Gaybo's crafted persona and the man named Byrne
ANALYSIS:IN THE heat of the presidential election campaign of 1990, Mary Robinson appeared on The Late Late Show. The veteran host, Gay Byrne, deployed his most deadly tactic – disarming charm and warmth, followed by a quiet slipping of the stiletto between the ribs. He put to her a statement he said she had made a month earlier: “I am a socialist . . . We want banks nationalised and building land controlled.”
Robinson was knocked out of her stride. She denied ever saying this. When Byrne asked “Never, ever?”, she didn’t reply at all. It was one of the worst moments of her campaign. No one could do this kind of thing as well as Gay Byrne, sucking guests into their comfort zones and then hitting them with unexpected uppercuts. The only problem in this case was that Byrne, very unusually, had been sloppy. He had picked up the quote from a Fianna Fáil press release but got the date badly wrong. Robinson hadn’t said it in 1990 but in 1982. The mistake allowed her to sidestep any damage that had been done on The Late Late Showby claiming the whole thing was part of a dirty tricks campaign.
This moment is worth recalling not because it was a very rare lapse in the professionalism that made Gay Byrne a unique phenomenon in world broadcasting, but because it might remind him that even presidential election campaigns can get very dirty.
There’s no such thing as a non-political election. People would be trying to do to Byrne the candidate what Gaybo the TV host tried to do to Robinson: trip him, blindside him, embarrass him. Under that pressure, “Gaybo” would disappear and the man behind that carefully constructed persona would emerge into the harsh lights of 24-hour media frenzies.
This is the dilemma at the heart of Byrne’s all-but-declared bid for the presidency. He referred the other evening to “all the love and affection from all over the country” that’s been wafting his way.
But who is it that the Irish people really love? Is it Gaybo or Gabriel Byrne? Given they don’t really know the man himself – a man who has retained his privacy throughout a lifetime of fame – the love is surely for the persona rather than the person.
Gaybo is not a man but an image. That image is of someone who floats above Irish life without ever being entirely a part of it. The paradox is that Byrne had such a huge effect on attitudes in Ireland from the 1960s onwards because he perfected the art of appearing not to be trying to affect anything.
He made himself into an Irish Everyman, able to open up discussion on any issue because he seemed to have no personal stake in it. On his radio show especially he became the nation’s father confessor, listening calmly and without judgment to all of its sins and anxieties, its private agonies and dark secrets.
This is precisely what attracts many people to the idea of President Gaybo. In this time of deep anxiety there is an allure to the idea of a father confessor in the park who is calm, unruffled, dapper, smooth, stoical – the reverse image of our bedraggled, overwrought, scared-stiff selves.
The problem is that it’s impossible to campaign as Gaybo. Even before he has declared himself, every top-of-the-head remark he might make, such as the taxi-driverish observation that the country’s being run by “mad people in Brussels”, will be magnified. Every time he gets pulled into a debate, Doctor Gaybo will be transformed into Mr Byrne.
And who, precisely, is Mr Byrne? Well, for a start, he’s not politically neutral. Gaybo needs to present himself as someone entirely independent. As he put it the other night, “Fianna Fáil have very little to do with it.” But Byrne does have a bit to do with Fianna Fáil. In his autobiography, The Time of My Life, he reveals he always voted for the party.
And Byrne does have strong political views and ideological leanings. He has been truly amazing in the degree to which he kept them in check while shaping the national conversation for so many decades. But it would have been impossible to clock up all those thousands of hours before a microphone without his views emerging from time to time. And what has emerged is a bog standard, unreflective and instinctive right-winger.
In the late 1980s, he used his radio show to campaign against high taxes for well-off people like himself. In 1994, when the rainbow coalition introduced a property tax, he gave the issue enormous, and entirely negative coverage, on the show – arguably making a significant contribution to its demise.
In January 1985, he devoted an entire Late Late Showto Ivor Kenny’s book, Government and Enterprise in Ireland, a strongly right-wing attack on government intervention in the market. His panel was made up of Kenny and two others who supported his views. In a subsequent judgment, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission upheld a complaint that the programme lacked any attempt at balance and found Byrne had “clearly aligned himself” with the right-wing views of the panel.
Arguably, Byrne’s mask also slipped in a notorious interview on the Late Latewith Annie Murphy, the lover of Bishop Eamon Casey, in 1993. Byrne told Murphy that Peter, her son with Casey, would be fine if he was “half the man his father was”, an extraordinary thing to say to the mother who had actually raised him. There was an unpleasantly misogynistic tinge to the put-down that was untypical of the man but which must have emerged from somewhere. Murphy’s unapologetic womanly self-confidence seemed to have got on Byrne’s nerves.
So while the nation may be turning its lonely eyes to Dr Gaybo, the suave man who is above it all, it will first have to push past Mr Byrne, the mere mortal who votes Fianna Fáil, hates taxes, thinks Brussels is full of mad people and can get irritated by uppity women.
And there will be no shortage of hungry broadcasters out there, looking to make a name for themselves by doing to him what he did to so many pompous politicians through the years.
If he could get through the long months of a campaign as Gaybo, with Mr Byrne locked safely in the attic, it would be the greatest performance of his brilliant career.