RTÉ stars came together last night to hold a very public wake for the State broadcaster’s most famous son, as a Late Late Show special paid tribute to its former host Gay Byrne.
Opening the tributes, President Michael D Higgins described Mr Byrne as an icon who had the courage to “open up what should be opened up”.
“I think that maybe the biggest thing was that people felt was that you had a kind of a safe, non-judgmental space where you could begin to think in a modern way,” President Higgins said of the Late Late Show during Mr Byrne’s tenure in the host’s seat.
President Higgins said Mr Byrne was a modern man who, in the 1960s, identified that “aspects of modernity were gradually making their way in” to the country, and he used this to define the conversation.
“And that conversation, remember, was happening as people were kind of stirring out from quite an authoritarian ethos. It was the time when people would say 'we have to read things for you that aren't good for you to read',” President Higgins said.
“So in the middle of all of this and in many cases, I think his extraordinary skill was being able to take the life of people into him and resonate with it.”
The programme opened with a montage of Mr Byrne’s entrances down through the years, from the 1960s to 1990s, a transition from black and white to technicolour that ended with a sustained standing ovation from Mr Byrne’s friends, colleagues and interviewees who made up last night’s audience.
“Tonight we're doing something very special,” host Ryan Tubridy said opening the show.
“We're going to celebrate. We are going to commemorate, we're going to reflect on, we're going to pay tribute to the life of a man who was a friend, who was a colleague, who was a mentor and was a game changer.
“Gay Byrne was a part of this country's story for more than 60 years. He made us laugh, he made us angry, he made us sit up and take notice when we had to, and he made us endure an endless stream of the most repulsive Christmas jumpers anyone should ever have to see. And for most of that we are very, very grateful,” Mr Tubridy said.
President Higgins’ predecessor Mary McAleese was one of a number of high-profile names to appear over the course of the programme, along with the likes of Bob Geldof, Andrea Corr, Sharon Shannon, Tommy Tiernan, Pat Shortt, Jon Kenny, Eamon Dunphy, Twink and Fr Brian D'arcy.
Broadcasters and journalists such as Pat Kenny, Joe Duffy, Mike Murphy, Nell McCafferty, RTÉ Director General Dee Forbes, and Vincent Browne were also on hand to give some insight as to what set Mr Byrne apart as a giant in their field.
Claire Byrne spoke about how Mr Byrne inspired her from an early age, and how he later took her under his wing as she started a career in broadcasting and moved to RTÉ.
“From there on, he kept an eye on me, and he talked to me about what public service broadcasting was,” she said.
“It was about giving the people what they want. Your job is to open the doors, bring the people in, give them the platform. It's not your show it's their show. And when I would do special things on the TV that I was proud of, winning the lottery for me was the phone at the end of the night; ‘Well done Claire’.”
Paddy Cole provided a special performance, and an all-star ensemble of guests also paid a musical tribute to Mr Byrne.