By Robert Geoghegan
As tributes pour in following the passing of the legendary Gay Byrne at the age of 85, it is easy to see the profound effect that one man’s voice had on a nation. Having worked with RTÉ for 41 years, Gay Byrne’s work pushed boundaries in a time when viewing options were significantly less than today. His work was at the right time, and the right place.
He was often described as a ringmaster and, the murky underbelly of Irish taboo subjects were the beasts he introduced to audiences. Gay Byrne was a conservative man with progressive ideas. He always had his finger on the pulse, knowing what would resonate with the public.
Even his more contemporary work on The Meaning of Life caused controversy, in particular his interview with Stephen Fry which is widely considered as one of the catalysts behind the 2018 blasphemy referendum.
Gay had been pushing boundaries for years by doing specials on contraception and on LGBTQ life. He interviewed gay men at a time when the LGBTQ community was heavily condemned, and shunned and introduced a new way of thinking to the masses. It wasn’t always accepted but audiences tuned in none the less.
“He always had his finger on the pulse, knowing what would resonate with the public”
Of course, being too young at the time to understand the topic of conversation that was being had, I was totally oblivious. I was still however, fixated on this man on the screen.
It was his charm and congeniality that made him so endearing. For me, he was like a grandfather that I never had. There was a certain warmth that filled the house or the car when his voice permeated the air.
I was fortunate enough to experience the Late Late Toy Show in his final years on the show before he retired from RTÉ in 1999. He had a way of bringing the audience in with him. It was us, the audience, and “uncle Gay”, and we were all experiencing the same thing. There was a sense of that shared experience when you talked to your friends at school the next day after the Toy Show.
“Now with his passing, I have lost him all over again”
Our family sat around the fire and waited for the show to begin. We knew that on this night we could stay up late and not get in trouble while my family and many other families, got to vicariously experience the magic of opening new toys with the children on the show.
There was a sense of joy as Gay effortlessly interacted with the toys, it was the joy that lit up his face that made the experience magical; much like when I was with my grandfather.
Watching the Toy Show was a rite of passage and still is to this day for many. But once Gay left, I couldn’t watch it anymore, such was the profound effect he had on me. At the time it felt that I had lost my granddad and I never watched it again.
Now with his passing, I have lost him all over again.