- 24 Mar 20
He recalled the early days of "Cominatcha!" Radio 2; the incident that nearly cost him his radio career; the downside of celebrity and much, more!
LIAM MACKEY: You went to Trinity to study law – but you kind of drifted into that didn't you, it wasn't like a great vocation.
GERRY RYAN: Peter Murray who's now the curator of the Crawford Gallery down in Cork, was keen on studying law at the time and he arranged this meeting with the guy who went on to become the Attorney General, John Rogers. John, at the time, was going through a kind of artistic period in his life and was often to be found in the Palace Bar. We met him there and John advised us that, yes indeed, law was a career that a few bob could be made out of and it was quite interesting and reasonably secure, but not to go near the bar, to become solicitors instead (laughs), because he had taken up the bar and proved a nonsense as far as he is concerned of course. But it was he who directed me into the solicitors profession and so I took up studies at Trinity and The Incorporated Law Society.
And how did you find it?
Well, you had thousands of exams every year but it was a very exciting time in my life. I found it a very, very easy discipline to follow, I must admit. If you had a degree of understanding of the English language, a good memory and your were a bit of a spoofer, law seemed to me at the time to be the perfect calling.
Did you get a position in a firm of solicitors?
I did, yeah. I became an apprentice in a firm called Malone And Potter. At the time, the guy I worked with was Dudley Potter and we dealt with a lot of constitutional law cases. He was the guy who did the McGee Contraceptives case, we did the Mairin de Burca case which resulted in women being put on juries for the first time in Ireland, and we did a heck of a lot of extradition work which was… interesting if politically dubious.
Which begs the question – What do you make of the recent Supreme Court decisions on extradition?
I think it's a very difficult time for the Irish government with the Anglo-Irish agreement because, on one hand, they want to appear to be reasonably co-operative and they definitely don't want to be seen to be harbouring anybody who might have committed a crime in another jurisdiction. And yet, on the other hand, they had to stand by the constitutional separateness or immunity or individuality of the courts. So this is very much a legal decision – it's not a political decision. And the government have to swallow it.
But legalities aside, do you think Irish people should be extradited to Britain, in the light of the Birmingham Six and other cases?
I think there's a general and there's a specific answer to that. In general, for any group of nations to exist harmoniously together – and considering that we are now trying to set up a United States Of Europe – we must recognise that if your citizens or any other citizens commit crimes in any other state, they must be held accountable for them somewhere – but primarily in the state where they have committed the crime.
On the other hand, the UK in recent times has not shown itself to be particularly, ah, reliable in the judicial process. Then you have also to look at the prison roots – would it be safe for an Irish political prisoner, or an Irish prisoner who committed, in inverted commas, a "political" crime, to be put in residence in an English jail at the moment?
There are questions I find difficult to answer but they do raise serious worries. I mean the Birmingham Six situation and the Guilford Four situation and the Winchester Three situation – they have to raise very, very grave doubts in anybody's mind, including right-thinking people over there. Given that, I think maybe there should be a hold on extradition for a while until we have a little more in the way of assurances from the UK.
THE GREAT PIRATE WARS
To go back a bit – your first tast of broadcasting was with a legal community radio project sponsored by RTE in Trinity College, but how did you actually get involved with the pirates?
It was through Mark Storey (now Controller of Programmes at Century, who was a Trinity student involved in the radio station there) that I got to know a number of people who were involved in pirate radio – fellows like Robbie Irwin who subsequently went on to be a programmer at Century, Declan Meehan who went on to become an RTE presenter and subsequently a Century presenter, Davitt Kelly… all these names which by now have become almost legend in the radio business here. They were all involved in setting up splinter groups because the radio business in those days was, well, it was more political than South Africa (laughs).
You had all these break-away groups – Radio Dublin gave rise to Alternative Radio Dublin and then came Big D and so on. As a result of that you had the whole Bonnie and Clyde/Laurel and Hardy scenarios of people stealing each others' transmitters, of certain individuals offering you money to throw a bucket of water on your own transmitter, of having to steal equipment when you were leaving because you weren't getting paid – all of that. Anyway I worked for ARD and Big D radio as a rock show disc jockey – it was back then that I met Dave Fanning.
As regards the politics of the pirate scene and the kind of welfare that ensued – did it get pretty hairy at times?
Well, you must remember that you were dealing with people who treated it primarily as a business. Now there were also a number of very dedicated, very serious broadcasters, guys who were brought up on the Radio Caroline tradition and they loved what they were doing, they'd do it for nothing and, God love them, a lot of them did and they were badly ripped-off and where are they today? But the purse-strings were being controlled by businessmen and some of these businessmen were not particularly savoury people. They had to come from backgrounds where they had to fight hard to make their mark and they were still doing in the radio business. So it was ostensibly quite a glamorous job, but really, behind the scenes, it was not glamorous by any stretch of the imagination.
