Thursday 21 November 2019

Gerard O'Regan: 'Gay was ordinary and extraordinary, a bridge from what was to what came to be'

'The passing of Gay Byrne is a jolt for many Irish people of a certain vintage'
'The passing of Gay Byrne is a jolt for many Irish people of a certain vintage'

Gerard O'Regan

They call them baby boomers - essentially those who came of age in that intoxicating decade which was the 1960s. Yesterday another of their tribe made his final journey.

They are beginning to fall by the wayside. Time, and its ravages, is extracting the ultimate price.

The passing of Gay Byrne is a jolt for many Irish people of a certain vintage.

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He told us of his father working the Guinness barges having survived World War I. And how his mother embraced without question the Catholicism of her era.

And he spoke of how the Christian Brothers prepared and honed him for his life ahead.

The Brothers were also of their time and place. They could not cast aside the residue of Victorian corporal punishment. The message was, they had sublimated their own lives for the betterment of boys like him. Like many others, he would rail against the price they extracted for their sacrifice.

Their hard-edged sense of Irishness would compete with his instinct to embrace a wider world. Slowly, a chasm opened up between him and the people and places who fashioned his younger self.

The old radio in the family home became a thing of wonder; the dial brought crackly voices from distant places. The BBC, Radio Luxembourg, even AFN, the American Forces in Germany network, stirred something nascent. The confines of Synge Street and his Rialto and South Circular Road childhood would not hold him back.

This week his story has been told and retold. In essence, he was a self-taught young broadcaster desperate for a break. The ritual of the times was that fortune might favour the brave. And so he badgered Radio Éireann and Granada Television in Manchester.

Eventually he got his hands on the prize. A prime-time talk show all of his own. It was a dream fulfilled; it would become the lodestar of his life. He would never allow anyone take away his dream.

And so the years of unremitting work, the exhaustive preparation, the honing of skills, would follow. Always, always, he would follow his market. The battle for viewers and listeners, the people who really paid his wages, was sophisticated, analytical, and never-ending.

Insecurity would be a primal motivator.

Perhaps he could not forget the previous generation, and too many blighted lives, due to lack of opportunity. He knew he was lucky. So he would have ruthless focus lest his prize ever be wrenched from him.

Money-wise, he was treated none too well by RTÉ as he fought to carve his niche. But what matter if he was kingpin of prime-time radio and television. The theft of his life savings might have broken a less driven man. But he knew, thinking back to the world of the those Guinness boats, that having to start all over again was not the worst thing.

Years later he would tell us anybody hosting a talk show and not getting into trouble is not really doing their job. It was a mantra which made him. He knew disruption, and sometimes pushing things to the limit was the only security he had. He would give the punters what they wanted regardless of risk.

Despite all the assertions of recent days, he never sought to change the course of Irish life. He was an accidental facilitator as the ramparts of an old world were collapsing. Grand thoughts about heralding social change never bothered him. His consuming concern was hanging on to the job he loved.

The sheer elan, vital of the early decades, could not last. In later years he rode the winds of change by sheer hard graft. When he finally called quits on the day job, he was grey-haired, with the lined countenance of the older man.

The world of TV and radio was now spreadeagled with the force of the internet age. But his autumnal years brought more mellow programmes. And he never lost his touch.

It is right we bade Gay Byrne a fulsome farewell. Those fashioned by the 1960s especially know he was one of their own.

He was ordinary; he was extraordinary. He was a bridge between what was - and what came to be. We know that now as we dredge up memories of bygone days.

Irish Independent

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