Thursday 14 November 2019

Liam Collins: 'Gay Byrne was a towering broadcaster who set the agenda for modern society'

Enthralling, informing and entertaining, Gay Byrne’s influence reached far and wide

Gay Byrne on 'The Late Late Show' set in 1966.
Gay Byrne on 'The Late Late Show' set in 1966.
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

In terms of the influence he had on public life, Gay Byrne ranks with Éamon de Valera, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and the economist TK Whitaker as one of the towering figures of 20th century Ireland.

He came to radio and television at a time when Ireland was embarking on a dramatic period of economic change and, although his was no overnight success, he would go on to become one of the most influential figures in Irish society for three decades.

As a broadcaster and commentator, he - rather than politicians, priests or academics of the era - set the social agenda that created the society we have today.

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Gay, who died yesterday at the age of 85, had been ill with prostate cancer for some years and in the early summer, he abandoned treatment for his condition, and in more recent months was confined to a wheelchair.

"He was our avenue to the outside world," said the lawyer, broadcaster and former president Mary McAleese in relation to his radio programme 'The Gay Byrne Show' (1973-1998).

In catering for such a large and diverse audience of stay-at-home mothers, Gay Byrne elbowed himself into the public consciousness, his radio and television shows not only reflecting the changing fabric of Irish society, but setting the agenda for much of the transition that would take place during his lifetime.

Gabriel Mary Byrne was the youngest of six children born into a working class household on August 5, 1934.

He was the youngest of a family dominated by his devoutly Catholic mother Annie, who came originally from Little Bray in Co Wicklow, and her husband Edward, who worked in the Guinness brewery.

The family lived in a 'two up, two down' house at 17 Rialto Street in Dublin's south inner city, before moving in 1944 to what is now 512 South Circular Road.

From an early age, he was obsessed by broadcasting and following in the footsteps of family friend Eamonn Andrews.

Yet the emphasis of his influential mother on "getting a steady job" led him to apply to the nearby Guinness Brewery in St James's Gate after finishing his Leaving Certificate.

He was interviewed by the then-managing director Charles Harvey, who rejected his application, telling him: "I am of the opinion that there is an elegant sufficiency of Byrnes on the Guinness staff."

He joined the Royal Insurance Company, became a trainee cinema manager at the Strand Cinema, joined Dermot Ryan's car hire firm and eventually worked for the Guardian Insurance Company in Kildare Street in an attempt to "settle down".

He got his break presenting a sponsored programme for the chocolate firm Urney for a fee of three guineas, which was followed by more offers, but reluctance by Raidió Éireann to employ him.

Annie Murphy on the Late Late
Annie Murphy on the Late Late
Kathleen Watkins and her husband Gay Byrne. Photo: David Conachy
Pat, Gay and Ryan at The Late Late Show 50th anniversary in 2012
Family story: Broadcasting legend Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins with grandchildren Cian, Saoirse and Sadhbh. PHOTO: VIP MAGAZINE
Wesley Snipes pictured with Gay Byrne at the opening of Planet Hollywood last night.(picture taken at press reception in conrad) Pic Tony Kelly.7/12/97
Broadcaster Gay Byrne with his wife Kathleen Watkins.
Gay Byrne and wife Kathleen Watkins for VIP Magazine. Picture: Lili Forberg/VIP Magazine
Gay Byrne feeling the love with a Valentine's Day card, February 1993
Gay with his family, Suzy, Kathleen and Crona: 'It is simply a truth to say without them I would not have survived'. Photo: Gareth Chaney
Broadcaster Gay Byrne pictured with Frank McNamara and Theresa Lowe on their wedding day in 1987
Broadcaster Gay Byrne Photo: Mark Condren
Gay Byrne and wife Kathleen Watkins enjoying the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby at the Curragh. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Ray D'Arcy with Gay Byrne at RTE Radio 1
Gay Byrne, pictured in April 1964. RTE Stills Library
Gay Byrne pictured in 1982. RTE Stills Library
Gay and Kathleen. Photo: David Conachy
Gay Byrne. Photo: Kip Carroll
Gay and Kathleen
Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne has died at the age of 85 after a long illness, RTE said (Brian Lawless/PA)
Derek Hill's portrait of Gay Byrne, commissioned by RTE

Tipped off about an opportunity in Granada Television in Manchester, he got a job co-hosting a nightly magazine programme 'People and Places' and had the distinction of being the first broadcaster to interview The Beatles (with Ken Dodd in 1963).

