They say you should never speak ill of the dead, an injunction few of us observe, since it would mean no historical judgement on characters such as Pol Pot, Vlad the Impaler or Maggie Thatcher. What the injunction implies is that we should not speak ill of the recently dead. Judging by the many tributes to the late Gay Byrne, that’s something Irish people take seriously.
Like many other Irish people, I watched The Late Late Show over several decades. Most of the time it was bland and boring; occasionally it could be riveting and revealing. We were told by the media that Gay was leading us out of our insular, priest-ridden past into the bright new world of Bono, Bob Geldof and Boyzone. I never felt led by Gay. I detest Bono, I find Geldof too much in love with himself, and Boyzone was a pop phenomenon which showed how much the world loves simple music. As a broadcaster, Gay was highly skilled. As a person, I find myself remembering Mary Lou McDonald’s word for Leo Varadkar: smarmy. There was something professional about his empathy and admiration: it came more from his role as a TV or radio presenter, rather than from his humanity.
Among the many tributes that have poured in for Gay, and the many moments recalled from his broadcasting career, no one has mentioned Gay’s attitude to the North. Odd, that, because he had one. And one which he wasn’t slow to air. It was that the violence in the North was the product of murderers – that is, the IRA – who were anxious to have other people die for Ireland rather than themselves. I always found that a simplistic reading of the Troubles at best and more likely a calculated distortion by someone who had spent some time in Donegal but little time in the North.
The one occasion on which Gay’s professionalism and anti-republican stance came a cropper was when he arranged to have Gerry Adams on the Late Late as a guest. He had lined up several people who detested Adams, among them Austin Currie and Hugh Leonard. When Adams entered and extended his hand, Gay refused to shake it – a first as far as I know. He then settled to give Adams the grilling of his life, with the willing participation of Currie, Leonard and the other anti-Gerry set.
There can rarely have been an occasion in Gay’s broadcasting career when things went so irredeemably wrong . As the minutes wore on and Adams attempted to explain the situation in the North and the roots of the violence that was raging at the time, Gay and his carefully-selected panel of critics attempted to present him as a blood-thirsty thug. After five minutes or thereabouts you could detect a change in the studio audience. At first well-disposed towards Gay and the view of his ambush-group, they moved rapidly to supporting Adams, to the point where his every statement was received with warm applause. Gay and his friends looked frustrated and in despair.
Why did we not read about that Late Late disaster? Because, I suppose, people felt it would be to speak unkindly of the dead. It would also be to remind people that the establishment of the South and Gay weren’t really all that far apart, and where necessary they were happy to collude in a historical misrepresentation of the Troubles.
Beyond all that, I’ve never trusted people who claim to be my uncle when they’re clearly not.