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Secret tipple TV producer snuck Jameson whiskey into hospital to drink shots with Gay Byrne

"He wasn't really allowed to drink then, but he would say: 'John, get me a little Jemmie.' "

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John McColgan with Gay Byrne for One night with
Gay in the Gate Theatre

John McColgan with Gay Byrne for One night with Gay in the Gate Theatre

John McColgan with Gay Byrne for One night with Gay in the Gate Theatre

Showbiz producer John McColgan recalls how by a twist of fate he once ended up in the same hospital as his dear friend Gay Byrne - with both secretly sharing shots of whiskey at night.

"Gay was a modest drinker, but he liked a glass or two of Jameson whiskey," John tells the Sunday World.

"He used to call it, 'my little Jemmie.' When he was in hospital one of the times I rang Kathleen (Gay's wife) to enquire how he was.

"Kathleen said Gay wasn't too bad. 'Where are you at the moment?' I asked her. She said she was in the Mater Hospital with Gay. I asked what room he was in, and when she told me I laughed. 'That's funny, I'm two doors down,' I told her.

"I was in having a prostate procedure, so I used to call in to Gay. He wasn't really allowed to drink then, but he would say: 'John, get me a little Jemmie.'

"So we'd have a secret Jemmie in the evening in the hospital.

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Pat Kenny, Joe Duffy, Ryan Tubridy, Shay Healy, Brendan Balfe and Mike Murphy with Gay

Pat Kenny, Joe Duffy, Ryan Tubridy, Shay Healy, Brendan Balfe and Mike Murphy with Gay

Pat Kenny, Joe Duffy, Ryan Tubridy, Shay Healy, Brendan Balfe and Mike Murphy with Gay

"It wasn't just about having a drink, it was the ritual of sipping it and tasting it and the comfort of it… the craic of the ritual of the Jemmie."

Recalling his first meeting with Gay, who died just over a year ago at the age of 85 following a long battle with cancer, John said it was in the old Radio Eireann studios in Henry Street.

"I was a messenger boy in Henry Street when he came in to do a jazz programme. We got chatting a bit and he was very nice. He asked me what I wanted to do and I said, 'I want to be you.' We laughed, but he recommended me for a radio pop quiz called Chivers Top 10 Tips back then in 1961. I did that, and then I went on to do other things."

The "other things" included launching Riverdance in the 1990s with his wife Moya Doherty, which has earned the couple a multi-million euro fortune.

Prior to that, John's career included roles in RTE where at one point life came full circle when he directed The Late Late Show while Gay was still hosting it.

In latter years, John was also the producer of Gay's live stage show in which the RTE legend entertained theatre audiences nationwide with hilarious stories from his career in TV and radio. McColgan has now produced a one-hour edited recording of the show that will be broadcast on RTE Radio 1 tomorrow at 5pm.

It was John who persuaded Gay to do the stage shows, which he toured for four years, starting in 2012.

"I knew Gay would be good, but he was superb with his timing, the confidence and the stories… and the pauses waiting for the laughs. He was just like a seasoned stand-up comic," says John who had seen Gay in action at numerous house parties in the McColgan home with pals including Pat Kenny, Joe Duffy and the late Gerry Ryan and their respective partners.

"Gay genuinely loved listening to other people's stories and he never dominated the conversation, but when called on he would be brilliant at telling stories, and then he'd do a few turns such as a Cecil Sheridan (legendary Irish comic and actor) parody, or some silly songs or monologues... and they were always great."

McColgan and Gaybo became bosom buddies through the years and revelled in each other's company.

"When Gay retired we did various things," John reveals. "We went out on our motorbikes together. We would bring a flask of tea and KitKats; that was the kind of menu for the trip.

"We went out around north Co Dublin and into Meath for an hour-and-a-half to two hours at a leisurely pace. Gay was in the Road Safety Authority, so he was never one for breaking the speed limit or anything.

"And then we'd stop somewhere half-way, get off the bikes, sit in a ditch and have a KitKat and a cup of tea. That was before he got ill.

"Before that he was a great man for the bicycle and for walking. In Howth, I'd be driving in to work and I'd see him down on the seafront and you'd know it was Gay a mile away because he had a particular walk: his head was thrown back, his elbows were going and he was walking smartly.

"He was a big walker. He had a crowd from Donegal that had a walking club and he walked there, and then they came to visit him and walked down here.

"For a man who was always very keen to be fit, it was very cruel that cancer got him in the end."

Gay Byrne was never going to fade away when he retired from The Late Late Show. "No, it's a funny thing to say, but he loved being Gay Byrne," John says. "I think he would never have stopped had he not got very ill.

"I remember my heart skipped a beat as I was listening to his radio show on Lyric the day he said, 'I'm going to take a break for a few weeks now because my doctor tells me I've a touch of cancer.' That was the first I heard of it.

"Cancer is not always life-threatening, but his was bad. His last two years were really difficult. He was in a lot of pain, a lot of discomfort, but he bore it very well.

"I was terribly fond of Gay and I miss him dearly."

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