- 04 Nov 19
As tributes pour in, honouring legendary Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne, who has died aged 85, we're revisiting his 1986 Hot Press cover story. It was, by any standards, an extraordinary and powerfully revealing interview...
It's hardly an exaggeration to suggest that Gay Byrne is the best known personality in Ireland. For almost twenty-five years now, he's fronted the most popular programme on Irish television — juxtaposing showbiz frolics with serious discussion in a controversial mix that has charmed, stimulated, entertained, angered and infuriated the Great Irish Viewing Public in turn, with phenomenal consistency. As host of the show, Gay Byrne has been responsible for chairing a wide range of what must in retrospect rank as ground-breaking discussions in the Irish context, mercilessly exposing our national neuroses to the sometimes awe-struck scrutiny of a million viewers scattered in homes and pubs across the land.
Traditionally the Late Late Show occupied the flagship Saturday night slot on RTE. However the new season saw a potentially threatening shift to Friday night, with an additional Late Late Extra thrown in for good measure on Sunday evening before Glenroe. It was the kind of major change which might have shattered the spell, breaking the habits of twenty odd years and leaving Gay Byrne and the Late Late Show floundering in the ratings.
The rescheduling wasn't the result of a dictat handed down from the bureaucrats in RTE, feverishly attempting to dream up new ways of boosting audience figures and generating badly-needed extra advertising revenue as a result. It was Gay Byrne's idea and he's proud of it.
"People thought this was just Gaybo wanting to sleep in on Saturday morning. Well it was that," he jokes, "but that was only part of it. There were sound business reasons involved as well. I had been pushing for the change to Friday nights for years. I had always believed that once you made the change, people would adjust to it — and I was right. Three months later, people think we could never have been on at any other time".
Since the Late Late moved to Friday night, the show's ratings have not only been maintained, he says, they've improved. In addition, the Late Late Extra has produced occasional fireworks, with the result that it has never been out of the TAM Top Ten.
It's against that kind of backdrop that the show last week recorded its highest ever number of entries for a competition, with well over a million people voting for the Late Late with their Bic biros. In a period in which Fine Gael took a hammering in the opinion polls and the level of disillusionment with Irish politicians and the present government reached an all-time high, it's a categorical statement that the Irish people would have Gay Byrne first, any day.
That pre-eminence in Irish broadcasting has been hard won. Not only does he present the Late Late but he's also the show's producer, a unique distinction which gives him a control over the content and running of the show which is almost absolute. Depending on an array of researchers, whom he trusts to keep him in touch with what's happening for programme ideas, he nevertheless reserves the right to switch at short notice, to delay or jettison an idea at the last minute if he's unhappy about it.
"I'm very much a hunch man," he says, "I fly by the seat of my pants. Sometimes I'll decide out of the blue 'I want to laugh this Friday, I want to have a good time, I want fun and I want jollity on the show'. Then again the following week I might say, 'Hey, let's get down to some serious business'. But it's really on a hunch basis."
The bottom line is that he has no one else to blame if things do go awry. It's a burden of responsibility which may have given root to more than a few of the silver grey hairs that adorn his head — but it's clearly one on which he thrives. He wouldn't have it any other way.
As if that wasn't enough, for the bulk of the year he also presents the Gay Byrne Show on Radio I for one hour and forty-five minutes, five mornings a week. A 9.15 start involves a routine which begins in Gay Byrne's Howth home at approximately six each morning. When it's acknowledged that the week doesn't end till the last of the Late Late Show guests have been ushered out of the television centre after 2 o'clock on Friday night/ Saturday morning, the monstrously demanding nature of the regime can be more fully appreciated.
Again, the radio show has been enormously successful, with Gay Byrne acting as part counsellor, part confessor, part therapist, part social worker, part legal, medical and spiritual adviser to an audience which comprises, at one time or another, the vast majority of the housewives of Ireland. The faltering heartbeat of a sad nation, unsure of where it's been or where it's going, can be heard here daily, as alcoholism and incest and wife-beating vie for air-space alongside more glamorous foibles like cake-sales, rabbit-breeding and adultery. It is a mark of Gay Byrne's achievement that people feel they can turn to him, in such vast numbers, to relate their inner-most secrets. It can make for utterly compulsive if sometimes massively depressing listening.
Whether the programme can do something practical for listeners with problems or not — and occasionally it can — it does provide a remarkably valuable social service in letting sometimes grief-stricken people know that there are others out there like them. Their private trauma becomes public currency, and in that exchange something valuable is released.
