Thursday 14 November 2019

Reeling in the years: Our writers share their memories of Gay Byrne

Gay Byrne 1934 - 2019

Gay Byrne hosting The Late Late Toy Show
Gay Byrne hosting The Late Late Toy Show

On the day the country says goodbye to the broadcasting legend, Irish Independent writers share some personal recollections.

Melanie Finn, entertainment editor

I first met Gay when I started doing the social Diary for the Herald many moons ago and I was instantly awestruck by him. I approached him timidly, explaining I had started a social column, would he give me a few words for it and, while I had him, would he have any advice for a young journo starting out?

"Interviewing is just talking to people, that's all it is. Listening to their stories and knowing what questions to ask," he replied.

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I was an immediate fan and meeting him for a glass of wine at the National Lottery lunch every Christmas became something of a tradition for me. He always remembered my name, always had a witty anecdote for the column and had a way of drawing you in and making you feel like what you said was insightful and interesting - even when it was the smallest of small talk.

And that was his gift: disarming people, putting them at their ease and always eliciting more gossip out of you than you intended to reveal.

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Gay Byrne hosting The Late Late Toy Show

John Downing, political correspondent

It was 1988 and national speculation was rife about whether 'Gaybo' would succumb to the IR£1m (€1.27m) offer to abandon RTÉ to star at the new rival Century Radio. My nerves from prowling around RTÉ HQ were outweighed by warnings in The Irish Press newsroom not to come back without "getting Gay Byrne".

Gay Byrne. Photo: PA
Gay Byrne. Photo: PA

At last, through the window of a dilapidated prefab office, I spotted him wearing a wine-coloured turtle neck pullover, and without hesitation, I just burst in. The momentary flicker of rage gave way to pragmatism.

"Sit down son. You've shown initiative. I'll talk to you," the great man said kindly. He quickly explained that he was staying at RTÉ - and why.

Returning from Donnybrook, my delight at this 'scoop' had ended by the time I cleared Ballsbridge. He was all over the radio news giving the selfsame message. Still, I could cling to Gay Byrne's praise for my, er, "initiative".

Bairbre Power, fashion editor

I always looked forward to judging Best Dressed Lady at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby each June because it afforded me an opportunity to pull up a seat beside Gay and Kathleen, and have a proper catch-up. Gay would pull out a chair and proceed to interview me about stories I had written.

"And what about that French river cruise you wrote about. It looked beautiful. Kathleen wants to do that, tell us more," he enquired.We'd talk books, and the tomes he was bringing on his annual summer pilgrimage to Donegal, which was his spiritual home and a close second to his beloved Hill of Howth.

I especially remember a long chat we had after he migrated over to Dublin's southside and we crossed paths walking alongside the river Dodder in Ballsbridge.

He was travelling almost incognito, with dark sunglasses and navy sailor's cap, but it was the gorgeous Paisley silk neck scarf that caught me eye. Looking twice, I recognised him and shouted out. He wouldn't have recognised me in my dog walking attire with balaclava and no eyebrows! What ensued was a memorable conversation on jazz. I'd often email in a request to his Lyric FM show, which made Sundays all the better for his beautiful modulated voice offset by the toe-tapping Ragtime he adored. Rest well, Gaybo.

Kim Bielenberg, feature writer

It is no surprise Gay Byrne was known as 'Uncle Gaybo', because his verbal tics were as familiar to us as those of a close relative: "Yes indeedy, my friends! Okay! Okay!" As kids growing up in the 70s, we used to climb into my mother's big double bed to watch The Late Late Show from start to finish on a black and white set. It was a parade of magicians, celebrities, irate campaigners and chancers who might claim to be able to communicate with the dead.

My mother liked to speculate whether a guest had been drinking. I remember well the night Oliver Reed came on. With a bemused Gaybo looking on, he ran on to the set, ran off again, returned, did a handstand and then bundled the actress Susan George on to the floor, with furniture flying everywhere.

We looked to my mother for guidance and she confirmed: "He's definitely drunk!

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Devoted: Gay Byrne and his wife Kathleen. Photo: David Conachy

Caroline O'Doherty, environment correspondent

At the funeral of Derek Davis in 2015, which I was sent to cover, Gay was stuck with the crowds standing at the back of the packed Victorian Chapel at Mount Jerome.

A man in the last row of seats looked around, spotted the familiar face and quickly slid from his seat, gesturing to the then 80-year-old Gay to take it. But no sooner was the man on his feet than his seat was taken by a long-legged creature barely over 20 in staggeringly high heels, his act of chivalry completely misunderstood.

The poor man was paralysed by the awkwardness of the moment, but Gay just creased up with laughter. Every so often during the ceremony, he'd glance over at the heels sticking out sideways from his stolen seat and have a little chortle. Sad and all as the occasion was, Derek would have understood.

