The Gaybo Years

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | November 4, 2019 0

We won’t see his like again is a well worn cliché but it is true in Ireland today when we think of the broadcaster everybody knew as Gaybo who both documented and precipitated much needed change in Ireland.

As Stephen Fry observed ” He was a wonderful wonderful man. We British have never really had an equivalent – the closest might have been Terry Wogan … another Irishman.”

Gay Byrne has died at the age of 85 after a long period of ill-health. Born in Dublin in August 1934, Byrne was a beloved figure in Irish broadcasting with a career that spanned six decades. For millions of people he was the face of RTÉ and a kind, reassuring voice every morning.

The first episode of The Late Late Show aired on the 5th of July, 1962 with Byrne as its host. It was supposedly to run for just six weeks, but under Byrne’s stewardship the programme became an Irish cultural institution and, eventually, the second longest-running late-night talk show in the world. With its magazine format it became, not just a platform for celebrity interviews and musical performances but a place where the most controversial issues in Irish life could be discussed. The Late Late show featured wonderful regular  panelists who challenged the status quo in Ireland with heated debates. Colorful characters such as June Levine, a divorced Jewish feminist, Ted Bonner an authentic and compassionate Ulster Unionist, the reliably contrary Ulick O’Connor and the always strident and honest Nell McCafferty.  Credited with being a catalyst in the transformation of Irish society since the 1960s, Byrne broke several societal taboos by engaging in discourse on subjects like contraception, homosexuality, and abortion.

Gay Byrne’s father worked in the Guinness Brewery and when the teenage Gay was turned down for a job at the Brewery, he turned his attention to another career. By 1958, he had secured work as a presenter on Radió Éireann, as it was then called, and also worked with Granada Television and the BBC in England. It was at Granada that he introduced The Beatles on their first television appearance. They made their TV debut on a local news programme called ‘People and Places’.

His morning radio programme, The Gay Byrne Show ran from 1973 until 1998 and was the first show on Irish radio to allow listeners to call in and set the agenda. In the wake of Ann Lovett’s tragic death in 1984 the programme provided a forum for hundreds of letters from women outlining their own stories of unwanted pregnancy. In both programmes, Byrne helped to expose social hypocrisy and to document a liberalising Ireland, often to the great annoyance of conservative politicians and clergy.

His decision to depart the Late Late Show in 1999 was not a complete retirement. He went on to present the quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the interview series The Meaning of Life and a weekly music show on Lyric FM. He also took on a very different public role as the chairman of the Road Safety Authority where he became an important life-saving advocate for behavioural change on the roads and was willing to challenge what he saw as government inaction.

In June, Byrne was due to receive the Ireland-US council’s Lifetime Achievement Award but was unable to attend the ceremony. President Michael D Higgins paid tribute to him at the event, saying: “Controversial, outspoken, and unafraid to break new ground, it has been said that, throughout his many decades on television and radio, Gay Byrne’s role in the shaping and crafting of modern-day Ireland has been profound.”

Gay Byrne also presented a long-running radio show on RTÉ Radio 1, first known as The Gay Byrne Hour and then The Gay Byrne Show. The show had a close relationship with its listeners, many of whom wrote to or phoned Gay to comment on the issues of the day, and with their own stories. He won a Jacob’s Award for the programme in 1976. Over his long career Gay presented The Rose of Tralee, The Calor Housewife of the Year competition, as well as a range of special programmes. Gay Byrne presented his final daily radio show in 1998 and his final Late Late Show the following summer.

Controversial interviews made the Saturday night, prime slot TV programme a “must see” show. These included the “mistress interviews” in which Annie Murphy talked candidly about being Bishop Eamon Casey’s lover and having his child and Terry Keane revealed her relationship with former Taoiseach Charles Haughey. The ‘Bishop and the Nightie’ affair led to the accusation from the Bishop of Galway Michael Browne that Gay was a “purveyor of filth”. The broadcaster had simply asked a woman what colour nightie she wore on her wedding night and she replied that she believed she had worn nothing.

Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid also tried to have Gay silenced. The Archbishop complained about ‘The Late Late Show’s’ “attempts to publicise bunny girls, hypnotism, pornographic literature as well as permitting obscenities that are unheard of in normal Irish society”. In another memorable incident, European Commissioner Pádraig Flynn was lulled by Gay into describing the difficulties of having to run three households on a salary of IR£140,000, infuriating the cash-strapped electorate.

When Gay finally retired from ‘The Late Late Show’ in 1999, U2’s Bono and Larry Mullen presented him with a Harley Davidson motorbike live on the show.

For his radio show, Gay “fought long and hard” to get RTÉ to allow him interview people on the phone. The first phone interview was broadcast the night of the first landing on the moon in 1969. He said he was “rather proud of that”. He understood how people who were inhibited in a radio studio were much more likely to talk intimately from the comfort of their own homes by phone. This instinct for tapping into what listeners wanted to hear was shown clearly when 15-year-old Anne Lovett died giving birth to a stillborn child next to a Grotto of Our Lady in Granard, Co Longford. Instead of moralising, Gay skillfully got women to read letters telling of their own experiences of abortions or of giving birth alone.

Despite his retirement from ‘The Late Late Show’ and the Gay Byrne radio show at the end of the 1990s, Gay continued to work. He presented the ‘Rose of Tralee’ and the TV programmes ‘Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?’, ‘The Meaning of Life’ and ‘For One Night Only’.

With ‘The Meaning of Life’, the veteran broadcaster once again displayed his talent for drawing an audience. Stephen Fry denounced God during one programme, actor Gabriel Byrne revealed he had been sexually abused as a boy and Charles Spencer, brother of Princess Diana, hit out at “glacial royals” talking about his sister’s tragic early death.


Despite his high pay throughout his career, Gay suffered two major financial losses. The first was more than 30 years ago when he found out, after the death of his crooked  financial adviser the accountant Russell Murphy, that all the money had been spent. He and the playwright Hugh Leonard, who had also been defrauded,  took an action against the Institute of Chartered Accounts of which Murphy had been President (He had also been a Governor of the Bank of Ireland) and remarkably were unsuccessful in the incestuous world of the Irish Courts adding insult to considerable injury.  He also lost out heavily on investments during the economic downturn but accepted the misfortune, saying that worrying did no good. “I am no worse and no better than hundreds of thousands of other people my age,” he said.

He was not afraid to declare his views on the European Union and the effects of the economic crash on ordinary people. “It’s perfectly obvious to everyone what the problem in Ireland is – there’s a shortage of money and there’s huge amounts being taken from everyone to satisfy the Troika’s whims,” he said. “The greatest problem is people being stuck for money and wondering where the next penny is coming from. They are suffering hugely. I hate everything about Europe and think we were wrong to join but there’s a fat lot of use saying that now. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. I don’t feel sorry for me as I will be long gone but I feel sorry for the life my grandchildren will have under this regime as it will be ever, ever more totalitarian.”

I had two vicarious interactions with Gay. The first when standing in at short notice for a meeting with an accountant from Russell Murphy’s office I only had time to read the cover of the file for “Kathleen Byrne, Artiste” I sat down and said “So your client is an artist, what does she paint?” The haughty reply was “Actually she is an artiste known professionally as Kathleen Watkins and she sings and plays the harp!” On another occasion I was surveying a house at the Rialto end of the South Circular Road in Dublin for a rather stocky single female Civil Servant in her 40’s who wanted to extend what turned out to be his old family home. As she opened the bathroom she exclaimed “Imagine a naked Gay Byrne in this bath!” Some images linger in the mind longer than they should!

Gay and Kathleen adopted two daughters, Crona and Suzy, and lived on the hill of Howth in Dublin before downsizing to a home in Sandymount a few years ago. The family also made regular visits to their holiday home in Dunloe, Co Donegal, over more than four decades. Kathleen was the first continuity announcer the night Telefís Éireann was launched on New Year’s Eve 1961. The couple married in 1964 and she was a well known harpist and singer.

He is survived by his wife Kathleen Watkins and their daughters Suzy and Crona.

Gabriel Mary “Gay” Byrne (5 August 1934 – 4 November 2019)  was an Irish presenter and host of radio and television. His most notable role was first host of The Late Late Show over a 37-year period spanning 1962 until 1999. The Late Late Show is the world’s second longest-running chat show.  



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