Monday 18 November 2019

Editorial: 'Gaybo leaves void on air and in the hearts of nation'

The late Gay Byrne. Photo: Mark Condren
The late Gay Byrne. Photo: Mark Condren


In Britain the BBC is affectionately known as 'Auntie'; here we had 'Uncle Gaybo'.

The Dublin boy - schooled in Synge Street - was an improbable candidate to become voice, soul and conscience of the nation.

He has gone off air; leaving not just a void in broadcasting but in the hearts of generations.

Ireland in 1962, when 'The Late Late Show' was born, was a fierce place to be for an accidental advocate of independent thought.

Opinions beyond the confession box door were dangerous things to be caught with.

His career trod a perilous path, surviving by the grace of remaining one inch from the reach of flying croziers.

The swinging '60s might have walked on by were it not for the advent of the 'Late Late'. Without raising his voice, Gay Byrne let in the light, exposing social taboos that had lain deep in the national psyche.

A velvet revolution followed. Untouchable, exotic, often painful topics were soon spoken of in kitchens and living rooms. Tantalising discussion exploded about sex, loneliness, women's rights. Whatever it was; it started on 'The Late Late Show'.

The most incendiary political issue of the day was debated without injury or collateral damage. This took the dexterity of the bomb-disposal expert, given the fact that the Troubles ignited and ended with Byrne in the chair.

He made sure enough light was let in to allow an audience to find its way to its own conclusions. His professional ability won the respect and admiration of men like Johnny Carson and Michael Parkinson.

He became fearless in roles he probably never thought he would have to play.

He forced himself and the country to confront uncomfortable corners of hidden society; places we had been encouraged to leave alone in the dark. But he kept going, knowing he was always likely to provoke outrage before any prospect of understanding.

Thus he became the confidant and champion of housewives throughout the land.

His reign was in an age before video or computer. The spell he wove captivated with a power impossible to comprehend today in an internet age of blinding choice.

Back then it was a black and white world, there was no such thing as an "attention economy".

If you had a TV and a set of ears (or a "rabbit's ears" aerial) chances were Gay Byrne had a grip on both. Today's entertainment is as fast food, to be consumed and instantly forgotten, but Byrne offered more substantial fare.

Cartoonist Dorothy Gambrell wrote: "If television's a babysitter, the internet is a drunk librarian who won't shut up."

When broadcasting pre-world wide web was a more decorous considered affair, Byrne epitomised its distinction. He beguiled rather than bludgeoned. For six decades his greatest achievement was to remain his irreplaceable self.

A hard act to follow?

"Yes indeed," as he might say himself.

Irish Independent

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