Belfast Telegraph

Gay Byrne: A titan of Irish broadcasting

The Late Late Show presenter’s interviews sometimes unwittingly put him at the centre of history.

Gay Byrne (PA)
Gay Byrne (PA)

By Aine McMahon PA

Gay Byrne was a titan of Irish broadcasting for several decades before his death at the age of 85.

Born in Dublin in 1934, he grew up in Rialto in the Irish capital and was the youngest in a family of four boys and one girl.

He was married to harpist and broadcaster Kathleen Watkins with whom he had two children.

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Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins (Tanya Warren/IFTN/PA)

His love for broadcasting began at an early age when he was taken on a school trip to the national broadcaster Radio Eireann to take part in a programmed called Children At The Microphone.

However, he began his early career working in insurance until he was taken on as a presenter at Radio Eireann, turning his hand to everything from continuity announcer to sports broadcaster.

When he became the presenter of The Late Late Show in 1962, it was originally intended to last for one summer season.

He went on to present the show until 1999, and it remains on television, an institution in Irish broadcasting and the longest running chat show in the world.

The magazine format meant Byrne interviewed a variety of guests from sectors of Irish society who sometimes unwittingly put him at the centre of history.

In what became known as the Bishop and The Nightie scandal, in 1966 Byrne asked a married man what colour nightie his wife wore on their honeymoon. She replied that she could not remember and maybe she had worn none at all.

The Bishop of Clonfert, Thomas Ryan, protested and the widespread outrage led to some declaring the show as “dirty” and “smut”.

In 1994, after the ban on Sinn Fein speaking on airwaves in the Republic of Ireland was lifted, Mr Byrne introduced Gerry Adams as a guest on the show by saying: “We have just been joined by the most controversial man on this island”.

Mr Byrne refused to shake hands with Mr Adams following the interview.

An interview in 1992 with the then UK Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke resulted in controversy after he was encourage by Mr Byrne to sing Oh My Darling Clementine.

His performance provoked unionist anger as it came on the same day when eight Protestant building workers were killed and six were badly injured following an IRA bomb attack in Co Tyrone.

Mr Brooke resigned soon after the interview.

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Charles Haughey (PA)

Some of the most famous Late Late Show interviews include a journalist revealing her longstanding affair with married Irish premier Charles Haughey, and when Byrne interviewed an American woman, Annie Murphy, who had a son with Bishop Eamon Casey.

After his retirement from the show in 1999, Byrne continued to work across Irish TV and radio with programmes such as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, Gaybo’s Grumpy Men and The Meaning Of Life.

He was appointed chairman of the Road Safety Authority and also toyed with the idea of running to be president of Ireland.

Byrne suffered poor health in his later years, having a heart attack in 2015 and being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2016.

He is survived by wife Kathleen and their daughters Crona and Suzy and their families.

PA

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