Gay Byrne, Who Tackled Taboos as Ireland’s TV Host, Dies at 85

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 the Guinness brewery in Dublin; 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 that Mr. Byrne’s backing of the amendment had persuaded them to vote in favor of it.


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