And did you feel the effects of the more sinister forces at work?
Well, of course, being a namby-pamby boy from Clontarf, the heavier side of it would have scared me a lot more!
You weren't involved in any of the sabotage that went on?
No, but I witnessed the sabotage, I witnessed the buckets of water being thrown over the transmitters, which, by the way is a very dangerous thing to do. I was there the night it happened at Big D. Somebody came in – actually he's now quite a successful businessman...
And his name is?
And his name shall remain anonymous – in fact he's a friend of mine (laughs). Anyway, he lashed a bucket of water over the transmitter and nearly blew himself to Kingdom Come in doing so. But it put Big D off the air for a while. On another occasion I actually helped Mark Storey put the parts of an ARD's transmitter into his attic to hide them from Bernard Llellwyn and Doctor Don, who Mark felt were taking the station away from him. In actual fact, Don and Bernard had bought into the station and Mark was just another innocent student like myself who didn't have any legal claim on the station whatsoever but despite that fact, we took it upon ourselves to take the transmitter.
So Bernard Llellwyn was left in a nightclub one evening launching his brand-new radio station and then they pulled the switch to put it on the air and there's no transmitter. But Bernard was a forgiving sort of guy, thankfully (laughs), and allowed us to give him back the parts and we all went back to work together.
What about Eamon Cooke, the man who started it all with Radio Dublin?
I never had any dealings with him whatsoever. I interviewed him once here on The Gerry Ryan Show and that was the first time I ever met him.
Cooke, of course, was the first and last of the pirates – and he's still at it, after everyone else has caved in. Do you think he should be left alone and allowed to broadcast now?
No, I don't. I don't think that the airwaves are anybody's property. I believe that the airwaves must be controlled – and I don't mean in a censorship way. But I believe there must be a degree of monitoring and it's impossible to monitor unless you licence. And if you won't submit to being licensed you ought to get into another business.
But why was it acceptable to you a few years ago and not acceptable now?
Because at that time, radio, as far as I was concerned was very staid. It did not cater for the needs, especially of young people. Of course I myself was younger then and I must admit if I proffered the argument I've just offered now to a twenty-year-old Gerry Ryan he'd have laughed at me. Because, as far as I was concerned then, it was all rock'n'roll and go for it and who needs a licence? You drove a car without a licence, what did you need one to run a radio station for? I'll grant I'm a little older and more boringly wise now.
Were you ever raided by the Guards?
No, I was never involved in a raid in all the years. We lied frequently about raids actually – raids were a method of getting publicity. I mean, if the guards were genuinely to be credited with all the raids they were meant to have carried out, the Gestapo would pale into insignificance by comparison.
How did your entry into Radio 2 come about?
Morah, who was later to become my wife, and I were on our way to a party one night in Paddy O'Neill's house – the guy who went on to set up community radio for RTE. And Mark Storey, who'd already gotten into RTE at the time having chucked the legal career completely, told me before I went out that evening, that they were doing auditions for this new pop station Radio 2, which was being set up by RTE in very, very indecent haste by Billy Wall on orders of the government to combat the pirates. And Mark said to me, ""Listen, most of the people we've interviewed are bugger-all use, they're rubbish. You definitely stand a chance. Come in!"'
So I came in and did a quick audition for Billy Wall. It was a 10-minute show you had to prepare, for which you were supposed to have a script. I didn't have a script, I read the sleeve notes on the back of a Glen Campbell album, he was very impressed, and I got the gig. And suddenly I had these quasi-serious documentary-style programmes on Radio 2 at the weekend for which I was paid the princely sum of £90 before tax – and I thought I was a millionaire. I went out and bought a Fiat 127 for £700. This was the beginning of the big time!
But you were still studying and working in the solicitor's office at this point?
Yeah, and I stayed working and studying for a further two years approximately while I was in RTE – kind of half-heartedly doing one thing and half-heartedly doing the other. And there was an attitude that developed towards me in here of "ah sure yer man Ryan will eventually chuck all this in and become a solicitor", but I was beginning to develop more and more of a taste for the broadcasting.
When you finally dropped the legal career did you consider it a momentous decision?
No, not at all, I just got bored with the law, I just got bored with the people – at least the one thing that the broadcastin community had to offer was interesting people to work with.
Were your folks dismayed or were they supportive?
Well, my father had injected a lot of money into my education and it had been expensive and drawn-out. And when I think back on it, it must have been an appalling vista, as Lord Denning woud say (laughs), for my father to learn after all his patience, time, effort and money, that I was now going to turn around and take up a profession which I didn't appear to have any particular aptitude for, and nor did I appear to have any future in it either. But all he ever said to me was "Son, do you think you can make any money out of it?" and I said, "Well, I think so" and he said, "Alright, if that's what you want to do, fire ahead." I mean, there was no 'I give you my blessing/Don Corleone gets Gerry to kiss his ring' or anything like that, but God love them, I presume there were many hours of pillow conversations between the Ma and Da over it.
