Obituary: Gay Byrne, Irish broadcaster who hosted The Late Late Show for almost four decades

Gabriel Mary ‘Gay’ Byrne, broadcaster. Born: 5 August 1934 in Rialto, Dublin, Ireland. Died: 4 November 2019 in Dublin.

Picture: PA Wire
Picture: PA Wire

Gay Byrne, a television presenter and radio host who became a fixture in Irish households, died on Monday, his longtime employer RTE said. He was 85. Byrne died after undergoing treatment for cancer, RTE said.

A staple of Irish households, he did a decades-long stint as host of The Late Late Show, and also hosted other radio and TV programmes for Ireland’s national broadcaster. Known affectionately as Uncle Gaybo, he championed social causes and used his celebrity to illuminate the darker corners of Ireland.

“He challenged Irish society, and shone a light not only on the bright but also the dark sides of Irish life,” Irish President Michael Higgins said in a statement.

“In doing so, he became one of the most familiar and distinctive voices of our times, helping shape our conscience, our self-image, and our idea of who we might be. ... He had a sense of what was just.”

Byrne began working as a newsreader and announcer on Radio Eireann in the 1950s before moving to Granada Television in Manchester.

He later commuted between Dublin and the UK, working for both the BBC and RTE. In the 1960s, he returned to Ireland full-time as the presenter and producer of The Late Late Show. Byrne hosted the programme from 1962 to 1999.

One of Byrne’s more famous interviews was with the boy band Boyzone, soon after it formed in 1993.

Standing between a shirtless, overall-wearing Shane Lynch and a bare-chested, red braces-wearing Keith Duffy, Byrne opened the show before a live audience with the proclamation that the “macho men have come to town”.

After being told that some of the group members were able to play instruments, Byrne, in forthright mode, exclaimed: “I was told you don’t play instruments at all, none of you. I was also told that you don’t sing at all, none of you.

“And knowing that you don’t play, you don’t sing and you can’t write music, I thought you’d go very far – but now you’ve wrecked the whole thing.”

When an audience member wryly noted that the band members seemed more like Chippendale dancers than musicians, Byrne, more kindly, quipped, “Listen. What do you expect? They’re only starting.”

The broadcaster posted the clip on its website, together with other notable moments, including from a show in 1997 when he phoned a competition winter to tell her she won a car – only to learn that the contestant’s daughter Linda had died in a car accident the day before.

A shocked Byrne asked the contestant, Rita Hanley, if she wanted to continue, which led Hanley to talk a little about her daughter.

“Our hearts go out to you,” said Byrne, who then asked another guest to offer a poem in the daughter’s honour. The audience was enthralled.

“Gay Byrne was the most influential broadcaster in the history of the State, a much-loved figure who changed Ireland for the better in so many ways,” Prime Minister Leo Varadkar wrote on Twitter, noting that Byrne had chaired a campaign against needless road deaths.

“On radio and on television over so many decades, ‘Uncle Gaybo’ provided a voice for all those who had been silenced or were afraid to speak up, and helped us confront things that needed to be changed.”