Sunday 17 February 2019

Fourth anniversary: The great Gerry Ryan remembered

Ten days ago, the fourth anniversary of Gerry Ryan's death passed with little media recognition. He was one of the most loved – and most controversial – broadcasters Ireland ever produced. Barry Egan talks to Ryan's friends about the great man behind the myth

Electric Personality: RTE radio broadcaster, the late Gerry Ryan, was hugely popular with listeners. Photo: Mark Condren
Remembered: Gerry Ryan's funeral in 2010.
Gerry Ryan and Barry Egan
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

'I knew him better than anyone on earth," Morah Ryan told me, with no over-statement perhaps. "It was not a great day for us," she added, on the anniversary of Gerry's death, April 30. "We watched home movies and had lots of laughs, lots of great memories. It is hard to believe that he's gone four years."

It is 10 days now since the anniversary of Gerry Ryan's death – an anniversary that it is hard to believe went virtually unmarked by the media.

Even allowing for exaggeration, he was probably the most popular broadcaster and personality Ireland ever produced. The void he left behind in RTE will never be filled. There is simply no one in Montrose good enough to give RTE the audience Gerry Ryan gave them on the radio.

It was like the nation had lost its voice, or its favourite uncle. The feeling of irretrievable, inexplicable loss remains, as do the unanswerable questions of why, why, why.

So why did the anniversary of Gerry's death pass without anything in the way of a special or a TV tribute, even a cover of the RTE Guide magazine? There were no sombre, sanctifying reappraisals of the great man.

Was there something about the manner of his passing – that he died at home on his own and effectively broke, having lived beyond his means – that ultimately we recognise its potential to be us?

Perhaps the great irony in all this is that, if there was one programme where this conundrum would have been properly and emotionally addressed, it would have been on The Gerry Ryan Show. He knew instinctively the national conversation at any given time, what people were talking about.

It was almost like Gerry was able to bring to the listeners – over 400,000 of them at its peak – what went on in their own homes and in their own bedrooms as opposed to what goes on in the public arena.

"Gerry was very engaged intellectually with whatever crossed his path, but he had the ability when broadcasting to make that accessible, without seeming simplistic or patronising," says his friend, David Blake Knox, who worked with him for more than 20 years.

"He had a very good ability to take a complex subject and talk about it in a way that people could relate to and understand."

Gerry understood the Irish people and appeared to know what was going on in our minds. Indeed, the subject of the last conversation Gerry had with one of his friends before he died was probably a conversation most of us were having, and continue to have – money worries.

The last conversation Robbie Fox had with Gerry – on the phone, two days before he died – had a touch of the national mood about it.

"He was looking for some advice on his own financial situation. I remember it well, because I had been through the wringer with my business going bad," says Robbie, who first met Ryan in 1982 in The Pink Elephant, the legendary nightclub Robbie ran.

"It was common knowledge Gerry had money issues and, because of my well-documented fall from grace, he was just asking for advice on how to deal with some issues he had."

"In regards to the lead up to his death, he wasn't sleeping, he hadn't been well. He was under pressures about the banks," David Blake Knox says.

One of Ryan's close friends, Michael Colgan, artistic director of The Gate, says Ryan had talked to him about his money difficulties.

"He told me two weeks before he died that he had been called in by – he used the word 'young whippersnappers' – the bank. He said he was upset by all of that. But, you see, Gerry had no sense of the future. Gerry would spend money as if it was Kleenex in the Waldorf. He had no sense of the future."

"Then there were personal factors, too," says Blake Knox. "He was worried about his treatment within RTE, whether he was properly valued. I think the evidence was that he wasn't, because the subsequent history of 2FM has shown how difficult, if not impossible, he was to replace."

"In a sense, he has proved to be right because 2FM has found it very difficult," adds Blake Knox, "not just in financial terms – because the income at the station has taken quite a hit since Gerry died – but also because the image of the station has had some difficulty in defining itself in the period after he died."

Somehow, I can't imagine Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain ringing in under a fake name to the Ryan Tubridy radio show to berate Tubs for leaving his dirty clothes on the bedroom floor and never putting the bins out, as Morah famously did in 1997.

Morah then asked her husband, who was absolutely oblivious: "You wouldn't do that now, would you Gerry?" An entertainingly embarrassed Gerry eventually realised the identity of the caller.

Diarmuid Gavin, a regular guest on the Ryan Show, recalled "a feeling of trepidation mixed with excitement before a radio interview with Gerry. He was like a pirate who had taken control of someone's galleon. There was a constant feeling that he was getting away with saying stuff and doing stuff because the powers that be couldn't get at him – his listeners were too loyal. '

"Laurence Lewellyn Bowen would text me," added Gavin, "about the mad fun he'd just had in the studio with Gerry. As I recall, they both ended up one time doing an interview in their underwear. Who else would do that now?" Who indeed?