What was your first full-time gig with Radio 2?
The first regular Monday to Friday show was Rock Steady, which was a kind of frantic, manic, teenagers' rock show – Barry Lang was also involved in that. Then I went back to being on the weekend and did a few more documentary-style shows, and after that worked for Radio One for a while on a current affairs programme – the name of which now completely evades me; I think Ferdia McAnna subsequently went on to present it.
I then went on to the 10 to 12 slot at night time and that was the G. Ryan Show which also became known as Lights Out. And that, as I would say, was one of the happiest periods of my broadcasting career because there was very little work involved. You had Mark Cagney, myself and Dave and it was like being in Led Zeppelin, it was great, it was just music, music and touring the three shows 'round the country. It was really the nearest I ever got to being in a band. And I really enjoyed it.
SHOOTING YOUR MOUTH OFF
I would imagine there's a fine line between the provocative, aggressive broadcasting style you favour and actually insulting people – is it a line you sometimes drift across?
One of the most annoying things that's been said about me as a broadcaster was recently when I was likened to the guy on "Talk Radio" – the Amercan broadcaster who was shot eventually in Texas. Now this guy was a Jewish radio presenter of great infamy and very large listenership who was very insulting and regularly attacked people. Now admittedly some would say he attacked people for the right reasons, because he felt they were racist or fascist or arrogant, but he also attacked people because he felt they were stupid or boring. Now he was really, really aggressive. He was the kind of guy who would walk up to somebody with hydrocephalous and say 'Hey, big head, what are you doing here?'
I don't do that. I don't set out to hurt people. Because you don't actually need to do that – you can be quite aggressive, you can be contemptuous, you can be forceful, without hurting people. Now, that said, there are some people who deserve to be hurt and if they put themselves up for consideration, they've got to expect they're going to get a bazooka right between the eyes.
Give me an example of that.
When we get into the areas of sexual politics and racism, especially those areas, you'll find in Ireland that there's a whole community of fascists and neo-nazis, who hate women, hate black people, hate Chinese take-aways (laughs) – people who hate with a vengeance.
They're the kind of people whose ancestors went to populate South Africa, the kind of people who feel women should still be denied the vote. Now they will come on and say they're very reasonable people – and they're usually fairly articulate – and they'll say "Well, Gerry, I'm going to put my point to you and because Gerry, you're a reasonable person, you'll listen to this," and I do listen to them.
But that person having to put their point of view must accept… an absolute lashing. Because that's when I become opinionated. I believe there's a time and a place for being objective and there's a time and a place for being subjective. I've heard too many interviews finish with "well, that's an interesting point", and I've been kicking the television screen in going, "why didn't you chop the bastard's goolies off?" It happens sometimes with Terry Wogan, although, God love him, I suppose that's the way he deals with his interviews. And his interviews are not confrontational anyway. But there are people, and if they've made a conscious decision to go pick up that telephone to dial 830222, to tell the rest of the country that they believe that black people should not be allowed into Ireland – well, I believe that that person deserves my opinion and my opinion given to them as forcefully as I can.
Have you ever come on so strong in the course of some discussion that you had cause to regret it afterwards?
Well, obviously since you're in free-form by that stage, so deep in the conversation or argument that you're almost not on the radio anymore – In those situations, yes, sometimes I'd have become arrogant, too aggressive.
You'll have, say a middle-aged woman come on to tell you that she believes that (affects voice) "Black people are very nice, wasn't Blessed Martin a black man, but that really, we must pray for them because God knows, they don't really have the same brains as us." This is a little old lady from wherever, and, to be perfectly honest she actually means no harm whatsoever. She's probably the nicest woman in Ireland and she's not Nelson Mandela's enemy whatsoever. But Gerry has lashed her and Gerry has stuffed her down the toilet. And that's wrong, because there was no necessity to do it. I would have been better off, leaving her go and letting the listeners go "God, isn't it incredible how naïve people can be still." But thankfully that doesn't happen very often.
Do you ever worry that in perpetuating fictions on the public there's a danger that you undermine their confidence in the programme as a whole?
It would be a danger if somebody else was doing the show, but since it's The Gerry Ryan Show and since those philosophies and those theories are very particular to me, it's safe. Because I won't allow a spoof on the air that's going to damage or hurt anybody – or that's going to hurt us. We just toy with people, we play with them and it's all tongue-in-cheek.
