what was a deeply conservative country

Gay Byrne, the veteran RTÉ broadcaster, has died at the age of 85. Photograph: David Sleator

Gay Byrne, the veteran RTÉ broadcaster, has died at the age of 85. Photograph: David Sleator

 

Gay Byrne
Born: August 5th, 1934
Died: November 4th, 2019

Gay Byrne, who has died at the age of 85, was the undisputed leading figure in the history of Irish broadcasting, and played a hugely influential role in the transformation of attitudes in the latter part of the 20th century.

In a career that spanned six decades, he was father figure, confessor, inquisitor and entertainer, all rolled into one. A natural showman, his seemingly effortless command of his medium in both television and radio belied a fierce perfectionism and unremitting work ethic. The Late Late Show, which he presented for many years, as well as his daily radio show, were both ground-breaking for their time.

Gabriel Mary Byrne was born in Dublin in August 1934 to Edward and Annie (neé Carroll) Byrne. Both parents were from Co Wicklow, his father from Kilruddery (where Gay Byrne’s grandfather was coachman to the Earl of Meath) and his mother from Bray. He was the youngest of four boys and one girl.

His father worked in Guinness’s on a shift system which limited his time with his children. It was partly for this reason that the young Gay Byrne never got close to him. His father’s job meant, however, that the family had a regular, secure income, something for which Guinness’s was famous in Dublin – and which was unusual enough in those days.

His mother was, as listeners to his radio programme later figured out for themselves, the dominant personality in the family. She was determined that her children would better themselves and sent Gay to secondary school.

The regular income from Guinness’s made the family more fortunate than many others. Nevertheless, his father’s wages were not high enough to allow his siblings to go to secondary school as well and they all – Mary, Al, Ernest and Ray – went to work after finishing primary school.

His brother Al, however, distinguished himself by being the first Catholic – and perhaps more importantly the first labourer’s son – to get onto the clerical staff of Guinness’s. Al got a science degree at Trinity College Dublin while working in Guinness’s. Byrne later described the day of Al’s appointment as “the proudest day in our family. If there wasn’t a brass band playing quietly in the background when the wonderful news was announced, there might as well have been.”

Ernest fought in Korea and worked successfully in television in the US and then in RTÉ. However, when passed over for the job of controller in RTÉ, he left and eventually returned to the US. Mary worked in the Royal Insurance Company and then in Guinness’s as a “lady clerk”. Ray had a successful career in Canadian television.

Byrne was educated, as the entire country eventually knew, by the Christian Brothers in Synge Street. He would have liked to have gone to university – he had chosen Trinity College Dublin – but when his father died he had to go to work instead. He regretted the loss of a degree and the conferring on him of an honorary doctorate by Trinity College Dublin in 1988 meant a great deal to him.

While he was in Synge Street, an event occurred which, in retrospect, was extraordinary. A teacher, Mr Moynihan, brought his class to Radio Éireann to take part in a programme, Children at the Microphone. Mr Moynihan was so pleased with young Gay Byrne’s performance that he gave him a threepenny bit.

What those in the studio thought of the boy who, in the future, would revolutionise Irish broadcasting, remains unknown. He himself later said he had expected to find banners hung out all over Rialto (where he grew up) when he came home that day but, of course, no such thing occurred.

It is impossible not to wonder, however, if that trip to Radio Éireann was the seed of the attraction which show business held for him and which would eventually make him RTÉ’s greatest star.

Byrne first started as a broadcaster in 1958 with a job at Radio Éireann
Byrne first started as a broadcaster in 1958 with a job at Radio Éireann

His mother was a daily communicant and expected her children to be the same. She had promised to go to Mass and Communion every day if her husband came back safely from the first World War – they had married in Belfast in 1917 – which he did.

The daily Mass-going eventually chafed with the young Gay Byrne and at the age of 14 or 15 he had a serious row with his mother during which he said some extremely insolent things to her. That evening, his father gave him a beating so severe he never forgot it – the beating was not for refusing to go to Mass but for the insolence to his mother.

Puritanism

He was later to credit her with having instilled into him a sense of puritanism which made it hard for him to stop working, relax or spend money on having fun.

At first, his path took him to insurance, rather than to radio. His sister, Mary, helped him to get a job with the Royal Insurance Company – after he had failed the entrance exam for Guinness’s – but he felt drawn to show business and left after a year to work in cinema management. However, he didn’t like that at all and set about studying for part two of the Associateship of the Chartered Institute of Insurance. With this under his belt, he got a job with the Guardian Insurance Company.

But he continued to try to get into show business and broadcasting and his efforts paid off in 1958 when he was taken on as a presenter by Radio Éireann.

In the early days he did everything: introducing sponsored radio programmes, making continuity announcements and working part-time in an advertising agency which made some of the programmes. He tried everything too. He applied to become a soccer commentator but the attempt failed when it emerged he knew nothing at all about the game. He also wanted to read the news but was told he was “too good” for it.

Gaybo, as he came to be known, saw his popularity as fickle and as something that could disappear at the whim of the audience

On July 5th, 1962, the first episode of The Late Late Show was aired on Irish television. Originally planned as an eight-week summer filler, the programme would continue to run until the present day, and remains the most remarkable institution in the history of Irish broadcasting.

