Byrne in 2007
Gabriel Mary Byrne
5 August 1934
|Died||4 November 2019 (aged 85)|
Howth, Dublin, Ireland
|Resting place||St. Fintan's Cemetery, Sutton, Dublin, Ireland|
|Education||Scoil Treasa Naofa|
Synge Street CBS
honorary doctorate in literature from Trinity College, Dublin (1988)
|Employer||Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ)|
|Board member of||Chairman of the Road Safety Authority (2006–2014)|
Gabriel Mary "Gay" Byrne (5 August 1934 – 4 November 2019) was an Irish presenter and host of radio and television. His most notable role was first host of The Late Late Show over a 37-year period spanning 1962 until 1999. The Late Late Show is the world's second longest-running chat show. He was affectionately known as "Uncle Gay", "Gaybo" or "Uncle Gaybo". His time working in Britain with Granada Television saw him become the first person to introduce The Beatles on screen and Byrne was later the first to introduce Boyzone on screen in 1993.
From 1973 until 1998, Byrne presented The Gay Byrne Hour – later The Gay Byrne Show when it expanded to two hours – on RTÉ Radio 1 each weekday morning. After retiring from his long-running radio and television shows, Byrne presented several other programmes, including Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, The Meaning of Life and For One Night Only on RTÉ One and Sunday Serenade/Sunday with Gay Byrne on RTÉ lyric fm. In 2006, he was elected Chairman of Ireland's Road Safety Authority. In his retirement he was described as the "Elder Lemon of Irish broadcasting".
In 2010, The Irish Times said Byrne was "unquestionably the most influential radio and television man in the history of the Irish State". He was approached to run in the 2011 Irish presidential election but declined to run, despite topping early opinion polls.
Byrne was the son of Edward Byrne, who joined the Irish Volunteers in 1912. In 1913, Edward Byrne enlisted as a professional trooper with the British Army's 19th (Queen Alexandra's Own Royal) Hussars cavalry regiment, given a background as a horseman from his father's employment by the Earl of Meath as a coachman in County Wicklow. On the outbreak of World War 1 he was mobilized and went with his unit to the Western Front, where he took part in heavy fighting in the Ypres Salient and at the Battle of the Somme. He was discharged from the British Army at the war's end in 1919. He later took part in the Irish War of Independence.
In the early 1920s, Edward Byrne was employed by Guinness' St. James's Gate Brewery, where he worked for most of the rest of his life on the barges that operated on the River Liffey, transporting wooden casks from St. James's Gate Brewery to sea ships at the North Wall in Dublin. Byrne's father, Edward, married his mother, Annie, in 1917, when briefly home on leave from the war. The two had met near Bray just before the war began. Both of them were from County Wicklow. His siblings were Ray, Al, Ernest and Mary; all but Mary predeceased him.
Byrne was born on 5 August 1934 and grew up in The Liberties in Dublin. He first lived with his family at 17 Rialto Street, Rialto, Dublin, before his parents moved to 124 (later renumbered 512) South Circular Road, Dublin, in 1944. Byrne's mother, Annie, died in late 1964.
Byrne attended Rialto National School (since closed) and a number of other schools for short periods. Subsequently, he was educated by the Irish Christian Brothers at Synge Street CBS. He and two classmates bought a jazz record when Byrne was fourteen years old in January 1948, at a time when Radio Éireann refused to play it because of its "licentious" content. In December 2009, Byrne returned to his old primary school on Synge Street to launch an online children's book club, and read an extract from Marita Conlon-McKenna's storybook In Deep Dark Wood. In 2009, whilst celebrating the 250th anniversary of Guinness, he revealed that he had once tried unsuccessfully to earn a job in the brewery near his childhood home.
When he was young, Byrne was inspired by the broadcaster Eamonn Andrews, who had a successful career on British television, and "wanted to be what he was". Andrews was friendly with Byrne's eldest brother. In 1958, he moved over to broadcasting when he became a presenter on Radio Éireann. He also worked with Granada Television and the BBC in England. At Granada, Byrne became the first person to introduce the Beatles on television when they made their small-screen debut on local news programme People and Places. In 1961, Telefís Éireann (later Radio Telefís Éireann and now Raidió Teilifís Éireann) was set up. Byrne finally worked exclusively for the new Irish service after 1969. He introduced many popular programmes, with his most popular and successful programme being The Late Late Show.
He is now best remembered for his two-hour morning show, The Gay Byrne Hour, which was later renamed The Gay Byrne Show (1972–1999). For many years the show was produced by John Caden. Joe Duffy was a reporter and occasional co-presenter on The Gay Byrne Show.
