Thursday 23 January 2020

'We have lost a friend and voice of the nation'

Gay and his wife, Kathleen Watkins
Gay and his wife, Kathleen Watkins

Tributes poured in from Ireland and abroad as the news of Gay Byrne's death sank in among his legions of friends and fans.

An emotional Joe Duffy spoke fondly of his long-time friend and colleague during a special edition of Liveline.

He said the late broadcaster was "eternally curious and fearless".

"More so than any one individual, Gay Byrne represented modern Ireland and through his daily broadcasting on radio and television he propelled this country and its people forward," he said.

"In no other country can one individual claim to have had such a positive impact on an entire nation over such a long period.

"Ireland is a better country thanks to Gay's lengthy career behind the microphone at the centre of public discourse.

"He worked hard all his life. He searched for meaning, and gave meaning to so many. His death is heartbreaking but I, like so many, am very thankful for his life.


Speaking later on the Six One news on RTE One, Duffy said Gay never "took a tablet" until the illness hit him.

"Even when he had a bit of a hangover - he liked his Jemmy - he'd never take a tablet until the illness hit him," he said.

He recalled a funny story Gay had told him recently of his time in hospital.

Gay Byrne leaves a legacy in the RTE archives and was fondly remembered by Marty Whelan
Gay Byrne leaves a legacy in the RTE archives and was fondly remembered by Marty Whelan

"He said, 'I was lying in the Mater the other day and a fella beside me called Mick woke up and I said 'Mick, are you getting a new suit? And he said, 'No, what are you on about?' And I said, 'There were two fellas in here and they were measuring you for something'," Duffy said.

"He loved showbiz, he loved gossip, he loved stories, he's a great performer."

Late Late Show host Ryan Tubridy said: "He was great fun until the end. There was devilment in him, there was life in the old dog right until the very end.

"He educated us, he was a mentor, he was a friend, he was an icon, he was critical to the fabric of this country's story for the last 15 years.

"He had a lot of great interviews, actually, towards the end of his run on the Late Late, that was the key to it for me - curiosity. He was never bored, even when he was very unwell he was going to the theatre.

"Gay was like a godfather figure for us and we're down a man, and I think the country's down a good person.

Miriam O’Callaghan said Gay was ‘the world’s greatest
Miriam O’Callaghan said Gay was ‘the world’s greatest

"Last time I met him, he was not well, but he was feisty and I was told that I had about 45 minutes with him. When we were about 45 minutes in, I started to get up and he said, 'We can go another hour'.

"I watched him as a child, worked alongside him as a young man and he guided me as I grew older and I will for ever be indebted to him.

"We in RTE have lost a friend, a family have lost a father and a husband, and the country has lost an icon. May he rest in peace."

Marty Whelan, who worked with Gay most recently on Lyric FM, said he will "miss our chats", while Miriam O'Callaghan said we are "all united in feeling so sad".

"I loved Gay. He was the world's greatest broadcaster ever. Every other broadcaster is for ever in his shadow," she said.

"He was a great listener, hugely empathetic and with incredible courage. He changed our country for ever in so many positive ways.

"I was also blessed to benefit from his great kindness and advice and care down the years. Codladh samh Gay."

Former RTE news reader Anne Doyle said "the whole nation seems to be in mourning".

"He was very kind to me when I started in television," she said.

"He went to the trouble of paying attention to a rank outsider with no background in broadcasting or journalism.

"Over the years, our paths crossed many times. He was the daddy of them all."


Doyle said she had heard Gay's health was failing in recent days, but that it is still "quite hard to take in".

"The man was a genius in his own way. He was a wonderful producer, so that part of his skill-set shouldn't be forgotten, but to me, more than anything else, he was a most wonderful broadcaster.

"He kept the rest of us on our toes."

Doyle said Gay had a particular habit of picking up on presenters using a "soft T" in their pronunciation and he was "quite picky about it".

"To the end of his career, we learnt from him. We all understand the scope of his work, the nature of his achievements, but to the end we were learning and I can't think of a greater tribute I can pay to anyone," she said.

Moya Doherty, the chair of RTE, said Gay had worked during a golden age for television and radio when Ireland was grappling with change.

"Gay brought two unique gifts," she said.

"He was able to see around societal corners and predict what the next social, political or cultural issue was, the new issue which needed to be brought to the public stage, whatever the ensuing controversy.

"Most importantly, Gay was a listener. He did not so much interview as allow his guests to almost interview themselves while he listened, carefully interjecting only to push them on key points."

RTE's Ray D'Arcy, who dedicated his radio show yesterday to the late legend, said Gay was an "Olympic gold" when it came to broadcasting and a consummate professional.

"It has to be said, he single- handedly changed the face of television in Ireland," said D'Arcy (inset with Gay in 2013).

"He was a genius in getting people to say things that they probably shouldn't have said, that was his great gift."

D'Arcy said labelling The Late Late Show as light entertainment show was a genius move as it meant Gay could easily delve into areas such as sex, religion and politics.

"He was the total package and we definitely won't see the likes of Gay Byrne again," he added.

Patrick Kielty, who had been tipped to take over from Gay in 1999, said: "Gay could have made it anywhere in the world. The rest of us were lucky he came home and made modern Ireland instead.

"I'll never forget his kindness when I was making my way. It meant so much as he was a god to me and so many others. Thinking of Kathleen and family."

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