Joe Duffy: The Gay Byrne I knew was fearless, and eternally curious

‘Who in their right mind would turn down the opportunity of working with the single greatest producer and presenter in Irish broadcasting and beyond?’

Gay Byrne: he was never sick, he never missed a show for a funeral, never let emotion overcome him. Photograph: Alan Betson

Gay Byrne: he was never sick, he never missed a show for a funeral, never let emotion overcome him. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Every person he met, every colleague he worked with and every issue he raised benefited from Gay Byrne’s presence, input and wisdom. His absence now leaves us much lessened.

I first met Gay in August 1966. I was 10, he had just turned 32 and by then was the biggest name in Irish broadcasting – if not in Ireland. I was in Moore Street with my mother getting my new leather school bag. Suddenly this handsome, suave man with a zipped brown leather satchel under his arm came sauntering up from the direction of the GPO. He was heading to his parked Triumph Herald. I was star-struck, grabbed a scrap of paper and a stubby pencil and he bemusedly gave me his autograph.

Up to then, the only other famous people I had seen in the flesh were Éamon de Valera and John F Kennedy.

The Late Late Show was first broadcast in 1962 and we saw its producer and host Gay Byrne play a role in the development of modern Irish society like no other

In many ways, Gay burst into Irish public life as Dev left it. The four decades of Dev’s austere, restrictive, grey, nervous, conservative Ireland were followed by four decades of Gaybo’s Ireland: an opening, striving, colourful, confident and strident republic.

Dev was elected president in 1959 and took a vow of silence until his death in 1975, two years after he left the Áras.

The Late Late Show was first broadcast in 1962 and we saw its producer and host Gay Byrne play a role in the development of modern Irish society like no other.

Shortly after I went to work in RTÉ radio as a producer, I bumped into Gay in the corridor, still carrying the same zipped brown leather satchel under his arm. He benignly asked me had I devised a recent outside broadcast from London.

Producer to the Gay Byrne Show

Gay, as always, moved quickly: the following day I got a request through my boss to move as a producer to the Gay Byrne Show.

My decision was swift – who in their right mind would turn down the opportunity of working with the single greatest producer and presenter in Irish broadcasting and beyond?

Gay was a man of routine. His work rate demanded it. Each day he first went to The Late Late Show office shortly after 7am, then after the 8am news he headed directly to Studio 6 in the Radio Centre.

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As a producer, my first job was go down to studio a few minutes later with the “day file”, hand it to him as he filleted the newspapers with his trusty scalpel for filler material on the show and took the only tablet he ever ingested until his recent illness – his daily Rubex. There was no chit-chat, he was totally focused. I watched him mouth what I thought was a prayer as I waited outside in the control room – he was in fact rehearsing out loud.

Routine continued after the show; up to the canteen for coffee, gossip and jovial banter – and I was detailed to cadge his single daily cigarette and a match for the maestro.

Back then, he worked six days a week. He was never sick, he never missed a show for a funeral, never let emotion overcome him. He was a focused and gifted producer and presenter – on The Late Late Show, where he was both. His only blind spot on the radio show was his weekly insistence that we play more jazz.

Gay was an avid reader, a great storyteller, eternally curious. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Gay was an avid reader, a great storyteller, eternally curious. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

When we were left without a reporter on the radio show, he simply pointed at me during a coffee break and asked me to do it – and told me to keep it in the style of our daily coffee banter.

When, shortly afterwards, a proposal came in to mark the centenary of one our hospitals with an outside broadcast, he insisted I do it as an insert – he hated hospitals, and always spoke of his reluctance to visit on any occasion.

But then again, his encouragement was just typical of that he gave to countless colleagues he mentored, supported and gave space to blossom.

Gay was an avid reader, a great storyteller, eternally curious. He never regretted that he didn’t go to third-level education – though he treasured his honorary doctorate from Trinity.

Fearless

He was fearless. In his first book, To Whom it Concerns, he wrote about the beginning of The Late Late Show and his battles with the bishops and the politicians. For a man in his early 30s, in a nascent station where the Cabinet decided the licence fee – still does – he showed no fear of any of them.

He was critical to a fault – we awaited each day with trepidation at 11am for his verdict on the programme

When I was instructed by my boss in 1989 to tell Gay he was to refrain from mentioning proposals from the then minister for communications Ray Burke to effectively nobble RTÉ and sell off 2FM – and which would end up benefiting the newly founded Century radio – Gay grunted.

But at 9.05am, just as Tico’s tune opened the show, he launched into the most eloquent, excoriating and withering attack on Burke and the idiocy of his proposals. They never saw the light of day.

Much more will be written and spoken of how Gay liberated so many social issues in the latter half of the 20th century in Ireland.

The decision by the government to appoint him as chairman of the new Road Safety Authority in 2006 was inspired. He loved the role, revelled in the task and was courageous to a fault – and it truly can be said that he saved lives.

He was a stickler for punctuality, neat cars, organised desks and tidy surroundings. He was obsessive about moderation, aircraft – and crashes, and the overweening EU.

He was critical to a fault – we awaited each day with trepidation at 11am for his verdict on the programme. It could be tough, but it was always fair and helpful.

His background, his upbringing, his long working life, and his wide experience gave us a private and public person who knew that true knowledge of water was not simply the formula H2O – true knowledge of water is thirst.

He was proud beyond belief of his beloved wife Kathleen (and she of her “Gabbsy”), their daughters Suzie and Crona and their families who were a tower of support, strength and loyalty through his unwelcome illness.

Blessed and lucky am I to have met him, worked with him, and to be one of his many friends, I am all the better for it. His departure is heartbreaking.