After failing to land a job for the opening of the new Telefís Éireann, he did finally get to present 'The Late Late Show' for its first episode on July 6, 1962, which was broadcast on a Friday as part of an eight-week summer "filler".

The first guests were Count Cyril McCormack, journalist Ken Gray, George Hodnett, a jazz enthusiast and the sports broadcaster Harry Thuillier.

He presented the first series while commuting between Dublin and Manchester, but was not particularly pleased that the format was giving him scope for development.

During the summer of 1963, 'The Late Late Show' was presented by the broadcaster and humorous writer Frank Hall, and Gay was signed again for the eight-week summer season in 1964.

Although not exactly a Romeo, Gay had had a string of girlfriends before meeting Kathleen Watkins, a harpist and budding broadcaster, presenting 'Hospital Requests' on Raidió Éireann.

His friend Donal McNally - later a well-known Dublin optician - introduced him to Kay, as she was known, in the Safari Café and they began dating, after an initial walk down Dún Laoghaire Pier.

They were married in Saggart, where Kathleen's family lived, and the reception was held in the Downshire Hotel in Blessington, Co Wicklow, before flying to London, where Gay was working for the BBC.

In 1965, Gay got a contract to take over as full-time host of an expanded 'Late Late', which was now to go out on a Saturday night.

While he finished his commitments with the BBC, the actor Ronnie Walsh was signed up as his "stand-in" and once, due to a flight delay, had to present the first 20 minutes of the show.

"I had very definite ideas about what I wanted to do with the show. I wanted continuity in it, and I did not want each week to be in the hands of a different, perhaps inexperienced, producer, who would have his own ideas that were perhaps at variance with my own," said Gay.

Both he and RTÉ agreed that Adrian Cronin would direct the show and Gay would be both presenter and producer - an unusual level to power to entrust to any broadcaster.

Back home in Dublin, the Byrnes moved into a flat in Elgin Road, Dublin 4, and later moved to a new home in the Baily area of Howth. They also bought a small cottage in Dungloe, Co Donegal, where Gay spent every summer for much of the remainder of his life.

Before getting married, Kathleen had told him that as a side effect of the TB she had suffered as a child, she could not have children. Now she desperately wanted them, although Gay said later he was largely indifferent about a family at the time.

After a long procedure, they adopted two children, Crona and Suzy, and Kathleen devoted herself to rearing the children as a stay-at-home mother.

'The Late Late Show' really "took off" in broadcasting terms, with the introduction of a weekly panel comprised of the acerbic writer and conversationalist Ulick O'Connor and Dennis Franks, an outwardly "almost timid" homosexual actor, whose rancorous exchanges became a feature of the show until they were dropped because other guests were declining invitations to come on the programme.

But controversy was never far away from the 'Late Late', as it was now popularly known. Student activist John Feeney alleged, wrongly, that the Archbishop of Dublin had shares in the condom company Durex; there was the famous quiz competition between a newly married couple which led to the 'Bishop and the Nighty' incident in 1966 and another activist caused uproar when he called the new Galway Cathedral "a monstrosity".

Equally influential was 'The Gay Byrne Hour' (later 'The Gay Byrne Show') which ran on RTÉ radio from 1972 to 1999. Produced by the left-leaning John Caden, it challenged almost all aspects of Irish social thinking, which - up to the mid-1970s at least - was filtered through the confines of Catholic doctrine.

Their 'seed' letters inflamed fierce national debates on contraception, marital abuse, infidelity and alcoholism - some of which commentators believe were written by programme staff, with this intention in mind.

