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Death of broadcasting giant, Gay Byrne

Gay Byrne

Gay Byrne  -  © RTE

4 November 2019

Louis Armstrong once said of jazz. "If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know.”

Gay Byrne loved jazz and he held a special place in his heart for Satchmo. They shared a sunny disposition, a wonderful ability to look on the bright side of life, even in dark days, and an ability to bring joy to large audiences.

When I think of public service broadcasting I think of Gaybo. It’s hard to describe exactly what it is but when we think of the very best of public service broadcasting we think of programmes which challenge, which provoke, which entertain and which frequently make a difference. In his long career Gay Byrne did all that, and so much more.

His death, after a long illness, really does mark the end of an era and comes at a difficult time for RTÉ, which he served so faithfully but never uncritically. He began his television career in England and worked with Granada. He also worked in radio in England.

He was the first person to introduce The Beatles on screen, while working for Granada Television in Britain in the early 1960s. During a career spanning 5 decades Byrne worked in the UK and, briefly, in America but it was in Ireland that he made an enormous contribution.

Gay was in many ways the father of public service broadcasting in Ireland. A broadcaster of courage, vison and boundless energy he helped shape modern Ireland and used his talents to help create a more caring, compassionate and inclusive society.

He was often infuriating, annoying and provocative but Gay was never dull. In his career he brought light, laughter and humanity to television and radio debates. It would be impossible to agree with everything he said or did - he was innately conservative and he rode a few hobby horses but you could ever doubt the sincerity of his convictions.

Gay believed in the precepts of public service broadcasting and his passion for RTÉ was reflected in every aspect of his career: from his early radio career, to the Late Late Show, his pioneering morning radio programme to his wonderful Sunday music and musings on Lyric FM. He especially enjoyed Lyric FM and the opportunity to share his love and knowledge of his beloved jazz.

In his biography, The Time of My Life he wrote tongue in cheek about RTÉ head honchos in the administration block (which he referred to as The Hilton) who seemed to feel everything would be all right if only they did not have to deal with programme makers and the like! He was also a strong advocate of public funding for public servicing broadcasting while also admiring commercial television and radio. He turned down many opportunity at home and abroad to leave RTÉ for the commercial sector.

We in the NUJ were proud of his membership of the union – he remained a fully paid up member throughout his life. He encountered opposition when he first set about joining the union and there were those who viewed him as an entertainer rather than a serious journalist. Gaybo was a man for all seasons and made a fine contribution to print journalism as a newspaper columnist.

The best way to salute Gay’s legacy is to protect and promote public service broadcasting. He was, above all else, a public service broadcaster to the core.

We extend condolences to Kathleen, daughters Suzy, Crona, grandson Cian and to his many friends and colleagues.

Séamus Dooley