With the spoof element of the programme – which is becoming less and less as time goes by, anyway – I'm happy if I overhear somebody in a pub going: "Did ya hear yer man Ryan talking to that Irish astronaut from Limerick who goes to Funderland to do his training – do ya think that could be true?" That's OK, that's fine, that's entertainment.
On the show this morning however you introduced a serious but bizarre item – The Twitchell case in America – by saying "This is fact not fiction." Because there are fictions in the show it does sometimes make it harder to sell the truth to the public?
No. On one of the new commercial stations they've gotten into the business of flagging little spoof by playing a snippit of Fleetwood Mac's 'Lies' – which is pathetic I think. You're totally underestimating the audience's intelligence if you do that. There are certain things which have gravitas and solemnity and they tell their own story and they don't really need me to explain that they're true or real to people. Quite obviously, the story of a five year old boy who has died because his parents, believing in the power of prayer, wouldn't give him medicine for a bowel obstruction, is a true story. You just don't make up stories like that – there's no humour there. And if I did say it was fact not fiction, it was not to flag it. We never do that.
The juxtaposition of the wacky and the deathly serious in the programme – is that a difficult balancing act?
That's one of the main ingredients of the show now and, yes, it's a very delicate balance. It's a tabloid newspaper balance and it's very dangerous – and, like the tabloids, we have a lot of problems with it. The solution is that you've got to try and find mechanical means to deal with the linkage between the serious and the not serious and luckily enough, with us that can be an advertising break, a promotion or a piece of music. But you must distinguish between the two – you can't tell the story of Auschwitz and follow up with something pretending to be Mother Teresa of Calcutta or something.
Would you like to see Section 31 scrapped?
Yes. It's a prohibitive section, and apart from the obvious problems of not being directly able to interview certain politicians, it puts a bit of a cloud over a lot of other discussions as well, in case you're wandering into Section 31 territory. I think it's an insult to imagine that the Irish people are stupid enough, that if they heard Gerry Adams giving his views on how the political situation in the north should be solved, that they would all jump up and run off and buy a Kalashnikov. The effect of scrapping Section 31 would be a lot less dramatic than people would think in my view. After all, pre-Section 31 in the BBC we could see these people any night of the week. Nearly everybody has BBC in Ireland and it had no effect then – so what effect would it have now? So I'd prefer to see it scrapped and I think we have sufficiently responsible broadcasters in this country to deal properly and objectively with these kinds of interviews.
Are you comfortable with your celebrity status?
I have to be honest about that – the more famous you become the less of a novelty it becomes to you. And so the initial thrill or excitement of being recognised everywhere you go begins to turn into a hassle – not only for you, but for your family or friends. You can't go to the pub anymore for example.
No, that's out now, that's gone completely.
Because people wanted to take off their coats and have a swing at you?
Not so much that, but people will always want to tell you something. So if you're there with your wife or your mate and you're having a pint, you don't have that pint – you have that pint plus "Excuse me, Mr. Ryan" about twenty times. Now I'm not complaining about that – that's their right, their business. You put yourself in that position and that's what you've got to accept.
But it's unfair to other people with you. My wife's fairly shy and she likes to be left alone. And I worry about the kids – they don't understand why people are shouting at me. The young fellow is only four months so he doesn't have the faintest idea, but my daughter is now four and she's already conscious of people shouting at Daddy when we go to the shops. Y'know, "Get up the yard, Gerry" and all that. And she wonders why people are shouting at Daddy.
Because of your provocative radio profile, I'd have thought you'd be likely to excite more extreme responses sometimes.
You do excite extreme responses – quite obviously there have been instances over the last two years which have been unpleasant. Like people attacking you – you an get into arguments with people. Now, half the time I think they just really want to say hello, but they'll come up to you and talk to you in that aggressive manner. And you don't know how to respond to that. So you respond by telling them to eff-off or do you hit them if they insult you or someone who's with you? Or do you just agree with them and try to escape? Those situations can be embarrassing and very uncomfortable – just as, indeed, the fawning, adoring situation can be just as uncomfortable.
Did the adulation get to your head at any stage?
No, not really. I had thought about what day-time radio would do in terms of profile. And I'm married to a very level-headed person who makes sure that my feet are on the ground.
I get a laugh out of it. I get a good laugh out of being well-known and famous. But I know what I am. I am not Bono, I am not John Lennon – I'm Gerry Ryan, who's quite well-known in Ireland. It's not really that important.
Finally, away from the studio and the public role – do you have any special hobbies or passions?
Well, I like flying – I've just completed my first helicopter flight-training. And that's the only relaxation I get – apart from hanging out with my family. (From the chopper?!? -Ed)
You're telling me that to relax you go up in a helicopter? You're a weird person, Yossarian!
(Laughs) That and cooking are the only two things I can do that completely take my mind off business. Well, there is one other thing…