Thursday 14 November 2019

Roslyn Dee: 'Thank you, Kathleen, for sharing Gay with all of us for so many years'

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Gay Byrne, pictured here last December with his wife Kathleen Watkins. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Gay Byrne, pictured here last December with his wife Kathleen Watkins. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Roslyn Dee

We don't know what last words passed between them. Nor should we. For such private final moments are precisely that - private. That he was a public figure and an icon of Irish broadcasting is irrefutable, however - just consider the laudatory outpourings of the nation these past few days. The memories. The anecdotes. The analysis. The tributes. That Gay Byrne played an important role in dragging this country into the modern era really goes without saying, with all of us over a certain age acknowledging that we will forever owe him a debt of gratitude.

But despite all the public displays of affection and respect for the man, he wasn't ours. Never was. Rather, he was Kathleen's. Her husband and her constant companion. For more than half a century.

Just cast your mind back, if you can, to 1964, to the year that Gabriel Byrne married Kathleen Watkins in her local church in Saggart in Co Dublin.

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Just two weeks before that June wedding, a young South African lawyer called Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment, while in America the nation was still reeling from the assassination of JFK the previous winter. Yes, it was that long ago when Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins exchanged their vows.

And for the next 55 years they shared a life together - through good times and bad, in sickness and in health, until death, this week, finally, did they part.

And during all his years in RTÉ, every morning he went to work. And every evening he came home to her. "At 7.15pm, for his dinner," as Kathleen has said herself in the past. That was the pattern of their private lives.

READ MORE: Colette Browne: 'How Gay Byrne saved my mother's sanity'

Private lives that also embraced the arrival of their two cherished daughters, Crona and Suzy, and then, in more recent times, the added blessing of a clutch of grandchildren.

And over all the decades, Kathleen - Gay's "bedrock", as Deirdre Purcell, collaborating writer on Gay's autobiography 'The Time of My Life', has this week described her - has stood sentinel for her husband, sacrificing her own ambitions for the man she loved.

For let's not forget that Kathleen Watkins was RTÉ's first continuity announcer, and both a professional actress and a celebrated harpist when she married Gay Byrne.

It's hard, all the same, to imagine separate lives. Difficult, indeed, not to inevitably speak of Kathleen in the same breath as Gay.

Out and about over the years, whether at the Abbey Theatre, or the Gaiety, or at some book launch or other, there they'd be - always together. And quietly mindful of each other's needs.

READ MORE: 'I got the bus to his house when U2 were dropped from Late Late' - Bono leads tributes to Gay Byrne on RTE special

Listening this week to a radio clip of Kathleen ringing in to the 'Gay Byrne Show' to surprise her husband many years ago, you couldn't help but smile at the jokey banter and the equality of the sparring dynamic between the pair of them.

When former American First Lady Barbara Bush died last year, she was referred to by many as simply that - the wife of former American President George H W Bush. Yet here was a woman who was so much more than just a presidential appendage. And it was Bill Clinton who hit the nail on the head when, in offering his condolences to the family, he so aptly referred to the "grace and grit" of Barbara Bush.

So now, in that same light, it's time to acknowledge the grace and grit of Kathleen Watkins as she lays her beloved Gay to rest tomorrow. Time, indeed, to pay tribute to the person to whom Gay Byrne truly belonged. And time to whisper a quiet thank you to her for so selflessly lending him to all of us for so many years.

READ MORE: Feminism's Trojan Horse: How Gaybo shaped women's rights for Middle Ireland

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