Ian O'Doherty, columnist

When I was staring out as a baby hack in the late 80s, my first job for The Irish Press was reporting on Ireland's first ever illegal rave. To my immense relief and good fortune, there was a massive drugs raid by the cops and rather than a small review, I had my first ever front page news story.

The day the piece appeared, I was woken up by my mother to say that someone from The Gay Byrne Show was on the phone and five minutes later, I sat on the stairs in a dressing gown, rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and spoke to the great man about the hysteria caused by the rave and how the raid was great fun.

Rather than take the moral high ground I had expected from him, he was actually more intrigued and amused by the controversy than anything else, and it turns out that this man, whom I had dismissed as just another 'Establishment' old fogey, actually had a sense of mischief about him.

A month later, a Christmas card from the show plopped through the letterbox.

It was only a standard card of the kind sent to all contributors, but as far as the Ma was concerned, it was a card from Gaybo and it took pride of place on the mantle piece that year.

And, indeed, the next year as well.

When I asked why she was putting last year's card up again, I was simply informed that if her idiot son was getting a card from Gay Byrne, then maybe I wasn't a complete waster after all. Then, being an Irish Mammy, she also pointed out that it should be a reminder that I obviously hadn't done enough to warrant a new card and maybe I should consider a change of career.

I interviewed him some years later for the Indo and he remembered that radio item, saying the first time I appeared on the show, I was as nervous as hell, but by the second time I was on, I had, apparently, "turned into a cocky little so and so".

I think it was meant as an insult.

During the interview, I asked what I thought was a tough question, only to receive a lecture on how, "you should be better than that, Ian, leave those questions to the journalists who aren't any good".

I think it was meant as a compliment. Either way, I didn't repeat the question.

Fionnán Sheahan, Ireland editor

Saturday night and every child washed for mass in the morning. All sitting on the settee for 9.30pm for The Late Late Show. "To whom it concerns…"

The highlight was not the performances or the personalities, it was when Uncle Gaybo announced with great ado the give-away of "a brand new motor car".

Pen and paper scrambled for to write down the four clues read out across the night. A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. "Answers on a postcard to P.O. Box 1057, RTE, Donnybrook, Dublin 4."

Family, friends and neighbours were consulted on the solution just to be certain. Roll on a week for the next and the winner being picked. Hundreds of thousands of postcards fill a container in the middle of the brown set. One card picked from deep down and the number on it dialled live on air. Every household in the nation held their breath. The Ford Cortina in the drive could have done with an upgrade.

Gay Byrne never phoned us.

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Iconic: It’s easy to be nostalgic for the lost Ireland represented by Gay Byrne. Photo: David Conachy

Catherine O'Mahony, Review editor and columnist

Gay Byrne was something of an irritant to a younger me. Not that I had any reason whatsoever to dislike him; the problem was more that my mother liked him rather too much, and my father (as a direct consequence, I fear) bristled at the mention of him.

It all made for rather fractious Friday nights as we all settled down - as we did, in those days, routinely - in front of the telly with a cup of tea to watch whatever came on after the news. And that was always, of course, the Late Late. My mother, drinking in the wonder of Gaybo, commenting appreciatively at his reliably dapper get-up and his cheeky rejoinders to whoever was on, while my Dad sat glowering, pretending to read the paper.

The night Annie Murphy was on triggered an enormous family set-to as my mother wholeheartedly took the side of Uncle Gaybo against that American woman who should have known, in her view, a whole lot better. There were tears and tantrums in our suburban household that night as I raged against what, to me, seemed like a wantonly skewed reading of the facts. It was the first of many to come and, funnily enough, I seem to recall that Gaybo was frequently in the mix, simply because his domain was where the tricky issues arose.

And now Dad, Mum and Gay are all in a better place. If there is a heaven, I am pretty sure my mother has joined a long queue there this week for Gay's autograph - while my father looks on in a tolerant sulk.

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Lifeline: Gay Byrne on the 15th anniversary of his radio show in 1988 (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection)

Tom Coogan, comment & world editor

From the 60s, he was the fella who woke up the country before anyone was 'woke'.

Bleary eyed with nothing but a bowl of lumpy porridge between you and a day of being bawled at in school, that cheerful bugger chirping away in the corner both grated and reassured.

That he kept it going for 60 years, giving a running commentary on the nation's tittle tattle and torments without drawing breath, marked him out as a "very stable genius," as Donald Trump might say. He could also calmly dissect an interviewee without application of anaesthetic. County council meetings were convened to denounce the Late Late; yet to the mothers of the land, he could walk on water.

In truth, he was more messenger than Messiah and he was always dismissive of his talent: "I'm just shallow and worthless and they never tumble to this," he once said. He was anything but.

Irish Independent

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