JOE DUFFY 'Gay would text me during Liveline, giving out that I was speaking too fast, too slow or sounding hysterical'
Joe Duffy talks to Eugene Masterson about his former colleague, dear friend and mentor
Joe Duffy will never forget the moment it fell to him to inform the nation that his dear friend Gay Byrne had died.
Choking up on air when the news came through as he was presenting Liveline, Joe summed up the mood of hundreds of thousands of people around the country saddened at the passing of the much-loved figure.
For Joe it was deeply personal. Gay had been a mentor to him, a broadcaster he revered and who had given him his first major break as a roving reporter and producer on the Gay Byrne radio show.
Down through the years the pair of them also moved from the southside to the northside of Dublin, with Gay living in Howth and Joe in Clontarf.
Their families bonded, and when Gay retired he would still meet up with Joe for regular chats and get-togethers.
"Can you name any other broadcaster in any country that had such an impact on the daily life of a nation for nearly 60 years as Gay Byrne?" asks Joe. "The answer is no.
"His loss, after a long, difficult illness is immense for so many and the facts about the boy from Rialto are astonishing."
Joe (64), who has been presenting the afternoon Liveline show on RTE Radio One for nearly a quarter of a century, then reels off his own personal knowledge of his late buddy.
He says: "Gay presented the Late Late Show for 37 years, beginning in 1962 when he was 26. He was also the producer in charge for all but four of those years. His daily radio programme ran for 26 years.
"The Toy Show, which still enthralls the nation, was first anchored by Gay in his Christmas jumper in 1971. Each programme Gay presented and produced attracted an audience that simply has never been matched in percentage terms here or in any other country.
"He loved actors, musicians, comedians and the showbusiness community. As he demonstrated in his one-man show, which toured Ireland before his illness took its toll, he could act, sing, play the piano and tell a cracking good yarn."
But Joe points out that Gay was more than just a showman.
"It is often forgotten that Gay's sharp edge and current affairs bent began in television and only arrived fully formed on radio a decade later in 1972 with the Gay Byrne morning radio show," he says.
"Gay Byrne was only 26 when the Late Late began way back in 1962, shortly after Ireland got its first television station. The dull, stultifying era of DeValera had effectively ended.
"Irish society was ready to be challenged and changed. More so than any one person since then, Gay Byrne did exactly that.
"For nearly four decades his broadcasts became our 'citizen's assembly', a daily staple with five two-hour radio shows, culminating in the Late Late Show on Friday night.
"Those TV and radio shows became a staple diet for over a million people. His programmes were entertaining, engaging, enchanting and ultimately made all our lives richer - and in many cases simply more bearable.
"For Irish women especially, his programmes became a lifeline as the issues that affected them were confronted head on.
"Many women enduring domestic abuse, without access to contraception, divorce or marriage equality, discovered through Gay's programmes that they were not alone. Many found in his programmes a warm platform to raise these issues."
Revealing his own personal relationship with Gay, Joe recalls that he first met the radio and TV king when he was a boy.
He says: "It was in 1966 when I was 10 years old and he was 32. Gay was getting into his car in Dublin's Moore street, near the then RTE radio studios in the GPO.
"I asked for his autograph, which he bemusedly scribbled. When I told him this story years later, after we became close friends and colleagues, he corrected me on the make of car he was getting into."
Down through the years they cemented their professional and personal relationship.
Joe says: "Like so many, he supported, mentored and criticised me - all for the better. In latter years he would text me during Liveline, admonishing me for either speaking too fast, too slow or at times sounding hysterical.
"I was not too 'excira and delira' to receive these missives - mainly because they were always right.
"And as our friendship grew over the years, I realised that while it had begun with him treating me like a son, he was now treating me as an equal.
"There was simply no more generous broadcaster than Gay. From the Toy Show to the daily radio programme, he often sat back and allowed others take the limelight. He held no fear. He was comfortable and confident in his own skin from a very young age.
"Gay's work ethic was astonishing - it was the total opposite of his friend Terry Wogan's self-professed devil-may-care attitude. He was producer of the Late Late and had a major input into the content of the Gay Byrne Radio show, but he had no agendas except to make good, interesting, entertaining and highly-rated programmes."
Joe reveals that Gay also demanded high standards from his team.
He says: "When I was a producer on the radio show, we all sat in dread each morning waiting for his verdict on the item we had contributed to the programme. He could be very, very tough.
"But into his 80s his work ethic still dominated. As well as his weekly programme on Lyric FM and a newspaper column, he and Kathleen toured the country with his 'Live on Stage' show. He presented The Meaning Of Life for 12 seasons up to 2017.
He never let his own disinterest in the GAA or other sports, his injudicious obsession with obscure jazz artists or his disdain for the 'language movement' dominate or distort his output.
Joe also points out that Gay was a political animal.
He says: "Though his hatred of the Provisional IRA was unbounded and well known, he seldom talked about the fact that his father and seven uncles all fought in World War I.
"It was only while finally making a TV programme 'My Father's War' that I saw him actually break down and tears flow down his cheeks."
So what impact did Gay have on broadcasting in this country? "The question as to whether Ireland would have changed anyway without Gay Byrne's programmes cannot be answered adequately at this stage," Joe says.
"In truth, like most good broadcasters, he did not have an agenda, political or otherwise, except to make good programmes and to trust his instincts, and stick with them under fire.
"As to the impact he has had, which he would dismiss with an impatient flick of the wrist, it's hard to quantify. He did save lives in his work, and I am not just talking about his eight-year tenure as the energetic chairman of the Road Safety Authority.
"Gay's impact on Irish society has been seismic and positive. Above all, Gay had a great interest in life and people."
Giving us a peek inside the private world of Gaybo, Joe adds: "He was an airplane geek. He would have been a pilot if he had not become a broadcaster. He was an expert on air crashes and their causes. He loved theatre, books, movies, and walking. He loved tidy desks, tidy cars and tidy people who were also punctual.
He didn't have a big interest in sports until his beloved grandchildren arrived.
"His 60 years in the public eye has left an indelible mark. He enhanced the lives of countless thousands of Irish people every day through his radio show, and then The Late Late Show.
"He was the boldest, the bravest and the brightest. We are all the better for his life and deeply, deeply saddened by his passing.
"If Ireland of the last six decades in all its generosity, progress, creativity, joy, heartbreak, inclusivity, laughter and sadness was a voice - and had a voice - it would be the warm dulcet tones of Gay Byrne."
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