By John Fitzgerald
His passing in November was likened by some media commentators to the death of a king. And the outpouring of tributes to Gay Byrne certainly called to mind such an unfathomable loss. For decades his dulcet, consoling, uplifting and occasionally shocking tones had held the nation rapt.
So who was this remarkable broadcaster, this man who exercised such a marked influence over all aspects of Irish life for almost half a century?
Gay was born on 5 August,1934, the son of Edward and Annie Byrne. Like Brendan Grace, he spent his early years in Dublin’s Liberties. His father had a varied military career, joining the Irish Volunteers in 1912 in answer to Ireland’s quest for independence, but in 1913 he enlisted in the British Army where he was attached to a cavalry regiment.
When the Great War broke out Edward was assigned to duty on the Western Front where he participated in the bloodiest fighting at Ypres and the Battle of the Somme. He survived the conflict, and joined Ireland’s struggle for freedom. He got a job with the world famous Guinness’s Brewery at James’s Gate, working on the barges that moved casks of beer to ships anchored at Dublin’s North Wall.
Gay often remarked on how his father never spoke of his war service; the horrors of those years being too painful to recall. He admired Edward’s courage in following his conscience at a time when loyalties were divided in Ireland.
Gay had one sister, Mary, and three brothers: Al, Ray and Ernest.
Gay Byrne’s learning curve began with a stint in Rialto National School. After this he switched to other schools and completed his education at the Synge Street School run by the Christian Brothers. Though his teachers could be severe, as was the norm in those days, Gay always made a point of thanking them in later years for preparing him for the tough world beyond the classroom.
At age fourteen, when he was still attending the CBS, Gay chipped in with two other pupils to buy a music record. It was jazz, which was deemed at the time an unsuitable choice of music for national radio owing to a perception that it was culturally and morally inappropriate. He was ahead of his time in appreciating that jazz was no more a danger to public morality that any other form of musical expression.
As a teenager he was entranced by the broadcasting prowess of the great Eamon Andrews, who was a megastar of British TV. He decided that he too would be a broadcaster. The fact that Gay’s eldest brother happened to be a friend of Eamon Andrews was fortuitous.
In 1958, Gay landed a job with Radio Éireann. He was allocated a 15-minute weekly Monday night slot to play jazz. He relished this opportunity, because, in addition to sharing his love of jazz, he was striking a gentle though significant blow for its “parity of esteem” with traditional and mainstream music.
This was possibly his first brush with controversy; right at the beginning of his career. Gay also broadcast with Grenada TV, hosting a programme called ‘Let’s Dance’ that was filmed in a ballroom in Manchester, and had the distinction of being the man who introduced The Beatles to TV during his time with Grenada.
One of the joyous milestones in Gay’s life was the day he met harpist Kathleen Watkins of Saggart, whom he married in 1964. Kathleen was a TV personality in her own right and the first continuity announcer for Telefís Éireann when it officially opened on New Year’s Eve 1961.
Gay’s broadcasting vocation took a new and auspicious turn after the arrival of Telefís Éireann. He took to TV as if the medium had been created specially for him. He then pursued a parallel career in radio and TV, moving with a stunning and admirable ease between the two and proving equally mesmeric whether speaking unseen or dominating the small screen.
But it was as host of the ‘Late Late Show’, which first aired in July 1962, that Gay won his way into the hearts and minds of millions, as well as directly influencing the course of Ireland’s social and political development. The show was originally planned as an eight-week ‘filler’ for that year’s summer schedule. But the public reaction to Gay’s brilliant presentational skills and enormous personal magnetism persuaded RTÉ to take the idea further. It ended up as one of the longest running chat shows in the world.
From day one, as presenter of the show, he captivated audiences with a dizzying mix of light entertainment, interviews with unusual or controversial guests, book reviews, furniture restoration, panels of top-notch debaters, deadly serious or good-humoured discussion of topical issues, all interspersed with his famous catchphrase: “There’s one for everyone in the audience” when he had some tantalising product to give away.
He was amusing and challenging in about equal measure, switching from uproarious hilarity or relative trivia to an awe-inspiring forensic alacrity in a matter of seconds as the show progressed or changed course.
Every twist and turn in Ireland’s social, political and economic growth as a nation was mirrored on the weekend offering from Gay and his loyal crew of researchers and technical back-up team: Debates raged over such life and death issues as abortion, divorce, the escalating drugs problem, the plight of single mothers, and the seemingly endless and unresolvable conflict in the North of Ireland.
His interview with former Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams was one of the tensest and most riveting in the history of Irish broadcasting.
And when Gay took a vocal personal stance against the idea of a wealth tax, which he felt would be unfairly applied; the proposal almost immediately disappeared from the political agenda.
He had successive Presidents of Ireland on the show, and in addition to celebrities of stage and screen he is credited with launching the careers of many talented musicians. He invited a new band called ‘Boyzone’ onto the show in 1993, for example, kick-starting a glittering success story.
His probing interview techniques sometimes shocked or startled, but he never disappointed, or wavered from his belief, which dated to his playing of that jazz record decades earlier, that unless you were in trouble you weren’t doing your job!
Though aimed at a late night adult audience, the show catered for children too in a special way, with the annual ‘Toy Show’ initiated in 1975 becoming one of the most watched programmes of the year in Ireland.
In May 1999, after a staggering 37 years as host, he said a heartfelt goodbye to his many fans in TV land. He was moved almost to tears when Larry Mullen and Bono from ‘U2’ made a surprise appearance – for once not one orchestrated by Gay himself, to present him with a brand new Harley Davidson. He loved bikes, and the lads wanted to repay his renowned support over the years for up and coming bands and singers.
Throughout most of his time as ‘Late Late Show’host, Gay had won almost as many listeners as viewers. From 1972 to 1999 his two-hour morning show on RTÉ’s Radio One had people tuning in daily to listen to his views and observations on a bewildering range of topics…anything that took his fancy, and to hear him offer advice to listeners who penned letters detailing every conceivable gripe, challenge, or enigma that perplexed them. He also presented the Rose of Tralee contest for seventeen years until 1994 and the Irish TV version of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’
Shortly after retirement Gay found himself back broadcasting. In 2006, he commenced presentation of a weekly programme called ‘Sunday Serenade’ on RTÉ lyric FM, and even played jazz himself occasionally in response to popular demand.
In April 2009, he presented a programme on RTÉ One called ‘The Meaning of Life’, a series of interviews with well-known public figures about their lives and religious beliefs, or lack of them.
He also served for a while as chairman of the Irish Road Safety Authority, a role he cherished as traffic safety was an issue he felt strongly about. In August 2011, Gay politely declined invitations from the Fianna Fáil party to accept a presidential nomination. He had no political ambitions.
On 20 November, 2016, listeners to Lyric FM were saddened to hear Gay reveal that he was about to receive treatment for prostate cancer. He announced he’d be taking a break from the radio show.
Gay battled the illness bravely, with the loving support of his family. He died peacefully on November 4, 2019, at his home in Howth. He was 85. The ‘King’ of Irish broadcasting had gone home.
At the end of each ‘Meaning of Life’ programme, Gay always posed this question to the interviewee: “Suppose it’s all true, you arrive in Heaven at the gates, and you meet God. What will you say to him?”
I suspect that Gay will be well received “up there”, and that the heavenly hosts will be enriched by the addition of this man with the golden voice… the broadcaster who challenged and entertained us… and livened up all those weekends of yesteryear.