Gabriel Mary "Gay" Byrne (born 5 August 1934; affectionately known as Uncle Gay, Gaybo or Uncle Gaybo) is a veteran Irish presenter of radio and television for several decades. 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. His time working in Britain with Granada Television saw him become the first person to introduce The Beatles on screen.
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. Since retiring from his long-running radio and television shows, Byrne has 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. Since retiring he has become 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". In 2011, he was approached to become President of Ireland but declined to run, despite topping opinion polls.
Byrne is the son of Edward Byrne, who joined the Irish Volunteers in 1912, and subsequently joined the 19th Hussars, Infantry Division, at the commencement of World War I. He later fought during the Irish War of Independence. He fought throughout most of the War, including at O'Connell Street. Shortly after the War, Edward Byrne was employed by Guinness' St. James's Gate Brewery where he worked for most of the rest of his life. He worked on the barges that operated on the river Liffey, transporting wooden casks from St. James's Gate Brewery to ships at the North Wall, Dublin. Edward Byrne was the son of Alexander Byrne, a coachman to the Earl of Meath, who lived at a lodge on the Earl's estate near Kilruddery, County Wicklow.
Byrne's father, Edward, married his mother, Annie Carroll (from Bray), at Belfast, 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. Gay Byrne is the youngest of six children from that marriage. However, one child, his brother Joseph, died as a one-week-old infant. Listed in descending order (according to age), the other children are Edward, Al, Ernest, and Mary.
Byrne was born on 5 August 1934 and grew up 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.
After attending Synge Street CBS, Byrne worked at the North Strand cinema. He subsequently became a clerk in an insurance company. He then worked as a sales representative. He also met foreign dignitaries at Dublin Airport and welcomed them to Ireland. 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.
Whilst 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. Whilst 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.
Byrne began his broadcasting career on radio.
Radio Éireann gave him a 15-minute slot on Monday nights which he used to play Jazz, his first broadcast for the station being in 1958.
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 on The Gay Byrne Show and subsequently succeeded him as presenter.
Byrne has 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. Since 2010, he can 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 is 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:
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 like 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, authors and countless others.
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. However, Byrne saw himself as a presenter, not a radical social reformer, though his style was more challenging and less deferential than the style of his successor as presenter of The Late Late Show, Pat Kenny.
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.
Byrne and The Late Late Show were central to the development of the careers of figures such as Mary Coughlan.
He was noted for wearing a "Bing Crosby sweater" when presenting The Late Late Toy Show.
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 prefers not to discuss his own faith:
The programme has contained a number of remarkable 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 Lets 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 compered 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 1988 and 2001, Byrne hosted the RTÉ People in Need Telethon several times.
Colleague Mike Murphy, in disguise, conned Byrne into believing he was a French tourist in an iconic television moment in Ireland.
After "retiring", Byrne hosted for one season, 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. In 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 has seen him visit hospitalised survivors alongside then President of Ireland Mary McAleese.
In "retirement", Byrne has 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 recent years he has 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 Irish 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, formerly of the IRA 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 is married to Kathleen Watkins, formerly a well-known harpist. Byrne first met Kathleen Watkins, a native of Saggart, Co. Dublin, in 1957. They married in the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saggart, in 1964. The couple have two daughters (both adopted). They are called Suzy and Crona. The Byrne family lived on Howth Head in Dublin but have, in recent years, lived in Sandymount in Dublin. Byrne became a grandfather on 15 September 2004 when Suzy gave birth to a boy at Holles Street Hospital.
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.
His interests include jazz. He continues to play the jazz on radio during his "retirement".
He is a qualified private pilot.
In later years, Byrne revealed the existence of hearing loss in one ear and is a supporter of Hidden Hearing who have helped him with his hearing loss. He thought originally that it was due to working in the TV and Radio industry for over 50 years that caused his hearing loss, but has since found out it is 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, suddenly finding himself unable to breathe he rushed himself to St Vincent's A&E. He complained at the time of feeling as if his lungs 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 found himself in hospital once more.
On 20 November 2016 he revealed, live on his Time Warp radio broadcast on RTE Lyric, that he was to begin treatment for prostate cancer and that the cancer may have also spread to his lower back. He told listeners he would be taking a break of just one week before returning to work. However, as of 1 January 2017, he has not been back on air.
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.
- "TCD to honour leading Dubliners for millennium". The Irish Times. 30 October 1987.
- "Dublin honours one of its favourite sons with freedom of the city". The Irish Times. 12 May 1999.
- "Lifetime award for TV's Gay Byrne". BBC News. 10 February 2007. Archived from the original on 3 March 2015. Retrieved 13 February 2010.
- O'Brien, Jason (2 October 2009). "Radio Veteran Gay is walking on air". Irish Independent. Retrieved 4 October 2009.
- Lambe, Fintan (11 October 2011). "Anne stamp will mark RTÉ anniversary". New Ross Standard. Retrieved 11 October 2011.
- "Tubridy set to become wax figure". RTÉ. 11 November 2011. Archived from the original on 4 March 2015. Retrieved 11 November 2011.
Tubridy will join his Late Late Show predecessor broadcasting legend Gay Byrne in the museum display.
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 is part of Ireland's bilaterality of broadcast giants, but has been described as solely "the most famous Irish broadcaster in history", lauded by the media as "the man who changed Ireland".
According to the Irish Examiner, Byrne has "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 Ruairi O Bradaigh, 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 found Byrne to be the most popular public figure as well.