In his broadcasts, as in life, Gerry Ryan brought the common touch to an artform. Indeed, he came over to a beautiful female acquaintance of mine one evening at an event and said that his friend – almost as well known as Gerry – "wanted to f**k my shadow. Gerry said that he had never heard a man say he wanted to f**k a woman's shadow before. He thought this was extraordinary."

He had the equally extraordinary ability to fraternize with princes and paupers. And they loved him with equal measure. His electric personality, his larger than life persona, his manic energy, made him compelling company both in person and on the national airwaves. That Gerry Ryan is not around any more seems almost unreal, while being very sad. It is almost like Gerry Ryan was a fictional character all along.

Like The Great Gatsby, the Great Gerry spent and lived beyond his means. He defined, or was at least part, of a golden age of good times in Ireland. The life style of Gerry Ryan is perhaps part of a fancy puzzle that mirrors a larger puzzle, and contradictions, of a supposedly sophisticated Modern Ireland itself.

In his book, enticingly titled Would The Real Gerry Ryan Please Stand Up, he writes about flying first class with Aer Lingus with his family to New York's JFK, where a limo is there to take them to the penthouse of Fitzpatrick's Hotel in Manhattan, before lunch with U2's manager and then backstage passes to the concert, and afterwards, "jump on the U2 plane to head to Philadelphia."

The Great Gerry ran with the fast set in Ireland and further afield. He enjoyed a life of wealth and privilege. Most people would find it hard to believe that a man who was on wages from RTE of almost six hundred grand a year, as Gerry was, could have been stuck for a few quid when he died. David Blake Knox believes that Gerry is not unique in that regard.

"There are people who have earned a lot of money and have their expenses, you know? Gerry lived, by most people's standards, quite an extravagant lifestyle. He had an appetite. He liked to go into good restaurants. He liked to eat out. If he was drinking, he liked fine whiskey rather than ordinary whiskey. It is not that difficult to spend. He did live beyond his means but, you know, he enjoyed doing it and other people enjoyed him doing so as well," says Blake Knox.

"Most people tend to live, more or less, on the fringes of their earning, no matter what they're earning. Most people tend to spend most of it."

"He lived life to the full," says Michael Colgan.

"I have to say that I always felt – and not since he died – that when Gerry was alive he was the personification of the cliché, live every day as if it was your last. That's what Gerry did. He lived every day. He ordered the best, he took the best and he gave the best.

"There is a great quote by Goethe, 'Nothing is more important than this day.' I think Gerry encapsulated that. Dublin isn't the same without him. Nor is Ireland. He had no belief in – or no sense of – the future; how right he was. He was a great friend. I know that all of my friends miss him terribly. He could make a room."

"When he came into a room, it was like putting a plug into a socket," Colgan adds. "He lit it up. He was just great fun. Gerry was someone who, when you met him, your heart went up a little bit because you were always glad to meet him. He was the best company. He had a big appetite for everything. For living. For eating. For drinking. For staying out late. And for working. He staggered people with the way he could be out late at night and yet go on and do three hours on the radio and electrify people. It was his huge, huge personality."

"Gerry was a good guy who left us far too early," says Robbie Fox.

Friends of Ryan's have pointed out the image that he projected was just an image. He was a broadcasting persona and, like most broadcasters, there is another human side that wouldn't necessarily be appropriate to be talking about, said one close friend.

"In the last years of his life he went through obviously some personal difficulties," said Blake Knox, "with the separation from Morah. He was a very committed family person. In some respects he was more conservative than he may have appeared. He was very much a traditional family man in a lot of ways."

Michael Colgan, through his own personal experience with Ryan, saw this for himself. "I remember when my marriage broke up in 2000 he told me in the Shelbourne that I was an idiot," Colgan says. "He told me what you need to do is to be an older man in the armchair with a glass of whiskey and the slippers and be surrounded and loved by your children and your grandchildren. He said that's the ultimate goal. I know that's what he wanted. I know his love of family was not a cliché. It was absolutely real. He told me to do everything to hang on to that because, as you get older, that is what you are going to need the most."

Broadcaster David Blake Knox wrote a moving piece for the Sunday Independent about his friend after he died. In it, he recalled the last time he filmed with Gerry, for an interview with Heather Mills where he asked her if she regretted anything she had done in her life. Before she could answer, Ryan went on to say that he could fill "two articulated trucks" with his own regrets.

"I think anyone who has ever had a marriage breakdown is bound to have some regrets about it," Blake Knox says now.

"The feeling that perhaps they could have handled things differently. That was, I think, his principal source of regret. He was very committed to his family and that did weigh on his mind. He enjoyed life but he was quite a complex person. Sometimes people just saw the out-for-a-good time person, but he was a much more complex person than that."

I ask Blake Knox what did he think was going on in Gerry's head in the months before he died. Did he talk about his regrets about Morah? "Like a lot of people, Gerry had contradictory feelings about things like that," he says, meaning the marriage break-up.

"And some times he would express views in one direction and sometimes he would express them in another direction. I think one of the things that was absolutely clear was that he didn't simply stop loving Morah. She remained a hugely important figure in his life, somebody who he spent many years with, had children with. But even beyond that, there was a very profound connection between the two of them, which he recognised and which he knew wasn't going to disappear."