Like most people in the public limelight, Gay Byrne is almost as reviled as he is respected. He's been attacked, he says, from the right and the left. He's been accused of being an arch-conservative and an anti-Christ — both for the way in which he's allowed our sexual mores to be discussed and debated on the Late Late Show. A capitalist pig, a communist agitator and the only man who really understands the Irish people — can Gay Byrne be all things to all people and a little more besides?
I could never share the view of politics held by the buoyant little man who sits down opposite me, and apologises so emphatically for having kept Hot Press waiting for so long — months, years? — for an interview. I could only disagree vehemently with what seems like an essentially Thatcherite view of economics. But face to face, I find Gay Byrne a much warmer, more down to earth, more likeable individual than I would ever have imagined possible. The man who confesses to smoking three cigarettes a day but buying none, who acknowledges nurturing a 'sly' regard for Charlie Haughey, who thinks Kevin McNamara was an unfortunate choice as Archbishop of Dublin, and who says 'yes' when asked if he likes getting drunk (what he really means, I gather from what follows, is that he likes having a few drinks) is eloquent, humorous, controversial, friendly and forthcoming.
And in that quiet little room in RTE, towards the end of almost two and a half hours of conversation, when the dim light plays tricks with perception, that familiar face and those familiar features, are suddenly transformed. Behind the carefully groomed television personality I suddenly see the Synge Street boy, the man in the street, the common or garden Dub. Or a bloke you might see sitting beside the bar in any pub in town. In that moment, Gaybo is both younger and older, as if the person were suddenly distilled to their essence. And I think I understand.
Gay Byrne — extra-ordinary.
Niall Stokes: You were educated first at Donore Avenue and then at Synge St.
Gay Byrne: I sure was.
What's your recollection of the Christian Brothers — as a pupil how did you find them?
I have a great admiration for the Christian Brothers, because without them none of us would have got an education of any kind. My father was a labourer in Guinness' Brewery and he earned seven pounds ten a week — that's always a figure that sticks in my mind. I presume he must have got a raise some time, but that was always the figure that stuck in my mind. And the Christian Brothers charged four pounds ten a year — a year — and if you couldn't pay the four pounds ten, it didn't really matter. At the same time, they were teaching in horrible surroundings, vastly overcrowded classrooms and they had to apply the boot. And so it was a tough station.
How tough was it?
It's fairly safe to say that most days I went to Synge Street in fear and trembling until about half way through 5th year or even 6th year, when there was a brother called Brother O'Leary, Bill O'Leary, who died only last year, and he never laid a hand on any of us. He treated us like adults, and he got more out of us that way than any of his predecessors did. But, there were a couple of years which I still remember with horror and foreboding, because of being beaten every day — just on principle' really.
Were the classes segregated like A,B,C?
I probably would have been B, most of the way through. I certainly wasn't A. I did a fair amount of honours in the Leaving Cert.
I went to Synge Street as well and I found the Brothers unnecessarily vicious.
I can understand why people owe them a debt in the sense that they did take the battle on, giving people an education — but I found some of the brutalities horrific.
Well, there were two years particularly, in third and fourth year, we had the same brother and, I mean it really was terrible, looking back on it. And yet you have to realise that a lot of the brothers in those days, were very unhappy people and didn't even know why they were unhappy, because they'd been drafted in at fourteen years of age, and had all sorts of hang-ups and so on, and still found themselves locked into a situation. And yet, at the same time they were dealing with a bunch of gurriers, which we were, or we would have been if we'd been let.
I think one of the unfortunate things was that there were Brothers who were genuinely screwed up. There was an edge of psychosis ...
Oh yeah. There was no doubt that some of them were bonkers, some of the guys we had were bonkers, out-and-out bonkers. It's an awful pity that the order didn't have some way of winkling them out. Certainly nowadays they wouldn't get away with what they got away with then. Nevertheless, when you saw the conditions — we were in tenement buildings in Synge Street. And on a wet day, coming in on wet bicycles, all the bicycles ploughed up in the hall, and the wet clothes dumped on the stairs, and you're in these two little rooms, crunched up on top of each other. The conditions were appalling. Dreadful.
Were your teenage years characterised by a repressive kind of atmosphere?
