Back in the 1960s, Andy Warhol was credited with predicting that in the future each and every one of us would experience 15 minutes of fame — an observation in response to the proliferation of television channels across the US — a premonition of a monster with an insatiable appetite for devouring and churning out content and people.
The year 1961, marked the arrival of the television age to Ireland. Within a year, The Late Late Show presented by Gay Byrne was aired for the first time — a national treasure and an iconic programme was born.
And after generations of reciting decades of the rosary at bedtime, the public got up off its knees, turned away from the red glow of the Sacred Heart bulb and tuned in to the flickering images beamed from Dublin to the box in the corner of living rooms across the country.
Ireland of the 1960s was for the most part a compliant and ritualistic society — we took pride in our innocence, some boasted that we were still a nation who sat down to eat our dinner in the middle of the day.
Our national moral compass was set by a tightly orchestrated cosy cartel of Church, State, and a new breed of gombeen man, and any slight deviation from the norm could be cleansed by the weekly visit to the local confessional and three Hail Marys.
In the current post-millennial, Generation Z digital era, it is nigh on impossible to conceptualise the sheer power wielded by The Late Late Show back in the day. Simply put: It was a time of one screen per household — broadcasting from one station to one nation.
Long before the invention of the iPhone, when the electric toaster was the most intelligent device found in any household, live television meant live seat-of-your-pants production and watching it was a communal activity.
Like clockwork, each week, the whole country gathered around their television sets to watch in unison the same programme. Television became the new “opium of the people” and we were addicted. In time, the Late Late became the great unifier, presenting a singular forum for thought, opinion, and national debate. One station. One programme. One nation.
Right through the second half of the 20th century and into the new millennium, The Late Late Show with Gay Byrne at the helm, became a national staple. And though designed and styled as a light entertainment, music, and chat show, every now and again challenging concepts such as contraception, abortion, freedom of choice, divorce, gay rights, clerical celibacy would poke a finger into the delicate underbelly of middle Ireland’s sacred cows.
Hypocrisy was rife and exposed, and for the most part dissent was suppressed, but just when we least expected it, some unsuspecting story would explode on our televisions screens, and become the hot topic of conversation for the week in the farmyards and city streets right across the country.
It was this very dichotomy of light entertainment and genuine public outrage that made The Late Late Show unmissable and so deliciously attractive.
The ‘next Gay Byrne’
Gay Byrne was a rare talent, fearless in the face of adversity, he stood his ground against politician, pulpit, and an irate public. And yes, on a number of occasions he was out of sync with the Irish psyche: His offhand treatment of Annie Murphy, the mother of Bishop Eamon Casey’s son, and his refusal to reach out the hand of welcome to Gerry Adams, are two that spring to mind.
But the fact that he underestimated the public reaction in itself made for engaging and challenging television.
At his core, Gay Byrne was a gifted entertainer, with a deceptively light and easy conversational style that paved the way for the privileged classes, enlarged egos, and political elites to become hoisted by their own petard.
Gaybo had the dual ability to present a window to the outside world and yet raise a mirror to reveal and lay bare the Irish soul.
For a number of years, murmurings from Montrose would set the media into overdrive as to the identity of “next Gay Byrne”. Eventually, when he chose to retire from the show and the time came to find his replacement, a whole string of worthy candidates stepped forward to sit on the most coveted seat in the land.
Alas such large shoes to fill and an unrealistic deep-seated nostalgia for a national icon would always make it a difficult settling in time for any new appointment. In time, the term “next Gay Byrne” was a job description broadcasters learned to avoid like an albatross.
Over the years, continuity has been assured and some of our most accomplished broadcasters have introduced the show including Pat Kenny (1999-2009), Ryan Tubridy (2009-2023), with guest presenters Gerry Ryan and Miriam O’Callaghan. But this week, a new era beckons, and the baton will once again be passed on, when Patrick Kielty steps up to the mark.
I wish Patrick Kielty the very best and continued success with this his latest endeavour. I believe The Late Late Show is still as relevant as it ever was.
The light entertainment music and chat show format continues to be a winning formula across the globe.
Meanwhile, there will always be injustice to rail against, and hypocrisy to expose. And though viewing television is no longer a communal activity — the viral nature of trending on social media has once again united the audience far beyond our native shores of terrestrial television and into the greater realm of a global phenomenon.
Keeping hats out of the ring
What I found fascinat