IRELAND'S most enduring broadcaster gay byrne tells andrea smith about his retirement plans, his astonishing media career and its effect on his family and a new book featuring interview extracts from his rte show'
KATHLEEN Watkins is a very attractive woman and always has been, and in fact she was attractive to lots of fellas. But anyway she kept a tight rein on everything and that's how we've ended up as we are. She's a lovely woman and has been a solid partner to me. She's a very good mother,and her children, most especially her grandchildren, adore her. She is most interested in them, and in fact, I describe her as an extremely interfering grandmother."
I'm having tea in The Westbury with Gay Byrne, the most popular and enduring broadcaster the country has ever known and who is credited with taking Ireland out of the dark ages through his fearless tackling of controversial and taboo subjects.
The 79-year-old was introduced to Kathleen in 1957 by optician Donal MacNally and they will celebrate their golden wedding anniversary in 2014. So what would he say is the secret to their enduring relationship?
"I said before that maybe we should have gone to Specsavers, which didn't go down too well with some people," he laughs. Someone said that they always associated the two of us with holding hands and I said if we ever let go, we'd strangle one another. That went down rather better!
"I honestly think that it's about compromise. If either one gets on the nerves of the other one, you learn to back off, go and do something else for a bit and try to avoid areas of conflict. I'm sort of quick-tempered, insofar as I blow up if something annoys me, and Kathleen's reaction to that is to just laugh at me. Sometimes she'll go into hysterics of laughter and can't do anything else. It's very difficult to sustain anger in the face of that."
Gay grew up in Rialto in Dublin as the youngest of six children. He had four brothers who have all sadly passed away and a sister Mary, who lives in Foxrock.
He recalls having a pretty happy childhood and says that his parents were good-living people who were strict about obedience. He was very close to his mother and the two of them lived by themselves in the house for quite a number of years before she died.
And what about his dad? Would he have been close to him, too? "Well, I couldn't say I was very close to him, as he was more of a disciplinarian and a slightly distant figure," he says. "He would have been a product of his age and time and he didn't live long enough for me to be an adult, so I never went for a pint with him, for example."
Gay started his broadcasting career in Radio Eireann in 1958 and also worked for Granada and the BBC. He began working in television at RTE in 1961, with The Late Late Show airing in 1962 and his radio show, The Gay Byrne Show, debuting in 1972.
Although technically retired, he broadcasts on Lyric FM every Sunday afternoon, and has just finished a short tour of the popular theatre show that he does with Kathleen. Gay also recently finished a run of The Meaning of Life on RTE1, which ended on a high note last Sunday with Imelda May.
He interviewed people including Bono, Maeve Binchy and Gabriel Byrne on the show, which explores life's meaningful questions. A book of the same name, quotes from which feature on the right, has just been released.
"It's extracts from interviews we did on the show, which have been edited by the producer and director Roger Childs," he explains. "We are giving some of the proceeds to Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin, as I sit on the board of the medical research foundation there."
Employed on contract throughout his entire RTE career, Gay says that he feels fortunate to have enjoyed robust good health for most of his life. He only missed five days of The Gay Byrne Show over 30 years and on two of those days, he went in but was too ill to speak.
"As any self-employed electrician or plumber or cabinet-maker can testify, it's amazing how healthy you stay when you are working for yourself," he says.
"And even if you have the flu, you'd work through it out of fear of anyone else coming in and doing the job better."
The genial broadcaster is father to two daughters, Suzy and Crona, "two smashing girls" who he "loves to bits". He says that while he has some memories of important days in their lives, he has few memories of other special days as he was frequently gone from ten to seven every morning until late in the night. Looking back now, is this a regret for him?
"Well of course it's a regret, but I think you'll get the same complaint from many men my age who tried very hard to be successful and climbed the slippery ladder of advancement every day," he says. "We thought that this was the right thing to do, so now we have only hazy memories of the kids growing up. But what's the point of having regrets? As I have reminded my two daughters on countless occasions, this, unfortunately, was what put butter on their parsnips and gave us nice holidays and a nice lifestyle. And, thankfully, we're very close today."
Gay and Kathleen decided to downsize a few years ago, and moved to Sandymount. Their eldest daughter, Suzy, and her husband Ronan now live in the old house in Howth, and they have three children, Cian, Saidbh and Saoirse. Younger daughter Crona and her husband Philip live in Killaloe, and have two children, Kate and Harry. All are under ten. While it's clear that Gay considers Kathleen to be a brilliant grandmother, does he believe that he is a good grandfather? "Well, yes, in very small doses," he laughs. "And I think if they're honest, most fellas will tell you the same. After an hour of statutory stuff, it's 'goodbye now and safe home and see you all again soon'. They're at a stage now where you can get a bit of craic and fun out of them and have a conversation. They come in to Sandymount and stay overnight with us and then they go away, thanks be to God!"
