As the announcement of Gay Byrne’s passing hit news outlets on November 4th 2019, our nation was confronted with the challenge of discerning an icon’s legacy and the comfort of knowing the flame of broadcasting passion that burned inside him had not been extinguished. A furnace which burnt the status quo, charred traditional thought and scorched out the cold injustices of an Ireland we no longer recognise may have lost its fuel yesterday, but its impact on Irish society will echo beyond mortal boundaries. The fire has not, cannot and will not be extinguished. Instead, it has been redistributed to a whole new generation of journalists and broadcasters, each taking a spark from Gay to their own unique style and set of eyes as they fan the embers of their respective careers. This is no truer than in UCC, where student media has been inspired throughout the years by Gaybo’s range and ability to challenge conventions. Whether in Motley, the University Express or UCC 98.3, we have all taken something from Gay Byrne’s legacy, consciously or not.
Byrne’s flame was inherited from his parents who were driven, articulate and decorated in their own rights. His father, Edward, was a member of the Irish Volunteers and fought in WW1 for Britain’s 19th Cavalry Regiment. From there he went on to forge out a working-class career, typical of early-20th century Dublin in Guinness’ at St. James’ Gate. Byrne spoke of his love of broadcasting and career inspiration in a 2005 interview with the Sunday Business Post. He drew inspiration from Irish broadcaster Eamonn Andrews, who had a very successful television career in the UK. He “wanted to be what he was.” In retrospect, he became Andrews, and much more. He took the spark and applied it like student broadcasters and journalists to his own unique style and set of eyes.
A career of eminent distinction followed. Throughout the six decades that followed his first broadcast for Radio Éireann in 1958, he became a staple in Irish homes on the wireless and on television. In his early career, he also worked for Granada Television in the UK and is credited with giving The Beatles their first television appearance on the local news programme People and Places. From 1969 onwards he worked exclusively for RTÉ presenting The Gay Byrne Hour (renamed The Gay Byrne Show) on radio, as well as a jazz show on Lyric FM in retirement, but is best remembered for his lengthy stint as the host of The Late Late Show. First broadcast on July 5th 1962, the show went on to become a staple of Irish television under his stewardship. Today it is the second-longest-running late-night talk show in the world and is presented by his friend and protégé Ryan Tubridy. The show challenged the conventions of a bygone Ireland, was mired in controversy and gave a forum for the Irish public to air their views on topics ranging from the Roman Catholic Church to contraception, AIDS, unemployment, homosexuality, abortion and divorce. Despite finely skirting the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s lines and being subject to the ire of the clergy, Byrne deftly and fairly approached the taboo subjects of an Ireland buried in Catholic guilt and weighed down by the Church-State cleavage. The Bishop of Galway emeritus, Michael Browne, articulated this ire, famously calling Uncle Gaybo “a purveyor of filth”. Oliver J. Flanagan highlighted the state broadcasters importance in a changing Ireland when he proclaimed “there was no sex in Ireland until Teilifís Éireann went on the air”. Byrne retired from the Late Late show in 1999 with Bono and Adam Clayton gifting him a Harley Davidson on his swansong.
Even in his senior years, Byrne was no stranger to controversy. In a now-infamous interview with Stephen Fry in 2011 on The Meaning of Life with Gay Byrne, Fry sparked controversy when he denounced God. In the years that followed, a complaint by a member of the public highlighted the archaic blasphemy law still etched in Bunreacht na hÉireann.
Byrne’s fire lit well beyond the bounds of his broadcasting furnace, however. He served as chairman of the Irish Road Safety Authority from 2006 and was even once touted by Fianna Fáil as a potential presidential-nominee in 2011. Byrne was awarded an honorary doctorate from Trinity College Dublin, the Freedom of Dublin in 1999, and the Outstanding Achievement PPI Radio Award in 2009.
Sidney Greenberg once claimed that “a successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him.” It is without a doubt that Byrne has built up a legacy as Ireland’s broadcaster-general with the expansive cement of his intellect and the fundamental brick-work laid down through years of hard work. Gay Byrne should be remembered as a cautious revolutionary, posing as a clean-cut reformist. As we veer away from the extended interview that was his life and imagine the clip to be inserted, certain words spring to mind: “roll it there, Róisin”.