herald

Wednesday 17 January 2018

After a lifetime of success - the idea of failure must be terrifying

In Gay Byrne's autobiography The Time of My Life, he remembers just how ambitious his mother was for her children. "She would not actually have been satisfied until we ended up somewhere like Aras an Uachtarain," he wrote. Now the veteran broadcaster has the opportunity to grant Mrs Byrne her wish -- which is why this weekend he is facing into the most important decision of his life.

On Wednesday night, Byrne claimed he was, "absolutely unpolitical... and that is why people love me." In fact, this is not strictly true. A closer look at his life reveals that he has often expressed trenchant and highly conservative opinions, all of which he will have to explain if he eventually decides to become a candidate for the highest office in the land.

Gabriel Mary Byrne was born into a working-class Dublin family on August 5, 1934. He grew up first in Rialto and then a small terraced house off the South Circular Road.

His father was a World War One veteran who had fought in the Battle of the Somme and then came home to work in Guinness's St James's Gate Brewery. Edward Byrne transported wooden casks of the black stuff on barges along the River Liffey from the brewery to ships at the North Wall.

Gay was much closer to his mother Annie, who had made a vow that if her husband survived the war, she would go to Mass and Communion every day for the rest of her life. She did.

Gay went to the Christian Brothers in Synge Street and recalls that, "They beat the tar out of us." Although he was terrified every day of getting a hammering, he also credits them with giving him a first-class education.

Gay's ambition to go to Trinity College was dashed when his father died, but the university gave him an honorary degree in 1988. "It was one of the few occasions in my life when I was truly happy," he said.

He was inspired to become a broadcaster by the Irish television presenter Eamonn Andrews, who he worshipped so much that for a while he even tried to imitate his hero's walk. His career began as a newsreader on Radio Eireann in 1958.

From the outset Gay prided himself on his workrate, sometimes staying up all night just to get a script perfect. In 1962 RTE asked him to present a late-night Friday chat show -- it ended up running for 37 years.

Gay has never bothered to disguise his love of money. Over the years he has railed against the tax system, which he regards as unfair to higher earners such as himself. During the recession of the 1980s, he constantly told his listeners that the country was "banjaxed" and urged young people to emigrate if they had any ambition.



TRUST

It was therefore the biggest mistake of Gay's life when he asked his accountant friend Russell Murphy to manage his finances. After Murphy's death in 1984, it was discovered that he had embezzled the broadcaster's life savings and left him with crippling debts.

According to Byrne's friends, he never got over the shock and has found it harder to trust people since.

Even today, he is not nearly as rich as people might imagine since he claims that his pension has been almost wiped out by the collapse in bank shares. "I invested in absolutely watertight stuff, all the stuff that you were told couldn't go wrong," he says. "And that is all gone!"

Luckily, his marriage to the accomplished harpist (and devout Fianna Fail supporter) Kathleen Watkins has given him the emotional security he needs. Immediately after every Late Late, he would ring her to ask which interviews had worked and which hadn't. When it comes to making his final decision on whether or not to run for the Aras, her input will be crucial.

In Gay's autobiography, he describes himself as "a very right-wing conservative or reactionary". He was a huge admirer of Margaret Thatcher, supported the war in Iraq and despises the European Union. He is a hardliner on law and order issues, although he thinks the time may have come to legalise drugs.

Gay Byrne is a famously private individual, once admitting, "I am reserved and I do not take emotional risks." A run for the presidency would be the biggest emotional risk of all -- and after a lifetime of success, the thought of failure must be terrifying.

One thing is certain. The Government parties are not going to let Gay have the presidency on a plate. If he wants this job, he will have to fight for it -- and the upcoming campaign is set to be the toughest gig of his career.

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