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Alf McCreary: Gay Byrne had no small talk and his first question to Joan Wilson was direct: 'Tell us how Marie died'

Straight-shooter: Gay Byrne in the studio
Straight-shooter: Gay Byrne in the studio
Joan's daughter Marie
Joan Wilson, mother of Marie who was one of the victims of the Enniskillen Cenotaph bombing
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

Gay Byrne, who died this week, aged 85, was the consummate master of the art of broadcasting, particularly in his timing and patience when interviewing his guests and also his speed in reacting to sudden surprises while on air.

On the first occasion I appeared on The Late, Late Show, I was with the late Senator Gordon Wilson and his wife, Joan, because I had written a book on the death of their daughter, Marie, in the Enniskillen Cenotaph bombing - the 32nd anniversary of which fell yesterday.

The Late, Late Show is produced live in a large studio for a peak audience throughout Ireland and it can be quite daunting.

The plan on the night we appeared was for Gordon Wilson to be interviewed by Gay Byrne on the studio stage, while I sat beside Joan in the front row of the audience.

It was pre-arranged that Gordon and Byrne would talk for 15 minutes up front and then Gay would come down to the audience to speak to Joan and chat to her briefly. There was no anticipation that he would speak to her about Marie.

As Gay made the comparatively long approach across the studio to Joan, she held my hand tightly for reassurance.

Once he arrived, Gay had no small talk and his first question to Joan was direct and to the point: "Tell us how Marie died."

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In the circumstances, it was a searing question and Joan drew in her breath sharply as she tried to find words to answer something that no mother ever wants to hear.

As a result, there was a long silence across the huge studio. In broadcasting terms, an unexpected silence is very unsettling for all concerned and a less experienced broadcaster than Byrne might have wished to break that silence with a supplementary question.

However, Gay kept his nerve and said nothing. Eventually, Joan found her voice and, with great calmness and dignity, she described exactly how she had watched Marie take her last breath in the emergency ward of the Erne Hospital on that awful Sunday afternoon.

When Joan finished, there was a stunned silence as the audience in the studio - and, no doubt, the television audience throughout Ireland - tried to come to terms with the reality of violence and what it does to a family.

It was also an example of outstanding broadcasting by Gay Byrne, who was more than equal to that difficult occasion.

The other time I appeared with Gay Byrne was very different, but no less taxing for him.

It was on a Late, Late Show during the Troubles, which was focusing on the violence and suffering in Northern Ireland.

The first section featured my book Survivors, which told the story of the Abercorn bombing, Kingsmills, Bloody Friday and other atrocities, and Gay Byrne talked to me and to the-then Catholic Bishop of Derry, Edward Daly.

It was somewhat nerve-wracking for both of us to try to describe such suffering on a live mass audience television programme and both of us were relieved when it came to the commercial break.

When the programme later resumed, Bishop Daly and I sat on either side of Gay Bryne while he introduced Rolf Harris, who was to sing his then-anti-war hit, Two Little Boys.

Not once, but twice he started to sing, but on each occasion he broke down. Then he gave up completely and sat down beside Gay and me and then poured a jug of water over his head.

We were amazed. But Gay was the host and it was his job to save the show.

He then quietly talked to Rolf Harris and brought him to the point where he chatted for the rest of that section of the programme, but he never tried again to sing the song.

For many years afterwards, I always wondered why such a seasoned professional as Rolf Harris broke down so dramatically on a live television show.

However, when I later read about the dark secrets of his personal life, these may have given a clue as to why he so visibly - and publicly - lost control.

The point remains, however, that on those two very difficult occasions, Gay Byrne showed exactly why he earned the title of the best Irish broadcaster of his generation.

I pay tribute to him on his death this week and recall the privilege to have worked, however briefly, with such a professional broadcaster and deeply caring man.

Belfast Telegraph

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