Friday 17 January 2020

Ed Power: 'It's the end of an era - we'll never see such generational touchstones again'

Huge influence: The death of Gay Byrne came as the greatest shock. Photo: David Conachy
Huge influence: The death of Gay Byrne came as the greatest shock. Photo: David Conachy

Ed Power

There was a grim symmetry to the RTÉ news this week. Tuesday night's bulletin segued from a tribute to the late 2fm DJ Larry Gogan to coverage of the funeral of Marian Finucane, who had died suddenly on January 2.

For those of a certain age, it is slightly numbing to contemplate the ever-lengthening parade of figures from their childhood trudging into the twilight. The death last year of Gay Byrne was obviously the biggest shock in that his influence upon Ireland transcended television.

It's also bracing to consider that in 2019 we said farewell to Brendan Grace and Niall Tóibín, who up to the 1990s represented that rare subcategory of Irish comedians who could actually make you laugh. And now Finucane and Gogan - gone in the first week of 2020.

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However, regardless of our particular age or provenance we have all been coming to terms lately with the shuffling off of generational touchstones (not that either Gogan or Finucane quite met that definition). Incredibly, it's four years since the death of David Bowie, three since George Michael and Carrie Fisher. The slow trickle of celebrity demises - they used to be snatched away long before their time - has, in the past half-decade, become a flood.

There will be other pop stars and other actors. On the A-list, nobody is irreplaceable. Yet in the case of Irish broadcasting and the deaths of Byrne, Gogan, Finucane and others, it surely isn't going too far to claim a chapter has closed.

Back when Ireland was a drab backwater, these figures were part of the tapestry of the week. Byrne's 'Late Late Show' was considered essential viewing because he confronted some of the (many, many) taboos with which Ireland was obsessed. But also because there was almost literally nothing else to do.

The internet didn't exist. There were only two channels, unless you lived in Cork, Dublin or somewhere similarly lucky enough to have access to British TV. Even then you weren't exactly treated to a cornucopia. British telly was almost as grim as the Irish equivalent.

Still, Irish broadcasters of that time were singular in their ubiquity. Gay Byrne wasn't just on every Friday (previously Saturday) night. His radio show was unavoidable too. When I was in college there were mutterings that someone in the year ahead had called him up and was put on air to argue a point (to do with divorce or abortion, as I recall).

Obviously there was no way of establishing if the rumours were true. You couldn't simply visit the RTÉ website and listen back. Nonetheless, it did wonders for the esteem in which she was held on campus. If you could go on Gay Byrne and cogently communicate your position, what couldn't you do?

It wasn't just Byrne. Mike Murphy, Derek Davis and Thelma Mansfield on 'Live at Three', Michael Lyster on 'The Sunday Game', Brendan Grace, Larry Gogan…You just couldn't get away from them in Ireland through the 1980s and even into the 1990s.

There wasn't much genuflecting, it should be pointed out. It wasn't as if the entire country was bingeing on 'Live at Three' or nodding along to Byrne's opinions or Gogan's pop picks. However, there was little else to sit down to, few other ways of passing the time apart from going to confession or immigrating. Young audiences today, by contrast, are at best vaguely aware of RTÉ. Their time is spent on social media, Netflix, YouTube…anywhere but the calcified world of old-school broadcasting.

Hence the outpourings over the passing away of Byrne and his contemporaries. They were poor, grey, bored Ireland's very own Mount Rushmore.

With their deaths it feels that an era is winding down. Modern fame is an enormously debased commodity - "celebrity" just a few thousand Instagram followers away. Forty years from now, it's hard to imagine the country coming together to mourn the passing of a social media star, as we did with Byrne. The Offaly YouTuber Jacksepticeye, for instance, has a considerably higher international profile than, say, Ryan Tubridy or Jennifer Zamparelli.

But for all the millions of clicks his videos receive, he is thoroughly obscure to most of us. The upside is that Ireland no longer requires a national father confessor, as Byrne essentially was.

The country is wealthier, more at ease with itself, far less repressed. And still, you can't help feeling a lump in your throat as his generation of broadcasters dwindles into history. You wouldn't want to go back (dear God, no). At the same time, it feels correct to pause and acknowledge that we won't see their like again.

Irish Independent

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