Gay Byrne ‘made a difference in our world. Our society will be forever in his debt’

Bob Collins funeral eulogy: full text

 

Under the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in London are inscribed the simple but powerful words of appreciation for its architect Christopher Wren; “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice”. Reader, if you seek a monument, look around. Dear friends, if you want to see a tribute to Gay Byrne, look around this cathedral this morning and find it in the assembled throng.

In August 1962, the programme manager at Telefis Éireann sent a memo to “all programme division staff”.

Gay was all these things – reflective, deep, serious, thoughtful. A person of values. And for that, we are grateful

He said: “It has happened several times recently that on audience shows, and especially on The Late Late Show, members of staff have been arriving at the studio accompanied by parties of friends and asking for admission to the studio without having the necessary admission tickets.

“These tickets, each of which admits two people, are available at the reception desk where they may be had at any time for the asking ... people who are anxious to go to the studio with friends are advised to obtain their tickets well in advance of the production of the programme. I have authorised the studio’s manager to refuse admittance to any person who does not produce a ticket.”

Fifty-seven years of frenzied demand for tickets to the Late Late Show later, something had undoubtedly changed along the way.

Gay Byrne in his early television years. Photograph: The Irish Times
Gay Byrne in his early television years. Photograph: The Irish Times

To present a very popular, nationally engaging, sometimes enraging, programme such as the Late Late is to inhabit a number of worlds simultaneously and to exhibit a number of personalities simultaneously, while all the time being oneself – and being true to oneself. The risk was always present that the audience might miss the real person, the real Gay, might underestimate the reflective spirit, might not fully appreciate the serious person, might mistake the questions asked for the beliefs and values held. And Gay was all these things – reflective, deep, serious, thoughtful. A person of values. And for that, we are grateful.

Gay understood the democratising power of television and he was a very important companion and guide on that journey into the modern era

It is difficult for us in this world of virtually unlimited sources of programming from all over the globe to recall just how revolutionary television was in the early 1960s and later, and how dramatic an experience it was to see and hear powerful figures of church and state and business asked hard questions, more to the point being expected to answer them, and being pressed to answer when reluctant to do so. The Late Late developed as the young RTÉ met the challenge of adapting to the potential and power of a weekly, live, late evening television programme with such an innovative and adventurous host.

Gay Byrne is the last man on the planet to suggest that he was the initiator of Ireland’s process of change or that he single-handedly brought it about. Change was already beginning to happen. People were beginning to have a new sense of themselves. Women were finding their voices – and raising them. But Gay recognised that, he discerned what was coming in terms of social development and social change, he understood the democratising power of television and he was a very important companion and guide on that journey into the modern era. The people appreciated that and loved him for it.

Gay did not just present the Late Late. He was its producer. And he understood fully the editorial potential and responsibility of that role. He fully appreciated, as well, the crucial contribution that the programme teams made to the success of the television and radio ventures. He was protective and utterly supportive of them. No raiding fox was going to pinch one of the Gay Byrne flock without a struggle.

Gay Byrne presenting his Time Warp show on Lyric FM. Photograph: Alan Betson
Gay Byrne presenting his Time Warp show on Lyric FM. Photograph: Alan Betson

Courteous at all times, he was also a professional to his fingertips. Utterly so. It was a real delight to see him presenting a Salute to Irish Television to an audience of hard-bitten television professionals, mainly from the US, who were mesmerised by his talent, at an Emmys Gala event in New York in, I think, 1983. The following evening he dazzled and baffled a studio crew when presenting a live Late Late from the same city. No expected autocue for the presenter here; no sense of an audience as simply an applause machine, no presenter glued to his chair behind a desk. And not a little panic on the floor and in the gallery when Gay, as he would have done in Studio 1 in Donnybrook, rambled down to mix with the audience and bring the studio alive. A wonder to behold – and to savour.

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Gay also had a really great sense of humour. The stills library in RTÉ is full of photographs of Gay smiling, laughing heartily in studio, thoroughly enjoying his work. The segments of the Late Late Show with comedians were, and still are, very special. He also had the ability to be very funny himself. And when he gave free rein to his comedic self, the effect could be side-splittingly, pain-inducingly hilarious. And, by the way, there is a great comedy programme in the responses of county councils throughout the country to Gay and his programmes in the 1960s and 70s. Remember, these were the elected representatives of those who paid the licence fee – or of some of them anyway.

