Irish broadcaster and chat show host

Born: August 5 1934;

Died: November 4 2019

GAY Byrne, who has died aged 85, was undoubtedly the Republic of Ireland’s pre-eminent broadcaster and, many thought, also the single figure most responsible for its social and cultural transformation from a highly religious and socially conservative nation to its current position as a progressive and largely secular liberal nation. He was so popular that, after his retirement, he was considered likely to become the country’s president.

Byrne himself was sceptical of such claims, largely keeping his own opinions (which were more conservative than his reputation suggested) to himself, and maintaining that he had done no more than reflect the changing times in which he lived.

There was no doubt, though, that his television chat show, The Late Late Show, which began in 1962 and of which he relinquished his tenure only in 1999, provided numerous examples of the profound changes in Ireland over the course of decades.

In the chair, “Gaybo”, as most of his audience knew him, moderated furious rows over issues that included compulsory Irish, the treatment of single mothers, the church and sexual abuse, the arms trials and the Troubles. He interviewed Anne Murphy about her affair with Bishop Eamonn Casey; apologised to another bishop when a woman on the show revealed she hadn’t worn a nightgown on her wedding night; refused to shake the hand of Gerry Adams, then leader of Sinn Fein, elicited from his namesake, the Hollywood actor Gabriel Byrne, an account of sexual abuse in childhood; and gave a disparaging assessment of the boy band Westlife on their first public appearance.

It was one of numerous encounters with stars of music, stage and screen. He had also been, at Granada in the 1960s, the first person to introduce The Beatles on television, and was once presented with a motorbike by the band U2.

The primary reason for Byrne’s success and longevity, both on television and his radio phone-in show, which ran between 1972 and 1998, had nothing to do with courting controversy for its own sake, however. It was that he had consummate skill as a broadcaster; highly intuitive, always thoroughly prepared, and deeply in touch with the interests and priorities of his audience, he also had the rare quality of genuinely listening to and engaging with his guests.

On one memorable occasion, he rang a competition winner at home only to discover that the woman’s daughter had been killed the previous evening in a car crash. When she expressed a desire to continue after he offered to conclude the exchange, he handled the subsequent conversation with great tact and sensitivity – made all the more remarkable by the fact that the prize in question was a new car.

Gabriel Mary Byrne was born in Rialto, Dublin, on August 5 1943, the youngest of five (four boys and a girl). His parents both hailed from Co Wicklow, and his father Edward worked for Guinness as a labourer. His shift work meant that he often had limited contact with the family, but it at least assured a regular income.

Gay was the only one of the children to continue at school to secondary level, though the others had reasonably successful careers; he went to the Christian Brothers’ school in Synge Street, and hoped to go on to Trinity College Dublin, but when his father died, had to go out to work.

He had visited the RTÉ studios as a child, and felt drawn to broadcasting (into which two of his brothers also went) but, after failing the entrance exam to join Guinness, instead got a job with the Royal Insurance Company, where his sister Mary worked. After a brief period managing a cinema, he then moved to the Guardian Insurance Company.

His persistent attempts to break into media paid off, however, in 1958, when he became a presenter on Radio Éireann, tackling everything that came along – though he was relieved on sports commentary duties when it became clear he knew nothing about football. He also – in an early indication of his almost boundless capacity for hard work – took a job with Granada Television in Manchester, commuting back to Dublin for his radio duties.

He then lived in London, though it did not stop him taking the helm of The Late Late Show, which was initially intended to run for only eight weeks over the summer of 1962. He had met the harpist and television continuity announcer Kathleen Watkins in 1957, and after they married in 1964, he returned to Dublin, where his programme was now well underway on its remarkable run. The couple adopted two daughters.

Byrne’s work ethic sprang in part from his upbringing, which included the example of his mother and daily mass attendance, and also gave him the sense that financial security was precarious. This sentiment was to be vindicated when, after the death of his great friend and financial manager Russell Murphy in 1984, it emerged that Byrne’s assets had been squandered, and that he was in debt. Though he worked assiduously to repair the damage, a further blow came during the financial crisis of 2008, when Byrne’s supposedly “watertight” investments collapsed, and dealt another blow to his coffers.

Even after retirement from The Late Late Show and the radio, he continued to work; presenting the Irish version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?; The Gay Byrne Music Show; a documentary about his father’s service in the Great War; The Meaning of Life, an interview series; and a jazz programme on Lyric FM. He also fronted a campaign on road traffic safety, a topic about which he was passionate, and where he made a considerable difference to public attitudes.

In 2011, he considered running for President (with Fianna Fáil’s support), but eventually decided against, though he topped the polls. He performed a one-man show for charity later that year.

His hobbies, besides jazz, about which he was very knowledgeable, included flying. In 2015, he suffered a heart attack and the following year was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and had recently been in poor health. He is survived by his wife and their children.