Gay Byrne was a loyal, if questioning Catholic all his life

Byrne was the creation of two immovable forces of the mid-20th century – mother and church

One of the great ironies about Gay Byrne is that, while so many believe he was the wedge which opened a narrow, insular Ireland to the wider world, he himself remained the boy shaped by a very traditional Irish Catholic upbringing.

He was a creation of those two immovable forces which shaped so many successful Irish men in the mid- to late-20th century – mother and church.

Annie Carroll, his mother, was from Bray, Co Wicklow, and married his father Edward in 1917 while the latter was home on leave from fighting in the British army during the first World War. On his return to Ireland, Edward took part in the War of Independence, after which he worked at Guinness's for the remainder of his days.

Byrne's reality was that of an unremarkable man who yet had enormous influence in changing Ireland

In later life, the broadcaster recalled how during those first World War years his mother promised God that if his father came back alive, she would go to daily Mass and get Communion for the rest of her life. Which she did.


She missed Mass only a handful of times through illness, and Byrne believed he inherited his work ethic from her.

He once said: “I can also count the radio shows I missed in 26 years on one hand, and one was for my best friend’s funeral,” he said, adding in that wry style, “It’s amazing how healthy you stay when you’re self-employed.”

The Byrne family lived in Rialto before moving to Dublin's South Circular Road. Gay was the youngest of six, one of whom died in infancy.

He recalled his mother as “tough on all of us. Her influence has left me with a terrible Puritanism which I find very difficult to shake.”

Christian Brothers

He was also shaped by his experiences at the Christian Brothers School on Synge Street. He recalled dreading going there, as he was assaulted by Christian Brothers daily. Despite, or because of which, he finished top of his class in Irish and Latin.

“Many is the time I would turn that corner from the South Circular Road with the most awful feelings of foreboding, fright and anxiety. I knew I would be physically hurt that day. I was going to be belted, I was going to be thumped, for some reason or another.”

As recently as February 2015 he said: “I am looking for certainty and looking for something to hang on to. And I’ve been brainwashed with all the other lovely Catholic people in Ireland, with the Christian Brothers. You don’t come through 10 years of the Christian Brothers . . . without that making an impression on you.”

Earlier, in 2010, he remembered Synge Street as "a tough house, but I never saw a semblance of sexual abuse. Blood and tears on the wall, yes. There was one lay teacher that I now realise was at it. But the threat that was held over us was Artane or Letterfrack, a place of no return – that was our Korea. And I think the Ryan and Murphy reports are the culmination of what happened then. But I was surprised by the extent of it."

He continued: "I suppose we in Ireland are no better or no worse than anyone else, except that we kidded ourselves for so long that the Holy Mother Church is looking after us and we are so beautiful. You know, there was no such thing as suicide in Ireland! Because we were all so happy! There was just accidental death.

"And I suppose it all goes back to de Valera, it seems to me. Dev taught us to believe two contradictory things at the same time and to somehow rationalise them. It is there in that answer we all use, 'yes and no'."

Uptight man

What it produced in him, particularly when younger, was a very strait-laced, uptight man, something he recognised humorously in later life.

In his 1989 biography The Time Of My Life he recalled his first conversation with Tom Watkins, his wife Kathleen's father. He was everything Byrne was not. He was "most convivial; a great drinker, smoker; in appearance, extremely like Pope John XXIII," as the future son-in-law himself recalled.

Later in the book he added that Kathleen’s father was probably right about him: “. . . proper little prig.”

Circumscribed by fears and insecurity, Byrne’s reality was that of an unremarkable man who yet had enormous influence in changing Ireland.

Throughout it all he held to his faith, a loyal if questioning Catholic, attending Mass weekly and daily in later life.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times