Yes, I would have to say so, in so far as Synge Street was fairly repressive. The easiest way to put it is that if you came through Synge Street in those years, the rest of life was a diddle you know — if you got through in one piece, that was the worst that ever happened to you! My father and mother had the attitude that if you came home and complained about what the Christian Brothers or the teachers had done to you, you'd get belted twice as hard. Their attitude was — if you were hit at school today, you must have done something, so bang, take that while you're waiting and I'll find out what you did and when I find out, you know ... So, I think people who ran big families had that kind of attitude, because they handed you over to the Christian Brothers for that number of hours every day — they were in charge, and they knew best and so don't come home here with your complaints. If it didn't screw you up, it certainly served in toughening you up. But I still find it a wondrous thing to behold, that my two kids adore school. They love going to school and they love going back after a holiday and they get their bags ready and their books. I can't understand that, because I looked on school mostly with such horror.
Would you prefer to have had your teenage years during the sixties or seventies?
No, because you have to add up all the other things as well. I got into radio at a superb time. In many ways now it's easier to get into radio — when I got in, it was very, very hard to get in, but once in, you were in, and I did an awful lot of things that I wouldn't have been otherwise allowed to do. Mind you, I really worked very very hard at it. Secondly I took television on the hop at precisely the right time. I left Wilson Young and heard of a job in Granada, and took the Granada job and got all that fine experience for three years in Manchester. And then it so happened that television was starting here, so in the blindman's land the one-eyed man is king — it wasn't that I knew so much about it, but that I was one of the few who knew anything about it. And so I floated in the air when television started here, news reading first of all, and then Jackpot and then The Late Late Show and then everything else beyond that. So you couldn't say, I wish I was born in another time or another place or whatever.
Sure. But there would be benefits for some people anyway if they had lived through a little more of an open time.
Yes, I can see that. We were oppressed, there's no doubt about it, by religion and by social structures and by family structures and all the constraints upon you at that time. It was a repressed childhood and teenage years compared with today and compared certainly with the 60's.
So what ages are your girls?
My own girls are now sixteen and twelve, going on thirteen.
Do they ever shock you?
They appear to know everything there is to know about everything — particularly with regard to sex and sexual behaviour. It must be three years ago — it was Christmas Eve and we were going to do a bit of shopping or something — and walking down Grafton Street, Kathleen went to catch the older one's hand and she sort of dismissed it and said, 'please, Mum, don't hold our hands, everybody will think we're a pair of lessers.' And I remember thinking 'Well, by golly, that's fairly advanced, right enough.' And the child, you know, just did it matter of factly, that was it, and brought the house down with laughter and so on. But I mean I wouldn't have known anything of that kind at that age. They simply have taken on board what their mother has told them, and what they see on television, and what they hear around them and they are coping with all of that, it seems to me, at a much, much younger age than our generation.
Do you think that your position, your success, would affect other kids' attitudes to them?
I think so. I think they get a fairly hard time at school, from time to time. We don't hear it all, needless to say. But I think that in the normal way that kids are cruel to other kids and very outspoken and critical and so on, I think there's many a remark passed on them and I think they get many a ribbing about it. And, on the other hand, I think they're proud that Dad is in the public eye, and is on television and so on. But they would never admit that. They would always do it the other way around as we would have done with our parents. I get a desperate slagging at home for the Late Late Show and people we have on the Late Show and the people and the things we do on the Late Show and the things that are said — a ferocious slagging. There is strong advice to give it up, Dad, while the going is good, before you're found out and why don't you chuck the whole thing in and of all the crummy shows we've ever seen and last night took the biscuit, really, you're too old for it now! But behind it all I think they're reasonably proud.
Have they affected your perception of yourself?
Well, only insofar as I should imagine that happens to most fathers. I am horrified, utterly horrified on occasions, to find myself saying the things that my own father used to say and in the same sort of shouting way that he would reprimand us and so on. And saying almost the same phrases — I mean I thought he was a stupid old eejit to say the things that he'd say and now you suddenly realise that you're saying them yourself. You know, the way you bellow, what the hell do you think this is The Gresham Hotel! And get upstairs and tidy your room. I'm not your servant and where do you think — do you think money grows on trees? All the usual things. I mean you know you're sounding exactly like your own father. And presumably he sounded like his father and so the same phrase will get carried on.
Do your children not challenge your preconceptions?
Well, they challenge your preconceptions about behaviour, and they challenge your preconceptions about pocket money, of course – and they challenge your preconceptions about what can be done and what can't be done. And I would think that I'm fairly liberal. I think their mother would be a little more staid: she is a bit more strict with them, but I would be a little more roll-with-the-punches sort of thing. Except where they really are out of line. I have a fairly short fuse and I will start shouting and so on, but by and large, I would reason with them and if they wanted to do something that I was cagey about first, I would say, okay, sit down and talk to me about it: now what is this all about, blah, blah, blah, what do you think of that, what do you think? And I'd say, okay, whatever you want to do, you make up your own mind. And that's more than I ever got from my parents, a lot more.
