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Gay Byrne: A giant of Irish life who shaped Irish society

Inside Politics: The Late Late Show and influential radio show were anything but light entertainment

The late Gay Byrne: a giant of Irish life. Photograph: Eddie Kelly/The Irish Times

Who will we have to remind us the country is “banjaxed” now the great Gay Byrne, who dominated Irish broadcasting for 40 years, is gone?

“Shouldn’t they give him a State funeral?” wondered a colleague rhetorically. We all knew they couldn’t, but such has been his influence in shaping Irish society, and indeed Irish politics, that if any ‘civilian’ deserved it, he certainly did.

The passing of this giant of Irish life has dominated all public discourse since lunchtime, including politics.

The Late Late Show, and his hugely influential radio show, might have been classified as light entertainment, but often, it was anything but. Nothing, simply nothing, opened the door, or shone a mirror, on Irish life and its underbelly like the Late Late did.


The television show was mandatory viewing, especially in the days when most of the population lived in two-channel land.

But the radio show was also hugely influential, especially when Byrne read a plaintive letter from a woman caught in a poverty trap or abusive relationship, or in prostitution.

When Byrne, as he regularly did, would declare the country as ‘banjaxed’, the government of the day would react angrily.

Politics seeped into all he did, and the broadcaster had an inbuilt tuning fork that told him when an issue, or a statement, chimed with the public. An obvious example of that was his interview with then European commissioner Pádraig Flynn who complained how hard it was to keep up three houses on a salary of £140,000 per annum.

To compound that, Flynn made a remark about Tom Kilmartin. The Mayo-born developer was looking at the show in Luton and was so enraged that he decided to talk to the Planning Tribunal about a £50,000 donation he had given to Flynn, despite having not done so until then.

There were so many moments that influenced politics - including then Northern secretary Peter Brooke singing My Darling Clementine live on the show in 1992. That in itself was unremarkable, but it happened immediately in the wake of an IRA bomb that killed Protestant workmen. The performance led to a furore among unionists.

So many other moments too - angry debates during the 1970s and 1980s on the economy and morality. On one occasion, he handed over the programme to Vincent Browne - a premonition of the latter’s future career choice. Byrne did the first major interview with Gerry Adams in the early 1990s after the broadcasting ban on Sinn Féin was lifted. He did specials on contraception, on gay life (he did a special with gay men at a time when homosexuality was criticised and also interviewed lesbian nuns), and on morality (a light-hearted quiz in which a woman said she might not wear a nightie at night led to a complaint from a Bishop).

He was always the first - the interview, testily, with Annie Murphy; also the interview with Terry Keane about her relationship with Charles Haughey. He did not tend to interview political leaders as a habit, but Haughey, in his prime, knew the value of the Late Late and would turn up on the show at key moments (a tribute to the Dubliners in the late 1980s comes to mind).

The political tributes came in thick and fast. From President Higgins: "He became one of the most familiar and distinctive voices of our times, helping shape our conscience, our self-image, and our idea of who we might be. Beyond compassion, which he had in abundance, he had a sense of what was just."

From Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: “On radio and on television over so many decades ‘Uncle Gaybo’ provided a voice for all those who had been silenced or were afraid to speak up, and helped us confront things that needed to be changed.”

Micheál Martin of Fianna Fáil tweeted: “So saddened to hear of the passing of Gay Byrne -a broadcasting legend who did so much to lift our spirits, shape our society for the better and bring warmth into so many homes over the years.”

Another week, another Dáil controversy

And so one gate closes and another opens. Last week it was Buttongate or Votegate; this week it’s Fobgate.

In fact, Miriam Lord first alerted us to the potential of the story in her column when she reported several parliamentarians had been whispering the system might be open to manipulation and that proxy fobbing might be the order of the day.

Every politician must use the electronic fobbing system in Leinster House on at least 120 days in any calendar year to qualify for full travel allowances, which is worth €9,000 for Dublin-based deputies and up to €34,000 per year for TDs living on the western seaboard (it covers all travel plus accommodation in Dublin so it’s no bonanza).

RTÉ then reported an anomaly between attendance records in Leinster House and voting records. TDs were recorded as present on days they did not vote.

It’s not a perfect comparison. Some TDs are ‘paired’ for votes so they might debate in the chamber but remove themselves from voting because they are paired with a Minister. Others might be there but not vote for legitimate reasons.

But it’s clear there were examples of TDs fobbing in and then sloping off earlier. And a suggestion that might not be all.

Controversy surrounding Michael Healy-Rae has now emerged. The TD fobbed in Leinster House on a day on which he attended a funeral in Kenmare at noon. He said he fobbed into the complex at the crack of dawn before heading back to Kerry. Pat Leahy has the latest on the story here.

The matter will come up in the Dáil today. As Rise TD Paul Murphy put it yesterday: “Unless Michael Healy-Rae has mastered the art of bilocation, he has some serious questions to answer about how he fobbed in the Dáil and attended a funeral in Kerry hours later. I suspect he’s not the only one, and I have written to the Ceann Comhairle seeking an investigation into potential abuse of the fob system.”

He will not be alone.

Best reads

John Bowman, a must-read on Gay Byrne.

And here is Fintan O'Toole's equally compelling read.

Lindsay Hoyle replaces John Bercow as the speaker of the House of Parliament.

Sinn Féin will not contest three constituencies to copperfasten the chances of Remain candidates winning Westminster seats in the North.

The Government will move the writ for four byelections this week.


Cabinet is meeting this morning. Jennifer Bray has a heads-up on a major change being proposed at Cabinet today by Minister for Children Katherine Zappone that will allow more information for adopted children about birth parents.

“But if the strength of those reasons are similar to the strength of the reasons of the adopted person saying they want it, if they’re similar or equal, the information goes to the adopted person. That, from a legal and technical perspective, that’s a big deal,” said Zappone.


Leaders’ Questions is at 2pm.

Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy is taking priority questions.

The long-awaited Bill to update the State’s out-dated blasphemy law will be debated today.


The main item today is statements on climate action


The Joint Committee on key issues affecting Travellers continues its deliberations.

With a new boil-order notice last night affecting 600,000 Dublin households, it is timely the Joint Committee on Housing is discussing issues affecting the quality of water and boil-water notices. Officials from Irish Water, the EPA and Fingal County Council will be present. Expected heated exchanges.

Public Accounts is meeting tonight to consider greenhouse gas-related finances.