Monday 18 November 2019

Dáil is told that Gay Byrne’s broadcast debates were 'Ireland’s original citizens’ assembly'

Leinster House in Dublin (Niall Carson/PA)
Leinster House in Dublin (Niall Carson/PA)
John Downing

John Downing

Politicians today suspended business in Dáil Éireann to pay warm tributes to the six decades of work by broadcasting legend Gay Bryne - and the politicians then stood for a moment’s silence.

Opening the special session Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl said that, for him, growing up in 1960s Ireland meant that, after his family member’s voices, it was the voice of Gay Byrne on radio and television which was most commonly heard.

Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)
Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said Mr Byrne was simply the most influential broadcaster in the history of the Irish State and had had a truly remarkable career.

“It’s a story of how we changed and evolved for the better as a nation and as a society,” Mr Varadkar said of Mr Byrne’s six decades of broadcasting.

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The Taoiseach said the broadcaster had afforded a “voice for the voiceless and raised questions which were previously taboo”. Mr Varadkar also noted his serious work in promoting road safety as chairman of the Road Safety Authority. He cited especially the affection ordinary people had for the broadcaster.

“For generations of Irish people he was ‘Uncle Gaybo’ - a welcome presence in every home,” the Taoiseach told the Dáil.

Speaking in Irish, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin noted how Gay Byrne gave a voice to people previously unheard in public.

“Thug sé deis agus spáis do choismhuintir na tíre a tuairimí a phléigh,” Mr Martin said. “He gave opportunity and space to ordiniary Irish people to express their views.”

Micheal Martin (Brian Lawless/PA)
Micheal Martin (Brian Lawless/PA)

The Fianna Fáil leader also noted Mr Byrne’s dedication to his wife, Kathleen Watkins, his two daughters, grandchildren and extended family. “Gay Byrne was an iconic national institution who left an indelible mark on Irish society,” Mr Martin added.

Mr Martin also noted the broadcaster’s remarkable ability to listen during interviews. He said this helped him lead discussions on extremely tricky subjects scuh as divorce, contraception, abortion and other gender issues.

For the Fianna Fáil leader, many of the really contentious political and social issues “got their first airing” on Gay Byrne’s radio and television broadcasts.

“He was perhaps our original citizens’ assembly,” Mr Martin noted, citing him as a forerunner of the body which in later decades took a lead in tackling these big issues.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said Mr Byrne had driven major changes, not only in radio and television in Ireland, but he also changed how the Irish people dealt with major sensitive issues.

Independents4Change TD Thomas Pringle also paid tribute, noting especially Gay Byrne’s long-standing family links with his constituency of Donegal.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: PA
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: PA

Speaking for the Rural Independent Group Mattie McGrath also noted the broadcaster’s great impact on all sectors of society. Mr McGrath said so many people “listened to the gospel according to Gaybo” every day.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan recalled especially the impact Mr Byrne had on day-to-day speech in Ireland with catchphrases such as “Ye what Gay?” entering the language and being repeated by many.

The Ceann Comhairle said a special book of condolences had been opened at Leinster House for TDs and senators, members of staff and visitors, to express their sympathy with his wife, Kathleen Watkins, and his family.

Mattie McGrath. Photo: Tom Burke
Mattie McGrath. Photo: Tom Burke

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