Thursday 14 November 2019

'I've been conscious of death from the age of 60 - Kathleen's been unendingly good looking after me'

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

Barry Egan

When Gay Byrne died yesterday, a part of Irish life and Irish culture died with him. Primarily because there was no one like Gay Byrne. It's as simple as that. In May 2014, over lunch in Chez Max opposite Dublin Castle, I asked him did he ever regret giving up 60 years of his life to RTÉ. He said: "I never wanted to do anything else since I was 14 or 15. I knew nothing about television but I wanted to be Eamonn Andrews. He was my hero."

Even allowing for exaggeration, Gay Byrne was a hero to this nation. A nation that will mourn the passing of one of the greats, if not the greatest to have ever grace our television screens.

With respect to those who came after him, 'The Late Late Show' was never the same once Byrne stepped down on May 21, 1999. No one could, nor did, replace him. He had a way with guests that made him utterly magnificent and compelling to watch. His interviews were spell-binding. They started the national conversation as well as entertaining us on Friday nights. Who would want to forget the tete-a-tetes with Billy Connolly, Bob Hope or Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Peter Ustinov, Bob Geldof, Bono, Sinéad O'Connor, Tommy Tiernan, Terry Keane or Annie Murphy. "If your son is half as good a man as his father, he won't be doing too bad," Byrne told Bishop Eamonn Casey's controversial lover in 1993.

He was a legend, but he was also a lovely man. When I was starting at the 'Sunday Independent' in the early 1990s, he went out of his way to be helpful, with quotes at launches and interviews here and there.

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He had my mother Maureen on his radio show in January 1994 to talk about her days as a Royalette and a singer in the Theatre Royal in Dublin in the 1940s and 1950s. I was in our family kitchen in Churchtown as she talked to him on the telephone; thinking my mother is talking to Gay Fecking Byrne. I never lost that awe towards him, nor did many people in this country regardless of how well-known they were. When he came with Kathleen to the annual 'Sunday Independent Living Magazine' party in the penthouse of the InterContinental last December, he sat on the couch at 8pm sipping his whiskey and being polite as guest after guest from the worlds of entertainment and culture came up to him to tell him how much he had meant to them, inspired them etc. The sheer love that he received that Christmas night was a metaphor for what many of us felt for him throughout his special time with us on the telly and in life. He was very ill but he still came to the party. He said he would come for an hour. He was there until practically the end. The ultimate trooper.

In the summer of 2018 at his house in Sandymount (he and Kathleen lived in Howth from 1968 to 2008 when they relocated to Sandymount) I had two or three glasses of whiskey, his beloved Jameson, with him. I knew it was going to be a good afternoon when the King of Talk answered the door with a glass of Jamie in his hand. The Jamies didn't loosen his tongue but it did maybe assist him perhaps in processing his philosophy with regard to mortality, not least because he was clearly, and sadly, extremely ill.

"If you think my eyes are watering up or I'm crying, I'm not. It's part of the complaint. My eyes fill with water."

I mentioned to him that in one of his 'Meaning of Life' shows on RTÉ, the actor Gabriel Byrne had said: "The more that we are aware of death, paradoxically, the better a life that we can live." When I asked him had death been on his mind because of his so-called complaint, he laughed as only Gay Byrne could and said with remarkable clarity, candour and courage, considering what he was going through: "Death was on my mind for a long time before that. I have been conscious of death from the age of 60. You're not aware of death when you're 60 and you're having a ball. When you're 60 you start becoming aware of death and that you're in the final run-in rather than the beginning of the run-in."

Annie Murphy on the Late Late
Annie Murphy on the Late Late
Kathleen Watkins and her husband Gay Byrne. Photo: David Conachy
Pat, Gay and Ryan at The Late Late Show 50th anniversary in 2012
Family story: Broadcasting legend Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins with grandchildren Cian, Saoirse and Sadhbh. PHOTO: VIP MAGAZINE
Wesley Snipes pictured with Gay Byrne at the opening of Planet Hollywood last night.(picture taken at press reception in conrad) Pic Tony Kelly.7/12/97
Broadcaster Gay Byrne with his wife Kathleen Watkins.
Gay Byrne and wife Kathleen Watkins for VIP Magazine. Picture: Lili Forberg/VIP Magazine
Gay Byrne feeling the love with a Valentine's Day card, February 1993
Gay with his family, Suzy, Kathleen and Crona: 'It is simply a truth to say without them I would not have survived'. Photo: Gareth Chaney
Broadcaster Gay Byrne pictured with Frank McNamara and Theresa Lowe on their wedding day in 1987
Broadcaster Gay Byrne Photo: Mark Condren
Gay Byrne and wife Kathleen Watkins enjoying the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby at the Curragh. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Ray D'Arcy with Gay Byrne at RTE Radio 1
Gay Byrne, pictured in April 1964. RTE Stills Library
Gay Byrne pictured in 1982. RTE Stills Library
Gay and Kathleen. Photo: David Conachy
Gay Byrne. Photo: Kip Carroll
Gay and Kathleen
Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne has died at the age of 85 after a long illness, RTE said (Brian Lawless/PA)
Derek Hill's portrait of Gay Byrne, commissioned by RTE

