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chat master Tommy Tiernan is an outsider, a beatnik presence - and also RTE's best interviewer

Funnyman Tiernan didn't even make it on to RTÉ's top-earner list, yet he is the best interviewer the broadcaster has.

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Razor-sharp Irish comedian and broadcaster Tommy Tiernan

Razor-sharp Irish comedian and broadcaster Tommy Tiernan

Irish actress Brenda Fricker

Irish actress Brenda Fricker

RTÉ television and radio host Ryan Tubridy

RTÉ television and radio host Ryan Tubridy

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Razor-sharp Irish comedian and broadcaster Tommy Tiernan

Sometimes a man has to wait a while to find his most glorious expression, to arrive at the moment to which his entire lived experience has been directing him.

At 51, Tommy Tiernan, his flood of natural-born curiosity, boundless empathy and razor-sharp ear illuminated by RTÉ's Saturday night lights, has landed in that happy place.

Tiernan, as anybody fortunate enough to witness his latest gentle masterclass of the craft in the company of Brenda Fricker can attest, is a magnificent interviewer.

He gets people, is authentically interested in their journey, gently peels back the layers until we arrive at their essence.

Unlike so many of his brash, vacuous, look-at-me peers, he is content to sit in the passenger seat, permitting his guest to drive the conversation.

For the viewer, it makes for an uplifting, unforced, scenic, and hugely fulfilling joyride.

Tiernan has the nose of the prospector, knowing instinctively where to mine for nuggets.

He is fearless, unafraid to open doors even when he has no clue what lurks on the other side: landmines, diamonds, banality, chaos.

Some of the great treasures are found when he wonders down these unfamiliar, less-travelled lanes.

Critically, he possesses the emotional intelligence to adjust to the changing landscape of the conversation.

At the outset of their chat, it was plain that Fricker did not want to be within a million miles of the studio; by the end, happily running free in the forest of superior conversation, she did not want to leave.

It was as if Tiernan achieved the miracle of holding a jeweller's magnifying glass to his subject, but somehow doing it unobtrusively: It brought Fricker's humanity, her scars, the depth of her personality into a lovely, sharp focus.

Tiernan is an outsider, a beatnik presence.

He and his beanie hat did not feature on the Rich List of RTÉ presenters unveiled to a somewhat startled nation last week.

Yet, as he showcases maverick credentials with growing authority, stamping his identity on that testing primetime slot, it is he - rather than those at the high-earning summit - who is stepping into the shoes of old, beloved giants.

No, we will not make the pointless and absurd leap of declaring Tommy the new Gay Byrne, not at all. But, the suspicion is, the departed maestro would relate to how Tiernan tills neglected ground, give a nod to the impressive range of the younger man's naturally inquiring mind, and his firm grasp of what makes for compelling TV.

Tiernan comprehends a basic obligation of the craft: He listens, really, intensely listens.

You might think it the most essential tool of an interviewee, yet it is one beyond the reach of a surprisingly significant number of his fellow travellers.

What sets him apart from the rest of the field is that he is utterly un-spooked by silence. Three seconds, four seconds, five seconds: He allows the music of the unspoken word to penetrate the hush. It isn't TV; it's two people on high stools shooting the breeze.

And it is a gorgeous rebuke to that school of loud, brash presenters who lack the intellect or the humility to recognise the power of stillness, how meaning can fill the vacuum. A confession: I was never entirely seduced by Tiernan's successful brand of comedy (I'm certain he somehow survived my indifference).

Impressive

Only a combination of lockdown closing off the Saturday night city and the recent appearance of my colleague and friend Nicola Tallant on the show drew me in.

And there he was flexing the impressive abs of his empathetic muscle.

In tuning in, I stumbled upon a wonderland of compassion, wit, intelligence, and warmth. His own life's struggles, the darker places he has visited that are etched into his lived-in face, seem to inform his wisdom and affinity.

Tiernan's sharp radar, his ability to locate and hone in on the essential essence of his guests was a hugely unexpected surprise. Watching him at work is to be reminded of Con Houlihan's gorgeous line, the one Liam Aherne wisely nailed to the wooden bones of The Palace Bar.

"A bird is known by its song, a man by his conversation."

This hymn to Tiernan's easy grace in the hardest arena- and TV is unspeakably difficult - is not designed to slight others, but still it must be said. Even if the bewildering numbers on Ryan Tubridy and Ray D'Arcy's payslips suggest otherwise, our eyes and ears and heart insist it is Tiernan making a bewitching claim to be the shining light of Irish television chat show hosts.

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