Gay Byrne's departure marks end of unique era


The gigantic biography of Enoch Powell, Like The Roman by Simon Heffer, ends with that famous quotation of Powell on the fate of all careers: "All political lives . . . end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs." Gay Byrne's career, and particularly the manner of its ending, has been a triumphant exception to the rule. The city fathers of Dublin conferred the freedom of the city on him. His colleagues and hundreds of his closest friends congregated in the Berkeley Court Hotel last Sunday week to rejoice in the most successful career in Irish broadcasting. The nation gathered around television sets on Friday night - or at least 1.3 million of us did - to witness the parting of a person who has been a familiar figure in the lives of so many of us for so long.

There is nobody else in Irish life who has drawn so much on our collective affections and esteem, no politician, no literary or theatrical figure, no business or trade union person. What has there been about the person and phenomenon of Gay Byrne that has caused this?

John Waters was right to challenge yesterday in these columns the more exaggerated claims made for the Late Late Show - Ireland was undergoing change anyway in the 1960s and 1970s. The Late Late did not cause this.

The changes were demographic. For the first time in decades the population began to expand in the 1960s and then to contract again in the 1970s. There was an emerging self-confidence after the near collapse of the Irish political and economic entity in the 1950s. A revolution had taken place within the most significant cultural institution in the State, the Catholic Church. And there was television, which opened all of Irish society to outside perspectives.

The Late Late Show came to these changes timorously. More because of an inevitability than because of any conscious reasoning, it came to reflect these changes. But very largely because of his personality and professionalism, Gay Byrne came to be the one through whom the changes that were occurring were mediated.

Maybe his professionalism was his most important asset, or rather his sheer hard work. I went to watch him doing The Gay Byrne Show a few days before he ended the radio programme in December.

As was his unvarying routine, he went into studio 45 minutes before the programme began and, alone, he rehearsed what he was going to do, reading his scripts aloud, getting the accents and inflections right, seeing how the scripts could lead him on to diverting tangents, rehearsing the introductions, collating the snippets from the morning's newspapers. All the bits of paper neatly compiled in order, he knowing exactly where everything was.

In very much the same way, he meticulously planned his own performances on the Late Late Show. Going through introductions, thinking through the running order and how to switch from one item to another, maybe the most difficult part of presentation. How to end segments and to end the programme.

I watched intrigued last Friday night to see how he would end his last Late Late programme. It could so easily have been tacky and sentimental or a shambles. It was not any of these. It was straight and professional. And all the more moving for that. And part of the professionalism is his voice and enunciation.

But there was more to his success than just professionalism. And chief among this "more" was the fact that he was a nice guy. Most people liked him, they liked his humour, his ordinariness, his directness, his empathy. Perhaps more than anything else, people found that Gay Byrne was unthreatening. He did not challenge them too much, he did not threaten their core beliefs or their core interests. People were comfortable with him and he knew it, which is why he called himself "Uncle Gaybo".

And precisely because he was unthreatening he could be the effective mediator of change. If it was all right with "Uncle Gaybo" people felt instinctively it must be all right for them too. So it became OK to challenge the authoritarianism of the Catholic Hierarchy, to challenge the conventions on sexual morality (up to a point), to take on the political establishment. To challenge the conventions of our nationalist culture. It was he also who first coaxed people to tell their stories of abuse in institutions around the State, sexual and physical abuse and also abuse within marriage. That was hugely important.

Part of the reason that Gay was unthreatening was because, instinctively, he was conservative. His politics were right of centre. He could not have been the mediator of change from a left of centre, radical position - he would not have been trusted. Many of us have been critical of the influence he exerted on issues such as crime and taxation. He, more effectively than anybody, but in the company of others (such as Pat Kenny and Marian Finucane), hyped the crime phenomenon, thereby provoking political responses that have damaged the fabric of our justice system.

Likewise on taxation, he led the way in characterising all taxation as theft - yes, he never described it as such, but that was the tone he set. This was particularly evident in the campaign he waged on property tax, which affected only a tiny handful of people and affected them marginally. He had no feel for how arbitrarily wealth and power are spread in society and what unfairness such arbitrariness causes.

He was uncomfortable with ideas of justice and equity, not that he is himself an unfair or unjust person, rather that the ideas seemed to him menacing and, anyway, why could poor people not pull themselves up by their boot laces as he saw himself as having done?

He was uncomfortable generally with ideas, suspecting that many of them are a "load of rubbish" and a cover for pretension. But precisely because he was right of centre politically, and had been essentially conservative, he was able to mediate change.

The Gaybo phenomenon grew up at a time during the 1960s and 1970s when there was not the present multitude of television channels: to a large extent we were "stuck" with RTE 1 and "stuck" with Gay Byrne, and that was true of radio also. Because of that, our lives revolved around Gaybo more than it could now do around anybody, no matter how talented. And for that reason he created community, or at least bound it more tightly together.

It wasn't just what Gay Byrne talked about, it was that we talked about him and talked about what he had said. There was a collective discourse that probably will never be again and he was the arbitrator of that.

There is a danger now that he may try to embellish his career. He should stop now. There could never be a better exit line.