When public persona has private costs


GIVE ME A BREAK:CERTAIN SECTIONS of the media, and perhaps the Irish in general, like nothing better than cutting down the tall poppies. Gerry Ryan knew this and laughed at it, though it must have contributed to the strain between his public and private selves. Keeping a balance between his outer persona and his inner life was probably as difficult for Ryan as for anyone in his situation, though when you’re earning half a million per year, you’re hardly likely to get sympathy, writes KATE HOLMQUIST

Being a media icon means risking pillory the higher you climb, and not just by the tabloids. Like Gay Byrne before him, Ryan was often in conflict with management in RTÉ, but his ratings protected him. He was the brash red-petalled flower on a fragile stem that kept growing taller.

Part of the joy for his listeners was being in on the act of provocation that Ryan presented. He depth-charged the conformists in suits. Listeners relished being part of the conspiracy as Irish radio transformed itself from repression to confession. Like Gaybo, Marian Finucane and Joe Duffy, Ryan was a midwife, helping Irish society to rebirth itself through the transition but, unlike them, he was always just a little bit more radical.

Ryan had a creative anarchy that made producers sweat. He had difficulty sticking to a minute-by-minute brief – 10 minutes for this item, 15 minutes for that. Ryan would follow his intuition and tear up the prescribed brief. Once his producers realised that the show was really about Gerry rather than the brief, things settled down into a successful radio programme.

Gerry Ryan became a radio Gerry Springer, without the fistfights and the exploitation. He brought out the demons in other people, while hinting at his own.

Ryan’s special talent was producing an illusion of intimacy – one radio voice, one listener. Those signing the books of condolence are saying goodbye to a friend they never met outside that special radio space. Ryan was the alternative father confessor, advising liberation rather than a dozen novenas. Listeners knew that he “got” them. And his habit for self-disclosure made listeners feel that they “got” him too.

I wonder if Ryan ever really “got” himself. His autobiography read like a cobbled together Dictaphone tape where his inner self never emerged.

I knew Ryan through being on his programme many times and I met him socially here and there. We also had connections through family and friends going back many years and he never forgot that link. He was always encouraging. While I wouldn’t count myself among his inner circle, he always greeted me like an old friend in that wickedly flirtatious way he had of putting people at ease. I suspect that perhaps there were only three or four people that he really confided in.

Ryan gave the impression of being open about his life on his radio show, while the darker, self-doubting Ryan hid away. His self-disclosing monologues may have convinced listeners that he was as unconditionally accepting of his own demons as he was of theirs, but he could be his own harshest critic.

In an interview with his friend Ryan Tubridy, Ryan said he didn’t actually know who he was beneath the swagger. He didn’t know what he wanted out of life. This made sense. When the microphone was on, Ryan came across with confidence, when it was off, he could deflate. As he grew older, he became increasingly bloated, like an overfed goldfish, and attempted to slim himself down. I got the impression that it wasn’t just boozy meals followed by Cuban cigars that made him swell. The pressures of his demanding bombastic media life was making his public self balloon at a cost to his inner life, as though his media personality was hoarding energy and making it difficult for him to keep the public and private in balance. He seemed overfed in public, yet starving. Behind the successful exterior, I always saw a lost boy, which was part of his appeal.

We’re living in an era obsessed with fame – we want to win Dorothy’s red shoes and Simon Cowell’s approval. Anyone who has lived with fame will tell you – either through words or actions – that the pressure of playing a public role can easily eclipse the soul. The dual identity between boisterous public mask and a troubled private life – and whose private life isn’t troubled, if they’re really honest? – stresses people in ways that those of us who haven’t experienced it cannot imagine.