Gay Byrne was the best-known face and voice in Ireland. He was the man in the street, a very private person, a master showman and shaman in Irish life for almost four decades.
This morass of contradictions made him perfectly placed to debunk the unsavoury aspects of Irish life. He somehow mirrored and shaped what we were. Byrne became the first undisputed king of the invisible empire of Ireland’s first television station.
He interviewed lesbian nuns, discussed condoms and abortion, and held singer Sinéad O’Connor’s hand as she appeared on the show dressed in clerical garb as Mother Bernadette Mary.
He held right-wing views but appeared middle-class and conservative. He taught many Irish people everything they needed to know about sex but were afraid to ask.
Byrne as host of The Late Late Show and The Gay Byrne Radio Show, excavated areas of Irish life that had hitherto never 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.
Byrne withstood all the picketing and the posturing because he was a staunch defender of freedom of speech. When a young Brian Trevaskis called Bishop Browne of Galway a moron, Byrne invited the young lad back, only for Trevaskis to reiterate his criticism.
The Late Late Show in particular, was packaged by Byrne, who was its host and executive producer for many years. It was a mixture of naivety and sophistication, an artful piece of chemistry with Byrne at its core.
He was rarely fazed, a consummate performer, playing simultaneously to the audience and the television cameras, a feat few presenters have managed to achieve.
For 37 years, Byrne was the arbitrator, the facilitator, of the talk that broke the silences in Irish life. He was Ireland’s first true star of popular culture. The public consumed him as they had no other figure before.
His radio show, too, is part of our socio-cultural history and is hugely important. It embraced and mourned the bleaker aspects of Irish life, while simultaneously revelling in its quirky, light-hearted moments.
Its content reflected the diversity that existed in Ireland in the latter part of the 20th century. It now highlights the significance of the radio talk-show genre in accessing and assessing popular cultural trends.
On the Gay Byrne Show, it was Byrne who made regular discoveries about what married couples wore, or didn’t wear, in bed, the frequency with which they changed their underwear, made love, fought, argued, and lived together. He lifted the taboos for the listening public.
Byrne remains a source of fascination for many.
He has embraced all aspects of popular culture and, like the Rose of Tralee, he became an Irish institution. In 2012, An Post commissioned a Gay Byrne stamp to mark the 50th anniversary of the first RTÉ broadcast and since 2000, he forms part of the Leaving Certificate senior cycle History curriculum.
He was not a self-declared moral crusader. He did not set out to liberalise 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.
But who was Gay Byrne? The cheerful impresario in the Bing Crosby Christmas sweater on the annual Toy Show or the coldly cynical host who held a television masterclass in predatory interviewing, courtesy of former European commissioner Padraig Flynn?
Was the real Gay Byrne the convivial host of the Rose of Tralee or the misogynist interrogator of Bishop Casey’s former lover Annie Murphy?
Or was he just simply ‘Uncle Gaybo’, the genial radio host who flirted in a priestly manner with the housewives of Ireland?
Yet there are few people now in Irish life who have drawn so much on our collective affections.
He is widely regarded by his broadcasting peers as one of the best talk-show hosts ever. Like both his shows, he has been viciously criticised and lavishly praised.
His harshest critics were at other times his most ardent admirers. Nonetheless, admired or reviled, the inimitable uncle Gaybo will continue to remain central to Ireland’s socio-cultural and broadcasting history.
Finola Doyle O’Neill is a broadcast historian with UCC and author of The Gaybo Revolution