When approaching the topic of Gay Byrne in my second year media history lectures at UCC, I watch the inevitable and perceptible shift from apathy to admiration as I recount the influence and impact of Ireland’s premier broadcaster.
Much of my impetus to write this book, The Gaybo Revolution: How Gay Byrne Challenged Irish Society was part of a crusade on my part to put him in context, make him more relevant for younger audiences and to re-engage the honey-toned broadcaster with his more mature and loyal followers.
Following his retirement from both the Gay Byrne Show(1998) and the Late Late Show (1999), Gay Byrne was the best-known face and voice in Ireland.
He was the man in the street, the very private person, this 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. He appeared middle-class and conservative. He taught many Irish people everything they needed to know about sex but were afraid to ask.
Yet this trailblazer, according to his autobiography, sees himself in an utterly different light: “My world is bounded… I am not a man who wants to see the Amazon or to stretch myself with adventure… My mother was tough on all of us. Her influence has left me with a terrible Puritanism which I find very difficult to shake.”
On his radio show, this broadcaster would become the father confessor to a legion of female listeners.
Yet the Gay Byrne Hour, later to become the Gay Byrne Show, began modestly with music, greetings, and light-hearted interviews.
Then the letters came, sadder and more despairing than before.
Byrne would read them in those serious or funny voices of his and turn them into a national debate.
The Gay Byrne Radio Show gradually became the talking point of its day, reflecting or creating the pulse of the nation.
But above all else, Byrne is an actor, wholly different from the radio and television talk show hosts of today, who were crafted from the early days of pirate radio or emerged from a journalism background.
Byrne comes from amateur drama, from a showbusiness tradition rather than a journalism or DJ background.
He had also worked on Radio Éireann as host of a pop programme, Saturday Spin, and a jazz programme with the eclectic title of Club Orange, all this as he commuted weekly to work for Granada and the BBC in the UK.
Byrne’s engagement with such a broad spectrum of media activities was to prove invaluable in his defining role as host to the Irish nation.
In contemporary Ireland, with the battle for ratings intense, one has to acknowledge that Gay Byrne got out just in time.
Yet, from 1962 to 1999, Byrne maintained what appeared to be an effortless grip on the live talk show, both on radio and on television.
He was not a missionary; he was a talented broadcaster who had no hesitation in pushing boundaries to make entertaining television.
Viewers watched in their thousands, complicit, outraged, scornful or fascinated as Byrne shaped and challenged viewers’ assumptions on any number of issues.
According to Colm Tóibín, his influence arose, “not from any set of beliefs which he wished to present to the people of Ireland, but from the fact that the issues were presented in such a popular package”.
Yet, Byrne looked upon himself only as a “pro-broadcaster”, without “any great talent” who at times became a “facilitator and a conduit for open discussion”.
There is no doubt that he never imagined his role as some liberalising trailblazer.
He saw himself rather as the ringmaster at one hell of a circus, where for more than 37 years he had the whole of Ireland as his big top, making his guests jump through hoops to entertain and enlighten his audience.
Gay Byrne still remains a source of fascination for many.
He has embraced all aspects of popular culture and, like the Rose of Tralee, he has himself become somewhat of an Irish institution.
But it wasn’t just what Gay Byrne talked about that made him a central figure in Irish culture for more than 37 years, it was the fact that he created a collective discourse that hitherto and in the future will never be again.
He was the arbitrator, the facilitator, of all that talk which broke all those endless silences in Irish life.
According to John Caden, (the former producer of The Gay Byrne Show, one of many who worked with Byrne and was interviewed for the book), in the ephemeral world of television and radio “it takes exceptional political and career management skills to stay at the top for 40 years… And Byrne did it by staying aloof from the management, while staying closely in touch with his audience.”
Things have changed dramatically since Byrne’s golden era in broadcasting and yet Byrne, more than anyone else, has contributed to this change. His showmanship, his penchant for the controversial, his instinct for the type of broadcasting which captured the public’s imagination, bought him the biggest audiences in radio and television.
His use of the live radio phone-in has set the template for Liveline on RTÉ Radio and numerous other radio shows in the commercial sector.
But who is Gay Byrne?
The cheerful impresario in the Bing Crosby Christmas sweater on the LLS toy show or the coldly cynical host who held a TV masterclass in predatory interviewing, courtesy of former EU commissioner Padraig Flynn?
Is 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 is he simply “uncle Gaybo”, the genial radio host who flirted in a priestly manner with the housewives of Ireland?
Byrne is the sum of all these diverse persona, a broadcast chameleon whose golden era is gone.
Ireland is now faced with a media landscape saturated with a plethora of provocative programming, where no single broadcaster, not even Gay Byrne, could ever hope to reign supreme.
Having interviewed Byrne on several occasions for the book, he himself would wholly refute any grandiose claims of his influence.
He would instead attribute his success to the fact that he was ‘just the right guy, in the right place at the right time’.
I, amongst many others, would beg to differ.
The Gaybo Revolution: How Gay Byrne Challenged Irish Society is published today by Orpen Press, price €17.95. The book will be launched by RTÉ’s Anne Cassin at an event this evening in Lowercase Book Service, Áras na Mac Léinn, UCC.
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