Born in Dublin in August 1934, Gay was educated at Synge Street School before gaining employment in a number of different jobs. He admired Irish broadcaster Eamonn Andrews and as a result was employed at Radio Eireann then located in the GPO on Henry Street. Gay has been a part of RTE since 1958. Known as ‘Gaybo’, Gay has been inducted in the Irish Broadcasting Hall of Fame for his contribution to television broadcasting.
In 1962 when Irish television was launched he became host of a new chat show titled The Late Late Show, a role he held until 1999. The first edition of the entertainment show was broadcast on the then titled Telifis Eireann on July 6th 1962 and was originally thought that it would last one series as a summer filler. The show was an immediate success and over the years has tackled many of the major social issues of the time. The show has courted controversy in tackling issues such as contraception, the Catholic Church and abortion. The show has also been the launching pad for music stars such as U2 and Boyzone.
Gay said of the show “Anonymous, private people to whom something extraordinary had happened whether it was falling out of an aeroplane or escaping from a burning building or a sinking ship and who had the capacity to tell the story and that was always a sure-fire recipe for arresting people's attention.”
In 1964 he briefly left RTE and moved to Britain where he worked on the BBC and Granada Television based in Manchester. On the BBC he hosted ‘Open House’ with Peter Haigh and Robert Robinson who famously chaired the quiz shows ‘Call My Bluff’ and ‘Ask The Family’.
On Granada he hosted a nightly news round up programme ‘Scene at 6.30’. On November 25th, 1963, The Beatles taped a mimed performance of their new single, "I Want To Hold Your Hand"/"This Boy" for use on Scene At 6.30. They were also interviewed, along with Liverpool comedian Ken Dodd, by host Gay Byrne becoming the first man to interview the Beatles on television.
In his absence The Late Late Show continued with Frank Hall as host but Gay returned to the show after one season. Some of the controversies seen on the Late Late with Gay include
The Bishop and the Nightie Affair
A minor furore erupted later in 1966 when the Bishop of Clonfert condemned The Late Late Show as immoral and Gay Byrne as a promoter of "filth". The condemnation stemmed from a small item on the show in which Byrne was interviewing a number of couples to see how well they knew each other. Byrne asked a Mrs. Fox from Terenure if she could remember what colour her nightdress was on the first night of her married life to her Mr. Fox. The woman first implied it was "transparent" before revealing that she might not have worn an item of clothing to bed that night at all. This response was received with laughter by Byrne and the studio audience, with Mrs. Fox then revealing her nightdress had been white. However, the Bishop either misheard or ignored this, feeling the need to protest against this "filthy" programme and the "filth" which was being televised into the nation's homes. The Bishop of Clonfert sent a telegram: "Disgusted with disgraceful performance", prompting a swift RTÉ apology which the Irish Examiner states was similar to the apology the same broadcaster issued during the Brian Cowen nude portraits controversy in 2009
On a March 1966 episode of The Late Late Show a debate was held on the Roman Catholic Church. Brian Trevaskis, a young student making his first television appearance, criticised the Bishop of Galway, Michael Browne for spending so much on a cathedral instead of helping the poor. Trevaskis described the building as a "monstrosity" and referred to the Bishop as a "moron". He was invited back on the show the following week, 6 April 1966, to expand on his opinions. The student referred to the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, a pivotal moment in Irish history, when he expressed his concern over the devotion of money to building churches in a society where women who were impregnated outside marriage were considered outcasts and as such were vulnerable members of society. Trevaskis claimed Ireland was not a Christian country and told of how, when asked if the bishop knew the meaning of the word "moron", he replied using his uncertainty as to whether the bishop knew the meaning of the word "Christian".
Elderly feminist campaigner Hillary Boyle criticised the Irish government when she appeared on The Late Late Show during the 1970s, calling them "all so afraid of a belt of the crozier (the Bishop's stick)".
The Contraceptive Train
When several women, amongst them June Levine and Nell McCafferty, carried bags of condoms from Belfast on a train in protest at Ireland's strict anti-contraception laws in 1971, The Late Late Show became involved in the incident when one of the women, Mary Kenny, appeared in the studio to say that the law was "pretty damn weird".
In 1979, Gay Byrne interviewed a lesbian on The Late Late Show, escaping public condemnation in the process. However, when a couple of former nuns who were lesbians were booked to appear in 1985, a High Court case ensued and calls came for The Late Late Show to be axed altogether as it would "greatly undermine Christian moral values" and "the respect of the general public for nuns" to feature the pair on live television. Protestors gathered to recite decades of the rosary, sing hymns as the show got underway.
The AIDS special
An AIDS special in the 1980s included a controversial demonstration on live television of how to attach a condom to a finger.
In 1992, Bishop Eamonn Casey resigned when it was revealed that he had broken his vow of celibacy having fathered a child with a young American divorcee named Annie Murphy in 1973 during his tenure as Bishop of Kerry. In April 1993, Murphy appeared on The Late Late Show to speak about the affair and their child, Peter. Eamonn Casey had supported their son financially, but had requested that this be kept quiet to protect his career. At the end of the interview Byrne said if the baby was 'half the man his father was' he would be fine and Annie Murphy replied that the boy's mother (meaning herself) was 'not so bad either', drawing applause from the studio audience, Casey spent most of his time since the scandal outside of Ireland, in an effort to avoid media attention but eventually returned in 2006. Casey himself, was a guest on the show incidentally, on several previous occasions – possibly influencing Byrne's apparent scepticism of Murphy's motives and claims on the show.
