Belfast Telegraph

Gay Byrne, 'Ireland's finest broadcaster', dies aged 85

Gay Byrne and wife Kathleen Watkins
Gay Byrne and wife Kathleen Watkins
Gay presenting his show
Gay hosting the Rose of Tralee pageant
Gay with Sinead O’Connor
Peter Brooke
Gay Byrne interviews Gerry Adams
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

The most famous and influential voice in modern day Irish broadcasting has been silenced with the death of Gay Byrne, who charmed his way into the hearts of millions of people on both sides of the border at the same time as he helped change old-fashioned beliefs and attitudes within society north and south.

Gaybo, as he was fondly known from 37 years presenting RTE's ground-breaking Late Late Show, passed away yesterday at the age of 85 after a lengthy illness.

And the tributes to him have poured in from political leaders and entertainers as they recalled the colossus of television and radio who once welcomed the Rev Ian Paisley onto a religious programme but refused to shake the hand of Gerry Adams on the Late Late Show.

Former UTV chat show host Gerry Kelly said he was in awe of the man, adding: "Gay Byrne was the greatest broadcaster that this island has ever produced, without a doubt.

"We were television rivals for about 10 years but I got to know him personally and he was a generous and welcoming man who shared a lot of advice with me.

"Eamonn Holmes and I once wangled two tickets to the Late Late (Show) in Dublin and we watched every move that he made."

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Gay presenting his show

Irish president Michael D Higgins called Byrne a man of "great charisma and compassion who had a sense of what was just".

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He added: "His work shone a light not only on the bright but also the dark sides of Irish life."

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the broadcaster "helped to transform, modernise and open up our country".

He also praised Byrne's lesser-known work as chair of Ireland's Road Safety Authority, saying he helped reduce the number of road deaths and accidents.

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Gay hosting the Rose of Tralee pageant

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said: "Everybody in the Republic and probably the north would feel that they knew Gay and he will be sadly missed by the entire population."

For Byrne, not even the most sensitive subjects down the years in conservative Ireland were taboo. He opened up controversial debates that other broadcasters shied away from, including discussions on abortion, sexuality, contraception and divorce.

One of the most sensational interviews he ever conducted rocked the Republic and the Catholic Church to their cores in 1993.

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Gay with Sinead O’Connor

Annie Murphy appeared on the Late Late Show to talk about how she'd had a child with the Bishop of Galway, Eamon Casey.

Byrne was castigated for his 'patronising' attitude to his guest. He told Casey's ex-lover: "If your son is half as good a man as is his father, he won't be doing too bad."

"I'm not so bad either," she replied as she walked off set.

Byrne was also criticised for his 'hostility' in 1994 to Gerry Adams, whose hand he refused to shake before he laid into the Sinn Fein leader with questions that one commentator said were like RTE's version of the Nuremberg trials.

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Peter Brooke

The Garda later called at Byrne's home to warn him of death threats from people claiming to be associated with the IRA. In later years, Byrne did shake Adams' hand.

In 1992, the Late Late Show, the longest running chat show in the world, unwittingly played another infamous part in northern politics.

Just hours after the IRA's Teebane bomb massacre in Tyrone which claimed the lives of eight Protestant workmen, the Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke was on the show and Byrne urged him to sing a song

In a naive, unguarded move that Brooke came to deeply regret, he launched into a rendition of Oh My Darling Clementine, causing fury in the unionist community and outside it. Brooke later resigned.

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Gay Byrne interviews Gerry Adams

Another stunning Late Late moment came when journalist Terry Keane revealed on the show that she was the mistress of former Taoiseach Charles Haughey.

In 2010, Byrne interviewed Rev Ian Paisley at length on a programme called The Meaning of Life.

He repeatedly challenged the Free Presbyterian Moderator for insulting and mocking the Catholic Church.

But Byrne wasn't just a TV presenter. He hosted hugely popular and long-running RTE radio shows on which he also confronted major topics of the day.

But he was equally at his ease on homely programmes such as the Rose of Tralee pageant and the Housewife of the Year competition, before taking on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Away from the cameras, Byrne spent most of his summers in Co Donegal where he and his wife, harpist Kathleen Watkins, and their daughters Crona and Suzy had a home at Tubberkeen outside Dungloe.

Byrne was an active member of a local walking group and one friend said: "That's when he was at his happiest and he never had any airs and graces about himself."

But what wasn't so well known was Byrne's connection to Belfast.

His father Edward was a British soldier who fought in the Great War but didn't want to return on leave to his home in Bray, Co Wicklow.

In 1917, Byrne's mother Annie moved temporarily to Belfast where she married Edward who returned to the war.

Byrne revelled in telling the story of how his mother promised to go to Mass every day of her life if her husband survived. He did - and his mother never broke her pledge.

The Late Late Show was first broadcast in July 1962 and Byrne was meant to be its host for eight weeks - but 37 years later he was still in the chair, only quitting in 1998.

Aside from all the headline-making exclusives, the celebrity interviews and the shows that gave musicians their first breaks - including an excruciating 'dance' routine by the fledgling members of Boyzone - one story speaks loudest to Byrne's skills as a communicator.

Current BBC chat show doyen Graham Norton remembered the night when Byrne rang a competition winner on the Late Late to tell her she'd just won a car - only to discover that her daughter had been killed by a car the night before.

Byrne took time to talk quietly to the woman about her grief and tried to give her support.

"It was his finest hour," said Norton.

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