Of all the leading lights of media, the arts and public life queuing up to pay tribute to the late broadcaster Gay Byrne on the Ray D’Arcy Show today, Olivia O’Leary summed up what they and the nation were thinking.
“He was the finest broadcaster we ever had.”
An experienced interviewer herself, O’Leary nailed precisely what it was that only Gay Byrne could do.
“Sit back, don’t say anything. Let the pause develop. That forces them to tell you more because you’re creating a hole, a space, which they feel they need to fill. The main thing is you don’t try to fill it. It takes an awful lot of courage to do that and he did that all the time.”
The man who listened for a living, the broadcaster who knew when to stay quiet and let people speak didn’t shy away from talking about what he was going through, sharing his own uncertainties and fears in an interview with Ray D’Arcy back in May 2018.
“You don’t know what it’s all about and you’re wondering and you have to sort of try and control yourself as hard as you can to get yourself down off this awful precipice of worry and annoyance”
Gay could not praise his family enough for their support in his illness, in particular his wife of 54 years, Kathleen Watkins.
“Kathleen is never-endingly good and kind to me, never-endingly good and kind.”
Gay Byrne never forgot his audience. In the 2018 interview, he gently broadened out the discussion to take the listeners into account in the conversation; what they might be going through, how they might be feeling, how their health was. Several times during the interview, he mentioned other people undergoing treatment for cancer “of which there are thousands” and he recalled with compassion those with lifelong health problems.
“When you think of all the people who have chronic bad health, who go through every single day of their lives nursing some ill-health or other. And here am I, I’ve got away with it for 83 years, and here I am, I’ll be 84 in August and I just have to cope with what’s happened to me, that’s all.”
Almost one million people listened to Gay Byrne on radio every weekday for over a quarter of a century. He joked with Ray about the name of the show being kept for a time as The Gay Byrne Hour even when it was extended to fill a two-hour slot. In an age before smart phones and social media, Gay was acutely aware of the importance of interaction with the listeners.
“I saw it as the town hall of the air, and they wrote to us about all sorts of things and they delighted in it and the entire nation was listening.”
He recalled one particular time in 1984 when the show received an unprecedented degree of contact from the public. A story which broke in Granard, County Longford, about the death of a young woman called Ann Lovett gave rise to an outpouring of personal stories that went far beyond the parameters of the original news story. Gay said that a moment came in the show when reporter Kevin O’Connor had just delivered a “very measured, very quiet, very sombre, very judged interview” on the story; then something happened:
“Somewhere in the course of that interview, either he or I said something to the effect; ‘What the hell is all this about? What’s going on?’, or whatever. And whichever it was, it doesn’t matter, but the next thing we were deluged with sacks and sacks of mail. […] We were inundated with sacks of mail from all over the country saying, ‘You want to know what this is all about? Let me tell you what this is all about.’”
During their interview in 2018, Gay told Ray that he was happier for other people to weigh the impact of his legacy. Many have been queuing up today to do just that and the poet Brendan Kennelly added his voice to the many on the Ray D’Arcy Show:
“You encouraged Ireland to open up, to face the ghosts of darkness, let them rip, express the secret heart in sun, and ice and rain. You were a one-man university where all were welcome without paying a fee. You gave us words, ideas, music, song. Often you made us laugh out loud and long. Beneath it all, you searched for what is true.”
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