In Milton's poem, "Samson Agonistes", Milton says of Samson when he dies:
No time for lamentation now,
...Samson hath quit himself
Like Samson...and...hath finished
A life heroic
I say that about Gay Byrne. Gay Byrne was a broadcasting legend, a husband, a father and a grandfather. He was an extraordinary communicator across our entire country, and beyond, for 60 years. He woke us all up and he protected us as he did it, and his talent was immeasurable. He was a cultural and social barometer of an Ireland about to grow up across those years and face all of its responsibilities both past and present. In the history of the State, through the national broadcaster, RTÉ, he totally embodied what all great public service broadcasting aspires to, namely, entertainment, information and education across radio and television. Most of us through our lives, if we are paying any kind of attention, can learn and are capable of learning through osmosis. We watch and we listen. It is how I learned from great teachers who never knew I was doing it; from great artists, great poets, great thinkers and great elders. I learned by osmosis from those that I admired from afar when I was young. Anybody who had any interest in the art, skill and craft of communication knew to look in the direction of Gay Byrne. There, one would find a master. When I became a friend in later life, that admiration only deepened and grew. Gay Byrne's talents were enormous but he wore them very lightly and he spent most of his life creating platforms daily for all others to be great and good.
Who are the people who have changed and altered Ireland for the better? People might name politicians from all sides, and they would be right. Indeed, they might even name religious leaders, doctors, teachers and artists. I name Gay Byrne, without argument or opposition. We owe him so much. He broke our silences and he taught us to speak out and speak up and not be afraid of what we were capable of and indeed what we needed and had to face.
In some way, there is a voice and nothing more. Beckett believed that. Through his voice we heard meaning. We heard meaning because his voice always paralleled meaning. His voice bore meaning. His voice found meaning - ordinary meanings and extraordinary meanings, complexities and distinctiveness, a kind of kernel of our social bonds, both intimate and objective, but all the time his voice always made acoustic sense. Across generations we inhabited the universe of his voice. We made our way through our daily lives with his voice. He introduced us to other voices, other music, other meanings, other media and we became intermingled with the lot, first on radio and then on television where voice is still dominant. Progress over 50 years in Ireland in some way announced itself through his voice and his show. In some way, Gay Byrne's voice was a sign of Ireland's life and, as such, compelling.
We have lost a compelling voice away from the maddening crowd. It is now time to carry its echo with us.
After the death of Seamus Heaney, I quoted his play "The Cure at Troy", a dramatisation of Sophocles's "Philoctetes". Seamus Heaney was a favourite poet of Gay Byrne's wife, Kathleen Watkins. I wish to quote lines spoken by the chorus of elders at the close of the play. I would consider myself, after many years here, an elder of the Seanad. I am very happy to say that because I have learned so much here. I have listened well and I have learned from other great Senators here by osmosis. I will end with the words of the chorus of elders, Seamus Heaney's words:
Now it's high watermark
And floodtide in the heart
And time to go.
The sea-nymphs in the spray
Will be the chorus now.
What's left to say?
Suspect too much sweet talk
But never close your mind.
It was a fortunate wind
that blew me here. I leave
half-ready to believe
That a crippled trust might walk
And the half-true rhyme is love.
I say that of Gay Byrne. May he rest in peace.