John Dolan: To me, Gaybo was the quintessential Irishman — he was the everyman of the Emerald Isle — he made me think... I want to be Irish too

For outsiders like me, Gay Byrne was our Identikit Irishman; and he did is so well that he made us want to be Irish, so says John Dolan
John Dolan: To me, Gaybo was the quintessential Irishman — he was the everyman of the Emerald Isle — he made me think... I want to be Irish too

IRISH ICONS: Gay Byrne with Terry Wogan recording hisThe Meaning Of Lifeshowin 2010

HIS mellifluous tones, which oozed out of the wireless at breakfast time every morning, provided the soundtrack to my childhood — and the childhoods of millions of others.

Later, his TV chat show became one of the must-see events of the week, as the great and good sat alongside him, happy to be charmed, pricked and prodded into sharing their life stories with him... and the watching public. Intimacy on a grand scale!

Both on the TV screen and on the airwaves, he would segue effortlessly, from moving rhetoric on hard-hitting or emotional issues, to sparkling humour and bonhomie when capturing the lighter sides of life.

All of which perfectly sums up the genius that was Terry Wogan, who died in 2016.

In the past week, of course, he was joined in the broadcasting booth in the sky by a man who actually surpassed him, in terms of the legacy he left to the nation of his birth.

For while Wogan left his native Limerick to make his name, and fame and fortune, in the UK, Gay Byrne — apart from a brief dalliance with UK TV — chose to stay in Ireland. Britain’s loss was Ireland’s gain, for, in the guise of Uncle Gaybo, he undoubtedly changed this country — and he undoubtedly changed it for the better.

When Eamon Dunphy said this week that Byrne had had more influence on this country than many Taoisigh, for once he wasn’t guilty of an over-the-top reaction.

I have lived in Ireland now for almost 19 years, and have become immersed in its culture, the body politics, the humour, the history, and the current affairs of the nation.

But there are times, like this week, when I am acutely reminded of my immigrant status.

Every Irish person seemed to have a story to share about Gay Byrne; you didn’t have to have met the guy, you just had to have lived here to have felt his influence on society.

From those who woke up to his velvet tones as schoolchildren, to those who recalled his many finest hours on the Late Late Show, to those who remembered with fondness the way he single-handedly began the institution of the Late Late Toy Show — the outpouring of love and respect that greeted the announcement of his death on Monday was as universal as anything can possibly be in this often-divided age.

I can’t say he had a similar effect on my life, but he did have an effect nonetheless.

Of course, before I moved here, I was aware of Gay Byrne and of his Late Late Show. As a sports sub-editor in Manchester, the amount of times we employed the late, late show headline for a 92nd minute winner led to a blanket ban on the phrase by the miffed — and non-Irish — sports editor!

I recall, too, in 1999, being shocked to read that almost the entire adult population of Ireland had watched his last-ever Late Late Show. That’s the type of influence afforded to few ‘icons’.

The tones of the eulogies to Gaybo were spot on. To me, and to many, his unique gift was in being a conservative Catholic man of his time — growing up in the 1940s and 1950s — who had an innate decency and belief in what was right which often belied those roots.

He was a Christian man with compassion, who had the generosity of spirit to see other viewpoints, and to understand that his own rigid views may require a little flexibility.

The fact he was also a great communicator meant he could share these insights with the Irish nation, and actually shape our society for the better. What a remarkable legacy.

Think about those qualities for a moment.

This was a man born in 1934, who questioned the Establishment he had been born into. How many of his modern-day successors could say that about themselves? How many broadcasters, commentators and journalists even today, in a more modern Ireland, can say their own attitudes have shifted with age? Particularly when that shift is from right to left on the social spectrum, when it is usually in the opposite direction?

These are the reasons why Irish people mourned and also hailed Gay Byrne this week.

But what of those people, like me, who lived outside his sphere of influence?

Byrne’s legacy here is actually just as great, in a sense.

For people like me, Gay Byrne was the quintessential Irishman: The everyman of the Emerald Isle.

He had all the qualities you would wish for in an Irish person, and a few others besides.

He had the gift of the blarney alright — my god, he could talk. And that voice, that brogue, was smooth as silk.

He could be serious, he was easily moved; yet he loved music too, and fun and laughter.

He was utterly unassuming, while remaining a showman, compassionate, understanding, considerate... empathy oozed from his pores.

I wasn’t living here when he was confronting a still-conservative Ireland in the 1980s and 1990 — vexing bishops about brides’ nighties, handing condoms around with gay abandon, and allocating an entire episode of his Late Late Show to the newly- formed Irish Women’s Liberation Movement.

Nor was I here when he reacted so decisively yet sensitively to the discovery of a 15-year-old mother and her stillborn son at the foot of a statue of the Blessed Virgin in Longford in 1984. Byrne commented afterwards: “That was the first stone lifted to discover what lay underneath in this country.”

It’s hard to believe now, in 2019, but certainly, back in 1984, not many men who had been born in 1934 would have called that out for what it was.

I missed all of those ground-breaking Gaybo moments, yet his death resonated even with people like me, because he was a very special person.

For outsiders like me, Gay Byrne was our Identikit Irishman; and he did is so well that he made us want to be Irish.

Not a bad epitaph, for someone born in Rialto in 1934, is it?

More in this section

Sponsored Content