Gay Byrne's school of hard knocks
The veteran broadcaster's new documentary interweaves personal and national history. The icon, who turned 82 last week, met our reporter to talk love, life and his own mortality
Interviewing Gay Byrne feels like some kind of inversion of the classic Irish fantasy of having made it. Being questioned by the Pope of interviewers traditionally marked a kind of benediction, proof that one had arrived (one thinks, for instance, of the bath scene at the beginning of The Commitments when Jimmy Rabbitte fields imaginary questions on the Late Late).
Being the one to pose the questions feels, by contrast, like a strange kind of impudence. There's a sense that, at any moment, you'll ask the wrong thing, and be found out. "You will have to learn, young man, that the world does not revolve around you and your newspaper," he tells me, with mock sternness, when I ask him about his own Meaning of Life. And I begin to feel a little less like I've made it, more like I might be about to hang myself 'Pee' Flynn style.
But even when Gay is not answering the question, he smiles like a benevolent uncle at the cheekiness of it all - it's important to be a sort of blank canvas for his own interviews, he explains. And, to be fair, we do know a lot more about him these days than we did in the Late Late heyday. As recently as 2011, when his name was being bandied about as a presidential contender, The Irish Times was wondering whether it was Gay Byrne, the man, or Gaybo, the persona that we love. There is little or no difference between the two, he assures me, and I can confirm that he's both challenging and great fun to spend an hour with. He's been open about his health difficulties - he's joined what he calls "the stent club" following his heart attack last year, he tells me. The veil has also been drawn back in other ways too. His documentary, My Father's War, was a riveting interweaving of family and national history and he looks to be about to repeat the trick. We're here to talk about his documentary on the Christian Brothers, Last Orders, in which he discusses his own school days in Synge Street, Dublin, and the routine brutality that was meted out to him and his classmates. He and his friends from those years still meet up and talk about the abuse they endured. "We meet regularly for a bit of lunch or whatever. We don't talk much about our school days but when they do come up and the subject of corporal punishment arises, three of us are wont to say, 'ah that was then, this is now, we're still alive, what the hell'. But the fourth one says, 'I don't forgive, I never have, they were bastards'. If you extend that to all the people who were educated by clergy in general, there might be one out of four who are unhappy with how they were treated. That's a hell of a lot of people who have something against the Church. I think, generally, the angst against the educating orders would extend to the Church in general."
As a young man, Gay was less phlegmatic about the violence in Synge Street's corridors, although he had trouble broaching the subject with his parents. His mother was ambitious for him, he tells me, but his father was a remote figure, a First World War veteran and a labourer with Guinness who worked long hours and who handed up his pay packet every week to Gay's mother. Gay was a bright child - as is demonstrated from the examination of academic records in the documentary - but it was the era of 'spare the rod and spoil the child'. "If you had a piece of poetry or mathematics to have ready for the next day, you bloody well learned it. You were going to get roughed up if you didn't. You were probably going to get roughed up anyway, I learned, but less so if you knew the answers." Eventually, the teenage Gay couldn't take any more and announced at home that he wouldn't be going back to school after the summer break. "When I wanted to leave Synge Street on the basis that I wasn't going back for another few years of being beaten around the place, [my mother] instinctively knew I'd end up being a messenger boy or doing menial work. So she and my father worked assiduously on me to go back and the bribe they used was a bike - because I'd never had one growing up. It was the only bike I ever owned."
He went back to school, but during the Leaving Cert cycle, his father passed away. "The Leaving Cert exam was in June and he died on the 25th of July. He had been a hard-working man, working with the tides, loading barrels onto the steamers. He was a shadowy sort of figure. He made a promise that if he got out of the First World War alive, he would never complain about anything for the rest of his life. He was an old man before I came along - I was the baby of the family - so I was too young to be taken with his war stories, and then by the time I was old enough to connect with him, he was gone. I never got to go to a football match with him or have a pint with him. He died and of course we felt it deeply but it wasn't as big a blow as if my mother had died. He had [been a] bit sick for a long time - and suffered, indeed. I hope to God that the treatments are better now than they were then."
Gay's brother was friends with legendary broadcaster Eamonn Andrews, and the glimpse of his life gave the young Gay "vague ambitions" of doing "something or other in show business".
"I really looked up to [Andrews] and wanted to be him really. At that age any kid, male or female, who takes an interest in anything will absorb their interest like blotting paper. I was a great book reader."
