'A lifeline to the outside world': The legacy of Uncle Gaybo
Beloved among housewives across the county, Gay Byrne played a huge role in Irish family life. John Meagher asked well-known listeners what he meant to them
In 1986, during the height of the popularity of Dallas, actor Patrick Duffy appeared on The Late Late Show. At one point, he produced a video camera and started filming his host, Gay Byrne. He quipped that he had filmed Johnny Carson, whom he dubbed the second best chat-show host in the world, and now he had his camera trained on the best of them all.
Byrne still had more than 30 years ahead of him as a television and radio broadcaster, but even in the mid-1980s, it was apparent to everyone - including the man who gave the world Bobby Ewing - that he was possessed of the most extraordinary talent.
His death this week led to a veritable national conversation on the merits of a Dubliner who seemed part of the very fabric of Ireland for decades. His rare common touch seemed to appeal to everyone, irrespective of age or social background. And, yet, it was apparent that for Irish women, he was held in especially high esteem.
And that connection with women seemed to be burnished on his radio show - which ran five mornings a week between 1973 and 1998. At a time where Ireland was still ruled by the patriarchy, Byrne was a friendly - and often vital - voice for those women who stayed in the home, whether they wanted to be there or not.
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It's a sentiment that is shared by many, including veteran political Mary O'Rourke and others…
Former government minister
"Gay Byrne meant so much to the woman, particularly the woman at home. I heard one remark that stuck with me: the husband went off to work, the children went to school and the woman was left with Gay on the radio and it was her lifeline to the outer world.
"A lot of women didn't work outside the home when his radio programme was going full tilt and he fulfilled a great need in them. They were bright, they were intelligent, they had had a good secondary education but he answered a need in them to discuss problems and issues that affected them in their everyday lives and he was in their kitchen or living room for a couple of hours every morning for five days a week.
"He was a great listener and I remember one occasion where a women whose daughter was having trouble in school rang Gay. It was a personal matter and he gave her great attention, and then that evening a researcher from his office rang me because I was Minister for Education at the time.
"They said, 'Had you heard it?' And they played me a bit of it and asked what advice would I have for that women. I said my advice was that she go into the school, make an appointment to meet the teacher in question and/or the principal, if that was needed, and tell her side of the story fully and how it was affecting her daughter and her home life. They duly reported all that to the lady and it was mentioned on air the next day. That seemed to satisfy Gay and the lady in question.
"Two years later, a lady and her daughter came up to me at a prize-giving event at a school and she said, 'I'm the woman who rang Gay Byrne'. She said she had spoken to the teacher and everything was talked through. And it was all down to his quality of listening and asking 'What can I do now? How can I solve this?'"
"I was a regular listener of his radio programme - but then, so was the whole country! I was listening to him from the time I was a young married woman with children and I used to think, 'We're going to have a country of Gay Byrne-thinking housewives'.
"He took the lid off of things and the time was right to take the lid off them. And he was the one that prised it off. We, as a society, were harsh in many ways. We were the product of a long-term of hardship - we had a harsh government, we had a harsh church. The time for the thaw had come. He cracked a match to the thaw.
"And he opened doors for me. I would never have been heard of but for Gay Byrne. I thought he wouldn't have a clue about what To School Through the Fields was about and he said, 'You couldn't be more wrong because I grew up in Dublin where I could see green fields'. He said 'We [in Dublin] have changed amazingly as well'. He got it fully - it was the story of an Ireland that was gone and he knew it would mean something to his listeners.
"He made me feel extremely comfortable [when she made her radio debut on The Gay Byrne Show]. He was great listener. He would do his homework but had no prepared list of questions so wherever you went, he rambled with you.
"I was on for the best part of an hour with him. I had no idea on the impact that would have. I met people years later who said, 'I know exactly where I was when you were on with Gaybo that morning'."
Businessman and broadcaster
"I had a privileged childhood with parents who loved their children but, sadly, it became obvious to me as a young boy that my mother and father were no longer in love. And this was an Ireland where you had to make your bed and lie in it. In the 1970s, Gay Byrne started his radio programme and I'm deeply indebted to that man because of the company he gave to my mother.
"She loved him to bits. She used to call him 'the other man in my life'. It was the most wholesome love and he was her company in what were sad times. There's a lot said about how he changed Ireland, but we shouldn't forget the company he provided. His voice connected with people in the way others didn't.
