Friday 23 August 2019

'Either I will survive or I won't. And that's the end of it...' Gay Byrne opens up about death and cancer

Over whiskey in his Sandymount home, Gay Byrne opens up to Barry Egan about death, cancer, the unknown, the agitation that comes with the 18 tablets to take daily, the dreadfulness of chemotherapy - and his undying love of Kathleen

Gay and Kathleen. Photo: David Conachy
Gay and Kathleen. Photo: David Conachy
Gay Byrne pictured in 1982. RTE Stills Library
Gay Byrne, pictured in April 1964. RTE Stills Library
Andrea Corr

Gay Byrne answers the door to his Sandymount home holding a large glass of whiskey. Jameson, it transpires, in the late afternoon is not one of the well-earned pleasures of semi-retirement after six illustrious decades in broadcasting. It helps him, he says, with "the complaint with my stomach that kicks up every so often. There is water in it! Of course there is. Jesus, I am not drinking that much whiskey neat! Dear oh, dear," Gaybo laughs.

Kathleen Watkins asks me if I would like a glass of whiskey too. It is one of the pleasures of interviewing Gay that you get to tackle the eternal verities over a tumbler of Jamie. "Good luck!" Gay says clinking his glass against mine in the kitchen. "If you think my eyes are watering up or I'm crying, they're not," he says. "It is part of the complaint as well. My eyes just fill with water."

In spite of The Complaint, Gay never complains.

He has me in his home to discuss Once More With Meaning. Airing this Wednesday at 9.35pm on RTE One, the documentary celebrates his 60 years in showbusiness and looks back on some of the highlights from Gay's second most famous show, The Meaning Of Life. In it, Richard Branson recounts how he once asked "a kid in Ireland what he believed in - meaning was he Protestant or Catholic - and the kid replied: 'Gay Byrne'." Colin Farrell says Gay was the one person he wanted to be interviewed by.

Gay Byrne pictured in 1982. RTE Stills Library
Gay Byrne pictured in 1982. RTE Stills Library

Bob Geldof tells Gay the story of asking his dad, Bob senior, before he died whether he thought Bob's mother Evelyn would be waiting for him in heaven. Bob's dad replied in the affirmative. "Well, that's a problem because she's 40 and you're 95," Bob told his dad of Evelyn, who died of a cerebral haemorrhage when Bob was seven.

Bob also tells the host at one point of the enormously enjoyable construct of God: "The Supreme Being? Are we living in Star Wars? Lord? Lord? Lord of the Rings? F**k off Lord!" Typically, Gay found the experience of the secular if salty saint who tried to save the world with Live Aid and Live 8 enormously enjoyable. "Geldof was really very angry about the Church and about nuns locking themselves away to pray for the world. The louder he got, the more I laughed," laughs Gay now. "He had me in bloody hysterics in his sheer angry condemnation of the Church and everything it stood for and all of that."

Gay, of course, has some experience of being condemned himself. In 1966 he picked married Terenure couple Richard and Eileen Fox from the Late Late audience, whereupon it emerged Eileen perhaps wasn't wearing a nightie on her honeymoon. The Bishop of Clonfert in Co Galway excoriated Gay from the pulpit that Sunday. Speaking of that notorious episode of the show he fronted for nearly 40 years, Gay says all these years later: "When people complained about the Bishop and the Nightie, could they possibly have foretold what they would be watching on television now?" Be that as it may, Gay and Kathleen tell me they are staying in to watch the coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show that night. Married more than 50 years now, Gay 'n' Kathleen are an entertaining couple if ever there was one.

The Other Gay Byrne, the famous actor that is, made a comment during his interview on Once More With Meaning which inspired much discussion: "The more that we are aware of death, paradoxically the better a life that we can live."

Has death been on Gay's mind a lot over the last year or so because of his so-called complaint?

"Death was on my mind for a long time before that," says Gay. "I have been conscious of death from the age of 60. You're not aware of death when you're 24 and you're having a ball; unless there is some good reason you would be aware of death. When you're 60 you start becoming aware of death and that you are in the final run-in rather than the beginning of the run-in."

