On Gay Byrne's final journey from his beloved Howth, town falls silent remembering one of its own
As the cortege carrying Gay Byrne on his final journey crested the hill of Howth and descended into the village with the sun at its back, several hundred people lined the street and applauded as the hearse and four mourning cars passed the imposing Catholic Church and descended towards the harbour.
Although a child of the South Circular Road, Howth was probably the place he loved most - if only slightly ahead of Dungloe, Co Donegal, where he and Kathleen kept a holiday cottage and spent every summer.
In life people mostly left him alone when he lived in Howth, and they were equally respectful in death.
“It wasn’t about his audience here,” said one onlooker as people gathered from about 11am on. “This is where he came to escape from them.” People knew him as a local, nodded or said ‘hello’, but mostly left it at that.
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“He went to Mass on the other side of the hill,” said one mourner, as locals, mostly women and retired people, waited in the sunshine. “You’d see him walking in the hills and later in life, when he got a bit slower, along the pier. He loved the pier.”
Standing among the crowds was Nicky McLoughlin, whose shop on the pier, Nicky’s Plaice, he once mentioned as where he bought his fish. “After it went out on the radio they had to take on three staff,” said another onlooker.
“I’ve come because it’s personal,” said Finian McGrath, Minister of State for Disabilities and a member of the cabinet as he stood back almost un-noticed from the line of people on the street.
“I always associate Gay with living in Howth and I’d prefer to come out here and pay my respects than be in the middle of the storm in Dublin. I want to pay my respects to Kathleen and the family and have a quite personal moment; Howth is my escape as well,” he said.
'I knew immediately'
In his early days in broadcasting Gay had recorded a documentary ‘Last Tram to Howth’ and while visiting the area saw a house for sale. “I knew immediately this was where we wanted to live,” he said later. Too busy to go to the auction himself he sent a friend Jack Maloney - who went £300 over the limit, a hefty sum at the time - to acquire his and Kathleen’s first home, overlooking Dublin Bay and near the lighthouse on the Baily rock.
They re-named it Onslow, in honour of the flat in Onslow Square, London, where he and ‘Kay’ - as she was known in the family - had spent their early married years.
There he enjoyed a lifestyle largely devoid of publicity or admirers, as most of the locals knew him on a first-name basis before he became the most famous face in Ireland and left him alone to walk and cycle at his leisure.
One person recalled that many years ago another well-known resident knocked him off his bicycle on the twisting roads around the Summit. The two men were about to exchange angry words when they realised they knew each other, and so they repaired to Gay’s house to drink whiskey to get over the shock of their sudden encounter.
In later life he and Kathleen moved from Howth to an apartment in Shrewsbury Square in Ballsbridge, Dublin 4. However, he often remarked that its great advantage was that it was near the Dart, so that he could easily go back to Howth. There local friends included the Riverdance couple John McColgan and Moya Doherty, who were friends long before they made their fortune from the iconic dancing show.
The house in Howth was taken over and largely remodelled by Gay and Kathleen’s daughter Susie, who lives there with here husband Ronan O’Byrne and their family.
Locals in Howth were certain that he had planned his funeral with the meticulous detail with which he planned his radio and television programmes.
In the months preceding his death last Monday he decided to discontinue his treatment and let nature take its course. It was a tough decision but somehow typical of the man. One friend said that he wept quietly one lunchtime shortly afterwards, knowing that the end wouldn’t be long coming.
Fate bestowed a glorious morning as he left his former home for his last journey, with the winter sun glittering on Dublin Bay and on the Irish Sea and Ireland’s Eye and Lambay Island visible in the distance as the hearse crested the hill shortly after 11.25am on its way to the Pro-Cathedral and the State farewell that awaited.
“On time as usual,” remarked one onlooker. As the cortege disappeared down the hill and the applause died out people went back to their daily lives, remembering the man who influenced so many lives but to them was just a familiar local figure.