As Gay Byrne's daughters Suzy and Crona experience Father's Day without their beloved dad for the first time, they remember the man behind the broadcasting icon. They describe what he was like as a father and as the off-screen person the public didn't know, and recall their experience of growing up as Gaybo's children
Suzy Byrne: 'the baby of the family'
On October 29, 2019, we brought Dad home to Howth. Within minutes he changed: gone was the fear and agitation, replaced by peace and contentment. His beloved Baily lighthouse in his view, and all of us with him. His last days. We chose to have Dad downstairs, slightly away but still centre to the hum and noise of us all. Enabling steady company but not a vigil, which he would have hated.
The gift of having our precious Dad at home has no words - little did we know that just four months later, the restrictions of Covid-19 would have robbed us of those times.
Dad's last moments were peaceful, and if death can be gentle, his was. To the end his timing was impeccable and considerate. Dad went when he decided it was time. Medically, a week earlier, he had been told things were looking up. Always gracious, Dad smiled and thanked his doctor, John McCaffrey. Minutes later he said to me: "Please Suzy, take me to Howth." A close friend told me when we got him home that I should tell him it was okay to let go, that we would be fine and would look after Mum. He weakly squeezed my hand. Enough was enough.
All my life people have asked me what it was like to be Gay Byrne's daughter. The simple answer is that I knew no different. That's the easy question. What Gay Byrne was like as a father is quite a different one - and yet the answer is equally simple. Your dad is your dad. At home that's all and everything he was, no room for notions!
Our adult relationship was incredibly close and full of mutual respect. Dad was the funniest man I knew. He was endlessly entertaining and had so many stories to tell. After 55 years of marriage and both being entertainers, Mum and Dad had an ease that was both engaging and funny. Dad would start a story, Mum would take over, he would roll his eyes to heaven and let her at it, and often they would break into laughter together before getting to the end, leaving us also laughing hysterically at and with them.
One of the life-skills often lamented as lost is that of resilience. Not so our Dad. His resilience throughout our lives was evident in every aspect of his living and his being. From his ability to shrug off the naysayers, defy the powers that be who would have taken him off the air given the chance, his bounce-back after his betrayal by his friend all those years ago and finally his heroic long battle with cancer. My father was a stoic man. To me he was inspirational.
Dad was an avid reader all his life; he adored the theatre and was fanatical about his walks. He relentlessly encouraged our love of these from an early age.
The parenting and hard work of our early years, Dad left to Mum. However, he instilled in us values from which he never deviated. Among them, the value of friendships, of nurturing and minding those friendships. Do that and you will always have personal security and contentment. The rest will follow.
He was not a particularly emotional man but Dad was quite sentimental. Our birthdays were absolutely critical to him. Dad always gave us a separate card and gift solely from him. Maybe it was because Mum did so much of the hard work in our upbringing, and this was his way to separate his love for us as his own. In these cards, he always wrote personal loving messages, words he wouldn't say.
As children, myself and Crona roamed freely around RTE, something that would be unheard of now. We snuck in around the set regularly, Crona preferring to mingle with the guests, while my favourite place was to climb the rickety stairs to the director's box. I would sit with Colette, fascinated with all the screens and the direction of the cameras. Dad might say hello to me in the camera and remind me to behave myself. I loved that.
Summers in Donegal when we were kids were special. We had a little half-decker boat and Dad had a few lobster pots dotted around. We would wait at the window for hours for the tide to come in to Nancy's Harbour. When we got the nod, on went the lifejackets and we headed out in the boat to collect the lobsters. I have vivid memories of us arriving back to the cottage, drenched and frozen. Mum would have the huge pot on the cooker and in would go the lobsters. It was both scary and fascinating to see them gradually go quiet in the pot and turn bright orange.
At one stage, the entire Late Late Show team took swimming lessons together in Milltown pool. It's bizarre thinking about it now. At the entrance to the pool was a sweet shop which sold rejected chocolate. Every Thursday Dad arrived home smelling of chlorine with the brown paper bag full of sweets, and myself and Crona meticulously divided them up one by one. They were the most delicious sweets I've ever had: chewy Maltesers, Snack bars with no biscuit, all different odds and ends. Simple pleasures!
In my teenage years, Dad was embarrassing like all dads except he was much worse. There were numerous incidents but the most horrendous was the Gay Byrne Show report live from Wesley disco. Myself and my friend Ger were desperate to go to Wesley. Slim chance given it was in Donnybrook and we lived in Howth, but that was only geography to us. Mum had heard some stories of "antics". Most parents would call a friend to find information, not so mine. Dad sent the radio show researchers to Wesley , to talk to and monitor the boys and girls coming and leaving, and report on the attire they were wearing and then the 'goings on' inside. I was oblivious until I arrived to school on the Monday to absolute fury from the girls, most of whom were now banned from going. He thought it was hilarious. I didn't.
Dad often said that he genuinely didn't know how 'Nana Kit' existed before she had grandchildren. I believe he was the same. Cian, Sadhbh, Saoirse, Kate and Harry gave him such joy. Known to them as RaRa (from when Cian couldn't pronounce 'Grandad' as a baby), he couldn't get enough of them.
Nana Kit and RaRa came out to Howth, where my family and I now live, every Sunday. It started off as a late lunch but soon became the full day, starting with coffee and papers at 11am while we were gone to various sports activities. They loved the quiet followed by my kids Cian, Sadhbh and Saoirse bursting through the doors full of mud, chat and rosy cheeks. The various musical instruments would come out, sometimes for a recital, other times just to get them to practise! These Sundays were so precious to us - their visits defined our week as a family. We slipped easily into the tradition of the full Sunday roast, the ritual of sitting round the table for hours, just chatting.