"He was a constant companion to my mother and like so many women around the country, she had great regard for him. That sort of feminist in him was always to the fore. He always understood things from a woman's perspective and that made him very special.
"Later, when I had the privilege of introducing Gay to my mother, he was just so kind and so generous with his time. And when the news broke this week, I thought. 'Thanks be to God that Mam has passed on - she's not going to hear that news'."
"He was crucially important [for Irish society] and he had no idea how important he was. He never set out to change attitudes towards anything. He was always led by curiosity. Ireland totally changed, but he never accepted that he was pivotal in any of it. It was coincidental as far as he was concerned.
"He only saw himself as a producer and broadcaster. He was a great spectator of other people's lives. He found other people more interesting than himself, particularly as he got older. Most old people have a series of stories that they want to tell anyone who will listen and most of the time they were the heroes of those stories. Gay had no interest in telling any stories about himself. He was such a joy to work for. I wrote the scripts for The Gay Byrne Hour [the title of his radio show between 1973 and 1979] for five or six years and he was like a perfect dancing partner - he had the same random curiosity as I did.
"He always had a rapport with women that was manifest in the radio programme. He loved women - I don't mean that in a sexual way - he just loved the company of women. He found them fascinating, interesting.
"He was great to work with because he was one of the very few men then who was totally unthreatening to a woman.
"He talked as if there was one person out there hearing them. The letters we got were mind-blowing. I remember we did this item around that Peggy Lee song, 'Is That All There Is?' We looked at the idea of people getting married and having children and asking, 'Is that it?' The reaction was just enormous.
"He had a quality of stillness and respect rather than a slushy sentimentality. On radio, it was that sense of that this wasn't really for broadcast. You were hearing it by accident. You were eavesdropping."
ANNA MAY McHUGH
Director, National Ploughing Championships
"I did The Meaning of Life with him and he was lovely to me. I had been bashful about doing it, but he had this amazing ability to put you at your ease. And he had a way of getting everything out of you too, of saying things you'd never think of saying!
"He could connect with women in a very respectful way. He didn't embarrass people. He had that perpetual smile, too and the eyes were smiling as well. You would listen to him on the radio and feel as though he was your friend and he was talking to you and that you were the only thing that mattered.
"He was very inclusive of everything, he could relate to everyone even in the most rural parts of Ireland. I remember him doing his radio show from the Ploughing Championship in Carlow one year and he was so meticulous about everything. He said to me, 'The day you don't prepare is the day you fail' and I always remembered that afterwards in my own career."
Former government minister
"I found him immensely civilised and extremely on top of his brief. He was terribly polite and had no agenda. When politicians are being interviewed, the interviewer is trying to start a row or make their name, but he never was like that. It was a pleasure to deal with him. He was one of a kind. I'd love to see more people like him in the media.
"When I decided to leave politics it was quite tricky about how I was going to tell everybody so I decided that I would offer it as an exclusive to Gaybo. He jumped at it. It was on the radio show - we had a whole hour of chatting and we talked about everything and anything.
"He knew a lot of how political life was like. He wasn't out to trip me up or have a row. He was genuinely interested in my reasons for going into politics, my reasons for leaving politics and the fact that so few people leave politics voluntarily."
"I grew up in a small house with my grandmother and my mother, and spent much of it lying on my belly watching Gaybo on the Late Late. Even thinking of the Toy Show now is magical.
"The first time I ever did the Late Late, it was Pat [Kenny] who had taken over and there was that slight disappointment that it wasn't Gaybo. That's no disrespect to Pat at all, but Gay had been such a fixture in our household just as he was in homes all over Ireland.
"When I was trying to come up with Mammy [His Sky TV show, 50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy], I used Gay as inspiration in that I wanted a show that reminded me of my childhood and one that you can sit with your mum and your gran and you can watch it, and everyone gets something out of it.
"When I became a presenter I realised how brilliant he had been - he and Wogan were the best there was. And he was a maverick, too. How brave you have to be not to toe the line. And yet, despite having strong opinions, he would let people speak.
"I think there's been an awful lot of sadness this week because we have lost someone that was part of us. People like him make me very proud to be Irish - he was part of what we are."