Gay Byrne, pictured in April 1964. RTE Stills Library
Gay Byrne, pictured in April 1964. RTE Stills Library

"So yes," says Gay, "I have been aware of death, and very much, since I got this thing. There is nothing I can do about it. Following the 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 give me an extra year or two. I don't know. I will know at the end of this because we have a big conference with our lead doctor, Dr McCaffrey."

I ask Kathleen how Gay is at the moment. "Gay is very bold at the moment when he won't eat what I give him," she says. "He says I am very bossy and impatient."

"You're a control freak," says Gay. "Then most women are, anyway!" he laughs.

"When he won't do what I want and eat his dinner, because he says sometimes he is not hungry...that is all part of this problem he has now. 'Don't cook anything for me. I can't eat.' He has to eat something."

Maybe he doesn't like your cooking, I joke. "Oh but he does," smiles Kathleen. "It always disappears as soon as I put it down in front of him."

"Could you just be very careful to mention that Kathleen has been unendingly good and extraordinary and amazing in looking after me and," adds Gay, "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 just play havoc, bloody havoc with me. I have been very difficult to live with - I know - but she has been really, really terrific."

Does Gay know when he is being difficult? "Yes. I have a belligerence about me."

"But," says Kathleen, "I know he is not well and he can't help it."

"I get anxious, I get agitated," says Gay. "And I don't even know what I'm agitated about."

"He lost the plastic zapper to get in the door and he was up to 90," says Kathleen. "I told him, it was just a piece of plastic."

"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 other tablets," explains Gay, "and those tablets are trying to cure the cancer. And I mean, chemo is a terrible experience. A dreadful experience. But that is the poison they put into you in order to cure the poison that is already in you called cancer. And so you go around in a muddle."

Does he try to analyse it? "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," reassures Kathleen.

"I don't think they do, " says Gay. "You hear a lot about people having died peacefully," says Kathleen.

"I hope so," says Gay.

"Pain control," says Kathleen.

"Give me the bag of morphine," laughs Gay, "and I'll administer it myself."

With the sunlight streaming in through the windows in Sandymount, Gay waxes philosophical about the permanent search for the light of knowledge, the meaning of life, death, the nature of faith, God. "God was always a presence in my life, whether I liked it or not," Gay says, crediting his Christian Brothers' education and the Jesuit boast, 'Give me the child for his first seven years, and I'll give you the man.' "I was religious when I was young. I played the organ in the local church, which was three doors from us on the South Circular Road, the Church of Our Lady of Fatima. I stood in for the organist on occasions because I could tinkle on the piano. I could just about play Tantum ergo Sacramentum and the hymns. "

Does Gay still play? Does he have a piano in the house? "I have a piano. But the result of the chemo treatment is the tips of your fingers are all numb. My nails are all falling out, falling off. And whether that comes right or not, I don't know. I wasn't about to play the second movement of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto for you anyway, but you never know."

Does he believe in heaven and hell and the afterlife? He says he has a policy of never answering that. "Because if do it will disclose my situation. If I am talking to someone in the future on Meaning Of Life you may edit your answers knowing where I stand." I look at Kathleen for guidance. "He has the faith," she says.

"I know the faith," says Gay. "That doesn't necessarily mean you have the faith. There is a difference."

Do you have the faith, Gay? "I'm not going to tell you."

Will Gay tell me instead where was God at Auschwitz-Birkenau? "This is the question people ask all the time. And they say the answer is, and the only possible answer is, that He ain't there. It is just that there is evil in the world and Auschwitz-Birkenau was a manifestation of the evil in the world; and God doesn't exist, because if he did - and this is the question Stephen Fry asked about babies being born with awful diseases," Gay says in reference to the comedian and broadcaster's infamous questions for God upon Fry's arrival at the pearly gates: 'Bone cancer in children, what's that about?'

"What omniscient God is going to do that?" asks Gay now.

I ask Gay how he answers that question. "I'm not telling you I am a believer. But people who do believe, as a woman said to me recently: 'God doesn't do that [concentration camps, babies born with cancer]... it is us who do that.' I said, 'Us who do what?' And baptism to absolve you from original sin? You're an infant in a cot!"

As Joe Duffy says in the introduction to Once More With Meaning, there still might be no answers to the big questions with Gay, but it is some journey.

The great journey began for Gay "when I was about 14," he says. "I wanted to be Eamonn Andrews." Andrews was a close friend in Synge Street of Gay's eldest brother, "Rasey Baby. Eamonn used to come to our home." Gay's mother was inordinately fond of Eamonn, and he of her.

