The women behind Gay Byrne’s success: who they were and what they did
There were several strong women in Byrne’s corner, supporting his broadcasting, shaping its choices
Gay Byrne, who hosted the Rose of Tralee for many years, receives kisses from Melbourne Rose Emily Elliott and South Australia Rose Kim Lambert at a reception in Dublin in 2003. Photograph: Paddy Whelan
Was there an army of women in Gay Byrne’s corner? His radio show for decades had a predominantly female audience, and picked up on women’s changing lives and expectations in a slowly modernising Ireland. It and the Late Late Show shone a light, lifted a lid. For a man of his generation, with all the ingrained gender roles and attitudes that entails, it is striking how Byrne became a sort of midwife to the concerns of women, their often circumscribed lives.
His home life was very female: a visibly close-knit family with Kathleen Watkins and their two daughters Crona and Suzy. He regularly mentioned them all on air, referring always to his wife by her full name.
Last year Byrne said while he wanted to “lie down and die” on the bad days of his illness, “I’ve the most incredible family. I couldn’t get through this without the love and support of my wife and daughters. They really have kept me going.”
His mother was a key person in his early life. Byrne has said he grew up in “an extraordinary enclave of mothers”. Deirdre Purcell, the ghostwriter on his biography The Time of My Life, said this week: “He spoke always about his mother. She was fearless, daunting in some ways. She instilled an incredible work ethic into all of her children. She was the kindest person in the the world... I think his mother’s influence was extraordinary, and he had, in my opinion, quite a feminine side.”
And at work, there were several strong women in Byrne’s corner, supporting his broadcasting, shaping its choices – and to whom he gave credit.
Gay Byrne’s special assistant and programme executive 1968-1999
Maura Connolly worked with Gay Byrne for more than 30 years, in a role encompassing researcher, artist liaison, stage manager, audience warm-up, troubleshooter. She’s been described as Byrne’s eyes and ears. “He always said I was his legs and producer behind the scenes on production day when we were live on air,” she says. They famously dined together on egg and chips in the RTÉ canteen before the Late Late each week.
Originally secretary for Byrne and Adrian Cronin (Late Late Show director and head of light entertainment) which included hosting guests, after a year she worked solely with Byrne, and her role expanded over time.
“Once he trusted you he gave you your head. It was a great job. I felt I had a free hand in coming up with ideas; he would go with them or not; the final decision was his of course. He was a brilliant leader. His team appreciated the values he instilled, the hard work and perfection. And even though it was a treadmill, we had wonderful fun.”
The first meeting of the week had a postmortem of the previous show, when Byrne would “congratulate brilliant ideas and compliment researchers for a job well done. If an item didn’t go well or he was given a wrong designation or title for a guest, he’d say, I’m the patsy on camera out front and I need correct information, don’t let that happen again.
“He was a very straight talker. Equally, if he didn’t deliver, he got the criticism – they were rare occasions.” But negatives passed quickly and “there was no aggression, nobody felt insulted. Then we would just carry on with planning for the next show.”
He was supportive. “Gay would always, in covering an item, give a credit on air to the producer who researched it, mentioning Pan or Mary or Colman. No other broadcaster in the world does that. He was very generous. You’d feel great that he acknowledged your role.”
The basis of their working relationship was “he trusted me, as someone to talk to as well as someone to work with. I was reliable, and he knew it wouldn’t go any further. He was a colleague, but more importantly a friend. Anybody he trusted, he just let them at it. He delegated. He was very generous and kind, a wonderful man, wonderful years. Every person who worked with him loved him and admired him, which is amazing over such a long history.”
She mentions many who worked on the show, and particularly senior researcher Pan Collins, who was at the Late Late for 20 years, and researchers June Levine (who worked on it for three years), John Caden (who later became his radio producer), Brigid Ruane (“researcher from 1980 till the end”). “Everybody stayed forever and ever.” Production assistants included Colette Farmer (“roll it there Colette”), who went on to direct the show, and Róisín Harkin (the “roll it there Róisín” as he held up a condom to the nation on air, a clip replayed this week).