Do you remember the first time you made love?
(pause) I do yes. It was a bit of a disappointment if I remember. It was probably because I did it all wrong!
When did you start to do it right?
I think I was caught up, like a lot of other men, in the idea that the important thing was that the woman got as much pleasure and that she had an orgasm every time — when really all a lot of women want a lot of the time is love and tenderness and affection — all those things that men are taught not to want from an early age.
What's your view of the widespread attitude nowadays that people should live together for some time before they get married?
Well, I'm a practising member of the Roman Catholic Church and so is my wife and so are our children, in spite of the worst of what the hierarchy can do to us to prevent it — if you're asking me for options, I would prefer if they didn't go out to live with somebody', before marriage but I would say that, compared with going off to get married and finding out six months or a year later that they are bitterly unhappy and that the fella that they're married to is not what they wanted at all — I would rather that my daughter lived for five years with somebody before getting married rather than that should happen.
Do you think it's inevitable that it'll become more widespread?
I think we are going to have to face the situation in our lifetime, where certain things will happen: I actually believe that in my lifetime divorce will come in this country, and I actually believe that in my lifetime there will be a married clergy in the Catholic Church. And I actually believe that, maybe I might miss it, but very shortly after my lifetime there will be women priests. And so I actually believe that in our lifetime it will be the done thing to live with your partner for some time or even a selection of partners for some time, before you marry, on both sides — if only to find out the grotty end of marriage and the grotty end of going with each other and putting up with each other, rather than charging off as virgins both, and getting married and then finding out that it's a ghastly mistake and living forever in regret. The caveat is that I don't believe, necessarily and automatically, that living with somebody for a couple of years before marrying them, guarantees your happiness, because it doesn't come with a guarantee. Life doesn't come with a guarantee, marriage doesn't come with a guarantee.
What sort of radio do your kids listen to?
My kids are listening to radio almost all the time, they are into very very heavy stuff. They listen to Radio 2, all the pirate stations, they have their tapes, they listen to everything!
Do you have any opinion on pirate radio stations?
The only opinion I have on the pirate radio stations is that I think it's a national disgrace that there are still sixty pirate stations operating. I am still absolutely in favour of independent radio. I am still absolutely convinced that the monopoly of RTE should be broken. But I am still absolutely against the situation that pertains at the moment, which is that there are sixty stations operating. They are flagrantly breaching the law and they are doing so in the full knowledge and the consent, and indeed in many cases with the connivance of the government of the day. And I think that has the effect of bringing the entire legal system into disrepute. It seems to be one of those extraordinary Irish solutions to an Irish problem, which could only happen in a banana republic like this and I think it's a disgrace.
But what the pirate radios have shown is that in setting up a radio station at the moment, you are talking about a pittance. I see no reason why, if I want to start a magazine like Hot Press or a newspaper, tomorrow morning — subject to my getting the money to do so — I can do it. I don't understand why the same thing can't happen with radio. I don't see why I shouldn't be able to start a radio station in the morning — forty or fifty other guys in Dublin alone being free to do the same thing — and you either live or die on your revenue. I see nothing wrong with that. I don't know why that shouldn't be the case.
What do you think is the biggest threat facing young people now in Ireland?
I'm totally disillusioned and disappointed in Ireland at the moment. I mean utterly disillusioned. I see no future for the country whatever and I actually believe that my girls are being reared for emigration. And I would even go so far as to say that I would probably encourage them to get out of Ireland — particularly if they were boys. I would encourage them to get out of Ireland, because I see no hope of anything better coming up in the foreseeable future in this country. I think the place is banjaxed and washed out.
I should be the least of those saying that, insofar as I've done very well and continue to do well in this country. But I think now if my kids were 18, 20, given the circumstances at the moment, I would encourage them if possible to get to England or preferably to America. I'm not necessarily saying that faraway hills are green and all that. Given five or six or ten years, or whatever, it is possible that they would elect to come back to Ireland for whatever it is they miss in Ireland. But I do believe that to start off with, unless they have very strong opinions, I would be telling them — you know you're going to go to America you know you're going to go to England, if you can get in there.
So from a young person's point of view, it's a depressing picture.
I think it's a very depressing picture. I think there are very few opportunities and what opportunities there are inevitably lead into a kind of cul-de-sac and the entrepreneurs and the self-motivators and so on — if they do by any chance make it — the level of taxation here in Ireland removes any kind of incentive from them and, even if they enjoy tremendous success, it turns to dust in their mouths as soon as the various taxmen start at them and Alan Dukes starts at them.