"Theatre director Joe Dowling tells the story of wandering around Dublin and seeing a play at the Gaiety Theatre called Philadelphia, Here I Come! And he went in to see it. He had no experience of theatre of any kind. And sitting watching Philadelphia, Here I Come! Joe thought: 'Whatever that is, I want to be part of it.' That was the start of him going into the theatre business. And in the same way, I didn't know what I wanted to do but I knew Eamonn Andrews was doing it and I wanted to be him."

What were Gay's father's, who worked in Guinness, thoughts on all this? "He had no interest in it whatsoever. I had a father who was a lovely man, but I had no real direct contact with him in a way. When I see my son-in-laws now and undoubtedly you and men of your age, and the attention they give to their children I am simply gobsmacked."

"Tactile," says Kathleen arriving at the table with a plate of freshly buttered scones.

"My father wasn't tactile at all. At all." In Once More With Meaning, Bono tells Gay how the RTE star has an "unusual mind", not least for the way he prods with questions about Bono's difficult relationship with his father, and how he therefore reconciled it with the idea of God as a father figure. Bono says his father Bob was "Great - and the bit about him that wasn't great was the bit that I didn't like about myself."

How would Gay characterise his relationship with his father? "It is very hard to describe. I was irrelevant to his life." In his 1987 book The Time Of My Life, Gay described his father as "like Brutus: a plain, blunt man."

"I had a great relationship with Kathleen's father," Gay smiles. "He was just wonderful," says Kathleen. "I knew my daddy thought I was just wonderful." You didn't know your father thought you were just wonderful, Gay? "He never said 'You're wonderful.' He never said, 'You're terrific'. My mother did. My mother was the boss."

One day, young Gay went up against the boss to his cost when he told her he wasn't going to Mass. His father beat the living Jaysus out of him - "once" - "because I was very nasty to my mother and she said, 'I can't let you away with this, I'm going to tell your father'. It was probably my Inter Cert, around that age.

"She insisted on me going to Mass every morning. And I just thought, now and then, 'To hell with this, I am not going to Mass every morning.' She was on the way in from eight o'clock Mass and I was on the way out to Mass before she found out I wasn't there from the beginning."

What was said? "I forget what I said to her. I would never have said the 'F' word or anything like that. But I was very rude to her and she was very offended. And when he came home his job was to administer discipline," he recalls, "and so he did."

Even with the normally unforgiving sunlight bouncing off him, Gay looks very well, better than I have seen him in two years.

I tell him I was worried how I was going to react when I met him because of how he might look physically. Those fears proved largely unfounded. "Everybody tells me I look great," he says.

Gay not really being able to see himself as I see him has echoes of Andrea Corr saying in Once More With Meaning about human beings never really seeing ourselves properly anyway (when Gay had asked the singer about seeing herself as a beautiful woman). "If I only felt as well as I look I'd be doing terrific," Gay says. "And insofar as I looked like a cadaver not very long ago I am doing well. But it is up and down."

The late Terry Wogan says in Once More With Meaning that he didn't believe in God. "I know it's arrogant," El Tel says, "better men, and more intelligent men, than me have believed in God."

Asked whether Wogan's often waggish tongue was in his cheek when he said he didn't believe in God, Gay shakes his head.

"No. I think probably the loss of the child, the little girl [Vanessa, who died who she was three weeks old in 1966] had a profound effect on him," says Gay.

"My mother lost several children and went to Mass every Sunday and never lost the faith," says Kathleen. "That's the conundrum," says Gay, "how you reconcile one with the other."

Some Catholics believe God does not give you something you aren't strong enough to carry, I say.

"Some people are better at accepting and moving on than others," says Kathleen. "Some people are better at reconciling one with the other," says Gay. "Your mother, as an old- fashioned Catholic, would have been very good at reconciling the fact that God took her baby but there must be a reason why God wanted her baby, and you have another little angel up there praying for you."

It's 6.15pm. His glass is empty. Gay gets his walking stick and puts on his hat, walks me down to the gate. I suspect there are more than a few little angels praying for him.

Once More With Meaning airs this Wednesday, May 30, at 9.35pm on RTE One

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