He took a sup of whiskey. He was almost Beckett-like in the way he spoke. Waiting for Gaybo. Like I said, there was no one quite like him.

"So yes," he went on, "I have been aware of death, and very much, since I got this thing. There is nothing I can do about it. Following this treatment, maybe they will be able to cure it, maybe they will be able to arrest it, maybe they will be able to just hold it in abeyance. Maybe they will be able to give me an extra year or two. I don't know." He turned to the woman he loved all his life and in return loved him. "Could you just be very careful to mention that Kathleen has been unendingly good and extraordinary in looking after me and putting up with me, because I have these huge changes. I have 18 tablets a day. So I am walking around like a pharmaceutical factory. They play havoc, bloody havoc with me. I have been very difficult to live with - I know - but she has been really, really terrific.

"I get anxious, I get agitated," he went on. "And I don't even know what I'm agitated about. I get agitated over which I have no control. I know bloody well it is the chemicals. I know bloody well it is one or two of the tablets I am taking. And I have to take them because they are counteracting some of the other tablets, and those tablets are trying to cure the cancer.

"Chemo is a terrible experience," he continued. "A dreadful experience. But that is the poison they put in you to cure the poison that is already in you called cancer. And so you go around in a muddle."

Does he analyse it, being in this muddle? He shook his head. "No. I have already analysed it. I know what it is and I know what it is about. And either I will survive or I won't.

"And that's the end of it. I just don't want to die in pain. I want to go quick."

"I don't think people nowadays die in pain," soothed Kathleen. "You hear a lot about people having died peacefully."

"I hope so," said her husband.

"Pain control," added Kathleen.

"Give me the bag of morphine and I'll administer it myself," he laughed. He had a sense of humour that transcended even cancer. Four years earlier, at a dinner in the Burlington with Gay and Kathleen in 2014, I remember asking him does he think about life without Kathleen. He let out a roar of laughter and answered: "Oh, many times. Many, many times." (More seriously, Kathleen piped up: "I couldn't imagine life without him.")

In November last year, I had a hilarious, if dark, chat with Gay Byrne about his childhood in and around Rialto. His comic timing was as good as Tommy Tiernan's, his rhythm as perfect as heyday Billy Connolly.

"It was really a Guinness ghetto," he began, warming up. "There was Rialto Street, Rialto Cottages and Rialto Buildings.

"And there was the South Circular Road. And the people in the South Circular looked down on the people who lived on Rialto Street.

"And the people who lived in Rialto Street looked down on the people who lived in Rialto Cottages.

"And the people who lived in Rialto Cottages looked down on the people who lived in Rialto Buildings. There was a hierarchy of looking down."

And who did the people in Rialto Buildings look down on?

"Well," he laughed, "if they lived on the top floor. But if you look back on the conditions, they were awful."

In 2014 in Chez Max restaurant, Kathleen told me about that the first time she laid eyes on him.

He was in far from awful condition. The future King of Talk sashayed into the Safari Cafe at the top of Dawson Street in 1958, wearing a brand new trench coat, beige with leather epaulettes. "I was absolutely gorgeous," he hissed with laughter. They were married on June 25, 1964, in the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin in Saggart. A few years prior to that, when the relationship started to become serious, he sat down for the talk with Kathleen's father, Tom, a convivial man who in appearance, recalled Byrne in his 1989 memoir 'The Time Of My Life', was extremely like Pope John XXIII.

In the autobiography he also recalled a colourful part of the conversation.

Tom: "How do you do?"

Gay: "Fine, thank you Mr Watkins. How do you do?"

Tom: "Fine. Will you have a drink?"

Gay: "No, Mr Watkins. I don't drink."

Tom: "Will you have a smoke, then?"

Gay: "No, thank you, Mr Watkins. I don't smoke."

Tom: "Ah, musha. Why doesn't God call you?"

It seems God has done just that.

Irish Independent

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