Monday, 11 November 2019

GAY BYRNE: MEMORIES OF THE LATE LATE SHOW


                              The owl: part of the iconic opening sequence of The Late Late Show



THERE was no sex in Ireland before the Late Late Show. Did you know that? It's true. How we all came to be, is neither here nor there. Because there was no sex. There was no contraception either. Definitely no condoms.

Or at least most people claimed they never saw one before the Late Late host, Gay Byrne famously tore open a small packet on his weekly, live TV show and held up the small piece of rubber for the nation to view.

Last Monday, Ireland's best known and much loved radio and TV broadcaster, Gay Byrne died.


He passed away at the age of 85, following a long battle with cancer and was laid to rest on Friday after a huge funeral Mass in Dublin's pro-cathedral.

But others have written Gay's obituary and have done it with great eloquence. This is a personal tribute.

Gay Byrne was the soundtrack to my childhood, my teenage years and my young adult life. I grew up being allowed to watch the Late Late on a Friday night, staying up later and later, the older I got. I can't remember what age I was when I was able to stay up past the first ad break, then the second.

But by the time I was old enough to argue with my dad (a state which defined my teenage years), I was also watching the whole of the second-longest running TV chat show in the world.

That's worth repeating. The Late Late Show, which is broadcast live every Friday from RTE's* Studio 1, is the second-longest running TV chat show in the world. Started in 1962 and hosted by its Dublin-born master of ceremonies Gay Byrne until 1999, when he passed the baton to Pat Kenny.

With the very infrequent occasion where it was chaired by a guest host, the show's current host, Ryan Tubridy is only the third person ever to sit in that chair. 


But Gay Byrne was the original. And because of a rare combination of natural ability, genuine curiosity (a must for any broadcaster), relentless hard work and professionalism and a real understanding and warmth, he reigned over Irish broadcasting until recent years.

I rarely heard him in the morning on radio, as I was at school and later on, at college. But the Gay Byrne Radio Show ran five mornings a week and almost every child of my generation will remember having sick days, where they sat at home in a warm kitchen and listened to Gay chat to the nation.


In turn, the nation opened up to him. In the early days, they wrote letters. Actually, if memory serves correctly, it was mostly women who wrote letters. Later on, they phoned in. And out poured their stories.


"I grew up listening to the Gay Byrne Show and watching The Late Late," my mother told me after we heard the news that he had died. After a minute she qualified it. "I mean I learned about things. About what was going on in Ireland, what other people were thinking and feeling and doing. He got to everything."


Everything meant stuff that a predominantly Catholic Ireland wouldn't discuss. Given that sex education in Catholic schools (most schools) in the mid 1980s, consisted of the absolute basics followed by a lecture on the importance of no sex before marriage, homosexuality was a criminal act until 1993 and the last Magdalene Laundry (for "fallen women") didn't close until 1996, the Late Late was ground breaking.


What Gaybo* famously understood was the need for balance. That was true on his radio show, but even more important on his long running TV show. Growing up, I gravitated to the mix of the light-hearted and sometimes ridiculous, at other times serious and important issues Gay put out there for scrutiny and discussion.


I loved when comedians like Billy Connelly, Brendan Grace, Brendan O'Connor (I think Gaybo actually gave O'Connor his first TV break, but I might be wrong) and Tommy Tiernan guested on the show.


But I also learned about ordinary people like me, some of whom had had extraordinary experiences. Gay listened closely, asked deceptively simple questions and crucially, was never uncomfortable with silence. Because he knew that his guests would fill those silences with things they'd never planned to reveal.

He presented other shows down the years, but he became synonymous with the Late Late. In my childhood home on a Friday night, tea was only made before the show or at the ad breaks. And if the house phone rang during the show, you knew that somebody had died.

Gay Byrne's death trended on Twitter for two days after his death. My own kids, who mainly associated Gay with the annual Late Late Toy Show when they were little, and with some of his later radio and TV shows, were sad but slightly baffled.


They have grown up in a far more modern and tolerant Ireland. One where people can now buy contraceptives without a doctor's prescription, where they can divorce, where there is same-sex marriage and where Irish women can for the most part, legally and safely have an abortion in their own country. They have also grown up in an era of multi-channel TV, smart phones and the Internet.


I remember everything from homosexuality to affairs and abortion being talked about on the Late Late Show. At a time in this country where nobody else would talk about, let alone interview people who could talk about their own experiences.

I remember giggling through a show where the two producers of The Joy of Sex were invited on to discuss their outrageous video.

Maybe there was no sex before The Late Late Show.


Thanks for everything, Gay. Rest in Peace.


*RTE: Radio Telifís Eireann. (Ireland's national broadcasting station).
*Gaybo: An affectionate term for
Gay Byrne.


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Hello from my corner of Dublin, and a warm welcome to my monthly column.

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Happy reading and take care.             
Hugs,
Sharon. xx

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