The extent to which broadcaster Gay Byrne was a passenger in, or a driver of, the Ireland that emerged in the final third of the 20th century will be long debated. That the question will never be satisfactorily answered speaks of the man’s ambiguity, suggests Gerard Howlin.
It is that unknown side of Gay Byrne that allowed him to showcase change that was shocking in its day. That day is barely the day before yesterday, but already it is another era.
The era that Byrne epitomised was the end of authority as previously understood. Television was much more than entertainment, or even education. It was democratising in the deepest sense. It not only allowed, it required, a vast panoply of views and attitudes, because it must continuously entertain, regardless of its content. Suddenly, the rights of the audience dramatically expanded. The contours of the public conversation changed permanently.
A hitherto natural inclination to look up to authority could not survive authority being questioned.
That is not to speak of the foibles of the great being exposed — chiefly, it should be said, by themselves.
Television is many things. One is a two-way mirror. It was the voyeurism of the multitude into the corridors of power and sometimes the bedrooms, too. Then, there was the pleasure of listening in on your neighbours, in the sense that the ‘ordinary’ people on the television could be anyone.
The chronological context of Byrne is as important as his undoubted talent. He arrived for his first Late Late Show in 1962. RTÉ television was only a few months old. US president John F Kennedy’s visit was still ahead.
The rock and roll of the 1960s, the radicalism, the ball rooms, motor cars, and new-fangled places called supermarkets were still in the future. Going to the moon was science fiction. A generation in a still deeply rural, monolithic, conservative Ireland, saw more change at a greater pace than any generation since the Famine. Unlike that catastrophe, it felt like fun.
Much of the effort by existing authority to master the medium was either mistaken or doomed to failure. RTÉ television was a disaster for the Catholic Church.
It wasn’t that it was done-in, though that happened later. It was that, foolishly, elements in it thought they could colonise the medium. Radharc, a Catholic initiative, produced a high standard
of television. But the arrival of singing priests, very popular at the time, and the Dermot Morgan caricature of a Father Trendy, was, in hindsight, devastating as scandals broke.
All sense of the sacred, the essential medium of religion, vanished in the disinfectant of the television spotlight. Worse than being scorned, priests were not taken seriously at all.
The simple fact of power being put to question on television, of this being a new phenomenon, of it coinciding with, and driving, social change, made for a heady and, at times, toxic mix.
We forget the context. Preaching from the pulpit continued. Increasingly, however, who owned the pulpit, and where it was located, was different. Byrne’s tenure was a gathering power, and an audience for RTÉ.
It coincided with the last great pomp and circumstance for newspapers, too. As one circle of authority was brought down, another rose up. Now, that, too, is either much diminished or literally swept away by the new illiteracy of social media.
The Byrne era, essentially from the start of RTÉ television to the end of the millennium, was as much about building up new power as undermining old tropes. Producers, editors, columnists, and key correspondents, always influential, had a heyday. There was a cycle between an overwhelmingly dominant national television and radio station and mass circulation newspapers with burgeoning advertising revenues.
Stories, personalities, and attitudes were recycled in various formats. It was an era in the media when there was a golden circle, a concentration of power and relatively little of the accountability within itself that it insisted on, for others, elsewhere. Byrne’s broadcasting life was a golden age. His timing was perfect. It didn’t exist before he arrived. It began to diminish shortly after he left the main stage. It was bedraggled within a few years.
As their greatest star laid to rest this week, a reckoning with hard times, unthinkable only a few years ago, is now awaited in RTÉ.
The real story is that technology has moved on. What was innovative is now partly old hat. It is overtaken by new platforms, and the number of ways to convey and
receive content has exploded.
Advertising revenues have moved on accordingly, and newspapers are similarly diminished. It is not just that the great man is dead, it is that his era was already long over.
It is an astonishing hindsight to recall the role of letters in Byrne’s broadcasting life. Remember letters? I am still adjusting — but not well — to receiving thank-yous as text messages. No, letters were a daily commonplace. Phone calls were very expensive. International ones were prohibitive. No other medium existed and people habitually wrote letters to one another. A colleague of Byrne’s told me yesterday how Byrne would rehearse reading those letters aloud before going on air for his radio show. His preparation was intense, as was his professionalism.
His sense of, and commitment to, his own art of performance was immaculate. Pronunciation was incredibly important, matched by his dapper dress. His ability to read aloud the letters sent to him, sometimes on the most intimate of issues, in an evocative but undramatised way, was masterful.
And his mastery of silence, his ability to shut up, to allow all the room required to the interviewee to say what they shouldn’t, or didn’t intend to, was superb. He had the ultimate attribute of a great conversationalist: The ability to listen.
Gay Byrne was in a long tradition of conservative Irish revolutionaries. He permitted the unsayable to be said in public, but it is entirely unclear how much of it he actually agreed with.
His advent coincided with the end of censorship. Aside from specific attitudes, there was at least one underlying theme. He was at the microphone and in front of the camera for the urbanisation of
If Irish modernism can be traced back to James Joyce, it was Byrne who conveyed it to the masses. He was an entertainer with an impeccable sense of timing. He abhorred mess, though he wreaked havoc.
In his prime, Byrne represented the great levelling of authority. His death marks the definitive end of what, for only a few decades, replaced that which went before it. Now, we are in the midst of something else. It is even more disruptive than radio or television. There are no authoritative producers or editors in this new world. There are only platforms, which are combine harvesters for what, unedited, is then reproduced.
The golden age didn’t exist before Byrne arrived.It began to diminish after he left the main stage.