We sometimes think that people who are successful, who receive great public acclaim, whose lives seem idyllic ... we think that they live gilded lives, never touched by the cares of the day, never affected by the issues that affect ourselves. It’s not true, of course. Gay was human like the rest of us. And in his life he knew disappointment, dismay, distress. He was not unacquainted with grief. This is neither the time nor the place to reflect further but his family will know what caused him pain.

His family, too, will know what an extraordinary source of love and support they were to him. Kathleen, Suzy and Crona were the centre of his world and of his life. They and the rest of the family will know, more than anyone else in this cathedral ever can, the full impact of the loss we mark today. But they will be sustained by the enduring bonds of love, life and laughter in their lives with Gay.

Like all of us, Gay was also imperfect. And there were always those in the audience and in the wider public who were quick as a flash to spot the mistake, to jump on what they saw as – or were told was – a lapse of taste. There is an important point here. Were those thousands of hours to be broadcast without ever encountering a problem, we would be on another planet.

Were the myriad of topics dealt with never to have raised a question of judgment, we would be in the realm of the super-human. But we are in the realm of the profoundly human and that, perhaps more than anything else, is what makes Gay Byrne special. For that, too, we have reason to be thankful.

Because the audience knew instinctively that here was the genuine article, here was one who spoke to and for them, here was one who could, and did, change their lives

The end of his commitment to the Late Late and the radio programme did not mark the end of his working life. He made programmes with his late brother Al; he made a lovely programme on his father’s involvement in and return from the Great War; his series on the Meaning of Life was very important to him; and he began a new radio career on Lyric fm He was involved for quite a time with the children’s hospital and he served with distinction for two terms as chair of the Road Safety Authority.

His 37 years of full-time engagement with broadcasting did not happen by accident – nor without moments of editorial anxiety. It happened because of one man’s talents, energy, capacity, resilience and personal qualities; because of the gifted programme teams who worked with him; because a public broadcasting organisation appreciated his talent, recognised potential and knew its responsibility; and because the audience knew instinctively that here was the genuine article, here was one who spoke to and for them, here was one who could, and did, change their lives. He made a difference in our world. And for that our society will be forever in his debt.

It is given to very few to be welcomed into the bloodstream of the people, to be a source of oxygen to the life of the community. It is given to fewer still to be taken to the hearts of the people in the very particular way that Gay was. I often think that, without for a moment diminishing the importance and impact of his work on television, this deep relationship may have owed more to his radio work. He absolutely perfected the craft of radio and he fully understood the power of the medium. Perhaps it is to that quarter century of daily contact with him on radio that we can attribute the fact that he became lodged in our national consciousness in a manner that was intimate and personal for each one of us.

Kathleen Watkins and Gay Byrne in 1983. Photograph: Irish Times
Kathleen Watkins and Gay Byrne in 1983. Photograph: Irish Times

Every morning, Kathleen, Suzy and Crona said goodbye to him as he headed off around Dublin Bay to RTÉ. Very much more often than not, he broke that journey for 7.30 mass in the Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook. (Not bad for a man who was accused of denigrating all that was sacred, attacking Christianity and single-handedly undermining the foundations of the Roman Catholic Church!

Then it was down to the concrete-lined studio in the basement of the Radio Centre. And in that strange, detached place, he sits down. He talks to himself. He plays music and makes phone calls. He is amused and angry, baffled and bemused, “excira’ and delira’.” He talks and he listens. He listens. And oh, how he listens. With respect, with understanding, with empathy, with patience. He gives voice to people whom we have not heard before.

He listens with a quality of attention that women and men become able to tell their stories. To say things that have gone unspoken for long years. To rise above their fears. To share their concerns. To tell their truths. Just over 20 years ago, in the television programme States of Fear we heard such a voice – the first of its kind, the voice of a man talking to Gay Byrne on the radio in 1986 and breaking the silence about the pain of his childhood.

Gay showed us to ourselves and he had the unrivalled ability to reach out to vast audiences by speaking to each person, individually, as it were. Oscar Wilde said that “the bond of all companionship, whether in marriage or in friendship, is conversation”. I firmly believe that public service broadcasting at its best is our community’s conversation with itself. If that is right, then Gay Byrne is first among those we have to thank for the ability to talk – and listen – to ourselves.

And so, dear Gay, it remains only to say, with Shakespeare,

“Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:”

For your wonderful humanity, for the fruits of your worldly task, for the joy and comfort you brought to countless thousands the length and breadth of the country and for the richness of understanding that your deep presence in RTÉ’s archives will bring to future generations, we are all gathered here simply to say, thank you Gay.

Go soilsí solas na bhFlaitheas ort agus suaimhneas síoraí go raibh agat.

Slán abhaile.