First of all it requires'a monstrous effort to get off your butt and go and do something, and as soon as you do, Alan Dukes has you by the short and curlies, and will move in upon you and will take most of what you have. And I believe the union attitude and the general social attitude and the attitude towards people who motivate themselves, and get up and do well and make money, is all wrong. Making money in Ireland is still basically a dirty word. It's now socially undesirable to make a profit or be a success. And it's a rotten feeling.
You seem to be particularly critical of Fine Gael.
I'm not particularly critical of Fine Gael except insofar as Alan Dukes and Garret Fitzgerald are Fine Gael. I do believe that the Labour Party tail is wagging the Fine Gael dog in this Coalition at the moment and I do believe the Coalition has been very bad for Ireland. But at the same time, I do believe that Alan Dukes and Garret Fitzgerald are victims of the system, just as much as the rest of us are. And Alan Dukes is trying to do his honest best to sort something out from the mess and I don't believe the mess can be sorted out, because I don't believe on the broader scale that the figures add up any more. I don't think the island is a viable unit. I think if you think this is a temporary recession you'd better think again. It's going to get worse, and, after that, worse again. Am I cheering you up?
The fundamental problem is that the figures don't add up anymore and we have a monstrous public service and a monstrous civil service and a monster albatross of an establishment, which we inherited from another power at another time in another context, and instead of — in our sixty years of independence — cutting back on that or finding a better way to run 3 and a half lousy million people — I mean, let's face it, 3 and a half million lousy people is all we have, which is a small town in America — all we've done is add onto that and add onto it and add onto it and now we're confronted with this situation where the whole system is bleeding us all dry.
So how do you see yourself voting in the next election?
It's got to the stage now where you need a very strong government one way or the other, and you have to hope that it will not end up in another Coalition. The only small hope is to put somebody extremely strong in and turn them loose for better or worse for five years and you may find at the end of five years that you're a damn sight worse off than you are now, if we could be — or else you may find that he's done extraordinarily well and we are far better off. But I've no solutions more than anybody else. There was a man stood up in the audience on the Late Show three or four years ago, and we all laughed at him, and we were in the midst of one of these interminable economic discussions, and he said, if we had any manners we'd hand the entire island back to the Queen of England at 9 o'clock tomorrow morning and apologise for its condition. And everybody got a great laugh out of that, but as every week passes, I think that guy had something.
So you don't value independence in any way.
What does independence mean to me? What does it actually mean to me? It means that I'm paying twice as much for my car and paying a great deal more in taxation.
There wouldn't be a national television channel of the size and scale of RTE if we were still part of Britain.
There would be a UTV, which happens to be a particularly small part of the ITV channel — but there would be a Granada, or a Yorkshire or a Thames or a London or whatever. There would be a television station here definitely. And there would be a radio station here and there would probably be independent broadcasting and a lot more stations than just RTE. And what difference would that make anyway? I mean, they would still employ the same number of engineers and the same number of technical people and the same number of broadcasters. The actual television station probably wouldn't be supporting a symphony orchestra which RTE shouldn't be doing anyway — it should be part of the Arts Council. We might have our own concert orchestra, but if the concert orchestra wasn't supported by the Granada, or whatever would take the place of RTE, then there would be a concert orchestra anyway supported by somebody else. So there would be radio and television here anyway.
What do you feel about the view that RTE is badly overstaffed?
Well, it sure as hell isn't overstaffed on the Late Late Show and it sure as hell isn't overstaffed on the radio programme. I think, like any organisation of 2,000 people or thereabouts, whether it's RTE or Aer Lingus or Guinness' or Player Wills or Texaco or Esso or whatever, there are a good number of passengers. In RTE, there are rather lazy, indolent, disappointed and disenchanted people. But by the same token, there are a good number of extremely talented extremely hard-working, extremely dedicated people. It is, in terms of demarcation lines and that sort of thing, possibly overstaffed and the SKC report said that we are overstaffed. But presumably we are trying now to tackle that situation and get rid of them.
What is the most memorable moment in the entire life-span of the Late Late Show?
One of the most memorable moments was interviewing Mother Theresa. When you come across that impenetrable wall of faith and that total and absolute conviction of living to the nth degree the teachings of Christ in operation, it's extremely impressive in so far as she is doing it the right way. She's down there with the world's dregs. She came across in the same way to people in the studio that night and indeed to viewers at home. In the studio, suddenly — during a commercial break — somebody suggested getting up a collection box and the only thing we could put it in was — there was a guy in the audience who had come on a motorbike who had his helmet with him and that was the only thing we had. And he passed around the helmet and people put fivers and tenners into it and engagement rings and wedding rings. Funnily enough money was never mentioned at all in the course of the interview, but over the next fortnight something like seventy thousand pounds came in from around the country, just for her. She had that effect on people. That was an outstanding moment for me.