After he was vocal in his criticism of the Government when his pension was decimated during the banking crisis, Gay unwittingly became the poster boy for older people hit by what he calls "a financial tsunami". It sits uneasily on his trim shoulders. He thinks many of the cutbacks have been deeply unfair, but feels that when someone like him is seen to be complaining, it's a gross injustice.
"I'm embarrassed talking about it because I'm extremely well-off compared with so many other people who are letting their voices be known, as evidenced by the crowds outside the Dail last week," he says.
"And by God, when the grey army are in full flight, they're a pretty frightening prospect for any politician. At our age, there is no way that we can recover from it, so you either throw yourself over the Cliffs of Moher or you continue blindly on."
While Gay is always credited with moving Ireland forward by tackling issues that were taboo or controversial, such as pre-marital sex and contraception, he doesn't like to take any particular credit for it.
"It was like Hollywood when RTE first went on the air and everyone wanted to work there," he says. "We were delighted with ourselves, but for the most part, we didn't know what the hell we were doing. We had great freedom and I'd love to tell you that I was certain of what I was doing at the time, but it's just not true."
There were several Late, Late Show interviews over the years that have been indelibly burned into the national psyche. These include the 1993 one with Annie Murphy, Bishop Eamon Casey's mistress, and the 1999 one with Terry Keane, who famously revealed details of her relationship with former Taoiseach, Charlie Haughey.
So was Gay aware in advance of the consternation that such revelations would cause? "I think that like all journalistic people, you have a nose for a story," he says.
"We in the business all knew about Terry's affair with Charlie Haughey, but to so many people out there, it was an astonishing story to hear on the TV. There were people who simply could not believe that it could have happened and they wrote to me after the interview aired and said, 'Really, Gay, who was that slightly mad woman you had on the show? Quite clearly she's unbalanced and not completely with it and you should be careful of having people like that on, because they're telling such a pack of lies.'"
Gay says that while his shows strove to get the big stories of the day and, in fairness, generally accomplished that goal, he would hate to be working in the industry now because the competition for scoops and exclusivity is so ferocious. He explains that he wouldn't have the energy or the appetite for story and ratings battles these days.
So, given his long association with RTE, was Gay surprised when his old friend Pat Kenny announced his move to Newstalk?
"No, I knew it was rumbling way back to poor Gerry Ryan and all of that upset," he says. "Gerry was the leader of the pack, as it were, but in my opinion the presenters were being treated extremely badly.
"I don't think they were all being prima donnas, nor do I think they should have been treated with kid gloves. But if I had still been there, which I wasn't, I would have had the feeling that I was being treated very badly. I think the attitude in RTE to Pat was, 'Listen, he's 65. Who the hell wants him? Where the hell he is going to go, and what the hell he is going to do? He won't be moving anywhere, so we can treat him any way we like. And then suddenly, wham, 'holy God, what is all this? He has left?'
"So they found out he was gone, and for big money too, and I think it gave them one hell of a fright and they deserved it."
"I know that I'm speaking about the people that I've been working for all these years, and this sounds quite quaint but I still have some loyalty towards to the place.
"I can't think what I would have been doing with my life if I wasn't working for RTE. It was extremely good to me, and in reverse, I've been extremely good to RTE, so it's been a very happy combination."
He has been the chairman of the Road Safety Authority for the past seven years, but Gay lives a fairly sedate life away from the television and radio. He likes to walk on his own, cycles around the place, enjoys having a drink and a bit of fun with his pals. And he and Kathleen love their holiday home in Donegal, apart from when it rains, which it often does.
Having been such a permanent fixture on screens and airwaves – and a respected voice of authority – over the years, it seems hard to imagine a world without Gay Byrne. But while the question of retirement is often put to him by journalists, he says that he is often only thinking out loud when he responds because he has not made a decision yet.
"If I live to next August, I'll be 80 years old," he says. "I think that's a good time to look around and see where I stand and maybe, just maybe, bow out. Perhaps 80 is a good time to stop all this tomfoolery of travelling around the country to do bits and pieces, but you'd really need to check back with me nearer to August to see how I'm feeling then."
If he does retire, one thing is certain – Gay Byrne will be missed.
"The Meaning Of Life – with Gay Byrne" is published by Gill and Macmillan and retails at €18.39. Sunday with Gay Byrne airs on Lyric FM, Sundays, 2-4 pm.