In 1992 the then Conservative British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke appeared on The Late Late Show. After a pleasant interview, Byrne coaxed and goaded the unwilling Brooke, into singing Oh My Darling, Clementine on a day when seven Protestant construction workers had been killed by an IRA bomb. Unionists were outraged at what seemed to be a moment clearly out of touch with grieving families, and instantly requested the resignation of Brooke. Brooke was humiliated, and subsequently lost his position as Secretary of State to Sir Patrick Mayhew after the 1992 British General Election in April.
In 1999, Pádraig Flynn, Ireland's EU Commissioner, appeared on the show, during which he commented on Tom Gilmartin and a donation of £50,000 to the Fianna Fáil party. Flynn also talked about "the difficulties" in his own life; he talked of having a salary of £100,000 (Irish Púnt) and trying to run three houses, cars and housekeepers along with regular travel. The performance was seen as very out of touch, at a time when house prices in Ireland were rising dramatically, and the average industrial wage was £15,380. This effectively brought to an end any possibility of Flynn returning to a career in politics in Ireland. Flynn also made remarks concerning Tom Gilmartin, a London based Irish builder. In response to Byrne's question that Flynn knew Gilmartin, Flynn answered; "Oh yes, yes. I haven't seen him now for some years. I met him. He's a Sligo man who went to England, made a lot of money, came back, wanted to do a lot of business in Ireland, didn't work out for him, didn't work out for him. He's not well. His wife isn't well. He's out of sorts." Flynn seemed to attack the credibility of Gilmartin at a time when he was being linked in the media to planning irregularities in Dublin. Gilmartin responded by publicising details of meetings with Flynn, and bringing them to the attention of the Planning Tribunal, causing difficulty for Flynn. This "vanity platform" on The Late Late Show saw, as the Irish Examiner later referred to it, Flynn "managed to get both feet into his mouth and talk at the same time".
The Late Late Show continued to cause controversy right up to Byrne's departure. On his second last show he interviewed the gossip columnist Terry Keane, who went on to reveal a long affair with the former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey. Haughey, a lifelong acquaintance of Byrne, had intended to be available for the last show, but went into hiding from the media as a result of the revelations. Haughey had appealed to Keane not to reveal her story. Keane was publicising her book covering her life in Irish public life, and her career as a journalist with the Irish Independent newspaper group.
Comedian Tiernan appeared on the show in 1997 but his routine which had not been cleared by the producers led to a record 300 complaints to the station. The shocking routine saw Tiernan use a string of expletives about the Catholic Church and performing a comic routine which mocked Christ's crucifixion and caused outrage across the nation. Tiernan was warned not to leave the studio for several hours for his own safety, after several irate members of the public arrived at Montrose looking for him.
In 1975 Gay and the Late Late Show with the assistance of chief researcher Pan Collins launched the Toy Show which would become an annual Top Three rated programme on Irish television. In 1979 there was a unique link up with an Ulster Television chat show hosted by Gordon Burns who went onto become the host of the popular ‘The Krypton Factor’.
The Late Late Show has and continues to broadcast a number of dedicated shows known as ‘Tribute Shows’ where one guest often as a surprise would be feted on the show. During Gay’s tenure tributes shows were dedicated to Michael MacLiammoir, The Dubliners, Jimmy Magee, Christy Moore and comedienne Maureen Potter.
Gay stepped down as host of the Late Late Show on May 21st 1999. During a star studded final show U2 members Larry Mullen and Bono presented Gay with a Harley Davidson motorbike. His seat on the show was taken by Pat Kenny.
Gay has presented a number of shows and series as well as the Late Late Show. He was host of The Calor Gas Housewife of the Year in an Ireland when women stayed at home and looked after the house and household.
From 1978 to 1994 he was the host of the annual Rose of Tralee festival broadcast live over two nights from the County Kerry town. Gay was the senior anchor for many years for RTE charity fund raising events ‘The People In Need’ telethon. He was chosen as the Irish host of the British created show ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’ hosted on the BBC by Anne Robinson. The show made by Tyrone Productions lasted two seasons 2000-2002.
‘Class Reunion’ was a This Is Your Life type show that lasted one series in 2005. Also in 2005 Gay presented ‘Gaybo’s Grumpty Men’. In 2008 ‘Gaybo Laughs Back’ was a selection of comedy clips from the many decades of the Late Late Show featuring guest anecdotes and new and familiar comedians.
In 2009 he began hosting ‘The Meaning of Life’, a series of programme interviewing celebrities about their beliefs and traditions. On a lighter note in 2011 he also began hosting ‘For One Night Only’ where he invited a series of musical guests to be interviewed about their life and careers and sing the hits most associated with them. Guests included Imelda May, The Sawdoctors, Christy Moore and Sinead O’Connor.
He hosted the live television concert from the Dublin Convention Centre in honour of Queen Elizabeth II who was making her historic first visit to Ireland in May 2011.
Gay has won a record six Jacobs Awards for his work in broadcasting. Awards came in 1963, 1970, 1971, 1976, 1978 and 1981. He has been recognised by IFTA, IRMA and has been made a Freeman of Dublin.
In tandem with his television career he presented the popular Gay Byrne Hour of RTE Radio 1 from 1973 until December 24th 1999.
He is married to former Harpist and RTE Continuity announcer Kathleen Watkins and the couple have two daughters Suzy and Crona. Outside broadcasting Gay is widely known as the Chairperson of the Road Safety Authority.