On the other hand I remember the jollity of David Niven. I went over for an interview with him, one of the few times I have ever recorded anything for the Late Late Show. The only way you could get him was in a little studio in the basement of Broadcasting House. He said he could give me two hours and I flew over one morning and met him. He was just one of life's jolly people and one of the great guests on any chat-show, because all you had to do was learn off eight well-known names like, Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, that sort of thing, and about four film titles. You just threw these at him and there was always a story or an anecdote. He was, first of all, the quintessential charming man and secondly he was such a funny man and such a great storyteller.
Does it annoy you in that light, that the kind of thing that the Late Late Show is renowned for is something like the Bishop and the nightie incident?
Well, that's so long ago, and it was in the early days of television. It was a harmless little frivolous game along the lines of Mr. and Mrs. and the question arose about the nightie, and I think the answer was that on her honeymoon night she wore nothing. Everybody was in jolly mood and the whole studio enjoyed it, and I would imagine that the vast majority of people out there enjoyed it as well. It was only when they woke up the next morning and read what the Bishop had to say that they decided it was dirty and filthy and all that. What was amazing was the number of people who then tried to jump on the bandwagon — self-righteous county councillors and self-righteous viewers all over the country, who had seen nothing wrong with the show, but once the Bishop said there was something wrong with it, there must have been something wrong with it. Looking back at the newspaper cuttings now really it's hysterically funny, hysterically funny.
Have things changed significantly in the meantime?
We still get objections to things we do, and still get complaints, and we still get letters but not nearly to the same extent. The only recent manifestation of that kind of attitude was the first show of the current season — when it was announced beforehand that the lesbian nuns were going on — and that whole bandwagon began to roll again and the same kind of people were saying the same kind of thing. But the interesting thing about the lesbian nuns was that it all happened beforehand. The wild, hysterical imaginings of what we were going to do with these two women on the show were just unbelievable! We know that it was an organised campaign insofar as we got the obscene phone calls, we got the belligerent phone calls, we got the threatening phone calls: I was told I was going to be shot and my house was going to be set on fire, and my kids were going to be killed. All of that sort of thing, and all in the name of Christ, of course, all in the name of religion. And we were told the world was going to end that night on the Late Late Show! Wrong again, it didn't!
What happened was a very sedate discussion on the subject for a half an hour on the late Show. Afterwards everyone said 'what the hell was all that fuss about?' Of course the truth is about nothing, it was about wild hysterical imaginings.
As a result of that kind of thing, you've been characterised as the man who imported sex into Ireland?
Well it was either me or television in general. The great quote from Oliver Flanagan was that 'there was no sex in Ireland before television.' You see, up to then we were a very insular and parochial country and the old Radio Éireann ethic was a kind of patronising, condescending, protective thing that there were only some things that were suitable for Irish people to hear or be party to. But when television started, perforce there had to be a whole new breed of people, who perforce were young, because they were the only ones who knew about this new thing called television. They moved in and they nothing about the old 'ethic' because they had never been subjected to it. So the Late Show and television in general started to discuss a whole range of topics which up until then would never have been mentioned in polite company. Because we were a very, very repressed nation sexually — to a great extent we still are, though not nearly as bad as we were 25 years ago — people were horrified. They couldn't cope with the fact that those things were being talked about in full view of everybody, things that were private and confidential as far as they were concerned. Or sacred. Here they were being discussed in public! There are a great number of Irish people for whom any mention of the word sex is disquieting. Because of their repressions or hang-ups or attitudes or prejudices or bias or simply very sincere beliefs, they found themselves helpless when confronted by this situation – and I think the Late Late Show is part of that whole mini-revolution.
Was there any programme after which you felt we've done something which may have detrimental effects?
The objection that many people raise to discussions of this kind in the Late Late Show is that it's a "family-show" — they try to force you into the fact that it's a family show. Now, how the hell do you define a family show, I don't know. They are sure about their definition which is that it should be suitable for all the family and therefore children are watching and therefore you shouldn't discuss these subjects. And people, Irish people, are so dishonest and hypocritical that very often they object on behalf of their children when they're really objecting on their own behalf.