Byrne featured on radio occasionally since retiring from The Gay Byrne Show – in 2006, he began presenting a weekly Sunday afternoon show entitled Sunday Serenade on RTÉ lyric fm. After 2010, he could be heard playing jazz on Sunday afternoons on lyric fm. This two-hour show began after an encounter with Head of Lyric FM Aodán Ó Dubhghaill at the National Concert Hall. Sunday with Gay Byrne attracted 55,000 listeners through "word of mouth": no advertising and no mention in the RTÉ Guide. The show was broadcast weekly approximately from September to March, with a break during the intervening six months. Byrne once commented on the emptiness of RTÉ at this time of the week:
As soon as Marian finishes at one [o' clock], there is a clear-out. There are a couple of fellas down the corridor doing sport, and that is about it. You have the place to yourself and it is wonderful".
The Late Late Show
On 5 July 1962, the first episode of The Late Late Show was aired on Irish television. Originally the show was scheduled as an eight-week summer filler. The programme, which is still broadcast, has become the world's second longest running chat show. The show became a forum where controversial topics such as the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, contraception, AIDS, unemployment, homosexuality, abortion, divorce and other hitherto taboo subjects were discussed openly in Ireland, alongside book reviews, celebrity visits, and music acts such as the Boomtown Rats, U2, Sinéad O'Connor, Elkie Brooks, Boyzone and Noel Gallagher. Other guests included Presidents of Ireland, successive Archbishops of Armagh, minor members of the British Royal Family, politicians, actors and authors.
The show had much to do in shaping the new Ireland that was emerging from the 1960s. Indeed, it was famously said by politician and Papal Knight, Oliver J. Flanagan that, "there was no sex in Ireland until Teilifís Éireann went on the air". Bishop of Galway Michael Browne called him "a purveyor of filth" after he asked a woman what colour nightie she wore on her wedding night and she had replied that she believed she'd worn nothing.
More than a decade after departing his role as host of The Late Late Show Byrne is remembered for conducting memorable interviews with former politician Pádraig Flynn and then Bishop of Galway Eamon Casey's lover Annie Murphy, among others. Another memorable moment to occur on The Late Late Show was when he called the winner of a prize car live on air only to discover the woman's daughter had died since she had entered.
During the early years of Byrne's time hosting The Late Late Show, prior to about 1978 when the second national Irish TV channel was launched, he was employed by RTÉ on a continuously renewing 3-month contract, lest his employer might want to fire him any time they choose.
On 21 May 1999, Byrne presented his last edition of The Late Late Show. He was presented with a Harley-Davidson motorcycle by Bono and Larry Mullen, Jr. Pat Kenny succeeded Byrne as presenter in September 1999, subsequently succeeded by Ryan Tubridy in September 2009. Byrne gave Tubridy his blessing upon taking over the role, saying: "He has all the qualities required, the light deft touch together with a serious mind. I think it's a great adventure that he's setting off on". Byrne returned to The Late Late Show as a guest twice during Tubridy's first season as presenter, the latter appearance on the day of Gerry Ryan's death.
The Meaning of Life
In April 2009, RTÉ One began broadcasting a series called The Meaning of Life, during which Gay Byrne interviewed public figures about issues of meaning and life. He preferred not to discuss his own faith:
I am not going to say, because it would compromise me in terms of the show if people knew I had a position. What you find is that they are all searching. No one has the truth.
The programme has contained a number of significant moments, including actor Gabriel Byrne's admission that he had been abused as a child at the start of the second series and Stephen Fry's denunciation of God during the tenth series.
Other television work
In the 1960s, Byrne presented Let's Dance for Granada Television with popular singing star Marion Ryan. The programme was filmed in the Ballroom at Belle Vue, Manchester and also featured original Come Dancing stars Syd Perkin and Edna Duffield.
Byrne compèred the finals of the Castlebar Song Contest in 1966 and 1967. He also presented the Rose of Tralee festival for 17 years until 1994. Between 1989 and 2001, Byrne hosted the RTÉ People in Need Telethon several times.
After "retiring", Byrne hosted the Irish version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. He also hosted The Gay Byrne Music Show and Make 'Em Laugh, a series about comedy in Ireland, Gaybo's Grumpy Men and Class Reunion.
In the summer season of 2000, Byrne hosted The Gay Byrne Music Show, which was a studio-based show aired on Saturday nights as a summer filler between 8 July and 19 August 2000 and showcased all genres of music in the company of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. From 2011, he presented more summer filler light entertainment in the form of For One Night Only.
