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A master broadcaster whose work challenged Irish society: Gay Byrne (1934-2019)

As host of the Late Late for almost four decades, Byrne played a major role in a changing Ireland.

BROADCASTER GAY BYRNE, the host of RTÉ’s The Late Late Show for almost four decades and one of the country’s best-known broadcasters, has died aged 85.

The former RTÉ presenter had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2016. In one of his last broadcast interviews, he told Ray D’Arcy last year that he was “certainly not strong”.

Alongside the Late Late, the veteran broadcaster also presented the weekday Gay Byrne Show on RTÉ radio for almost three decades.

In later years he hosted the Irish version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire and presented the interview-based Meaning of Life series for almost a decade. Outside of broadcasting, he served as the chairman of the Road Safety Authority for eight years, stepping down as he approached his 80th birthday in 2014. 

Speaking to D’Arcy in that radio interview he said that looking back on his career he had regrets that he didn’t allow himself to take more time off to be around his family.

I have deep regrets. I regret now the amount of time I gave to this place [RTÉ]. I should have taken time to do other things. I was dedicated to the place.

90263526_90263526 Source: by Michael Chester/Photocall Ireland

The Late Late 

Byrne will be best remembered for his time at the helm of the Late Late Show, which debuted in 1962 as a summer fill-in show but quickly became appointment television.

The broadcaster courted controversy over the ensuing decades, as the show sought to document societal changes and balance topical issues like divorce, the role of the Church and the AIDS crisis with the usual mix of interviews with comedians, actors and sports stars.

One of the best known incidents from the early days of the programme underscored the transition taking place in Irish society, when a woman unwittingly sparked a major controversy by taking part in a throw-away quiz item.

Eileen Fox and her husband Richard appeared on the Late Late in 1966 and took part in a quiz item for married couples.

When asked by Byrne what colour nightie she had worn on the night of their honeymoon, she replied that she hadn’t worn any.

Laughter followed, and the show continued as normal. However, the Bishop of Clonfert, Dr Thomas Ryan, was less than amused and phoned The Sunday Press to announce that he planned to denounce the item in a sermon.

The paper ran with the frontpage ‘Bishop slates TV act’ and the country exploded into a frenzy of controversy which would keep tongues wagging and newspaper columns filled for months.

late1 Source: RTÉ Stills Library

UCC media history lecturer Finola Doyle O’Neill wrote the 2015 book The Gaybo Revolution, which traced Byrne’s impact on, and response to, Irish life in the late 20th Century.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, she singled out the broadcaster’s handling of the Ann Lovett case for particular praise.

Ann Lovett was a 15-year-old girl who left her school in Granard, Co Longford on 31 January 1984. Unlike her peers, Ann did not go home. She went to a grotto at the top of the town.

There, alone in the cold, she gave birth to an infant son. Her son died there, in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. Ann died later that day in hospital.

Said Doyle O’Neill:

When I talk [to students] about Ann Lovett, I tell them [that] how Gay Byrne handled it was so unique. He could have railed against the lack of sexual education or health education in Ireland.
Instead, he got women to read letters. Letters of their own experiences of abortions or giving birth alone.
He later spoke to a woman from inner-city Dublin about AIDS and, in a way, punctured the belief that it was a homosexual disease.
What I say to the students is that he always knew when to talk about topics that were hidden.
He was hugely pioneering and ahead of his time, but very sensitive to the public perception and knew when the time was right to talk.

Said the lecturer:

There is a sense that he was trying to lift us out of the quagmire of some of our views. He mediated the conversation between two sides of Ireland.

The Late Late, of course, also hosted visiting film and music stars from the US and UK – and provided Ireland with landmark moments like a very young-looking U2′s 1980 appearance and the 1999 tribute to the victims of the Omagh bombing.

Source: U2mx/YouTube

Byrne’s television career actually began in Manchester, where he became the first person to introduce the Beatles on screen while working for Granada. 

Unveiling a plaque in November 2018 to commemorate the band’s 1963 shows in Dublin, he told a story of how Paul McCartney had asked him to become the Beatles’ agent – but that he turned the singer down. 

The broadcaster told McCartney he was “up to his ears” shuttling between Manchester and Dublin to present the Late Late at weekends, so it wouldn’t be possible. 

After the Late Late 

The veteran broadcaster retired from The Late Late Show, as well as his long-running RTÉ radio programme, in 1999.

Alongside The Meaning of Life – a series in which he interviewed public figures about meaning and faith – he also hosted a Sunday afternoon jazz show on RTÉ Lyric FM during his ‘retirement’ years.

In one of the most notable incidents from his later career Byrne hit the international headlines in 2017 following reports that gardaí had launched a probe into Stephen Fry’s comments about God on the Meaning of Life.

A clip of Fry’s remarks had gone viral after it was posted two years previously.

Source: RTÉ - IRELAND’S NATIONAL PUBLIC SERVICE MEDIA/YouTube

Later life  

The broadcaster dealt with a number of health problems in recent years. He was admitted to hospital after a heart attack in late 2015 – and shortly before Christmas in 2016 he told listeners to his Lyric FM show that he was undergoing tests for cancer.

He described his “gruelling” chemotherapy treatment in that Ray D’Arcy interview last year. 

He was unable to attend a ceremony in June where President Michael D Higgins praised Byrne’s courage and compassion at a ceremony to mark the presentation of a lifetime achievement award.

The President again led tributes in the wake of the announcement of his death this afternoon. A statement from the Áras described Gay as “a man of great charisma”.

President Higgins added: “Gay Byrne was someone who exuded warmth and presence, who was possessed of effortless wit, charm and who had a flair for broadcasting. This was combined with an innate gentleness as a person, professionalism and humour.

Through his work in radio and on television he challenged Irish society, and shone a light not only on the bright but also the dark sides of Irish life.

He is survived by his wife of over 50 years, the writer and broadcaster Kathleen Watkins, their two daughters, Suzy and Crona, and their grandchildren. 

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About the author:

Daragh Brophy

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