If you once allow that the Late Late Show must be suitable for children, now we get into an argument: well, whose children? Your children or my children? And how do I know how liberal your children are or how repressed my children are? And then you get into, well what-aged children? Like 16, like 12, like 9. How far along the road do you go? You eventually end up saying we'll put nothing but Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse on, and there are people who even object to them because of the element of violence in them. So you have to restrict that cubbyhole of being 'suitable for the family'. The Late Late Show was never a family show except once a year for the Toy Show and we flag that a week in advance.
If you were made Director General of RTE tomorrow what would be the first thing that you would do?
I don't think there is anything that can be done with RTE at the moment. RTE is now in the situation where it will roll on inevitably and the dedicated people, the talented people, the working people will still get the programmes on the air. The others will still be passengers. I think that eventually the situation may be reached when RTE will have to be closed dawn for six months, and the whole place sorted out and then you start again at the beginning.
What's your favourite Gay Byrne story?
Well, there are many stories — one of the latest was that Kathleen Watkins is up in John of Gods recovering from alcoholism. She happens to be a girl who doesn't particularly like drink, never has — she'll have a glass of sherry or perhaps a gin and tonic now and then, but she is not given to drink at all. But this "absolutely positive" story was that she was up in John of Gods being dried out! Another story a few years ago was that we were separated and were returning the kids to the orphanage. That circulated for quite a while.
Another great favourite — which unfortunately I had used myself several years previously in the Sunday World applying to Peter Sellers or James Stewart or someone — was that Kathleen and I had been invited to a party in Killiney sometime in the last two years or whatever. We had gone, had a wonderful time and came away and thanked everybody. Then three days later, the people who gave the party had an invoice through the letter-box from us with VAT added and all of that sort of thing. Now unfortunately that story has been told about everybody in Hollywood.
Are there any positive ones?
The nicest one happened to me on Howth Golf Course recently when a woman playing golf — I was walking across the golf course — said 'it's wonderful to meet you, oh I love you Gay, you really are wonderful, absolutely a great thrill to meet you. It's a terrible pity my friend Margaret isn't here because Margaret absolutely adores you. She really thinks the sun, moon and stars of you ... I'll tell you how much she loves you Gay. We were passing by your house recently and she had to jump out of the car to kiss your bin.' I thought that was certainly a kind of fan worship!
Does it create any tension in your marriage that you're as successful as you are and obviously have as many admirers as you do?
I don't think so. If only for the fact that Kathleen herself is in show business for a long, long time — indeed long before she met me, possibly even before I was in show business. She did all the halls in Ireland, she travelled to America, Europe, England, for television and all that sort of thing. And she was an announcer in Radio Eireann and she was the first continuity announcer in RTE television — she was actually the first person to appear on television: that's one for the records! So she's been through all of that herself and simply is not a show biz person in so far as she's got it out of her system. She doesn't particularly want to play the harp ever again or sing a song. She just doesn't want to know about it. She likes doing the odd radio programme to suit herself, she likes doing a few radio commercials here and there, she likes now and then to do some fashion show commentaries. She enjoys doing that kind of thing on an occasional basis. So I think if my wife was somebody who was thirsting and longing to get into show-business it might be very destructive because I know various people in show-business, actors married to actresses and vice versa, for whom there are strains and stresses. But she is not subject to that kind of strain, and she understands what I do and appreciates what I do. It really doesn't particularly affect her now when she hears of people embracing me or kissing me or whatever."
Does it effect you, in that when you walk into a pub that immediately everyone is aware that that's Gay Byrne over there?
It imposes some restrictions upon you. Everywhere I go people want to talk to me and people want things off me. Even walking from the radio station in the morning over to the Late Show Office, I am way-laid maybe 6 or 7 times by people who say 'can you play a request for me?' or 'could you find this for me', or 'my cousin is in a showband, can they be on the Late Late Show?' So everywhere I go, I am instantly recognised, certainly in Ireland. Everywhere I go, people want to talk to me and I am usually in a hurry — it's a dreadful thing to say but I don't have the time to chat to people. So I will never go into a pub on my own, never ever. If I was on my own I would immediately be a kind of target for people, either to pour out their troubles, or hand you bits of paper, all wanting their requests played for their grannies. All wanting their cousin on the Late Late Show. All wanting to discuss something with you or tell you something that you should be talking about on radio or on the Late Show — so there are constraints on you in that way.
For example, if I was going to Cork, I would never go on my own by train, because I know that I would attract, inevitably, the two drunks on the train who would persecute me for three and-a-half hours — so I would drive on my own. Indeed most of the time I like driving on my own because — driving to work in the morning and home in the evening — it's the only place that people can't get at me. I know I sound paranoid, but just because you're paranoid doesn't mean everybody isn't out to get you!"