There were many women on the team, but Connolly points out he worked with many men too – “countless men” – on the show. And, she volunteers, “the perception of enmity with Pat Kenny could not get further from the truth”.
Every Christmas Byrne treated the team to lunch – they often went to a Chinese in case “we’d be turkeyed out” and in recent years to his home in Sandymount. The tradition continued through the years. He gave the team gifts with strict instructions not to open them before Christmas morning, and an egg at Easter.
Connolly also acted as “a conduit to the radio show”. She recalls the Colin McStay story, a child who needed a liver transplant in the US; the Late Late was booked up and she brought the story to John Caden on the radio show. Money rolled in towards the surgery (including quiz entrants sending a £1 each; “we called him the million dollar kid”, and the remaining money started the Gay Byrne Show Fund ).
Connolly came up with the idea for gifts for “everyone in the audience”, and for the famous quiz. “I was trying to push a quiz for about three years. I had to sell it to Gay, and eventually he went for it. It took off.”
There were hiccups too. She recalls psychiatrist RD Laing’s famous drunken appearance in 1985. Backstage, Laing was “banging from one side of the corridor to the other”, and Byrne changed the show’s running order. They didn’t have backups, so they had to put him on air, with colleague Ivor Browne alongside. “It was obvious he was stocious,” and famously Byrne had a go at him on air for being “under the weather” and “slow”. A month later he came back, sober, and apologised: “It was a brilliant interview,” she says.
Connolly says one of Byrne’s favourite interviews was Mother Teresa in 1973, sitting close to the audience under a spotlight: “it was 25 minutes, the longest interview she did, he did a brilliant interview”. Audrey Hepburn was another favourite.
When he got ill, “Gay said I don’t want to talk about it. He didn’t want to have to keep explaining.” Connolly didn’t ask, but Byrne kept her informed of how things were going. “Kathleen and Crona and Suzy were brilliant. They were a tower of strength to Gay. Kathleen is a very positive woman. She was always supportive, but particularly in the three years of his illness.”
In over 30 years, Byrne and Connolly “never had one row. In a highly creative environment, tempers can go, but Gay was not that sort of person. He was always a gentleman and well mannered, courteous and civilised. At the postmortems, if it didn’t go right he’d tell you and then move on. It was a style of extraordinarily good management.”
Late Late Show senior researcher, 1962-83
Pan Collins started on the Late Late at the age of 47 and was hugely influential on it for 20 years, until her retirement. Collins first described the 28-year-old Byrne as “a bright and sassy disc jockey, sometime newsreader and occasional continuity announcer”. The toy show was her brainchild, and although Maura Connolly recalls initially “nobody wanted to do it”, Byrne reluctantly agreed to a 25-minute slot on Christmas toys in 1975. It has been in the schedule ever since”.
In 1981 Collins was in the guest’s seat to talk about her memoir, It Started on The Late Late Show. She told Byrne the show she most enjoyed working on was the 70th birthday tribute to Micheál Mac Liammóir in 1969. “The cake went on fire. You asked me to await a certain cue and be ready to light the 70 candles on the cake, which I did. And the candles lit up beautifully, we were standing right under the air conditioning and I was to push on the cake.
“But before I could do a thing Siobhán McKenna sprang out of the audience with a great sheaf of flowers and started to address Micheál with a long speech in Irish. I was trapped! And the air conditioning was blowing a gale! And it blew the flame of the candles back on to... there was a little decoration of horseshoe and white heather on the top of the cake and all the candle flames blew back onto that. And it went up! Eventually Siobhán sat down and I rushed on to the set shouting to you, ‘Gay quick! The bloody cake’s on fire!’”