"I know they split but I believe he still loved her deeply. Soul-mates I'd say," says Robbie Fox.

The story of Gerry and Morah is a tale of Camelot romance that didn't turn out quite right. (And wasn't there something of the Jackie O about Morah in her dark glasses at the funeral?) The affairs of the heart are a very complicated matter.

Maybe Morah did know him, as she says herself, better than anyone on earth. Some have said to me that Morah had seen all sides of Gerry. He revealed himself totally to her. I think that Morah had a lot to put up with Gerry. It was possibly more than Gerry's dirty underpants on the floor.

He was a sensitive soul beneath the cocky swagger. I met Gerry one night at an opening night at the Gate, roughly a year after he and Morah had publicly broken up. He said to me: "When are you going to start referring to me as dignified [in your column]? Morah is always 'dignified'." He was only half joking.

Melanie Verwoerd was only with Gerry for two years and the Gerry she got was perhaps what Gerry wanted to be: the best side of Gerry. He presented and projected the good side of himself while hiding his alleged occasional cocaine use from her. Maybe the reason Gerry didn't live with Melanie was because he didn't want her to know that he apparently dabbled occasionally. We'll never know.

In truth, I don't think the people in Ireland are overly appalled or morally offended that slight traces of cocaine were found in Gerry Ryan's blood system during the autopsy. I think the people in Ireland are more appalled that dark forces tried to portray him as the Paolo Escobar of Montrose without thinking of Gerry's five lovely children, or Morah, or even Ryan's partner at the time of his death, Ms Verwoerd.

A psychologist who didn't want to be named told me that the judging of a person allows us to hide from our own vulnerability and fool ourselves that what happened to Gerry Ryan was person-specific, but it also starts to diminish our own humanity and reduce life to simplistic and concrete events where everything is black and white.

I shared a bottle of whiskey with Gerry in Harry Crosbie's house one night in 1998. A man really can't have his guard up after 10 glasses of whiskey and there was no talk with Gerry of coke.

Sadly, perhaps, the very uncharitable or hard of heart would say that his posthumous reputation will be partially blotted by the inquest into his death – traces of cocaine found in his system were the likely trigger for a cardiac arrhythmia that resulted in his death.

"I was shocked at all that," says Blake Knox of the revelations relating to coke. "I was very saddened by it because I was concerned at how it would damage and affect his memory for people. It is sad because it not how he should be judged, if he should be judged at all.

"As far as I'm concerned it was an impulsive mistake that he made and it was contradictory to things that he had told me. I was saddened by it and I knew that it didn't correspond to what he had told me of his views on that subject, and I was concerned that it would effect his memory for people."

"I was shocked as well," says Colgan.

"I have no evidence for this but I have known him for a million years – we hung out together, we went out and did late nights together – and I never saw him take any of it. I never knew anything about it. I was shocked by that, absolutely shocked by that."

What kind of place was Gerry in the weeks before he died? Was he happy?

"I'm not so sure," Michael Colgan says.

"I''m really not so sure about that. I have no reasons. I suppose there was some stuff about work," Colgan says.

"I think he would have loved to have gotten the Late Late Show and he didn't. He never spread depression or unhappiness to his friends but I got a little sense that there was a thin veil of disappointment about him in the latter years."

"The last few weeks of his life, he seemed under a lot of pressure. He felt himself at any rate to be under financial pressure. Now, to be honest, I think it could all have been sorted out, and I think it would all have been sorted out if he had lived longer," adds David Blake Knox.

"But I think at that time he felt himself very pressurised, very pressurized. His health was an ongoing concern for his friends, including myself. In the last months of his life, we were concerned about his health. He was concerned about it. It was difficult, because he could agree that he needed to face certain health issues but putting that into practice was another thing. But Gerry was about to start a new fitness regime just about a week after he died, and address some of those problems.

"In fact, he was due to start with a trainer the week after he died. He was aware that his health needed looking after. But there was something that made people think, including Gerry, that he was kind of indestructible because he had phenomenal stamina. To do a live show like that, three hours a day, five days a week, for so many years requires not just great mental resources but great physical resources as well. It is really demanding for him and very, very testing over such a long period of time. I can't think of anyone who has done a comparable feat of broadcasting.

"Considered objectively, it was an epic ordeal that he went through. It wasn't an ordeal because he loved it, but just because he loved it didn't mean that it wasn't very, very physically and psychologically demanding of him," says David Blake Knox.

So, was Ireland's legendary king of talk radio happy in his final months? The answer is: it is impossible to know. Who knows the ratio of angels to demons that Gerry Ryan had to deal with inside his head, inside his soul, or how truly content he was in the final months of his life before his sudden death. Everybody has a view on Gerry Ryan but no one really knows the truth about him. To quote Marcus Aurelius: 'Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.' So maybe it is best just to remember how great Gerry was and simply now let him rest in peace.

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