Gay Byrne 1934–2019 

7 November 2019

Those that know me well will wonder why I haven’t commented on the passing of Gay Byrne. I’ll do so, in the form of a personal retrospective of his career, as a mere two lines on the man would be insufficient. There was so much more to Gaybo than the regularly trotted out clips of Mike Murphy’s prank in Trinity and so on.

The man was a pioneer, like most who started in RTÉ/Telefís Éireann, winging it to a certain extent, the way that most programmes went out live rather than recorded, to such an extent that archive material of the man from the 60s and 70s is rare.

Where did he get his style from, if indeed, from anyone? Was he unique? Of course, he was unique to Irish TV, but you can pick out subtle clues from his mannerisms as to how he learned his craft at Granada and the BBC. To me, he was a combination of Bruce Forsyth and Cliff Michelmore. Bruce, the master showman of his time, in his pomp with Sunday Night at the London Palladium and “I’m in charge!” persona, and Cliff, the erstwhile BBC news presenter of the time because whilst Gay was a great interviewer, he was light on his feet, a great listener and able to judge the tone to perfection. Both those traits were needed to present a carbuncle that was The Late Late Show. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.

But Gay was a master puppeteer. As both producer and presenter of The Late Late Show, we came to know his “Roll it there Colette” had an air of a man in total command of the show he had. He knew his audience, he knew that his programmes could shine a light on Irish society that Official Ireland would baulk at. He knew what buttons to press, how to engender a reaction, provocative yet kindly. It was amazing the variety of the show from one week to the next, or even one part of the show to the next. It could be furniture restoration to the Lombard and Ulster classical music competition to ceili music to a sports guest or roll out Ulick O’Connor or Ted Bonner to fill time.

Things that stood out for me as a child watching Gaybo. When the show used to be on Saturday nights, as a child I remember being in my granny’s house in Nobber, and being up later than most 6-9-year-olds should be! At the end of the show at that time, Gay went through the front pages of the *Sunday* papers and I thought “he’s already in the future!” Seeing the Saturday night editions of the Sunday Independent, the Sunday Press and Sunday Tribune was a wow moment for me as a country lad.

The Toy Show, again, something that shouldn’t work, but it did, because of the tour de force that was his personality.

The Postal Quiz. I still remember as a quiz nerd waiting for the clues, never really knowing when he’d read them out, and the postal address P.O. Box 1057, RTÉ, Dublin 4. Ingrained in my memory forever.

The titles of the show also included the credits, and always did in the Gaybo era. Something different, but can be explained that for most of its life, the show under Gay was often open-ended, and a close with the copyright card to the strains of Nat King Cole, was all that was needed. I’m sure to those watching the show on Channel 4 in the UK from 1982 onwards were perplexed by this!

His radio work mustn’t go unmentioned. When at home as a child, you could hear him with housewife’s tales and recipes and be widely admired for bringing social matters to the air on a more intimate medium.

In all, we have lost a person who changed how the country looked at itself, asking the questions and providing the forum that society needed answering, whilst holding up a mirror and helping us think for ourselves. A once in a lifetime figure.

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