Production assistant, later director, of the Late Late Show, between 1964 and 1999
Gay Byrne’s regular call-out on the Late Late, “Roll it there Colette”, became a catchphrase and passed into Irish idiom. From 1975 on, when the show was about to run a piece of film, Byrne would utter the words “Roll it there Colette” on air, as a signal to the control room to tee up the footage. Colette was Colette Farmer, production assistant, and an invisible presence, through Gaybo’s reference, on the show for many years. In 1991, Farmer became a TV director, working on shows from Cursai to Simply Delicious, and directed the Late Late Show from 1992 to 1999, including Byrne’s last Late Late.
After “Roll it there Colette”, it became “Roll it there Roisin”, when Roisin Harkin was PA.
Gay Byrne Show researcher 1989-97; Late Late researcher 1999. Now executive producer of podcasts at RTÉ
Alice O’Sullivan worked on Byrne’s radio show for 11 years, one of a team of nine or 10 which included three men (one of them Byrne). It was a very female environment, though “I never even thought about that till afterwards”. The team included Julie Parsons, Lorelei Harris, Caroline Murphy, Alex White, Joe Duffy, Ronan Kelly, Eithne Hand, Anne Farrell.
“Gay was my mentor and my friend. I think he loved women, and understood women. We were all very fond of him. It was a fantastic experience. I really learned all about life working on the Gay Byrne Show.
“He was surrounded by women at home obviously. He really listened to women. Women were mainly his audience [on the radio] and it was all about the audience for Gay. He needed to know and understand the audience.
“For all that his era was one of chauvinism, in the office there was none of that. The programme was so female-oriented.”
In the listeners’ letters, people were “opening up their lives, about giving birth in secret, ‘running-away money’ – it was a huge thing not being allowed to work after marriage – affairs, single mums. Divorce was discussed, and marriages lived in silence – ‘he never talks to me’. The unconsumated marriage. There were sackloads of letters. It opened the floodgates, these secrets people were writing to Gay.”
O’Sullivan was “the baby of the team”, but she says was aware that Byrne understood women because he listened: “He was the best listener,” she says.
“I was friendly with him till day he died. He was inclusive in friendships, men and women were the same. He was a lovely, loyal friend. I never felt I was a man or a woman, I felt I was just Alice. That was my experience of him. He was tough as well. You had to have your research right. If you didn’t you’d hear about it, and you’d only get so many chances . . . and it might be just one chance. Standards were high, and there was no room for shoddiness, laziness, sloppy work. He led by example: he worked extremely hard, and so did we.”
Later, O’Sullivan was a researcher during Byrne’s final year on the Late Late, when they briefed him verbally rather than by written notes as was done on the radio show. She recalls how he would sit, looking out the window as she spoke, and then “when it was over, ‘is that it?’ ” He was absorbing it all, his mind was working. He’d ask questions. If you mentioned you liked or didn’t like someone, he’d ask ‘Why? Interesting’.”
She recalls briefing Byrne before he interviewed Graham Norton, explaining he was the new boy, that the big deal growing up in Bandon was not that he was gay but that he was protestant; mentioning that he was nervous. “When Graham was opposite Gay live, it was my brief he was repeating.”
Radio producer and writer. Gay Byrne Show researcher 1990-1994; producer of Byrne’s s Sunday Jazz programme on Lyric FM 2013-2016
Eithne Hand, who worked briefly on the Late Late Show, on Byrne’s radio show and on his Lyric show, doesn’t think he had any particular affinity for women’s issues but “he wanted as many people as possible to listen to that show. He wanted more than anything for the show to be the best”. The audience was predominantly female, “so everything we worked on and got feedback from and pushed was more focused on women. It was the producers and the researchers who decided what was on the programme each morning”.
She says: “Gay told me very recently that he learned almost all he ever knew about women’s rights and feminism from June Levine,” when she was a Late Late researcher. “Before that, he said, he really knew nothing about women’s rights or place in society. So he felt his eyes had been opened in those early days. She was a really big influence on him.”
The focus was on listeners and “the unsolicited material we received was remarkable. The phones in the office wouldn’t stop ringing. At one stage I thought I couldn’t stand it any more. Every time you answered the phone, a shy female voice would say hello and begin to tell you a story they had never told anyone before. Almost always they were incredibly difficult stories.”
