That was back in the early 1990s on the first of my two appearances on The Late, Late Show panel.
The debate was about the perceived rural/urban divide in Ireland at the time and the so-called ‘Dublin 4’ attitude of many who did not live in the country.
The background was that our local Post Office here in Bartlemy had been closed by An Post after the unexpected death of our Sub Post master William Woods. We resisted the closure at parish level and created so much opposition that it made national news.
It just so happened that a month after the Bartlemy Post Office was closed, An Post came out with their infamous ‘Viability Plan’ which proposed closing 1,000 post offices and the installation of roadside letterboxes for everyone. We felt outraged, as did communities all over Ireland.
Huge demonstrations were organised in Dublin and Cork by the newly-formed Communications Workers Union, the CWU, under the leadership of its dynamic General Secretary David Begg. Thousands marched through Dublin city centre to a rally in front of the GPO.
At the Cork rally, near what is now Bishop Lucey Park, I spoke to the vast crowd. Eventually, An Post and its sole shareholder, the Government, backed down on the Viability Plan. It was no good to us though as they refused to reverse our closure.
We organised a petition signed by thousands. We demonstrated outside the Dáil but Bartlemy got no reprieve.
I was a member of the local deputation that got to meet top officials of An Post in their HQ in Dublin. After we were greeted and seated one of the An Post officials looked at me and in a most demeaning tone said: “And ye brought a briefcase with ye, and ye didn’t bring the Parish Priest?”
It was so typical of the Superior v Inferior attitude held by so many in positions of ‘power’, an example of looking down the nose at ‘these common people from a little out of the way place, Bartlemy, coming up to Dublin upsetting us’.
Well, I got a call from a researcher on The Late, Late asking me to come on the show to discuss not alone the Post Officer but rural issues in general. That’s the night I recalled my dealings with the An Post officials and their derisory and dismissive comments.
I formed a great rapport with Gay on the night and the show went very well. What was really amazing, I thought, was the manner in which he got the conversation going with the panel members — then he leant back, listened and left it take off.
When the talk was flowing he was just an interested ‘spectator’, yet completely in control.
That particular show got a massive reaction all over the country. Nearly 30 years later, when I’m introduced to someone for the first time, on hearing my name, they still say ‘Are you the fella with the briefcase that was on The Late, Late with Gay?’
To be honest, in the years before that I’d regularly but not ‘religiously’ view The Late, Late Show and most nights found it very enjoyable. Much has been written and spoken in the last few days about Gay’s ability as a consummate broadcaster and undoubtedly in Ireland he was the ‘king’ — to translate the old Irish saying ‘We will not see his likes again’.
I grew up with Gay Byrne, you could say, and, along with The Riordans, Hawaii Five-O, Quicksilver and Tolka Row, The Late, Late Show was one of a handful of programmes eagerly anticipated each week. To be honest, it was a great thrill then to actually appear on it in 1991. I was there not to entertain in a funny way — we were talking about a serious subject — yet Gay made it so interesting and proceeded to show up the folly of denuding rural Ireland of basic services.
Pity is that those ‘in power’ chose to ignore that profound message.
Imagine, since that show in April, 1991, more than 1,300 Post Offices in Ireland have been closed — when will we ever learn?
The following year I was invited back on the panel for a programme dealing again with rural issues. I think ‘twas on that show I repeated the immortal words of Fine Gael TD PJ Sheehan that rural Ireland would end up with only ‘briars, bachelors and bullocks’! Again, that 1992 show was a memorable experience for me. I was stunned at the research that was done by the Late, Late team. Two different researchers rang me in the days prior to the live show, questioning me on every aspect of rural life, problems and solutions.
I suppose the one thing Gay Byrne never wanted a panelist to say was “I don’t know” — or worse still, give a silent shrug of the shoulders whilst shaking the head!
I had felt that Gay’s morning radio show was too Dublin-centred but after a few years that all changed. He spread the show’s appeal by tackling issues and stories from the leafy suburbs of Dublin right down to the boreens and crossroads of rural Ireland. One time he had a phone-in competition which I entered. Gay would start with a phrase from a song and the competitor had to try and come up with a similar line from some other song. Then he’d take a phrase from that song and you’d have to repeat the process again and so on. Well, the morning I was on I had a mighty run! The highest ‘score’ in the previous days was, I think, 12, before the competitor stalled. I had a good repertoire of songs and ballads in my head — and in fairness as I went on I ‘made up’ a few song titles as Gay kept going!
I had got to around 20 when Gay said: “That’ll do, John, fine, fine —don’t think anyone can beat that score, grand we’ll probably be back to you tomorrow.” The next day was Friday, the closing date of the competition and only one more contestant to go. That night I dreamt of the Luxury Hotel Break for two , a fabulous prize 25 years ago.
Friday came and the contestant was good, very good. He got to 22 just as the show ended — he was the winner. I was left wondering, if Gay had continued on with me on the Thursday, would I have gone on to 26 or 30? We’ll never know the answer, but no hard feelings, Gay!
In December of 1995, I published a slim book of poetry, Poems From The Priest’s Garden — I think I got about 300 copies printed. I had a local launch and sold maybe 100 or so on the night. Between that and Christmas I sold maybe another 100.
I sent a copy into Gay’s radio programme on the off chance that he might read out a poem or two. One Thursday morning the following January, a researcher rang from the radio programme saying Gay liked the book and could I be in the RTÉ studio at 9am the next day?
Off I went to Dublin by train, paid for by RTÉ, as was my overnight hotel accommodation and taxi next morning. I expected maybe a five-minute interview and Gay might ask me to read a poem or two. For 35 minutes we spoke live ‘on air’ about the poems, family life on the farm and so on. It was a morning I’ll never forget!
The book was selling for a fiver —old money. Within a few days I had envelopes with £5 notes from all over the country.
Collins’ Bookshop in Cork ordered an extra 100 copies. I got a reprint of 500 and all were gone quickly. That was just my personal brush with the charisma and magnetism of everybody’s Uncle Gaybo.
To answer the oft-asked question- ‘Was there sex in Ireland before The Late, Late Show?’ Yerra, there was, aren’t we all proof of its existence and practise, but it wasn’t spoken of openly. Gay changed that and slaughtered many other ‘Irish sacred cows’ too.
Gay Byrne was decent, Christian and in my opinion a God-fearing person and a man of faith. He hated hypocrisy in society in general, in religion — in any sphere.
If I learned or ‘picked up’ anything from him over the years, it was this — speak your mind, value your own judgement, and leave people you meet smiling rather than frowning when parting time comes.
Gay Byrne has died but his spirit — his indomitable soul lives on.
Tomorrow, please God, as Ireland bids farewell to her favourite son, I’ll travel to Lourdes for a few days. I have so many people to remember and pray for there — one more now, Gay rest in peace. The True Meaning of Life is revealed.