Well. Let me explain. My life-long fascination with Ireland has likely been down to the quirks of geography. We're not far from Ireland's east coast here in North Wales. When conditions are right, we can actually see Dublin's light pollution turning the sky over the Irish Sea orange, as thousands of street lights in the capital reflect onto the cloud base. From my home in Wales, Ireland is quite an easy place to get to.
Back in the days of analogue TV, we always had an extra aerial pointing due-west towards RTÉ's Kippure Transmitter which towers high above the bleak, windswept peaks of the Wicklow Mountains. We often received better quality TV reception from RTÉ than we did from BBC and ITV, especially during the summer months. Signals from Kippure had no topography to contend with - just the open sea. For years, the only stereo radio broadcasts we could receive on the Llyn Peninsula came from Ireland.
RTÉ schedules were even printed in our local North Wales newspapers. I recall my father heading onto our house's flat roof to point his one and only TV aerial towards Ireland so he could watch something on RTÉ. The wind blew his ladder down, leaving him stranded on the roof! He had to climb through next door's skylight to get back down! 'Next door' was a holiday home, so luckily for him, there was no one there at the time.
I remember all sorts of great TV shows on Telefis Éireann. As a kid, there was Wanderly Wagon and Bosco. Later on came Dempsey's Den with Zig & Zag as well as Justin Hoffman (the tradesman turkey with his Toyota Hiace van!). All hilarious characters who shared The Den with 2-FM legend, Ian Dempsey.
Then there was
the Irish soap opera Glenroe with Joe Lynch and Mick Lally playing lead
characters Dinny & Mylie Byrne who spilled over from former RTÉ series
Bracken and The Riordans. Written by Westley Burrows (from the north of
Ireland), Glenroe was a stroke of pure genius. It fitted 1980's Ireland
perfectly, focussing on the trials and tribulations of life in rural Ireland as
Dublin's great conurbations rapidly expanded southward, bringing about huge
changes to the lives of those who may not have had much in common with the
encroaching metropolitan hordes. Glenroe was a character-based soap, so
storylines weren't as plot-driven as Dallas or EastEnders. This meant that the
quality of the actors was key to Glenroe's outstanding success.
It is said that there was no sex in Ireland before The Late-Late Show made its way onto the airwaves of Éireann. Therefore Ireland has much to thank Gay Byrne?
Joking aside. Generations have grown up watching "Gaybo" host RTÉ’s long-running chat show with it's inimitable blend of current affairs, light entertainment and taboo-shattering moments. Gay's show was a must-see that dominated Friday night viewing and was instrumental in shaping the Ireland that we all know and love today. I can think of no other broadcaster who exerted so much influence on a nation.
Is it fair to refer to Gay Byrne as a broadcasting genius? He was certainly an icon. I reckon 'genius' cuts it, because as soon as that famous "TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN - IT'S THE LATE-LATE SHOW" intro was run, the Republic of Ireland came together as one big community. Everyone gathered around as one audience. Perhaps they weren't together when it came to opinions but Éire seemed to be close-knit as a nation. Dublin's Montrose Studios had the feel of a community hub every Friday night. A place where the whole nation's attention was steadfastly focussed. The show created the narrative rather than timidly following it. On Monday mornings, the entire national debate centered around what had been discussed on The Late-Late Show.
Through his work in radio and television, Gay Byrne managed to challenge an often highly conservative Irish society. He focused not only on the bright side but also examined bleaker aspects of Irish life. Gay became singularly the most familiar and distinctive voice in all of Ireland.
Above all, Gay Byrne was a consummate entertainer. A man who provided a voice for all those who'd been silenced or were somehow afraid to speak up. Gay wasn't afraid to confront the biggest issues. I sometimes feel that only he could have done any of this with the degree of credibility that he naturally brought to the fore. Political figures are often too divisive and polarising whereas Gay was the complete opposite. He was almost like the father of the nation. When Gay was around, everything was going to be OK.
Other than tackling taboos, Byrne was equally at ease interviewing top international stars and celebrities. He even took on that mightiest of live-television no-no's by interviewing young children during his annual 'Christmas Toy' edition of the Late-Late Show!
Of course, the Late-Late wasn't simply a platform for the great and the often not-so-good. Some of the show's finest hours featured ordinary folk. People who had an interesting story to tell. Rarely-discussed topics such as abortion, divorce and even sexual identity were frequently tackled. Yes, there were plenty of gaffes and awkward moments, such as the time when Gay wouldn't shake hands on-screen with Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams. There was a sticky moment with Annie Murphy too - who'd had a child with Bishop Eamonn Casey.
It's safe to say that Gay Byrne's tenure walked us through the golden age of TV and radio. As Ireland grappled with social and political change, Gay had the wherewithal to predict what the next political, social or cultural issues were going to be. He had what it took to bring them to the forefront of public debate. He didn't seem to mind any ensuing controversies. I suspect he even relished them to a certain extent.
Unlike some other interviewers, Gay Byrne was inclined to listen. He allowed his guests to do the talking, creating a convivial setting for the best stories to literally flow. Sometimes, as with a few Sinéad O'Connor appearances, the stories deeply disturbed Gay. You could see how he almost felt a personal responsibility for her because, after all, he'd been instrumental in building her career. Gay possessed both intellect and empathy. His intelligence was unsurpassed as he carefully and sensitively approached the most delicate and often controversial subjects. His unique style set him apart from any other broadcaster.
Gay hosted The Late-Late Show from 1962 to 1999, one of the world’s longest chat show runs. As well as the Late-Late show, he also had is daily radio show as well as hosting the annual The Rose of Tralee pageant, Ireland's Who Wants to be a Millionaire and quizzing eminent people about The Meaning of Life where he once got a very candid answer about Stephen Fry's outlook on God!
Byrne's talents were cemented by his enduring affability. He blended banter with controversy. He once asked a contestant what colour nightie she'd worn on the night of her honeymoon. She hadn’t worn any, she replied!
Douglas Hughes is a UK-based writer producing general interest articles ranging from travel pieces to classic motoring.
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