The team had no training or experience in counselling callers and later as a manager in Radio 1 Hand introduced a Rape Crisis Centre training option for researchers.
“We literally listened for hours and took notes. In my memory almost all these calls were from women. If a man wrote or rang in, he jumped to the top of the line because his voice was rare – it was like society was turned upside down for these two hours. Women had the microphone. We weren’t trying to be a woman’s programme but Gay had a voice and a style that appealed, the listeners loved him, wanted to tell him all sorts of things, and they were mostly women.”
She and Byrne talked a lot on Sundays over 2013-2016 on Lyric, “about all sorts, and he was just genuinely interested in all parts of life – always inquiring how my ‘better half was’ – but never forgetting to say, ‘how are you dote’. You did have to put up with the paternalistic sort of thing but he was of that vintage.”
She observes that he sometimes found it hard to deal with requests from people writing about societal changes he was “held responsible for”. “He’d say ‘I have nothing to say. It wasn’t me doing all of that’. He honestly didn’t even remember some of the things he was being lauded for doing. He didn’t have a ‘view’ on the contraception debate, or on the divorce laws – he felt he was the mediator between the voices and the airwaves. All he wanted was to start conversations.”
She refers to an interview where he said he didn’t believe in the idea of speaking through the mic to just one person. “I want to speak to all 850,000 listeners, he said. And he wanted them to then talk to each other about what was being discussed. He really understood the literal meaning of broadcasting.”
There were lots of women on the radio in the early 1990s, as there were throughout radio – it was “seriously non-reflective of society”, Hand points out. The executive producer when Hand worked on the radio show was male. “I think Gay did like that.” The team was predominantly female and “we might get irritated if he called us the ‘girls in the office’. He was a product of his time. But you could call him out on it and he’d take it back. We were all strong women.
“He never demeaned the professional work though – he always praised good work or if an item flopped he would just say one thing and that would be that. If a producer or researcher came up with a bright idea, his first answer would be ‘Yes, let’s try it’. He didn’t react differently if it was male or female. For him it was ultimately about the show, always about the show.”
Latterly, when they chatted during the Lyric jazz show, “he seemed to regret that he wasn’t part of the gang in the office, forgetting that he was so much older than us; we were all late 20s-early 30s . He would have liked to have been ‘in’ on all the gossip and he often wondered later why that was the case. He was just 27 years older. That answer was never the right one.”
In the “busy 1990s”, he wasn’t “the sort of guy you’d want to go out for a pint with. Five mornings a week and the Late Late on Fridays – sure he didn’t have time to have a pint. In later years he mellowed a lot, laughed a lot more, gossiped a lot and was a joy to be around.
“He was mad about me and I was mad about him and I never thought when I first met him that we’d get to share so much time together or that this would be how it ended. I lost both a hero and a pal on Monday.”
Ann Marie Hourihane
Journalist. Researcher on Gay Byrne Show for a year in the 1980s.
The journalist observed in 2014: “It is not to say, either, that Byrne was ever a saint. He had a prolonged period of crankiness in his 50s. He seems never to have met a millionaire he did not like. He has a weakness for conventional glamour in women. (On the radio programme in the 1980s, he suggested that his predominantly female team would look better if we wore flesh-coloured tights. At the time, we were all dressed in black trousers, flat shoes and wore no make-up before noon, if then. Our main accessories were exhaustion and stress. Byrne always looked immaculate.)”
She observed: “His career was conducted in the softer, female area of broadcasting, as opposed to news or current affairs. At times he was dismissed as the housewives’ pet and a bit of an old woman himself. Byrne understood the essence of what later came to be known as soft power before the phrase was coined. No one who worked on any of his programmes – as I did, for a year, on his radio show – ever doubted where the true power lay.”
This article was amended on November 11th, 2019, to clarify a reference to the “Roll it there Colette” phrase used by Gay Byrne.