How do you feel now about what happened with Russell Murphy, and the way in which the money went missing?
Well, it's still a great disappointment — I don't think I will ever — what is it, two years? — I don't think I'll ever get over it. Under two headings. One is the personal, in so far as he was Godfather to my child Crona and a very good Godfather and an extremely attentive Godfather. The amazing thing was that he was attentive in relation to religion, and her religious instruction and of course he went to 7 o'clock Mass every morning in Clarendon Street. And he was my friend for 20 years. More than a friend: if ever I had a problem or a trouble — professional or personal – he was one of the people I would have headed for and he was very good at giving advice. He was very sound. It's just a dreadful, dreadful realisation, to wake up one morning and to realise that this person whom you've trusted so totally has swindled you in the most calculated and deliberate way. It's a dreadful, dreadful breach of trust and it upset me greatly. The other is financial. There's only one other person whom I know was affected — there are others I suspect may have been, but there's only one other I know and that's Hugh Leonard, who apparently lost something in the region of a million — but apparently he's said that he has the same amount again so he's been able to look at the situation philosophically. But my situation is worse, in that I trusted Russell Murphy so totally that I had given him Power of Attorney and not only did he use every penny that I had saved through all those years of hard work and effort, but he also borrowed with my name, so that he actually left me in considerable debt. That's something I feel particularly upset about, because that was something which I believe he was capable of doing only because of his position as a director of the Bank of Ireland — and the Bank of Ireland are now, in what I consider a particularly callous and insensitive manner, insisting that I pay that money in full. And so I think that I'll probably have to get the money together sometime in the near future to take on the Bank of Ireland in court and to challenge the validity of the debt, because I fully believe that it's only because Mr. Russell Murphy was a director of the Bank of Ireland that he was in a position to borrow that money in my name. People say that the money will turn up, that it's in some account somewhere but I think that's all nonsense. It hasn't so far and I don't think it will.
How did he go through so much money?
As far as I understand there was an illicit liaison — there was another woman involved — and he used to entertain her in style. They travelled a lot and stayed in the best hotels and drank the best champagne and I'm told if you live that kind of lifestyle that it really is quite easy to go through a million and a half no bother. It is appalling and a terrible disappointment, when you think of all the energy and effort and hard work that went in, over the years, to have it destroyed just like that. But on the other hand so many things have gone in my favour — I don't think I should complain because the ball has bounced so well for me all down the line. I've had so much to be thankful for and I still have so much to be thankful for.
Did it affect your work?
It upset me badly for a long time. I think it upset Kathleen even more and it upset my daughters because they knew that something terrible had happened. That's the trouble being in show-business — your business is everybody's business so it was in the papers. And the girls weren't allowed to forget about it in school. I think they were given quite a hard time over it. So it was very difficult, in the middle of all that, to come in every morning to the radio show, and to sound bright and breezy and on top of everything — and then to go on to the Late Show and do the same. It did affect me, although whether it was noticeable or not I don't know. Indeed it may still be affecting me for all I know (laughs) — I may never recover! But I certainly don't think of myself as misfortunate — everyone experiences these dunks at some stage in their lives and I've had very little to put up with in that respect. For many people, they may come in the form of illness or injury or death in the family. In comparison to those kind of problems, I'd prefer to lose that money in the way I did any day. There's no comparison ...
Although it has had one other affect on me and it's something I can't understand at all and that is that my handwriting's gone completely. I find it hard to do anything more than sign my name at the bottom of something. I couldn't attempt, I couldn't even attempt anything as long as that page of writing there that you've done (gestures at foolscap notepaper) — if I tried, my hand would go down off the page in the most peculiar way. And I just can't write properly anymore.
Do you know what the problem is? Is it a purely physical thing?
I don't know. It's part physical and part psychological. Perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned it ...
What are the values that you'd most like to pass on to your children?
I think if you can live your life honestly, that is one of the most important values. I've always tried to be honest in what I do. I think if you can be honest with others, and honest with yourself, rather than being a crook or a conman, that's a very strong foundation. That's one thing.
And the other is money. And this is something that perhaps I learned from the experience with Russell Murphy — that is to dedicate your life to accumulating wealth. To want money for the sake of it, to make it the be all and end all, is an appalling way to direct your life. By all means have enough money, if you can earn it, to support yourself and your family well and to be comfortable — that's nice, but to dedicate yourself to earning money above any other considerations is just a waste. It's shortsighted and wasteful and selfish. That's something I would want to pass on to my children.