Byrne did not completely retire and continued to feature occasionally on radio and television after leaving The Late Late Show and The Gay Byrne Show. He launched Joe Duffy's autobiography Just Joe in Harry's Bar in October 2011.
In March 2006, Byrne was appointed as the chairman of the Irish Road Safety Authority, a public body given the task of improving road safety in the Republic of Ireland. The role saw him visit hospitalised survivors alongside President of Ireland Mary McAleese.
In "retirement", Byrne continued to make his political views known, including questioning then Taoiseach Brian Cowen and "whether you can be Taoiseach and still sit up and have a pint in the local pub. You have to dignify the office". In later years he become known for his anti-EU stance. Bookmakers suggested Byrne might become Mayor of Dublin.
In August 2011, Byrne was approached by the once dominant political party Fianna Fáil as a possible independent nominee for that year's presidential election. The media advised Byrne, who had enjoyed an avuncular relationship with the public as a performer over many decades, against such a move. An editorial in the Irish Independent said: "This isn't some sort of a reality TV show but a contest for the highest office in the land." The Irish Times queried the distinction between Byrne as a performer versus Byrne as an individual. "But who is it that the Irish people really love? Is it Gaybo or Gabriel Byrne? Given they don't really know the man himself – a man who has retained his privacy throughout a lifetime of fame – the love is surely for the persona rather than the person." Byrne topped polls as the candidate people were most likely to vote for.
On 13 August 2011, Byrne announced that he would not be a candidate for the Presidency. Appearing later on TV3's Midweek programme he called Martin McGuinness, who was contesting the election as a representative of Sinn Féin, a "liar".
Byrne performed a one-man show in front of a sold-out audience at the Gate Theatre on 18 September 2011. The performance was part of a benefit night to raise funds for the Irish Cancer Society. British Ambassador Julian King and Senator David Norris were among those in attendance.
Byrne was married to Kathleen Watkins, formerly a well-known harpist. Watkins was also the first continuity announcer to appear on screen on the opening night of Telefís Éireann on New Year's Eve in 1961. Byrne first met Watkins, a native of Saggart, County Dublin, in 1957. They married in Saggart Catholic church in 1964. The couple had two daughters, Suzy and Crona. The Byrne family lived on Howth Head in Dublin and in later years in Sandymount in Dublin. Byrne became a grandfather on 15 September 2004 when Suzy gave birth to a boy at Holles Street Hospital. His first grandson was Cian O’Byrne. Cian has represented his grandfather at different events. Cian also helped launched Byrne's wife Kathleen's children's book Pigín of Howth. He has also appeared on the Ray D’Arcy Show. After Byrne's funeral, Cian was publicly praised by many for the dignity he showed and has been tipped to follow in his grandfathers footsteps. President Higgins has described him as a “remarkable young man”
Byrne relied on an accountant friend, Russell Murphy, to manage his finances, and was personally distraught when upon the accountant's death in 1986, it was found that most of his savings had been squandered, and this had been hidden from him.
He was a qualified private pilot.
In later years, Byrne revealed he had hearing loss in one ear. He thought originally that it was due to working in the television and radio industry for over 50 years that caused his hearing loss, but later found out it was genetic as his mother, his sister and three brothers all had hearing problems.
In 2011, Byrne experienced a health scare at his home in Sandymount when he struggled to breathe. He was admitted to St Vincent's hospital complaining his lungs felt as if they were "made of concrete" and there was "nothing going in" and that he expected to die. In 2015, after spending Christmas at home with his family, he had a heart attack and was readmitted to hospital.
On 20 November 2016, he revealed live on his Time Warp radio broadcast on RTÉ Lyric FM that he was to begin treatment for prostate cancer, and that the cancer might have also spread to his lower back. He told listeners he would be taking a one-week break before returning to work. However, he did not return to the air. Byrne had been quoted by the Irish Mirror saying that "Ideally, I would like to get back to doing my Sunday afternoon radio show on Lyric FM, but my wife and daughters tell me I'm not ready and won't let me do it."
