Thursday 14 November 2019

Liz Kearney: 'We'll never again be united like we were by Byrne - now, our society is splintered'

Iconic: It’s easy to be nostalgic for the lost Ireland represented by Gay Byrne. Photo: David Conachy
Iconic: It’s easy to be nostalgic for the lost Ireland represented by Gay Byrne. Photo: David Conachy
Fond memories: Elma Fenton, of Monasterevin, Co Kildare, signs the book of condolence. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Fans queue up to sign the book of condolence. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Broadcaster Joe Duffy signs the book of condolence for Gay Byrne. Photo: Steve Humphreys
The late Gay Byrne. Photo: Mark Condren
‘World’s greatest broadcaster’: Tributes have poured in for Gay Byrne, pictured with his wife Kathleen Watkins in 2009. Photo: Sasko Lazarov/
Gay Byrne on 'The Late Late Show' set in 1966.
Gay Byrne with Stephen Fry, who made controversial comments about God
Gay Byrne refused to shake Gerry Adams’s hand. Photo: Getty Images
Gay Byrne and Annie Murphy, who revealed she had a child with a bishop
Devoted: Gay Byrne and his wife Kathleen. Photo: David Conachy
Byrne presenting his radio show in 1997
Byrne and fellow radio presenter Gerry Ryan kiss Miriam O’Callaghan at the launch of RTÉ’s autumn schedule in 2009. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Close friends: Joe Duffy and Gay Byrne at the launch of Duffy’s autobiography ‘Just Joe’ in Dublin. Photo: Brian McEvoy
Gay Byrne on his ‘bike’ with the loot, ahead of a €4m Lotto draw. Photo: Matt Walsh
Divisive at times: Gay Byrne with Mother Teresa on ‘The Late Late Show’
Gay Byrne in the radio studio in 1982
Gay with model Patricia and milkman Pat Kelly, from Swords, Dublin, at the launch of the Milkman of the Year contest in 1995
Byrne having cake in Studio 5 on the 15th anniversary of his Radio Show in 1988. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection
Passing the torch: Pat Kenny (left) took over from Gay Byrne on ‘The Late Late Show’, which is now presented by Ryan Tubridy (right). Photo: Barry McCall
Gay Byrne and Charles J Haughey. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection
Liz Kearney

Liz Kearney

The familiar brassy notes of the theme music. The swooping owl. That booming voice, heralding in dramatic fashion the start of the weekend: "Ladies and gentleman, to whom it concerns..."

This has been a week filled with such evocative memories, of Friday nights at home, staying up late in your dressing gown, feeling sophisticated enough to join the grown-ups for a little while as a famous actor or comedian settled down to chat to Gay Byrne.

Other times, it was a heated debate with panellists you didn't know, but who definitely sounded important.

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Even when you didn't quite understand why the adults were by turns laughing hysterically or hissing in anger at the TV, you sensed that something significant was happening. And, of course, it was.

Every Friday night, Ireland was changing just a little bit more, inching further along the road towards the liberal society we've latterly become.

My generation has been christened the Pope's Children, because the population boom which began in Ireland during the early 1970s peaked in 1980, roughly nine months after Pope John Paul II's visit here in autumn 1979.

But as Joe Duffy so accurately reminded us this week, we might have been the Pope's Children, but we were also very much Gay's Children, because we were growing up in an Ireland that had been shaped by him in so many different, subtle ways.

There had been many significant moments that preceded it, but the revelation in 1992 that Bishop of Galway Eamonn Casey had fathered a child with Annie Murphy, and Gay's subsequent notorious interview with her, was for me the scandal that exploded the certainties we'd been taught since primary school.

I was just 14 but I can vividly remember sitting glued to the screen that Friday evening, riveted by the glamorous, feisty Murphy and her steely response to Gay's line of questioning. It was obvious even to a teenager that everything was going to be different after this.

All those weird bits of our Catholic upbringing that had seemed kind of baffling - priestly lectures about helping the less fortunate delivered from an altar dripping with gold, for instance - well, it turned out that we were right to be confused.

But now we had a new word for it. Hypocrisy. And once you've learned the word hypocrisy, it's hard not to go hunting for it everywhere.

If the clergy - or at least, some members of it - were lying to us about being celibate, while simultaneously lecturing their flock on chastity and morality, then what else might they be lying about?

And if the most respected figures of authority in the community could tell such whoppers, and so brazenly to boot, then perhaps everyone else was lying to us too, including our parents and our teachers. It was a dizzying thought.

After that, all bets were off for Gay's Children. We had licence to behave how we wanted - and by and large, that's exactly what we did. Catholic guilt became a thing we only read about in Edna O'Brien novels, where it all seemed rather quaint.

It's not, I don't think, an exaggeration to say that much of the liberated exuberance of that post-Catholic generation helped fuel the Celtic Tiger, which roared for a decade and sowed the seeds of a very modern economy.

Of course, there was a sting in the tail. While no one would want to return to the repression of Dev's Ireland and his comely maidens dancing at the crossroads, few can be comfortable with the hyper-anxious, hyper-sexualised society that has emerged in its wake.

In less than three decades, we've gone from being a country scandalised when Gaybo took a condom from its packet on live TV, to a country where one in three of our teenagers admits sending graphic text messages.

And in the wake of the appalling murder of Ana Kriegel, who was sexually assaulted and killed by a teenage boy who had sought out extreme pornography on his smartphone, we are facing all manner of difficult questions about where we go next.

Which is why, for those of us who only caught the tail end of it, it's easy to be nostalgic for the lost Ireland represented by Uncle Gaybo.

It is hard to imagine that there will ever be another figure who can unite us as he did, because our society has splintered.

The centre has not held: we no longer gather as a tribe on a Friday night to watch one programme, but co-exist in separate bubbles watching Netflix or Amazon or YouTube. Our social media newsfeeds are not a communal experience, but unique to each individual, even down to the targeted ads that know who we are, where we live, where we work out, how old our children are. The tribe has fractured.

Saying goodbye to Gay Byrne is like bidding farewell to the last of the wise elders. They are all gone now, or so very many of them are: Gay, Ronnie Drew, Liam Clancy, Nuala O'Faolain, and the rest, taking with them their deep, soulful, poetic understanding of what Ireland once was, and what it could become.

What's left behind is less certain, less stable. It is a cliché, but it has never been more true: we will truly never see his like again.

Irish Independent

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