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Gay Byrne: The great window opener

Thursday, 7th November, 2019 8:53am

Gay Byrne was the boldest and brightest star of the media revolution.

With his two-hour ‘The Late Late Show’ and ‘The Gay Byrne Show’, 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.

Byrne and his broadcasting style were important to Irish society, particularly in the 1960s and early ‘70s, because he asked the questions that the audience at home wanted to ask but would not dare articulate.

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.

But Byrne never saw himself as this great window opener, who ventilated all the joys and tragedies of Irish society. Instead, he remarked quite early in his career that ‘anybody in this type of job who expected to be universally loved is little more than a fool.’

He looked upon himself only as a ‘pro-broadcaster’, without ‘any great talent’ who at times became a ‘facilitator and a conduit for open discussion’.

There is no doubt that he ever imagined his role as some liberalising innovator. He saw himself rather as the ringmaster at one hell of a circus, where for over 37 years he had the whole of Ireland as his big top, making his guests jump through hoops to entertain and enlighten his audience

Byrne was Ireland’s first true star of popular culture. The public consumed him as they had no other figure before. His popularity was to become a form of entrapment.

In his time presenting ‘The Gay Byrne Show’, he was unable to take a break because it ‘was just too difficult to explain why’ and so he took only one day off in 26 years to attend a funeral.

Byrne was not a self-declared moral crusader. He did not set out to liberalise Irish society. He simply set out to entertain, to sometimes provoke, but primarily to put on a good show.

The opening up of Irish society was a by-product rather than the main aim of his efforts. In this respect, his contribution was that of an honest and straightforward broadcaster rather than that of a crusader against the establishment.

However, the real magic that he brought to his professional technique was his unending fascination with the human condition, that along with his compassion that rendered interviewees readily responsive to his queries.

Author Nuala O’Faolain put it more succinctly: “People explained themselves to him because they trusted him”.

But it wasn’t just what Byrne talked about that made him a central figure in Irish culture for over 37 years, it was the fact that he created a collective discourse that had not existed before, and perhaps never will again. He was the arbitrator, the facilitator, of all the talk that broke the endless silences in Irish life.

For others, Byrne was as exasperating as he was entertaining. They have found his hypersensitivity and funny radio voices annoying. He was indeed idiosyncratic and, at times, irritating – qualities which he openly and honestly placed before his audiences.

In his personal life, Byrne held a private pilot’s licence. In his younger years, one of his main passions was to take his motorbike and go out to Dublin airport and look ‘at the planes coming in and out and listen to them’.

In 2006, just when it was thought that the broadcasting legend would vanish into a well-earned retirement, he was unveiled as the new chairman of the Road Safety Authority, and continued to make headlines in this high-profile appointment.

Even in 2009, a full decade after his departure from both ‘The Gay Byrne Show’ and ‘The Late Late Show’, Byrne’s high standing within the broadcast community was evidenced when he received an Outstanding Achievement Award at the Phonographic Performance Ireland (PPI) Awards for his work on classical music station Lyric FM.

In 2011, Byrne’s name was touted for candidature as the next president of Ireland, but media backlash was severe and, perhaps shaken by this hostility, Byrne returned to his role as the affable, veteran jazz-loving broadcaster.

He was the man who loved Laurel and Hardy movies, whose favourite pastime was walking, whose broadcasting hero was Eamonn Andrews, and whose favourite poem was Philip Larkin’s pithily composed diatribe on parents.

It is hard to comprehend that this most extraordinarily ordinary man has helped shape Irish popular culture for almost four decades.

In contemporary Ireland, with the battle for ratings intense, one has to acknowledge that Byrne got out just in time. He believed the days of a nation taking its emotional temperature with a televisual thermometer were over and Irish people no longer needed to look to a talk-show to impose a coherent narrative on their lives.

Right up to his death, Byrne has remained a source of fascination for many. He has embraced all aspects of popular culture and, like the Rose of Tralee, which he hosted for many years, he himself became somewhat of an Irish institution.

In 2012, An Post even commissioned a Gay Byrne stamp to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first RTÉ broadcast. In 2002, he officially formed part of the Leaving Certificate history curriculum.

Things have changed dramatically since Byrne’s golden era in broadcasting, yet he more than anyone else has contributed to this change. His showmanship, his penchant for the controversial, his instinct for the type of broadcasting that would capture the public’s imagination, bought him the biggest audiences in radio and television.

His fearlessness 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 the great window opener, a unique broadcaster, who was a catalyst for change in Irish life.

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