Before that, Dad loved to come with the children to trick or treat on Halloween with us while we lived in London - something he could never have done here. Normal activities to most but those we remember. Mum and Dad were present for the children's key milestones: when they started to walk, took the stabilisers off the bikes, the first pony trek.
Over the last few years, looking after Dad through his illness was a privilege for me. We laughed, we cried and we loved. From him, I still learned. Illness turns the mighty into the vulnerable. Dad fought an almighty battle, made harder by the public nature of it. In times of devastating personal trauma and real fear, he remained a true gentleman to every person he met. His capacity for quips and banter kept us all smiling behind that curtain in day oncology.
Equally, I found it beautiful the way in which other patients treated him. They were all going through this, stripped bare of everything; he was no different. They would smile and nod in recognition and he back to them but never once did they cross that line. Human nature is magnificent and humbling.
As was said to me of Dad recently: "All men die but not everyone really lives... your dad really lived." This Father's Day we will follow his lead: we will remember and we will smile happily for the man we are lucky to have had as ours.
As Patrick Kavanagh writes,
"Every old man I see
Reminds me of my father
Who had fallen in love
One time when sheaves
Crona Byrne 'the first born'
As I sit here to write this, I realise that this may be harder to do than I previously thought. How can I put so many memories into so few words when there are so many stories to tell?
For the first time in my life, I won't see Dad for Father's Day to give him a pressie - it was always the simple things: Toblerone, socks or a bottle of Jameson.
Dad was an incredible person; he was a rock of sense when you went to him with a problem; he would never rush back to you with an answer - he would sit and ponder before replying. He was no different to any other dad, but he was special, he was our dad. As a person he was wonderful, thoughtful, kind, generous and caring. Yes, he could be strict, especially if you stayed out too late!
Over the years, he did so much for many people, never looking for acknowledgement. Yes, you would have your ups and downs with him and possibly not talk for a time, but at the end of the day he was always there for you, to give you a big hug, telling you how he loved you.
I had so many wonderful opportunities and that was because he and Mum worked hard to give those to us. We travelled, saw fabulous shows and ballets, met incredible people and went to so many diverse events through the years.
Summertime was always the best as Dad was off. We would go away on holiday and then head to Donegal for a few weeks. Each year Dad would spend his birthday in Dungloe surrounded by his closest friends and family; there would be poetry recited by Mum, a song from someone else or a piece on the keyboard by Dad. He loved it there and the gang of friends he and Mum had there had so many wonderful times together.
Some of the best memories with Dad were the summers in Donegal, especially out on the boat. He loved going around the islands. We would pull in and head for a walk or picnic on the island of choice that day. On one occasion we were visiting his friend around the bay; by the time they had finished talking, the tide was looking a bit low; I said this to Dad and his friend Patsy and they told me it would be fine. Sure, what would I know, I was a child!
Well, as we came back around the headland it was obvious there was a lot less water than they had thought there would be. The tide had pretty much gone out except for this small channel that was probably three feet deep. If we drifted to the left or right slightly, we hit the sand and I was kicked out of the boat to pull it off the sand and back into the narrow channel. It was decided by Dad that I may as well stay in the water with the amount I was jumping in and out. Dad took great pleasure telling me there were crabs in the water and they were going to nip my toes - it was the longest journey ever! One very unimpressed daughter.
There were two summer festivals Dad was involved in: the Mary from Dungloe and the Rose of Tralee. Once they were over, he always had a few days off and that marked the end of the summer as the following week, he was back on air.
Over the years I have met some of the most incredible people being at his side at The Late Late Show; I was so fortunate to have been able to do this. I admired Dad so much for how he handled so many different situations or subjects; he was so compassionate, and so methodical in his approach.
The Late Late team that were by his side for so many years meant a lot to him; he still hosted a Christmas lunch for them annually and that was a date he loved in his diary.
Dad was a great 'RaRa', always checking on the grandkids to see how they were doing, hearing all their stories, watching the dance routines or the taekwondo moves.
Living in Co Clare, we were that bit further away so Kate and Harry did not see him or Nana Kit as often as they would have liked. Having said that, both Dad and Mum were there the morning after both of my children were born; and they held them and gave words of encouragement at each milestone, which was so important to Kate and Harry.
RaRa took Kate to her first day at school; it was harder to prise him away from the window than it was for us to leave her with her class that day.
Dad and Harry would walk up the road together hand in hand; later you would ask Harry what they were talking about and we were informed that it was between him and RaRa. These are the memories we will cherish.
It is hard to believe it has been seven months since Dad left us. We had been on holiday and received the call that you never want to get that we needed to come home. That was the longest flight of my life, hoping that we would get home to spend time with Dad. We drove straight to Howth. Mum went into the room to tell Dad we were there and as soon as we walked into the room, he said "ahh you're back" and held my hand. We were so lucky to have an incredible 48 hours with him. There were highs and lows, laughter and tears. We had our time to chat and to tell him how much we loved him and for him to say how much he loved us - that time we spent as a family together was so valuable.
We were staying in Sandymount for the few days. On the Monday we headed to Howth and by the time we had gotten there, he had passed away, 20 minutes previously. That was the hardest thing, not to have been there to hold his hand in the end as he had held mine so many times over the years. My biggest regret was not being by his side as he passed away but I do know he is watching over us and guiding us in all we do.
We are so blessed to have had him in our lives and he is one person who will never be forgotten. My idol, a dad, husband, grandad, gentleman and a true legend!
Happy Father's Day.