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'He heralded a huge change in Irish life': How Gay Byrne brought sex to Irish TV

The broadcaster passed away yesterday aged 85.

Image: RollingNews.ie

GAY BYRNE YESTERDAY passed away at the age of 85. 

Through those eight and a half decades on this earth, Byrne, Uncle Gaybo or whatever you called him at home, became the quasi father of the nation. 

On 5 July 1962, Byrne sat down in RTÉ’s studios to front up a new chat show which was supposed to only run for six weeks. We all know now that that was the Late Late Show, a programme which is the longest-running live chat show in the entire world. 

After 37 years at the helm, Byrne released his grip on the show to Pat Kenny in 1999. But through those nearly four decades, Gaybo had guided the show, and essentially the nation, through its formative years and into adulthood. 

Under his guidance, sex was spoken about on Irish television. The Late Late, with Byrne leading the charge wilfully or not, became the place where matters of public decency or indecency (whichever side of the debate you sat on) were discussed in front of the nation. 

So proud was he of the show, that in March 1966 as an argument about the Catholic clergy reached fever pitch, a man shouted from the audience that Byrne should stop bringing people on to the show to “slag off the clergy”, to which Byrne responded: 

“Wait a minute. I did not bring people in here to slag the clergy. We have a programme and we are proud of it as a programme on which you are allowed to say what you want.”

Dr Finola Doyle O’Neill, Broadcast Historian at UCC, described Byrne as the “boldest and brightest of the new media revolution” of the 60s. She said that his legacy is one of a man who has left a huge cultural impact on the island of Ireland. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, she said: “I think all the greatest dramas were staged on the Late Late Show and the Gay Byrne Show, he was like a very sort of like a convivial ringmaster. 

“He moved Ireland from an insular establishment country to one that was much more emerging and outward looking. In a way, people could relate to this kind of an everyman of a modernising Ireland.

“He asked the questions we wanted to hear. He was the boldest and brightest star of the new media revolution.”

However, it wasn’t just his interviewing style and skills which endeared Byrne to the public. He started talking about things conservative Ireland would not dare countenance.

Doyle O’Neill added that there were very few issues for Byrne which were totally off limits and he used his position and power within RTÉ to do the shows he wanted to do. 

“He discussed sexual issues openly. He was the first to talk to David Norris about homosexuality and he always included the non-nuclear family. There was also the story in the 80s of a woman with AIDS on his radio programme. This was at a time when people were very ignorant about it and how it could be transmitted. It was hugely enlightening.” 

But Doyle O’Neill argued that when Byrne started his career in RTÉ, he was despised by the men of Ireland. 

file-photo-gay-byrne-has-died-end Gay Byrne with his wife Kathleen Watkins. Source: RollingNews.ie

“In his younger days he was despised. The men of Ireland went to work and then Gay Byrne was at home with their wives, the conduit was Gay Byrne.  He heralded a huge change in Irish life. We will never see a broadcaster of his calibre again.”

For all the charisma and excitement Byrne brought to his broadcasting style, those who knew the man spoke of him as a quiet and almost shy person, someone who could be very insecure.

But this did not deter him from courting controversy.

Byrne regularly found himself in hot water 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 and called on parishioners to boycott the show. They didn’t.

Éanna Brophy, former reporter and columnist with The Sunday Press, said the fact that Byrne was his own producer in the early days of the Late Late meant he was effectively his own boss.  

The switch to helming the Irish weekend chat show came after Byrne’s early successes in the presenter’s chair in the UK. 

“He was doing quite well in England – over at Granada Television – he met The Beatles before they were really really famous as well and there’s a great story about Paul McCartney coming up to him and saying ‘we’re looking for a manager’. As he had no management experience, he said ‘it’s just as well I turned them down, I could have been a multimillionaire or dead from drugs at age 30′.”

Almost instantly, his star began to rise, so much so that he could decide what they were going to discuss on The Late Late, according to Brophy. 

He added: “He got so well-established that if he was going to go for a bit of controversy he had the status to do it by then. I remember being told by an RTÉ producer that Gay was worth £8 million a year in ad revenue to RTÉ, and that was decades ago so you can multiply that a few times in today’s money.”

Gay’s success continued and his pals in RTÉ began to take notice. But they also took notice of the fact that Gay was terrible at negotiating new contracts with management, much to the annoyance of his colleagues who themselves were looking for raises and couldn’t dare ask for more than what Byrne was on. 

“I remember on one thing Mike Murphy said. For years none of them could negotiate decent money because Gaybo was afraid. He was settling for a lot less than what he was bringing in. They were all saying ‘Gay, for God’s sake go get a proper contract’ and he’d turn around and say ‘ah you wouldn’t know with management – ah they can turn around and say you’re gone’ so there was that insecurity with him as well.” 

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