Thursday 14 November 2019

Martina Devlin: 'Often imitated, always listened to, when he was on form he was never surpassed'

Gay Byrne in the radio studio in 1982
Gay Byrne in the radio studio in 1982
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

When I worked in London in the 1990s and Terry Wogan was king of the chat show, people sometimes asked: "Aren't you sorry in Ireland to have lost such a talented broadcaster?" To which I'd always reply: "But we have Gay Byrne." Quod erat demonstrandum. Case proven.

Wogan himself paid tribute to his peer: "I think Gay was able to communicate better with the country people than I would be. I'm too metropolitan." Communicate is the key word in any analysis of the presenter, who was both a natural born communicator and a channel for others to tell their stories.

Actor Brenda Fricker described him as a man with "some sorcery" perhaps because of his ability to listen - instinctive in his knowledge of when to hold back and wait, thereby eliciting confidences. People said more than they intended when sitting opposite him. His brilliance was rooted in his interaction with guests: sometimes celebrities, but just as likely to be members of the public with an extraordinary story to tell, and he gave them space and confidence to speak.

After 60 years with RTÉ, it's little wonder the man known to one and all as Gaybo attained cultural status in Ireland. During his lengthy tenure he held up a mirror to the nation and reflected ourselves back at us.

One part agony aunt to two parts consummate professional, he earned a place in the public's affections - particularly those of mothers at home rearing families, for whom he was a lifeline to the world. A bond was formed between presenter and audience, and women have spoken of how they did their housework alongside his familiar radio presence.

He mattered to them because he formed the habit of reading out their letters on his daily radio programme, 'The Gay Byrne Show', which ran each weekday morning from 1973 until 1998. Gaybo gave these women a voice that was absent largely from public discourse - in his own way, he showed a feminist streak here because their stories were treated seriously by him.

Gay with model Patricia and milkman Pat Kelly, from Swords, Dublin, at the launch of the Milkman of the Year contest in 1995
Gay with model Patricia and milkman Pat Kelly, from Swords, Dublin, at the launch of the Milkman of the Year contest in 1995

Gaybo could be said to have lived his dream. In later life, battling cancer, he expressed regret at working so much, spending less time than he could have done with his wife, Kathleen Watkins, and their two daughters. But he had longed to be a broadcaster since the age of 14 and reached a pinnacle which few in his profession could hope to equal.

His career began with a radio slot playing jazz records in 1958, leading to hosting 'The Late Late Show' on RTÉ One for an exceptional timespan of 37 years, from 1962 until 1999. Even after stepping down he didn't retire and was still on air into his eighties.

There can never be another Gaybo because broadcasting has evolved. Audience attention has been atomised, making it unlikely that any one broadcaster ever again will attain the sort of lifelong impact he made. RTÉ is no longer a monopoly, its dominance diluted and the audience fractured by the digital revolution.

Today, there are more radio and TV stations, more chat shows, podcasts, streamed content and all sorts of people doing what he used to do - other presenters giving listeners and viewers a platform, often targeting specific audiences. Powerful and influential broadcasters will continue to emerge but that 'voice-of-the-nation' supremacy has vanished.

Byrne having cake in Studio 5 on the 15th anniversary of his Radio Show in 1988. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection
Byrne having cake in Studio 5 on the 15th anniversary of his Radio Show in 1988. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection

Some stand-out moments from 'The Late Late Show' include 'the Bishop and the Nightie' affair in 1966, when a woman was asked during a Mr and Mrs-style quiz what colour of nightdress she wore on her wedding night. She laughed and said she didn't think she wore one at all. The audience chuckled along but senior clergymen were scandalised, including Bishop of Clonfert Dr Thomas Ryan. Gaybo was censured from the pulpit for bringing "filth" into Irish homes.

On his watch, 'The Late Late Show' was to produce a litany of iconic moments charting the changing (sometimes not fast enough) face of Ireland. Another memorable year was 1984, with his coverage of schoolgirl mother Ann Lovett's death after giving birth in the open by a grotto to Our Lady in Granard, Co Longford, and the Kerry babies' case involving the discovery of two infants' remains.

After asking on air what the Lovett story was all about, sacks of post from around the country arrived at his radio studio and he read aloud many letters covering (in his own words) "rape, teenage pregnancies, incest, family obscenities". Some listeners were so shocked they stopped their cars by the side of the road to absorb what they were hearing.

He also featured the case of Christine Buckley, who wrote to him about her experiences in the Goldenbridge orphanage, run by the Sisters of Mercy, subsequently appearing on the 'Late Late' alongside the Nigerian father with whom she was reunited.

Gaybo shone a light into dark places, helping to topple an authoritarian and uncaring Catholic hierarchy. Some found him overly paternalistic in later life, however. Indeed, he fell short of his own standards in 1993, with a hostile interrogation of Annie Murphy on the 'Late Late' about her affair with Bishop Eamonn Casey, who fathered her son and siphoned off Church funds to pay for his upkeep. On balance, it cannot define a career that was six decades long.

His CV includes 17 years of presenting the Rose of Tralee until 1994. For The Beatles' fans, though, his real claim to fame springs from a period in the 1960s working with Britain's Granada Television, when he became the first person to introduce the Fab Four on screen.

Gaybo's finances were managed by an accountant friend, Russell Murphy, who betrayed his trust. After Murphy's death in 1986, most of Gaybo's savings were discovered to have been squandered by his financial adviser.

No doubt, this influenced his decision to keep working.

After the retirement that wasn't, the self-styled "elder lemon of Irish broadcasting" presented a number of other TV and radio programmes, including 'The Meaning of Life' on RTÉ One, notable for Stephen Fry's rebuke of "a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God". Whatever else Gaybo lost, he never misplaced his ability to generate electrifying TV.

In 2011 he was approached to run for the presidency but had the wisdom to decline, despite topping opinion polls. He understood that a celebrity was not what the Áras needed, even if political parties were ready to endorse such a contraction of the role. Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2016, he kept working for as long as possible, until deciding the following year that he could continue no longer.

By any standards, his career in Irish broadcasting was ground-breaking. Often imitated, always listened to, when he was on form Gay Byrne was never surpassed.

Irish Independent

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