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The magazine-style format allowed debate on the most controversial issues of the day alongside celebrity interviews and performances from leading Irish and international musical acts. Although the show would continue into the 21st century, with first Pat Kenny and then Ryan Tubridy, it was Byrne’s creation and will always be associated with his name.

In 1957, optician Donal McNally had introduced him to harpist and aspiring broadcaster, Kathleen Watkins, who would be the first continuity announcer to appear on Telefís Éireann on its opening night on New Year’s Eve, 1961. By the time the couple finally married in Saggart Parish Church in 1964, their wedding was a celebrity event, with a crowd of more than a thousand gathering in the Dublin village to catch a glimpse of the newlyweds, who needed a Garda escort to get to their car.

As a broadcaster, Gay Byrne, or Gaybo, as he came to be known, saw his popularity as fickle and as something that could disappear at the whim of the audience. Though he tended to downplay, in public at any rate, his own enormous contribution to radio and television in Ireland, there is no doubt that to move successfully from the old, uncontroversial Radio Éireann to the new, brash RTÉ took a rare combination of skills and talent. He had a natural aptitude for live performance – he always did the audience warm-up routines himself – allied with a fierce perfectionism and control over his medium which caused him to seek and achieve recognition as the show’s producer as well as its presenter.

Byrne at the unveiling of his portrait in the National Gallery of Ireland in 2000. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Byrne at the unveiling of his portrait in the National Gallery of Ireland in 2000. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Television in general and The Late Late Show in particular represented a gust of wind through the Ireland of the 1960s. An example of the sea change which he mastered is found in contrasting treatments of the Irish language.

When he and broadcaster Joe Linnane interviewed people in a Prescott’s shop for a sponsored radio programme, the station would not allow it to be broadcast because the interviewees complained about compulsory Irish.

Gay Byrne was seen by many as the one who dug the grave of the old Ireland or, more positively, as the midwife of a new Ireland

Not long after, The Late Late Show did a programme on the Irish language. There was an incandescent row on the show between the actor Joe Lynch – who questioned the sacred cow that was the language movement at that time – and Donal Ó Moráin, the most recognisable leader of that movement.

The world of Radio Éireann was dead.

Gay Byrne was seen by many as the one who dug the grave of the old Ireland or, more positively, as the midwife of a new Ireland. He himself would have none of that. He took the view that he was in the right place at the right time and that was that.

Why wasn’t he stopped in his tracks? The 1960s may have been a time of change but the Ireland of that time was far more conservative than the Ireland of today. The girls who flocked to the ballrooms could, if they became pregnant, find themselves shut into a mother and baby home for up to two years, spending their time scrubbing floors and working in the kitchens, their names changed, their right to communicate with the outside world cut off, their babies taken from them to be sent to America on a few hours’ notice.

Yet Gay Byrne – who was very well aware of the existence of that other Ireland – chipped away and away at it, lethally on The Late Late Show, bringing on, for instance, guests who championed the right of unmarried mothers and their babies to be treated decently by the State.

Had the old Ireland stepped in – and it had plenty of representatives in RTÉ, in politics and the civil service – to insist that The Late Late Show stick to “safe” entertainment, the story of Gay Byrne would probably be of little interest to us today.

Survivalist

He himself believed his survival was a matter of RTÉ being made up of new, young people who didn’t even know the old rules existed. They simply didn’t know they shouldn’t have been doing what they were doing.

Perhaps so. Nevertheless, his survival was a remarkable achievement for the boy who got a serious beating over giving cheek to his mother because he didn’t want to go to Mass.

The great contradiction of Gay Byrne, of course, was that in so many of his views he was conservative, though he did so much to undermine the very conservative approach which had characterised Irish life well into the 1960s

He did make one apology which he regretted afterwards.

It was in the Bishop and the Nightie affair, when he asked a woman in the audience what she had worn on her wedding night. She replied that she had worn nothing.

This drew the ire of the Bishop of Clonfert. The very ground seemed to shake with the controversy which erupted for a few days. Gay Byrne brought it to an end with what he later described as a “half” apology. But he didn’t feel good about it and he decided he would never again apologise when he had done nothing wrong.

Oddly enough, he was probably the only one who remembered years later that he had apologised: all the public remembered was that a bishop had made a fool of himself over a harmless joke by a woman about her wedding night.

The Gay Byrne Show, the radio programme which brought him into the nation’s kitchens every weekday morning, started in 1972 and ran until 1998. It was the first Irish programme to invite listeners to ring in to talk about whatever was on their minds. Today, the practice is ubiquitous in Irish radio.

Gay Byrne, presenting on Lyric FM at the RTÉ Radio Centre in 2013. Photograph: Alan Betson
Gay Byrne, presenting on Lyric FM at the RTÉ Radio Centre in 2013. Photograph: Alan Betson

At the time, when radio was relatively formal and stylised – before the show began to be broadcast, the station actually closed down every morning until lunchtime – it was revolutionary. A dam broke with the hundreds of letters sent in to the show in response to the tragic death of Ann Lovett in 1984. They contained the previously untold, heartrending experiences of many women in Ireland at the time.

