Saturday 22 October 2016

George Byrne

Declan Lynch remembers his friend John 'George' Byrne, a true original

Published 05/04/2015 | 02:30

The newspaper critic George Byrne who has died
The newspaper critic George Byrne who has died

I knew George in another lifetime, when we were roaming wild.

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The images that came back to me last week were full of laughing and drinking and music and football, perfectly encapsulated on the day that George and I and Arthur Mathews went to the International Bar near the Hot Press offices to watch Bulgaria playing Scotland, that mad day when Scotland scored a late winner and Ireland somehow qualified for Euro 88.

We got through the torment of the last three minutes of that game when Arthur came up with a formula - "three minutes, that's about as long as Teenage Kicks by the Undertones". And so the three of us "played" that record in our heads, and apparently it worked.

I thought of the weekend that George and I went down to Mosney to do a Hot Press feature on the decaying Butlin's camp. In those times it was the custom for patrons to sit drinking in the enormous Dan Lowrey's lounge watching the swimmers through the glass walls of the adjacent pool, waiting for one of them to perform an underwater "flash". Duly noting this about halfway through our first drink, and getting in several more drinks before the Sonny Knowles concert that evening, we were able to affirm George's belief that Butlin's was "not so much a holiday complex, more a complex holiday".

During that weekend, and in our subsequent efforts to write a three-page article through the hallucinatory afterglow of a Butlin's hangover, I think that I laughed more than I have laughed at any other thing in my life. He was such a funny man, George.

It was not just the one-liners, the bullshit-detecting antennae that were always on, it was the great lust for life from which it all sprang, the rolling up of the imaginary sleeves, the agitated stance, the mordant tones coming out of the corner of his mouth to give it extra purchase -particularly if there was extraneous noise to be overcome, in a bar or at a gig, as there often was with George.

Not only did he support Shamrock Rovers in Ireland, and Chelsea in England during the long years when they never won anything, and Rangers in Scotland as a measure of his implacable hatred of every conceivable aspect of Irish nationalism, he had a favourite club in every league in Europe, always with some good reason, usually contrarian.

It was he who called Gaelic football "bogball", and hurling "stick-fighting", who took such delight in telling the listeners of Andy O'Mahony's Sunday radio show on the day of the All-Ireland final that he would indeed be watching the match that day, and that he expected Blackburn Rovers to win.

But colleagues at the Herald and the Independent who remembered him last week also spoke of a soft side to George. He enjoyed a rom-com more than most men, he would describe Christmas as something that he couldn't celebrate in the usual way because it was, after all, a Christian festival, but he would still open a couple of bottles of wine, put on Sinatra's Songs for Swingin' Lovers, and "have a good cry". Arthur Mathews tweeted that George was "a true romantic".

Otherwise his tastes were traditionally male. I recall that we once got a bus to Bellewstown races for an evening meeting, not the usual mode of recreation for a creature of the rock'n'roll night. And there was an afternoon in the International with a bunch of us sitting on stools at the counter, and Simon the barman lining up the drinks, and George observing with a look of deep spiritual contentment: "a row of pints, and men happy."

And while he was immoveable on certain things - the majesty of rock'n'roll music, the special fineness of guitar-based American pop, the badness of almost all poetry and theatre - you could sometimes negotiate with him.

Paul Cleary, with whom he wrote the questions for Blackboard Jungle, says that George had a tendency to make a question too difficult, that presenter Ray D'Arcy would favour a less difficult question, that it would be left to Paul himself to adjudicate on these disputes. Often he would have to rule in favour of Ray, but once for the hell of it he sided with George on this question: Can you name the three prairie provinces of Canada? Of course none of the teenage contestants knew the answer, and George accepted that he had been wrong.

For a long time afterwards, the words "prairie provinces" would spark a bout of self-mocking laughter. But he also hated when a quizmaster didn't give the answer at the end, so I should say that the three prairie provinces are Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba. It's what he would have wanted.

Sunday Independent

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