Gay began working at RTE in 1961, with The Late Late Show airing in 1962 and The Gay Byrne Show debuting on radio in 1973. "We thought we were in Hollywood," he recalls. "We saw ourselves as the new film stars, those of us who were on screen. We had this fantastic sweet shop to which we had the keys." Gay was credited for his role in moving Ireland out of the dark ages through his addressing of taboo subjects on the shows, including contraception, abortion and incest. But, he tells me that was merely an example of necessity being the mother of invention. "In England, they had this footfall of well-known stars. We didn't have that, so we had to fill the time with something. We started to talk about things that concerned people. There's obviously a list of controversies which The Late Late Show gave rise to, but nothing, in my memory, was quite as controversial as the first one, which dealt with the Irish language. We got a reputation for airing controversial topics and I'd like to tell you that it was all carefully plotted but it really wasn't. It would never get on the air if it was proposed now." In the halcyon days of Irish media, before the advent of the internet, he tells me that both The Late Late and his radio programme were "money-making machines for RTE." Given that, does he think he was paid enough? "Absolutely not! For 23 years I was on a three-month contract. We were printing money. In those years, the advertising department was preoccupied mainly with an ever-growing list of reasons why they should not take your ad. It was a different world. We were privileged in a way."
He agrees that interviewing is a type of seduction - "you do want to be their friend, I suppose" - but says that his famous style, gentle yet probing, developed naturally. "In many ways, it was instinctive, and then you learn as you go along. The Meaning Of Life, I would describe as a kind of listening operation. I'm not there to confront or really challenge someone about what they believe in. I just try to understand."
What raised Gay above other titans of talk, like Terry Wogan or Michael Parkinson, was his deftness at moving from light to dark - the big top to the town hall you could say - and his uncanny ability to give certain interviewees just enough rope that they could hang their monstrous egos out for all to see. The most infamous example was probably Padraig 'Pee' Flynn, whose tone-deaf grandstanding in 1999 still ranks in the annals. "I will say I had no axe to grind with him but I just took him through it," Gay recalls. "I do remember when he came in that night, he sort of came across as lord of the manor, sort of like 'I have come amongst you'. I knew he was the perfect example of the insanity of Brussels. I think Brussels is full of Pee Flynns, they just have different languages and accents. I wouldn't have been in favour of Brexit because it will be more trouble than it's worth, but what I long for is the entire break-up of the EU as it stands."
Gay's perceived West Britishness - deriving from his father's time as a soldier in the British army and his own anti-Provo sentiments - made him something of a target during the Late Late years. "There were threats on my life, yes. They came in the form of letters saying 'we'll blow you asunder or set fire to your house'. They were never anything I took seriously, mind. I believe that if someone genuinely intended to kill you, he wouldn't actually write to you to alert you that this was going to happen. There was a time when you would have been called a West Brit if you wore a poppy. All of that is gone. It was very revealing that during the 1916 commemorations, all sorts of things could be said which had never been said before. We now know that Pearse was a bit loopy and the rest of them were a gang of no-hopers."
Gay's American equivalent, Johnny Carson, was famously married four times but, like the Late Late owl, Gay himself mated for life: he has been married to Kathleen Watkins since 1964. The couple lived in Howth, Co Dublin, for many years with their two daughters, Suzy and Crona, but moved to Sandymount a few years ago. Suzy now lives in Howth with her husband Ronan and three children, Cian, Sadhbh and Saoirse. Crona and husband Phil live in Killaloe, Co Clare, with their children, Kate and Harry. The secret to his relationship longevity, Gay tells me, "is just doing what you're told and surrendering all freedom".
"To be serious for a moment, making allowances for each other and just being kind to each other. We're the same age - 82 - and at this age, kindness seems more significant than ever."
He is also, it must be said, at an age when many of his contemporaries are being gathered to God. I tentatively ask him if any of this is starting to pay off. "No!" he chuckles. "I regularly complain on the air that nobody has left me anything in their will." Does he think much about his own mortality? "It does cross my mind. I buried my first cousin yesterday. Apparently, he had a very hard death. I hope it happens quickly with me. I hope to God I don't lie for three years with tubes coming out of me. When that happens, just pull the plug. I do think people should have freedom to end their own lives."
He had a heart attack in January of this year, although at the time he didn't know that was what it was. "I had a stent, which opens the arteries around the heart, put in there. As soon as you get one, you join a sort of football league of stent-wearers and because my face is well known, people come up to me on the street and say, 'oh you only have one stent, I have four! My brother has seven and I know a guy in Clonskeagh has 12'. Honestly, I'm only in the junior leagues of it still. I have escaped with remarkably good health all my life. It was just that this took me by surprise - but there are warning signs, such as shortness of breath." He's due to see the heart specialist later this year, he tells me, and he suspects there will be another stent going in.
He continues to work, fronting documentaries and The Meaning Of Life, as well as presenting his Lyric FM programme on Sunday afternoons. Does he ever see himself hanging up his boots, so to speak, for good? "Well, the present Mrs Byrne is haranguing me regularly to give up completely. She says, 'when is this bloody retirement going to kick in?'. But I'm petrified that if I do, that the men in white coats will be the next to arrive. And what else would I be doing on a winter Sunday afternoon? Reading you in the Sunday Independent?" He looks at me with a mischievous glint in his eye as that terrible prospect just hangs there. "And that would not be enough to keep the mind alive, generally speaking," he says.
Last Orders With Gay Byrne will be broadcast on RTÉ One, Tuesday August 9, 9.35pm
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