Obituary: 'The most influential broadcaster in the history of the State...no topic was taboo on Gay Byrne's shows'
A bishop once called him a “purveyor of filth” but the wider public knew Gay Byrne as the most influential broadcaster in the history of the State.
‘Gaybo’ became a household name with his well-honed talent for getting people to talk on air about the most intimate details of their lives.
No topic was taboo on his shows. His unerring instinct to tap into the concerns of ordinary people helped him to dominate Irish radio and television for almost six decades.
The talented broadcaster was the first person to introduce The Beatles on television, the first to use telephones live on Irish radio and was the host of the world’s longest running chat show for 37 years.
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Gabriel Mary Byrne was born in Dublin on August 5, 1934, as the youngest of six children.
The family lived first on Rialto Road and then moved to the South Circular Road. From there, Gay was sent to the Christian Brothers school at Synge Street.
His father worked in the Guinness Brewery and when the teenage Gay was turned down for a job at the Brewery, he turned his attention to another career.
By 1958, he had secured work as a presenter on Radió Éireann, as it was then called, and also worked with Granada Television and the BBC in England.
It was at Granada that he introduced The Beatles on their first television appearance. They made their TV debut on a local news programme called ‘People and Places’.
Byrne said later he “hated London” and was more than happy to return to Ireland as both producer and presenter of RTÉ’s ‘Late Late Show’. Controversial interviews made the Saturday night, prime slot TV programme a “must see” show.
These included the “mistress interviews” in which Annie Murphy talked candidly about being Bishop Eamon Casey’s lover and having his child and Terry Keane revealed her relationship with former Taoiseach Charles Haughey.
The ‘Bishop and the Nightie’ affair led to the accusation from the Bishop of Galway Michael Browne that Gay was a “purveyor of filth”.
The broadcaster had simply asked a woman what colour nightie she wore on her wedding night and she replied that she believed she had worn nothing.
Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid also tried to have Gay silenced.
The Archbishop complained about ‘The Late Late Show’s’ “attempts to publicise bunny girls, hypnotism, pornographic literature as well as permitting obscenities that are unheard of in normal Irish society”.
In another memorable incident, European Commissioner Pádraig Flynn was lulled by Gay into describing the difficulties of having to run three households on a salary of IR£140,000, infuriating the cash-strapped electorate.
When Gay finally retired from ‘The Late Late Show’ in 1999, U2’s Bono and Larry Mullen presented him with a Harley Davidson motorbike live on the show.
For his radio show, Gay “fought long and hard” to get RTÉ to allow him interview people on the phone.
The first phone interview was broadcast the night of the first landing on the moon in 1969.
He said he was “rather proud of that”.
He understood how people who were inhibited in a radio studio were much more likely to talk intimately from the comfort of their own homes by phone.
This instinct for tapping into what listeners wanted to hear was shown clearly when 15-year-old Anne Lovett died giving birth to a stillborn child next to a Grotto of Our Lady in Granard, Co Longford.
Instead of moralising, Gay skilfully got women to read letters telling of their own experiences of abortions or of giving birth alone.
Despite his retirement from ‘The Late Late Show’ and the Gay Byrne radio show at the end of the 1990s, Gay
continued to work.
He presented the ‘Rose of Tralee’ and the TV programmes ‘Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?’, ‘The Meaning of Life’ and ‘For One Night Only’.
With ‘The Meaning of Life’, the veteran broadcaster once again displayed his talent for drawing an audience.
Stephen Fry denounced God during one programme, actor Gabriel Byrne revealed he had been sexually abused as a boy and Charles Spencer, brother of Princess Diana, hit out at “glacial royals” talking about his sister’s tragic early death.
Gay Byrne was appointed chairman of the Road Safety Authority for eight years from 2006.
He resisted an approach from Fianna Fáil to run for the Presidency in 2011.
In his personal life Gay revealed the secret to his happy marriage to Kathleen Watkins at the time of their 50th wedding anniversary: “Just do what you’re bloody told. That’s it.”
Kathleen was the first continuity announcer the night Telefís Éireann was launched on New Year’s Eve 1961.
The couple married in 1964.
Gay and Kathleen adopted two daughters, Crona and Suzy, and lived on the hill of Howth in Dublin before downsizing to a home in Sandymount a few years ago.
The family also made regular visits to their holiday home in Dunloe, Co Donegal, over more than four decades.
Suzy and her husband Ronan now live in the Howth house with their three children, Cian, Saidbh and Saoirse.
Crona and her husband Philip live in Killaloe, Co Clare, with their children Kate and Harry.
Despite his high pay throughout his career, Gay suffered two major financial losses. The first was more than 30 years ago when he found out, after the death of his financial adviser, that all the money had been spent.
He also lost out heavily on investments during the economic downturn but accepted the misfortune, saying that worrying did no good.
“I am no worse and no better than hundreds of thousands of other people my age,” he said.
He was not afraid to declare his views on the European Union and the effects of the economic crash on ordinary people.
“It’s perfectly obvious to everyone what the problem in Ireland is – there’s a shortage of money and there’s huge amounts being taken from everyone to satisfy the Troika’s whims,” he said.
“The greatest problem is people being stuck for money and wondering where the next penny is coming from. They are suffering hugely.
“I hate everything about Europe and think we were wrong to join but there’s a fat lot of use saying that now. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. I don’t feel sorry for me as I will be long gone but I feel sorry for the life my grandchildren will have under this regime as it will be ever, ever more totalitarian.”
Gay received many accolades for his broadcasting work.
He was awarded an honorary doctorate in literature from Trinity College Dublin in 1988 and granted the Freedom of Dublin City in 1999.
He was given the award of Outstanding Achievement in Radio for his work on the classical music station Lyric FM, where he presented a weekly jazz programme.
In June of this year he was honoured with the Ireland-US Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award but could not pick up the award in person because of a chest infection and a broken wrist.
President Michael D Higgins, presenting the awards, said of Gay Byrne: “His professionalism, empathy and inherent judgment threw light into many dark corners of Irish life, gave a voice to the vulnerable, shattered so many silences and uncovered so many truths.”
In more recent years, Gay suffered a heart attack in 2015 and the following year announced on RTÉ Lyric that he was beginning treatment for prostate cancer that might have spread to his lower back.
In subsequent interviews he said there were days during his cancer treatment “when you want to lie down and die” adding: “But you do the best you can – and follow the treatment.”
“I’ve the most incredible family. I couldn’t get through this without the love and support of my wife and daughters,” he added. “They really have kept me going.”
He told listeners, when announcing he had cancer, that he would be taking a one-week break, but never returned to broadcasting.