Monday 18 November 2019

Joe Duffy: 'If 60 years of Ireland had a voice, it would be Gay’s'

He enhanced the lives of countless thousands of Irish people every day

Gay Byrne on his ‘bike’ with the loot, ahead of a €4m Lotto draw. Photo: Matt Walsh
Gay Byrne on his ‘bike’ with the loot, ahead of a €4m Lotto draw. Photo: Matt Walsh

Joe Duffy

Can you name any other broadcaster in any country that had such an impact on the daily life of a nation for nearly 60 years as Gay Byrne?

The answer is no.

His loss, after a long, difficult illness is immense for so many.

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And the facts about the boy from Rialto are astonishing .

Byrne presented 'The Late Late Show' for 37 years, beginning in 1962 when he was 28. He was also the producer in charge for all but four of those years. His daily radio programme ran for 26 years. The 'Toy Show', which still enthrals the nation, was first anchored by Byrne in his Christmas jumper in 1971.

Each programme Gay Byrne presented and produced attracted an audience that simply has never been matched in percentage terms here or in any other country.

Close friends: Joe Duffy and Gay Byrne at the launch of Duffy’s autobiography ‘Just Joe’ in Dublin. Photo: Brian McEvoy
Close friends: Joe Duffy and Gay Byrne at the launch of Duffy’s autobiography ‘Just Joe’ in Dublin. Photo: Brian McEvoy

He loved actors, musicians, comedians and the show-business community. As he demonstrated in his one-man show which toured Ireland before his illness took its toll, he could act, sing, play the piano and tell a cracking good yarn.

It is often forgotten that Byrne's sharp edge and current affairs bent began in television and only arrived fully formed on radio a decade later with the Gay Byrne morning radio show.

Gay Byrne was only 28 when the 'Late Late' began way back in 1962 - shortly after Ireland got its first television station. The dull, stultifying era of de Valera had effectively ended. Irish society was ready to be challenged and changed. More than any other person, Gay Byrne did exactly that. For nearly four decades his broadcasts became our 'citizens' assembly', a daily staple with five two-hour radio shows culminating in 'The Late Late Show' on Friday night.

His programmes were entertaining, engaging and ultimately made all our lives richer - and in many cases simply more bearable. For Irish women especially, his programmes became a lifeline, as the issues that affected them were confronted head on. Many women enduring domestic abuse, without access to contraception, divorce or marriage equality, discovered through Byrne's programmes that they were not alone. Many found in his programmes a warm platform to raise these issues.

Byrne and fellow radio presenter Gerry Ryan kiss Miriam O’Callaghan at the launch of RTÉ’s autumn schedule in 2009. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Byrne and fellow radio presenter Gerry Ryan kiss Miriam O’Callaghan at the launch of RTÉ’s autumn schedule in 2009. Photo: Steve Humphreys

I remember my first meeting with him - I was 10 years old, he was 32. He was getting into his car in Dublin's Moore Street, near the then RTÉ radio studios in the GPO.

I asked for his autograph, which he bemusedly scribbled - when I told him this story years later when we became close friends and colleagues, he corrected me on the make of car he was getting into.

Like so many, he supported, mentored and criticised me - all for the better. Up to quite recently he would text me during 'Liveline', admonishing me for either speaking too fast, too slow or at times sounding hysterical.

Delira and excira, I was not to receive these missives - mainly because they were always right.

As our friendship grew over the years, I realised that while he had begun treating me like a son, he then treated me as an equal, which to me explains why he had so many and varied loyal friends.

There was simply no more generous broadcaster than Byrne. From the 'Toy Show' to the daily radio programme he often sat back and allowed others to take the limelight - he held no fear. He was comfortable and confident in his own skin from a very young age. His work ethic was astonishing - it was the total opposite of his friend Terry Wogan's self-professed devil-may-care attitude.

He was producer of 'The Late Late' and had a major input into the content of 'The Gay Byrne' radio show - but he had no agendas except to make good, interesting, entertaining and highly rated programmes. When I was a producer on the radio show, we all sat in dread each morning for his verdict on the item we had contributed to the programme.

He could be very, very tough. Into his eighties his work ethic still dominated - as well as his weekly programme on Lyric FM and a newspaper column, he and Kathleen toured the country with his 'Live on Stage' show, a two-hour tour de force. He presented 'The Meaning of Life' for 12 seasons up to 2017.

He never let his own disinterest in the GAA or other sports, his injudicious obsession with obscure jazz artists or his disdain for the "language movement" dominate or distort his output. Though his hatred of the Provisional IRA was unbounded and well known, he seldom talked about the fact that his father and seven uncles all fought in World War I. It was only while finally making a TV programme about 'My Father's War' that I saw him actually break down, the second time I ever saw tears flow down his cheeks.

The question as to whether Ireland would have changed anyway without Gay Byrne's programmes cannot be answered adequately at this stage. In truth, like most good broadcasters, he did not have an agenda, political or otherwise - except to make good programmes and to trust his instincts, and stick with them under fire.

As to the impact he has had - which he would dismiss with an impatient flick of the wrist - it is hard to quantify. He did save lives in his work - I am not just talking about his eight-year tenure as the energetic chairman of the Road Safety Authority.

His impact on Irish society has been seismic - and positive.

Above all, he had a great interest in life and people. He was an airplane geek - he would have been a pilot if he had not become a broadcaster. He was an expert on air crashes and their causes. He loved theatre, books, movies and walking. He loved tidy desks, tidy cars and tidy people who were also punctual. He didn't have a big interest in sports until his beloved grandchildren arrived.

His 60 years in the public eye has left an indelible mark not just on Irish society, but he enhanced the lives of countless thousands of Irish people every day through his radio show - while 'The Late Late Show' was the top-rated weekly TV show.

He was the boldest, the bravest and the brightest - we are all the better for his life and deeply, deeply saddened by his passing.

If Ireland of the last six decades in all its generosity, progress, creativity, joy, heartbreak, inclusivity, laughter and sadness was a voice - and had a voice - it would be the warm dulcet tones of Gay Byrne. Our love and condolences to the loves of his life, his wife Kathleen, daughters Crona and Suzy and their husbands and his beloved grandchildren.

Joe Duffy worked with Gay Byrne between 1988 and 1999 as a producer, reporter and latterly as a co-presenter. He currently presents 'Liveline' on RTÉ Radio One

Irish Independent

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