daniel o'donnell 'Gay helped change Ireland for the better...He shone the spotlight on so many taboo subjects'
Daniel O'Donnell tells Eddie Rowley how he got to know Gay Byrne who 'took risks and had a lot of courage'
IN his childhood, Daniel O'Donnell remembers how his family would gather around the television in their Donegal cottage to watch The Late Late Show.
"I suppose it was the same in every home around Ireland in those days, and I'd safely say that the streets and roads around the country were deserted on that night," Daniel says.
"Gay Byrne and the Late Late were compulsive viewing on a Saturday night in those times."
There was one particular Late Late Show that created huge excitement in the O'Donnell home. It was in 1969, the night that Daniel's sister Margo made her first appearance on the show singing a song called The Bonny Irish Boy, which her father had given her shortly before he died.
Her appearance on the show with Gay that night was like Donegal winning an All Ireland. Later, there was a big homecoming celebration, with bonfires lit.
"I remember us going to meet her arriving back, and then there was a hooley in the house with all the neighbours joining in," Daniel reveals. "That's how big the show was when I was growing up, so Gay was a giant of broadcasting.
"Right up to shortly before he died, Gay had been working on his Lyric radio show and on his TV show, The Meaning Of Life. So, there was no generation in Ireland that didn't know him. He still had a great presence.
"Gay had a very unique way of presenting, could interview people from all walks of life, and he brought out the best in them. There was a serious side to Gay, but entertainment was always at the core of everything he did. He was conscious of holding the attention of the listener or the viewer at all times, and that's what made him the best in the business.
"I remember Gay giving me advice later on, when I got my own show on RTE. He stressed to me the importance of listening to the guests, to what they are saying. And that was definitely one of Gay's strengths. Some presenters stick to their list of questions, but Gay was a great listener and he got the best out of his interviewees."
Daniel tells how Gay loved the fact that he wasn't treated as a celebrity around the area of Donegal where he had a holiday home.
His bolthole in the stunning Donegal countryside was where he retreated to recharge the batteries amid his demanding radio and TV broadcasting career.
"Gay loved Donegal," Daniel says. "He was very much accepted here in the local area around Dungloe. Nobody passed any remarks on him, he was left alone to kind of be like one of the locals."
However, Gaybo wasn't aloof and he was happy to engage with people and even take an active role in the community through the Mary From Dungloe contest, which he compered for many years.
"Gay was involved with the local Mary From Dungloe committee from the very start," Daniel says. "It was a big coup to have someone of Gay's stature involved in the 'Mary', and he stayed with it for many years, right into the '80s if not further."
Daniel recalls the day during his teenage years when he first saw Gay Byrne in the flesh. "I was working in Dermot Logue's shop in Dungloe, and we had to deliver an order to a man called James O'Donnell (no relation) in Tubberkeen," he says.
"I was with the driver, we didn't know which house he lived in, and when we stopped I got out and knocked on the door of one of them. It was Kathleen (Watkins) who answered the door, and then I saw Gay sitting in the kitchen reading the paper. And that was my first time to ever actually see him.
"As it turned out, James O'Donnell lived up at the top of their lane. I remember Kathleen said, 'He's just up at the top of that boreen there.' Boreen is not a term we would use in our area. We'd call it the 'wee lane'. I came away amazed that I had seen Gay and Kathleen in their home."
Recalling his own appearance on the Late Late for the first time, Daniel says: "That was huge for me. Gay was very aware of me being from around Dungloe, and how important it was for me to be given that chance. I was starting to make waves in the business at the time, but the Late Late was a great boost to my career.
"It was nerve-racking appearing on the show, even though Gay was definitely on my side. But, I must admit, even to this day I still have nerves going on the show."
Through the years Daniel built up a personal relationship with Gay and Kathleen out of the spotlight. "I got to know them well," says Daniel, who maintained his contact with Gay right up to the end.
"All through his illness we were in touch by text. Then, not long before he died, Gay stopped answering me. I knew then that his time was short.
"In the days when we used to meet, Gay was great company. He loved humour, particularly local humour, and he enjoyed the characters in our area."
What is his legacy? "Well, I think Gay helped to change Ireland for the better," Daniel adds. "He put the spotlight on many taboo subjects at a time when that would have been difficult to do.
"He took risks, and that took a lot of courage as Ireland was conservative then and there were many times when he was blasted for it. His likes will not be seen again."