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Byrne’s legacy may be modern Ireland

Thursday, 7th November, 2019 8:57am

I don’t remember Gay Byrne that much. I was just too young, or too ignorant.

Of course, I was very aware of him. He was a vaguely reassuring presence during my childhood. I knew he must be important as my parents had a biography or auto-biography of him - I can’t remember which - on the book shelves.

I only know about his huge cultural legacy through the words of others.

I was probably present for some of his later key moments on ‘The Late Late Show’, but I wasn’t paying enough attention or didn’t understand the importance!

It’s clear that he was a huge figure, not just in Irish broadcasting, but in Irish cultural life in the twentieth century.

Dr Finola Doyle O’Neill is a broadcast historian in UCC and is author of the book, ‘The Gaybo Revolution: How Gay Byrne challenged Irish Society’.

She writes an excellent opinion piece on his legacy and impact on page 24. She writes that “Byrne developed into a kind of conduit for the thoughts and feelings of the nation, a mirror of its conscience. He excavated areas of Irish life that had hitherto not been explored".

“On both ‘The Late Late Show’ and ‘The Gay Byrne Show’, he staged the great drama of Irish life, performing the vital role of convivial ringmaster, as he mediated and negotiated the chasm between the insular, established Ireland and an emergent, more outward-looking nation.”

She is surely right too to mention his fearlessness, which she says “was formidable as he helped to expose the underbelly of Irish society, a society which spoke only in whispers of such things as incest, abuse and sad marriages. Byrne was a unique broadcaster, who was a catalyst for change in Irish life.”

Interestingly, she also says that he did not set out to liberalise Irish society, but simply to entertain.

“The opening up of Irish society was a by-product rather than the main aim of his efforts.”

I didn’t catch that much of ‘The Late Late Show - Gay Byrne Tribute’ on Tuesday but I did see how he was remembered with such genuine warmth by so many people. The closing credits featured a montage of his greatest moments on ‘The Late Late Show’ but very few were familiar to me.

It was very interesting listening to Ryan Tubridy on RTÉ Radio 1 on Tuesday morning and Pat Kenny on Newstalk at the same time. Both of them referenced how the three of them and Joe Duffy would regularly meet up to chat about all manner of things from current affairs to music to RTÉ gossip.

From both broadcasters, it was clear that Gay freely and generously offered advice to them and other broadcasters. Clearly, they all became friends despite the obvious potential for rivalry and jealousy. It was nice to hear both Tubridy and Kenny talk about him in such warm and familiar fashion, as they truly knew him. Both of them offered a different insight into Gay Byrne the man.

His legacy isn’t clear as of yet, but he did help to modernise Ireland, even if that was simply a by-product of his attempts to put on a good show.

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