Byrne died on 4 November 2019 at his home in Howth peacefully surrounded by his family, aged 85, after a long illness. On 5 November 2019, a special live edition of the Late Late Show was broadcast on RTÉ One, with various tributes made to him. His funeral took place on 8 November 2019 at St Mary's Pro-Cathedral in Dublin and was shown live on RTÉ, several thousand fans lined the route of his cortège from his home in Howth to the Church with thousands more gathering outside the church. The funeral mass was celebrated by Fr Leonard Moloney SJ. Gay's daughter Suzy welcomed mourners with a moving speech which thanked all who had helped her father through his illness and she also thanked her father. Byrne's coffin was carried by family and friends, including his eldest grandson Cian. After the mass, the hearse carrying Byrne's remains made its way back to Howth and was greeted by fans along the route. He was laid to rest, privately at Saint Fintans Cemetery, Sutton. Following his death, the country of Ireland went into mourning as Gay was described as the most influential person in the history of Ireland. It has been said that he will always be remembered as the greatest broadcaster to ever grace the television screens of Ireland.
Honours and awards
- In 1988, Byrne was awarded an honorary doctorate in letters from Trinity College, Dublin.
- In 1999 he was granted the Freedom of the City of Dublin.
- He received a Lifetime Achievement Award in February 2007 from Irish Film and Television Network.
- He holds the record for the greatest number of Jacob's Awards received, winning a total of six for his radio and television work.
- He was appointed chairman of the Road Safety Authority in Ireland in 2006.
- Outstanding Achievement PPI Radio Award (2009) "The only surprise is that it has taken so long for Gaybo to get it".
- Marking RTÉ's 50th anniversary in 2011, Byrne appeared on a postage stamp, part of a set of three that also featured Anne Doyle and Emma O'Driscoll.
- A wax figure of Gay Byrne has been put on public display at Wax Museum Plus on Dublin's College Green.
Credited with being a catalyst in the transformation of Irish society since the 1960s, Byrne broke several societal taboos by engaging in discourse on subjects like contraception, homosexuality, and abortion. For example, when Barry Galvin—then Cork's state solicitor—guested with Byrne on The Late Late Show in 1992 to discuss Ireland's mounting problems with the illegal drug trade, he was subsequently given the post of first ever head of the important Criminal Assets Bureau. Alongside Terry Wogan, Byrne was one of two Irish broadcast giants, but was also described as solely "the most famous Irish broadcaster in history", and lauded by the media as "the man who changed Ireland".
According to the Irish Examiner, Byrne "had more influence on changing life in this country than any of the political leaders", including Taoisigh W. T. Cosgrave, Éamon de Valera and John A. Costello, as well as Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, John Charles McQuaid, the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland for over 30 years. A 1998 poll found Byrne level with notorious former Taoiseach Charles Haughey as the most hated public figure in the country, but the same poll also found Byrne to be the most popular public figure.
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There's no special trick to Gay's interview technique – it's his status as the Elder Lemon of Irish broadcasting that elicits your trust. You can't imagine this format working with anyone who isn't already familiar with Gay's paternal persona. If he asked an American to talk about their faith, he might get the answer: “Well, Jay, in my new movie, coming to a cinema near you, my character is very much on a spiritual journey.”
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Coughlan leaped ahead of her contemporaries when she was invited to appear on The Late Late Show. After a memorable television debut, she was ready to take on the world. "Shay Healy and Siobhan McHugh had done a show called Sounds Promising and I recorded three songs for that," she says. "When they were mixing it in the studio Gay Byrne heard my voice and a few days later booked me to appear on The Late Late Show. Back then it meant so much more than it does now because we only really had one channel in Ireland. [...] On the back of her slot on the show Mary's debut release, Tired and Emotional, shot to the top of Irish album charts. Within a few short years she was also enjoying success in Britain and across Europe.
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The article has the following photograph caption: President Mary McAleese with motorcycle crash patient Derek Dooley and Gay Byrne at the National Rehabilitation Hospital yesterday. Photograph: Robbie Reynolds/CPR
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Celebrities such as Bono, Bob Geldof, Gerry Ryan and Gay Byrne have appeared in the betting for the coveted role.
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"Unfortunately, I don't have anything from West's," admits Kathleen Watkins, "but I do like those earrings." (If her husband, Gay Byrne – interviewed on page 7 – is reading this, they are the only heart-shaped diamond earrings in the window, and they cost €3,800.)
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Meanwhile, veteran Montrose star Gay Byrne told the Diary how he was airborne for the evening, given that his wife Kathleen Watkins was enjoying a getaway to Paris. "She was meant to be here but she abandoned me for Paris. It was a tough contest but I obviously lost so I'm here alone," he laughed.
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Tubridy will join his Late Late Show predecessor broadcasting legend Gay Byrne in the museum display.
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| Host of The Late Late Show
| Host of The Late Late Show
| Eurovision Song Contest Ireland Commentator
| Host of The Rose of Tralee
| Eurovision Song Contest Ireland Commentator