Gay Byrne: The Old Fox Wrongfoots Media Colleagues Again

by John Boland

Down through the years, he has retired more often than Frank Sinatra — in rumour, if not in real life.

Indeed, in the past decade it became axiomatic that as each successive RTE season loomed, every newspaper in the land would inevitably speculate on his imminent going and publish a suitably sombre and seriously measured obituary.

Throughout all this, the man himself was mainly content to keep his trap shut, though, like Mark Twain, he must have had a bit of fun with the thought that reports of his death were being greatly exaggerated and that no amount of speculation would alter the one basic fact: he’d go when he wanted to.

Now that he does want to, he’s caught everyone on the hop — the whispers of his departure have been so frequent and the farewell tributes written so often that when it’s all finally and really about to happen, it’s hard to know what’s left to say about someone whom the whole country anyway feels it knows intimately.

Best then, perhaps, to begin with that sense of intimacy — a complicity with his audience that was a feature of his broadcasting from the very earliest days of the Late, Late Show. I don’t know how it arose, or if he consciously fostered it, because he certainly has never seemed to encourage intimacy, and on one level there’s always been an unknowability, almost an aloofness about him: does anyone know what he really thinks about politics, about religion, about sex, about anything?

But the intimacy is palpably there when he’s on air: in the way he can ask the questions that effortlessly get to the heart of the matter, and in the way that the interviewees, the studio audience and the larger audience around the country have always responded to him.

Perhaps it’s all just a matter of super-professionalism, but if so, it’s a super-professionalism that no other broadcaster has ever come near and that all of them would give their right arm (and maybe their undisclosed celebrity salaries as well) to learn.

You don’t even have to like his style to recognise his unique rapport with viewers and listeners. In fact, part of the bond has always been your right to actively dislike him if you wanted to … in a way that you don’t feel moved to dislike things about broadcasters who don’t manage to engender such personal feelings.

In the 1960s this was especially the case, as Gay Byrne sent seismic waves throughout the country with his encouragement of debate on matters that an uncertain Ireland either groped towards an understanding of or didn’t want to know about under any circumstances.
Yet while the content of the Late, Late Show in these years frequently outraged people, that outrage never extended to the broadcaster himself — he may have been introducing unpalatable and often unacceptable ideas, but in the midst of it all he himself somehow managed to remain acceptable as no other broadcaster I can think of would have been.

Put it down to knowing your audience. Put it down to knowing how far you can go. Put it down to the creation of a persona that knows the difference between a threatening message and an unthreatening messenger and that has always been able to adroitly balance the two.

Of course, The Late, Late doesn’t shock anymore. Put that, if you will, down to the relative liberalism of the last couple of decades, the refusal to accept old pieties anymore, but if you do that, you can also put a considerable part of that down to what the Late Late and its presenter achieved in earlier decades to foster such liberalism and questioning.

When he departs from radio this Christmas and from the Late Late at the end of its forthcoming season, an era will have ended for ever. Yes, we’ll have the Pat Kcnnys and the Gerry Ryans and the Marian Finucanes and whoever, but we won’t anymore have anyone who’s central to the whole idea we have, not just of Irish broadcasting (which is fragmenting anyway), but of ourselves, where we’re coming from and where we’re going to.

In other words, we’ve been lucky to have at our disposal a broadcaster so crucial to our viewing and listening lives. Certainly no other country I can think of has come up with an individual media personality of such influence.

And of benign influence, too. Disregarding those times when we’ve wanted to throttle him – Annie Murphy (grrr): Gerry Adams (aargh) — we’d be fools not to acknowledge that he’s the finest broadcaster we’ve had in this country, and the finest we’re likely to have. Enough said.

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