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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 5 Nov 2019

Vol. 988 No. 6

Death of Mr. Gay Byrne: Expressions of Sympathy

Following the death yesterday of the esteemed broadcaster, Gay Byrne, it is considered appropriate that the leaders today be given time to express sympathy to his family and friends and, in particular, his wife, Kathleen Watkins, and his daughters, Suzy and Crona. Over the past number of hours we have witnessed a national outpouring of respect and recognition - respect for the colossus that Gay Byrne was on the world stage of public service broadcasting and recognition for the role he played as a catalyst in the evolution of Irish society over the past 50 years. Growing up in Ireland in the 1960s, after those of my parents and siblings, his was the most constant and frequently heard voice in my family home, and I suspect the same is true for thousands of others. He gently touched the lives of generations. In truth, ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís.

For the convenience of Members, a book of condolences has been placed in the main lobby of Leinster House for Members, staff and visitors who may wish to sign it.

Ar son Rialtas na hÉireann, ba mhaith liom comhbhrón a dhéanamh faoi bhás Gay Byrne, an craoltóir ba mhó tionchar i stair an Stáit. Bhí ardmheas agus gnaoi ag an bpobal air mar chraoltóir a chuir feabhas ar an saol agus ar shochaí na hÉireann i slite éagsúla. Ar an raidió agus ar an teilifís, thug sé guth ard do na daoine a cuireadh ina dtost roimhe sin. Bhí sé ina údar iontach athruithe a chuir go mór lenár sochaí.

On behalf of the Government, I offer condolences to the family of Gay Byrne and express our deep sadness on learning of his death. Gay Byrne was the most influential broadcaster in the history of the State, and a much loved figure who changed Ireland for the better in many ways. Gay had a central place in Irish homes for many decades on both radio and television. The story of his remarkable contribution to Irish life is the story of how we changed and evolved for the better as a nation over the past 60 years. A consummate entertainer, he also provided an outlet for all of those who had been silenced or were afraid to speak up.

He enabled us to confront things that needed to be challenged in our society. Many things did not exist or were not talked about in Ireland before "The Late Late Show", but it is good that they were talked about.

As chairman of the Road Safety Authority for almost a decade, Gay Byrne spoke with feeling and understanding about the tragedy of road deaths. When I was Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I reappointed him to this role because I saw how his campaigning helped to save many lives. I found him to be a wonderful, truly public-spirited person who undertook his responsibilities at the Road Safety Authority with the utmost seriousness and concern. He also spoke up for the whistleblowers who exposed the abuse of the penalty points system, thereby helping to bring about change in that system.

For generations of Irish people, he was "Uncle Gaybo", a welcome presence in every home and someone who led change because he listened and he cared. We have lost a change-maker and a force for good. Today a national treasure is gone. I offer my condolences to his wife, Kathleen Watkins, to his daughters and grandchildren, family and friends, and to all who mourn his passing.

Ar dtús báire ba mhaith liom, ar mo shon féin agus ar son Pháirtí Fhianna Fáil, comhbhrón a dhéanamh le Kathleen, Suzy, Crona agus clann Gay Byrne ar ócáid a bháis. Thug sé spás agus deis do chosmhuintir na tíre a gcuid tuairimí a phlé. Bhí tionchar faoi leith aige ar dhul chun cinn na tíre. Bhí a fhios aige go raibh an tír ag athrú agus chabhraigh sé leis an athrú sin. Bhí sé freagrach as athruithe bunúsacha a tharla in Éirinn ó na 1960í amach. D'oibrigh sé go dian dícheallach Domhnach is dálach agus thuig sé tábhacht na seirbhíse craoltóireachta poiblí. Ba laoch agus ceannródaí na seirbhíse sin é. Go bunúsach, b'fhear mór teaghlaigh é. Fuair sé neart ón gcaidreamh sin.

Gay Byrne was an iconic Irish institution who left an indelible imprint not only on Irish broadcasting, but on Irish society itself. Through his radio programmes, television shows and his 37 years as host of "The Late Late Show", he influenced and had a profound impact on the evolution of modern Ireland. He was part and parcel of every Irish home for decades. His warmth resonated with so many people. His intellect and emotional intelligence were unparalleled and his ability to sensitively approach delicate and sometime controversial issues set him apart from other presenters. What really separated him was his capacity to listen while doing interviews; he was a great listener as well as contributor to interviews and debates.

Gay Byrne became internationally renowned because of his capacity and ability to debate highly sensitive issues in a way that allowed conversations to take place and for playing a huge role in persuading people to allow significant change to occur in what was then a conservative Ireland. On reflection, some of his programmes were, perhaps, our original citizens' assembly because they gave the people of Ireland an opportunity to discuss these issues. Contraception, divorce, abortion and LGBTQ issues all got their first real airings on "The Late Late Show". These shows were rarely missed and set the agenda for public discourse every week.

He was many things to many people. He loved the arts, theatre and entertainment. Above all, he spoke about the importance of educating young people so that they could progress. He also helped to jump-start the careers of many singers, comedians, broadcasters and musicians. He was a true public servant and, as the Taoiseach said, he accepted the chairmanship of the Road Safety Authority in 2006. I often thought that appointment was a brave move on the part of the then Minister for Transport, Noel Dempsey, because there was simply no place to hide from Gay Byrne when, as chairman of that authority, he wished to hold Government to account. He became the face and voice of many campaigns which I have no doubt saved the lives of pedestrians, cyclists and drivers across the country.

