Mad About The Boy

One of Ireland’s greatest broadcasters, in many ways Gerry Ryan was still a boy at heart, with an extraordinary love for the great adventure of life.

Three days on, it is finally beginning to sink in. One of Ireland’s best known and most widely loved characters has been stolen from us. The show is over. Gerry Ryan, the enfant terrible of Irish broadcasting, is dead. It is a terrible, shocking and final thing to have to say. But, sadly, there is no escaping it. No escaping it at all.

The circumstances have yet to be fully disclosed, awaiting a post-mortem, which will have been completed by the time Hot Press hits the streets. Whatever the result, dignity and respect should inform all of the media coverage in the days ahead. I sincerely hope it will.

Where the loss of a public figure is concerned there are all sorts of invasions of privacy that have the potential to make things harder for the immediate family and close friends of the deceased. Their interests are paramount in all of this or should be. Even at a distance, we feel sad, and in many ways at a loss. They, however, are experiencing incalculable grief. His wife Morah, and their five children Lottie, Rex, Bonnie, Elliot and Babette should be afforded the space to go through it on their own terms. Likewise Gerry’s girlfriend Melanie Verwoerd, who had the dreadful task of entering Gerry’s apartment, doubtless more than half aware of what might await her inside: a free spirit laid finally low by cruel fate.

The likelihood is that it was a heart attack that hit Gerry like a hammer blow in the early hours of Friday morning, April 30th, 2010. While his death was completely unexpected and deeply distressing, the same thought probably flashed through the minds of everyone who knew him when they heard. His heart. It was well known that he had struggled over the years with his weight. He had spoken publicly about taking the so called ‘diet’ tablet, Reductil. In addition, Gerry had high cholesterol. But he was never going to get a reputation as a good patient, who took all of the appropriate precautions or gave priority to doing the healthy thing.

On the contrary: one of his most endearing qualities, for anyone who knew him, was the extent to which he loved life and wanted always to live it to the max. And especially he loved what many people consider, along with sex, life’s great pleasures: food, drink, conversation, humour, and what Christy Moore calls ‘the crack’.

Life was one big adventure for Gerry. He was proud of the fact that, in many ways, he had never grown up. There was a perpetual boyishness about him, a desire to enjoy himself without the often misplaced restraints of convention, and to return as often as he could to those youthful days when it was possible to be gloriously irresponsible. He did it all the time.

Gerry was a huge, larger than life character. He was warm, generous and gregarious. He was great company and very funny, witty and charming. If there was a party or a gathering, he was the one you wanted to sit beside: ensconced there, you’d be guaranteed an evening of ribald entertainment as he regaled you with spicy selections from an enormous menu of brilliant, and hugely entertaining, yarns.

He brought all of those fine qualities to his broadcasting. Having started out as a pirate DJ, he was among the first wave of new talent signed up for the launch phase of 2fm (or Radio 2 as it was known at the time). At first he worked the weekends, but it wasn’t long before he was promoted to weekdays, taking over the evening slot, from 10pm to midnight, aimed primarily at teenagers doing their homework. It was a gig that suited him.

Between 8pm, when Dave Fanning went on air, and 2pm when Mark Cagney finished, a different kind of ethos took over at the station, informed by a devil-may-care sense of what modern Ireland was all about. At the heart of that six-hour stretch was Gerry Ryan, less musically driven than those either side of him, but with a powerful ability to communicate with his audience. He wanted people to listen and he set about seducing them with a voice that was, above all, personal, distinctive and irreverent. It marked him out as one who could do talk radio and do it well – which of course he went on to do.

In 1992, he was promoted again, this time to the key morning slot, just after the 9 o’clock news, where the 2fm brief was to create a younger, hipper, edgier version of the talk radio Gay Byrne was successfully dishing up on Radio One. Gerry hit the ground running. Once he’d found his feet, he never looked back, going on to become by far the most successful broadcaster in the history of 2fm and establishing himself as one of the biggest names in Irish media as a result.

It was his warmth and his charm that made him such a crucial figure for RTÉ and that attracted such a big, loyal and committed audience to his radio show, every day, week in week out, over so many years. Women especially loved him. He could be loud, opinionated and transgressive – the bad boy of Irish radio – but he also had the ability to turn things into a conversation with the people who were listening at home, in the car or at work that felt personal. He had that vital quality: empathy with his listeners. He understood the importance of intimacy.

His work on television never quite matched the quality of what he did on radio. He could ham it up on radio and make it work; on television, where you can see the presenter, it’s harder to carry off successfully. But he had become increasingly at home in front of the cameras recently, suggesting that his best may have been yet to come. Indications are that he had been selected to do a Saturday night talk show on RTÉ, later this year, which might have been the big one for him. Sadly, we will never know now just how good he might have become.

What we can say without fear of contradiction is that Gerry made an enormous contribution to Irish broadcasting. It’s easy to forget how hidebound and conventional Irish radio was when Gerry and Dave Fanning and the rest of the 2fm crew hit the airwaves at the end of the 1970s. Gerry in particular was fantastically iconoclastic and irreverent, constantly intent on pushing the boundaries, taking risks and frequently getting into brushes with authority. But he forged ahead regardless, in the process demolishing so many of the inhibitions that had limited people, in terms of what they could say, or the kind of items they could do, on Irish radio. And he carried it off brilliantly because of the innate mischievousness with which he went about things.

And so it really is no exaggeration to say that Gerry was one of a kind. A natural performer and a superb entertainer, he was right up there among the most important and influential people on Irish radio.

What’s more, in changing the game so thoroughly in broadcasting, he contributed hugely to the wider process of change in Irish society generally. In that regard, we owe him a massive debt of gratitude.

In the wake of his tragic death, 2fm’s new boss John McMahon is faced with an unenviable dilemma. The rock on which 2fm’s schedule was founded is gone and there is no way that you can ever think of replacing someone of Gerry’s unique standing, like for like. But the show must go on, and RTÉ have to find a really good, credible alternative. To say that he’s a hard act to follow is a massive understatement.

The truth is that Gerry Ryan will be grievously missed by anyone and everyone who came within the radius of his extraordinary talent.

Meanwhile, in what is a harrowing time of grief and sadness for them, our hearts go out to his family, to his closest friends, to all the people who loved Gerry. And of course to everyone at 2fm – we have known grief of this kind ourselves, here in Hot Press, losing big talents and wonderful personalities of our own along the way, and so we can vouch how utterly devastating it is when something like this happens so suddenly and without warning.

The thought that Gerry Ryan will never grace the airwaves again, the thought that he has been taken away from us so prematurely, is impossible right now for hundreds of thousands of fans and listeners to come to terms with. And it is even harder for those who were close to him and who worked with him. But of course we will have to, all of us. That’s how it is when life’s cruellest caprices come knocking.

The man may no longer be with us, but his legacy will live on. And on. Sweet dreams, Gerry Ryan.


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