But he also had his "cringing moments", which included goading the Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke into singing 'My Darling Clementine' the evening after the massacre of seven innocent Protestant construction workers by the IRA in 1992.

The camp British actor Kenneth Williams wrote in his diary about appearing on this bizarre television show in Dublin where a giveaway "one for everyone in the audience" was followed by a tear-jerking interview with a bereaved parent, followed by items such as Brian Lenihan Snr regaling the audience with the story of asking a guard who caught him drinking after hours "will you have a pint or a transfer?", followed by a song.

Gay never saw it as his duty to publicise people's books, but to put together a show that would enthral his audience. Over the years, even his catchphrases "roll it there Colette" and "there's one for everyone in the audience" became nationally known and mimicked.

He would say later that Mother Theresa of Calcutta was the most impressive guest on the show and Britt Ekland exuded the most sex.

His typically easy but inquisitive style led to a 1999 interview with European Commissioner Pádraig Flynn admitting to the difficulty of keeping three homes and inflaming developer Tom Gilmartin to come to Dublin to give evidence to the Mahon Tribunal.

He also hosted Terry Keane, who spoke publicly for the first time of her affair with Charles Haughey on the second to last 'Late Late' show with Gay as the presenter.

Gay also formed a bond with some guests, leading to the tribute show with The Dubliners, and a tribute show to himself led by Bono and U2, which ended his career as official host of 'The Late Late Show'.

He said his own personal favourite was The Liberties Special.

"There was something about it, perhaps because I am from Dublin, perhaps because I identify so strongly with stand-up comics like Al Banim and the solid working pros like Joe Cuddy," he said.

He and the writer Hugh Leonard were bound together by their unfortunate relationship with the accountant Russell Murphy, a friend and confidante who lived the high life on money he took from them, conveniently dying before anyone found out.

A chapter in Gay's autobiography, 'The Time of My Life', is entitled 'The Betrayal' and it oozes with the hurt - personal and financial - that he suffered.

"Russell Murphy, one of my closest friends, father-figure; he embezzled all of my life savings. He also used a power of attorney to borrow money for himself, using my investments as collateral. After he died, I found that not only was all my money gone, but I was in serious debt," he wrote.

Even though it is more than 16 years since the lights dimmed for him in Studio 1, Gay Byrne never really went away.

Apart from a Lyric FM radio show which lasted until 2017, he has presented several series of the fascinating television programme 'The Meaning of Life', with heavyweight guests, and was even threatened with prosecution for blasphemy under the Defamation Act for references to God by his guest, Stephen Fry.

He also presented and staged a successful one-man show, 'An Evening with Gay Byrne', produced by his friend of many years, John McColgan of Riverdance.

Although he received many tempting offers to leave RTÉ, Gay remained faithful to the station, although he did seriously consider joining the first commercial broadcaster, the ill-fated Century Radio, but decided against it at a late stage.

He also made an ill-advised intervention in the 2011 presidential election when he was 'sounded out' about becoming a candidate for Fianna Fáil, but withdrew due to the public backlash.

He also provoked a very public backlash because of his interview with Annie Murphy, the mother of Bishop Eamon Casey's son, during which he said if Peter was "half of the man his father was" he would turn out all right.

Yet given the tens of thousands of hours of radio and television broadcasting that he presented and produced, it is impossible to divine any pattern that defines the man himself.

In later life, he and Kathleen moved from Howth, where he had enjoyed a lifestyle largely devoid of publicity and could walk and cycle at his leisure, to an apartment in Ballsbridge, Dublin 4, although he often remarked that its great advantage was that it was near the Dart, so that he could easily go back to Howth.

Gay once memorised a notice kept on the desk by his old boss at Granada Television, which said "When all is said and done, remember that what we're talking about is just a bloody 'auld television programme".

"When all is said and done, I agree," he wrote.

"We in television and radio are not essential, not necessary - and, according to a lot of people, not even desirable," said Gay summing up his career.

Irish Independent

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