Gay Byrne, who tackled taboos as Ireland’s TV host, dies at 85

BRIAN LAWLESS/PA VIA AP/FILE 2014Mr. Byrne provided an insecure and rapidly urbanizing small country with a modern face of quiet authority — Johnny Carson, Walter Cronkite, and Oprah Winfrey rolled into one./PA via AP

DUBLIN — Gay Byrne, a beloved Irish radio and television personality who broke codes of silence over sexual practices, abuse, and hypocrisy in Ireland’s deeply conservative Roman Catholic society, died on Monday at his home in Dublin. He was 85.

His death was announced by his family. He had received a diagnosis of prostate cancer.

Mr. Byrne hosted the weekend “Late Late Show” for 37 years, helping to make it the flagship program of the state broadcaster Radio Telefís Eireann, known as RTE. In the process he became a celebrated national figure.

Poised, beautifully spoken, and always immaculately dressed, Mr. Byrne provided an insecure and rapidly urbanizing small country with a modern face of quiet authority — Johnny Carson, Walter Cronkite, and Oprah Winfrey rolled into one.


The Irish Times dedicated an eight-page supplement to his death. Its leading cultural and political commentator, Fintan O’Toole, wrote that Ireland had “needed someone very particular — someone with a strange combination of unthreatening charm and utter ruthlessness — to disarm it into opening its dark places, to make it say in public what it could not even admit in private.”

Mr. Byrne was so revered that RTE planned a live broadcast of his funeral in Dublin on Friday, and vast crowds were expected. A cortège was to proceed along the streets to his burial place, “giving the public a chance to pay their respects to the legendary broadcaster on his final route home,” a statement by RTE said.

On Thursday night, “The Late Late Show” took the form of a tribute to him, with the country’s current president, Michael Higgins, and his predecessor, Mary McAleese, as guests along with a lineup of cultural figures, including the U2 frontman Bono, who spoke from New Zealand.

Mr. Byrne produced many defining moments of Irish public life — live in the studio.


In 1985, for example, when homosexuality was still illegal and the Catholic clergy sacrosanct, he defied prayer-chanting protesters by inviting two American lesbian ex-nuns onto the show.

Two years later, during a discussion on contraception and AIDS, he shocked many in his studio audience when he took out a condom — only recently legalized for the general public, despite opposition from the church — and ran a graphic video instructing viewers on how to use it.

Despite Mr. Byrne’s willingness to push boundaries, he was personally conservative, religiously observant and traditional in outlook, all of which made it difficult for his many influential critics to cast him as a dangerous radical.

Mr. Byrne saw himself not as a journalist but as a broadcaster and entertainer. He was driven in his pursuit of ratings and entertainment, sandwiching hard-hitting political or social segments between interviews with boy bands, eccentrics and local heroes — anything that would grip an audience and keep people talking through the week.

He was a master of the gentle touch, treating child presenters on his program’s annual Toy Show — a beloved Christmas season ritual in which he demonstrated the latest gifts for children — with the same polite attention that he afforded political leaders and global celebrities.

Mr. Byrne’s long-running morning radio show — which he co-produced and presented every weekday as part of a grueling work schedule — was almost as influential as his television work.

He was the first Irish radio presenter to use the call-in format. In 1984, after a 15-year-old girl named Ann Lovett died with her baby while giving birth alone in a freezing grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary, he hired actors to help him read out hundreds of letters sent in by women revealing their own devastating stories of secret births and clandestine abortions.


Gabriel Mary Byrne was born on Aug. 5, 1934, the youngest of five children of Edward and Annie (Carroll) Byrne. His father, a World War I veteran, worked at a Guinness brewery; his mother was a homemaker.

Growing up in the hardscrabble Rialto district of Dublin, Gay was the only child in his family to be sent to secondary school, the nearby Christian Brothers school on Synge Street. He took lessons in acting and elocution with a stage career in mind.

The need to earn a living prevented him from going to college, however, so he found work in the insurance industry until he took a job as a presenter with Irish state radio in 1958.

Later, he juggled his Irish radio role with television work in England, presenting shows for the BBC and for Granada TV in Manchester, where in 1962 he became the first broadcaster to introduce The Beatles on television. That summer, when Ireland’s first domestic TV channel, the newly established RTE, found it had a six-week hole in its summer schedule, it came up with the “Late Late Show” to fill it and chose Mr. Byrne to be the host.


The program proved anything but temporary: Quickly winning an audience, Mr. Byrne would continue to hold forth as the host until 1999. After stepping down he continued to broadcast, mainly on radio, about subjects that interested him, including religious affairs and jazz. (“The Late Late Show” also continued; the current host is Ryan Tubridy.)

And Mr. Byrne’s influence on Irish affairs remained strong. In 2015, he publicly endorsed a referendum on a constitutional amendment to allow same-sex marriage, which voters approved by a wide margin. Some older voters, concerned about the rapid liberalization of Ireland, said Mr. Byrne’s backing of the amendment had persuaded them to vote in favor of it.

By then, civil bans on divorce and contraception had long since been removed, and Ireland’s near-total ban on abortion was soon to follow.

Mr. Byrne leaves his wife, Kathleen Watkins, a former concert harpist and fellow broadcaster; his daughters, Crona and Suzy Byrne; a sister, Mary Orr; and five grandchildren.