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Speech at a presentation of Ireland-US Council Lifetime Achievement Award to Gay Byrne

Dublin Castle, Friday, 28th June 2019

Is mór an chúis bhróid é dom a bheith anseo anocht chun Gradam Saoil Comhairle na hÉireann agus Mheiriceá a bhronn ar dhuine a rinneadh an oiread sin tairbhe do chraoltóireacht na tíre seo.

I thank the Ireland-US Council for inviting Sabina and I to join you here this evening. For me it is a great pleasure to have this opportunity to pay tribute to a man whose long and distinguished broadcasting career, in particular his talk shows and in more recent years his beautiful and uplifting music programme on Lyric FM, has so greatly enriched our lives in so many ways.

There can be no doubt that whenever broadcasting is discussed the name Gay Byrne is and will always be mentioned, for it is deeply embedded into the history of broadcasting in Ireland. His is a name that is, and will always be, held in affection across the country. His voice has, for so many years, been as integral to the rhythm of our lives as the passing of the seasons.

Somewhere in the recesses of my memory is an interview Gay Byrne gave where he said a microphone and a sandwich were all he needed to give him the satisfaction of talking to his audience, and they were his audience, whether it came from the controversies, the hurt or joy of the day, from jazz festivals or the heroics of musicals.

A great friend of broadcasting Lord Reith said public service broadcasting was at its best when it was ‘a nation talking to itself’. Gay Byrne was just that and giving its consciences, its compassion a prod as well.

Gay Byrne’s talent first came to the attention of Irish audiences when he joined Radio Éireann in 1958. Four years later he hosted the first ever Late Late Show and television history was made.

Throughout his legendary radio programme and the now iconic Late Late Show, Gay’s career continued to map a changing Ireland. His professionalism, empathy and inherent judgment threw light into many dark corners of Irish life, gave a voice to the vulnerable, shattered so many silences and uncovered so many truths.

His courage as a broadcaster and his willingness to confront the harrowing issues of our times has impacted profoundly on our society and helped to give birth, not only to a new age of television and radio in Ireland, but to a nation that aspired to be kinder, more inclusive, more generously shaped in order that it might welcome and accommodate all its citizens in all of their achievements, their strengths, their vulnerabilities and their humour.

He always had too much compassion to be ironic or cynical. It was sufficient to celebrate absurdity which was rarely in short supply.

Controversial, outspoken, and unafraid to break new ground, it has been said that, throughout his many decades on television and radio, Gay Byrne’s role in the shaping and crafting of modern-day Ireland has been profound. Where others were reticent, afraid, or simply too cute, he took the lead.

Long before the advent of social media, he created a collective discourse, forcing Irish society to look at itself in the mirror with an unflinching gaze. He conducted and facilitated debate on issues such as the tragic death of Anne Lovett and the Kerry Babies case, pieces of broadcasting of events that would be such critical turning points in the story of our nation.

Gay Byrne, however, is as renowned for his light touch and relaxed style as for his readiness to push boundaries and uncover new truths. As comfortable talking to internationally celebrated figures as to local heroes and sporting legends, Gay’s instinctive intelligence combined with his generosity as an interviewer served not only him but his audience well.

His instinct as a listener and his ability to accept the veracity of many different voices has always brought us deep into the humanity of others. In so doing, he has reminded us all that seeking to live and practice what we aspire to as humanity is something we all share no matter our role or distinction in life.

Indeed, it is his gift for allowing all that we have in common to emerge that has defined Gay Byrne’s career and made it such a unique and unforgettable one.  Someone once described such interviewing as akin to peeling an onion.

It is his gift of openness to the story that has enabled Gay Byrne to make such a profound contribution to growing and strengthening the unique relationship that exists between Ireland and the United States of America – a place which is home to so many of Irish descent.

His professionalism, his understanding and respect for the many individual voices that comprise our world, and the right of those individual voices to articulate their views, to have their space in a world of communication, and his ability to respect difference, while celebrating all that we share, have greatly enhanced the bonds between Ireland and the United States.

Tá muid go léir fíorbhuíoch do Gay Byrne, is duine é a bhí macánta, modhúil agus proifisiúnta i gcónaí le linn a ghairmréim rathúil ilghnéitheach.

Gay Byrne was, for many decades, the insightful and courageous voice of a changing Ireland in a changing world. Today he is, quite deservedly, celebrated as our greatest ever broadcaster.

I am very sorry to hear that Gay cannot be with us this evening to accept this lifetime achievement award in person, but I have great pleasure in presenting his wife Kathleen Watkins and his daughter Suzi with the award on his behalf.

Treaslaím leis. Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.