The great contradiction of Gay Byrne, of course, was that in so many of his views he was conservative, though he did so much to undermine the very conservative approach which had characterised Irish life well into the 1960s.

He took the view, for instance, that the country was going to the dogs economically and that State spending was too high. Irish people wanted jobs but they didn’t want to work. Too few people were working to pay welfare to too many people. Taxes were too high. He was against politicians and civil servants who he saw as failing to do anything about the country’s problems.

He had an immense capacity for hard work. In 1959, for instance, he commuted weekly between Dublin and Manchester (where he worked for Granada). In the early 1960s he lived in London, worked for the BBC and travelled home weekly to do The Late Late Show. After a time, he decided he wanted to be in Dublin and moved back. His stint of many years in which he did both The Late Late Show and the daily radio programme was, to say the least, a marathon. He was, for many years, presenter of the Rose of Tralee festival, and other one-off specials. In its later years, The Late Late Show – he presented his last one in 1999 – lost some of its controversial edge, probably because the country had shed much of that conservatism which had made the show so exciting and controversial in its early days.

There were still moments of drama, though – his 1993 interview with Annie Murphy about her affair with Bishop Eamonn Casey was criticised as condescending and insensitive. His refusal to shake hands with Gerry Adams in 1994 on the Sinn Féin leader’s first appearance on the Late Late was also criticised. A better moment, perhaps, was the skilful entrapment of then EU commissioner Pádraig Flynn into expounding at length about how hard it was to make ends meet on £140,000 a year.

Although Byrne was driven by that puritan work ethic he complained about, he didn’t find it easy. It was hard, relentless work. As he told Ivor Kenny for the latter’s book In Good Company, “I live in a jail of my own creation. I have done so for 25 years. There are times when the alarm goes off at six o’clock and I say to myself, ‘Oh God. Not another day like yesterday.”

This rendered the loss of his money in the Russell Murphy affair all the more shocking – when it emerged after Murphy’s death in 1984 that the accountant had taken all the money which he had managed on Gay Byrne’s behalf and had left him in debt. Worse, Murphy had been a close friend and Gay Byrne had seen him almost as a father figure.

The blow was a grievous one to a man who confessed to having a sense of insecurity about his income, despite his great success. He had worked hard for the money – now he would have to go on working hard, to make the money back. After years of being on short-term contracts and, he felt with some justification, being undervalued, he did manage to negotiate better terms with RTÉ management as the decades wore on, although he suffered further losses in the economic crash of 2008.

“I had a long run of very good years,” he told The Irish Times in 2010. “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.”

Work ethic

The work ethic certainly did not desert him following what was supposed to be his retirement in 1999. He continued to appear on television, presenting the Irish version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, along with series such as The Gay Byrne Music Show and Make ’Em Laugh (about comedy in Ireland), Gaybo’s Grumpy Men and Class Reunion.

He became a tireless and forceful advocate for saving lives, appearing frequently on radio and television, during a period which saw a dramatic fall in road traffic fatalities

His long-running interview series The Meaning of Life included a number of remarkable moments, including actor Gabriel Byrne’s admission that he had been abused as a child and Stephen Fry’s denunciation of God.

Typically, Byrne kept his own beliefs firmly to himself. “I am not going to say, because it would compromise me in terms of the show if people knew I had a position,” he said.

From 2006, he also presented Sunday afternoon shows on Lyric FM, where he displayed his encyclopaedic knowledge and deep love of classic jazz while delighting his substantial audience with curmudgeonly asides about the state of everything.

In 2014, he presented a 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. In addition to his broadcasting activities, he also took a one-man live show on tour around the country.

Another, quite different role which kept him in the public eye was as chairman of the Road Safety Authority, a position in which he used his unparalleled communications skills to bring home to Irish people the need for a cultural change in their behaviour on the roads.

He became a tireless and forceful advocate for saving lives, appearing frequently on radio and television, during a period which saw a dramatic fall in road traffic fatalities. Given his position as the father figure of the nation, it probably wasn’t surprising that, in the months leading up to the 2011 presidential election, he was reported to be toying with the idea of running as an independent with the support of Fianna Fáil, although he finally decided against it.

Byrne with his wife, Kathleen, in the Shelbourne Hotel after his last appearance on The Late Late Show. Photograph: David Sleator
Byrne with his wife, Kathleen, in the Shelbourne Hotel after his last appearance on The Late Late Show. Photograph: David Sleator

Gay Byrne was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2016 and he wrote and spoke publicly about the gruelling nature of the chemotherapy treatment regime he faced.

He was recently due to receive the Ireland-US Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award from President Michael D Higgins, but was unable to attend the ceremony due to a broken wrist and chest infection.

President Higgins paid tribute to him at the event, saying: “Controversial, outspoken, and unafraid to break new ground, it has been said that, throughout his many decades on television and radio, Gay Byrne’s role in the shaping and crafting of modern-day Ireland has been profound.”

Gay Byrne is survived by his wife, Kathleen Watkins, and their two daughters, Crona and Suzy.