Joe Duffy on Gaybo: 'we sat in dread waiting for his verdict...'
To get the measure of the impact that this boy from Rialto had on Irish society, one only has to ask a simple question - can you name any other broadcaster in any country that had such an effect on the daily life of a nation for more than 55 years as Gabriel Mary Byrne?
The answer is no. So it is baffling that so few academics have written about the phenomenon that spawned the world's longest-running weekly TV chat show and one of the most influential daily radio programmes. This meticulous and well-written history of these two seminal programmes is long overdue.
Gay presented The Late Late Show for 37 years - and was the producer in charge for all but four of those years - and the daily radio programme ran for 26 years. Last night's Toy Show, which enthralled the nation once again - was first anchored by Gay in his Christmas jumper in 1971 - he, like the jumper, lasted for another 30 years! Each programme Gay Byrne presented and produced attracted an audience that simply has never been matched in percentage terms here or in any other country.
His first foray into broadcasting began in light entertainment, presenting music-based programmes - apart from a stuffy newsroom, there were very few other avenues into the then-glamorous world of RTÉ. He presented many 'sponsored' radio programmes - 15 minutes of whimsy and adverts for the eponymous company. Gay - just like Larry Gogan, Brendan Balfe and Kathleen Watkins - still holds a great affection for these slots.
Indeed when a Fianna Fáil TD had the temerity to suggest that the legendary weekly "shopping basket" on Gay's radio programme continually ranked Dunnes Stores as better value because the presenter's wife anchored their sponsored programme, he lashed out calling Paddy Lalor TD a "rotten sod" and challenging him to repeat the libel outside the Dáil!
It is often forgotten that Gay's sharp edge and current affairs bent began in television and only arrived fully formed on radio a decade later in 1972 with The Gay Byrne Show. Gay was only 26 when the Late Late began way back in 1962 - shortly after Ireland got its first television station - and this book rightly credits, as Gay does, Tom McGrath with the idea.
But this young man, who often speaks of his conservatism and insecurity, has never shown any fear of bosses - workplace, political or ecclesiastical - when he is doing the day job.
Ireland was a tabula rasa at that stage (in the earlier years of the Late Late) and this book brilliantly chronicles the bravery of the production team and most of the bosses in RTÉ in deflecting an almost unrelenting onslaught from Church and State. That the programme survived is astonishing when one sees the insidious attempts by people like Archbishop John Charles McQuaid to have it "withdrawn". I was aware of the ecclesiastical and political pressure to scupper the show but, using the McQuaid archive, this book presents even more evidence of what a backward, bishop ridden country we were in the 1960s.
One can only marvel at how the young team not only withstood this pressure but bounced back each week with even more of what was getting them into hot water!
This book, while having an academic bent, is highly readable and covers most of the big controversies from the infamous "bishop and nightie affair", to Ann Lovett and Annie Murphy. Each episode is told fairly and exhaustively.
As a document of social history, this book will not be surpassed. Gay's own autobiography The Time of My Life and the long out of print but brilliant To Whom It Concerns, written in 1972 by Gay and his researcher Pan Collins, give a different insight into the phenomenon.
Gay co-operated with this book - as is his way - but the number of interviews with colleagues, friends and critics is exhaustive. This is only proper because there is simply no more generous broadcaster than Gay. From the Toy Show to the daily radio programme, he often sat back and allowed others take the limelight - he held no fear.
When I produced the radio show, we all sat in dread each morning for his verdict on the item we had contributed to the programme. He could be very, very tough. Today in his eighties, his work ethic still dominates - as well as his weekly programme on Lyric FM, he and Kathleen tour the country with his 'Live on Stage' show, a two-hour tour de force.
He never let his own lack of interest in the GAA or other sports, his injudicious obsession with obscure jazz artists or his sdain for the "language movement" dominate his output. Though his hatred of the Provisional IRA was unbounded and well known, he seldom talked about the fact that his father and seven uncles all fought in World War I. It was only two years ago, while finally making a TV programme about My Father's War, that I saw him break down, the second time I ever saw tears flow down his cheeks.
As to the title of the book - The Gaybo Revolution - How Gay Byrne Challenged Irish Society, there is no doubt that all the details are well listed here. Interestingly the word "challenged" is used, rather than "changed", though it is clear that the author believes he did both.
The question as to whether Ireland would have changed anyway without Gay Byrne's programmes is never asked, maybe because the question cannot be answered adequately at this stage. In truth, like most good broadcasters, he does not have an agenda, political or otherwise, except to make good programmes and to trust his instincts, and stick with them under fire.
There are other books to be written about Gay and Irish society. Why is he so anti-EU, which more than anything else propelled all the political correspondents to rally round and scupper any interest he might have shown in Áras an Uachtaráin?
This book deserves a wide readership - anyone interested in Irish society over the last half-century will find it absolutely fascinating. Though like Gay himself, you might still be scratching your head at the end, baffled by his magic.
'The Gaybo Revolution' by Finola Doyle O'Neill is published by Orpen Press (€17.95)