Gay Byrne was a rare national treasure who touched the lives not only of his own family and friends but those of the hundreds of thousands of people who welcomed him into their homes on radio and television. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Ar mo shon féin agus ar son Shinn Féin, déanaim comhbhrón le clann agus cairde Gay Byrne.

Gay Byrne's contribution to the public discourse as both a journalist and broadcaster was immense and enduring. From the early days of RTÉ until the present, he occupied a very special place in the hearts and minds of many Irish people. Since news of his passing yesterday afternoon, Gay Byrne has rightfully received tributes as a broadcaster without equal. It is fair to say that he changed the nature of broadcasting in the State and reshaped how we discuss many important issues. Gay Byrne made a massive contribution to Irish life, a contribution that very often transcended broadcasting itself. In many respects, his voice narrated the story of the State for more than three decades. It is a testament to his talent and his ability that even at times when one did not agree with him one could still recognise the importance of the work he did.

If it is possible to describe Gay Byrne's legacy simply, I would say it is that he got people talking about issues that they very often did not want to talk about. He shifted a code of silence that ran through generations. He turned the key. He built a stage on which people could tell their stories and he will be very greatly missed.

I extend my condolences and those of Sinn Féin to his wife, Kathleen, his daughters, Suzy and Crona, to the wider family circle and to his many friends. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis. Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís.

Like hundreds of thousands of Irish people at home and abroad, I stopped in my tracks when I heard the news of the passing of Gay Byrne while I was in my constituency office yesterday afternoon. I wondered why it affected all of us to hear that. It is almost like a bereavement in any family. I was trying to think of a precedent and I could not. I thought of the words of the then French President, Georges Pompidou, when General de Gaulle died. He said, very profoundly, "General De Gaulle is dead. France is a widow". While I cannot think of any current era Irish politician who had the same emotional impact on his or her passing, there is a notion that we are all affected. We are all affected because Gaybo was the soundtrack to all our lives for so long. He was the authentic voice of all the internal discussion and complexity of a maturing Ireland, and the certainty of voices coming to different conclusions. His loss is felt by all but clearly, none more than his beloved wife Kathleen, his daughters Crona and Suzy, and his many friends throughout Ireland and especially in his former workplace at RTÉ.

Like many people in this House, I had the privilege of meeting Gay on several occasions, with encounters, for example, at the Wexford Opera Festival when he was a visitor there, and while talking to him across the table with a microphone. I always found him to be polite, generous and professional. The last occasion I spoke to him was when we were both leaving the National Gallery of Ireland. Although he was battling at that stage with his illness he vowed to return to see an exhibition I had mentioned to him.

Forward looking as always, like few others Gay Byrne made an indelible mark for good on this nation and its people. On behalf of all my colleagues in the Labour Party, I offer sincere condolences to his family, his beloved wife and his friends.

I call Deputy Pringle. It is well known how Gay loved Donegal.

That is right. He had a house in Dungloe for many years. Unfortunately, I never met him and am not familiar with any of the stories that other Members have told. However, on behalf of the Independents 4 Change group, I offer condolences to his wife, Kathleen, and daughters, Crona and Suzy.

Gay Byrne was definitely the dominant broadcaster in the second half, or probably the whole of, the 20th century.

He provided a platform to discuss all the difficult issues of the day on both "The Late Late Show" and his radio programme.

On behalf of the Rural Independent Group, I extend our condolences to Gay Byrne's family and note the national outpouring of fondness and endearment since the announcement of his passing yesterday. We extend our deepest sympathies to his bean chéile, Kathleen, his daughters, Crona and Suzy, and his grandchildren and wider family as well as to his colleagues in RTÉ, many of whom have spoken fondly since yesterday of the help he gave them and his genuine capacity to give good advice. While he was a stickler for punctuality and other such things, he always had a good ear to listen to his younger colleagues who he supported along the way. It is a good trait in any person.

My first memory of Gay Byrne was listening as a buachaill óg to sponsored programmes on RTÉ Radio 1 and thereafter to his morning radio show. There was not the proliferation of radio stations then that there is now and it was like listening to the gospel in the morning in every house to listen to Gaybo. It went on to "The Late Late Show" where the toy show was a big event with my children when they were young. He started that. He had the ability to lead people in debate and ask the hard question but then to let the person or interviewee go on as far as he or she wanted, falling into the trap if necessary. He had a polite and cunning way of doing so and was respected everywhere. He is a great loss not only to his family first but to an tír go léir. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

I was a sucker for Gay Byrne's broadcasting skills. Every Christmas, his radio show would go to someone's kitchen. "Trick" would be the wrong word to use about it. Mrs Murphy would be asked where her son was and say, "He is in Australia, God bless him. I miss him." Before we knew it, Paddy the son would walk through the door and we would be crying having had our heart strings pulled so brilliantly. I still use Gay-Byrneisms and find my kids looking at me when I say "Ye wha', Gay?", which is an example of his use of language with which we grew up.

It is very appropriate to remember him here but we should remember that when he was appointed by RTÉ, the then controller of programmes, Gunnar Rugheimer, played a key part in determining the role of the public service broadcaster in a nation. Politicians at the time were not happy with this current affairs programme and the appointment of Gay Byrne, which they feared would upstage politicians somewhat. That was probably true for several decades. Our society and democracy benefited from that more open and public debate. As such, Gay Byrne played a significant role in the development of our democracy. He will be missed terribly. It is important to reflect at this time on whether we are valuing our public service broadcasting when we are selling the tapestries RTÉ commissioned at that earlier time. We will miss Gay Byrne. We must bring back that sense of the importance of public service broadcasting, which is an important aspect of our democracy. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

Members rose.