Saturdays and Sundays, Shay Byrne has the luxury of a warm duvet in his Dundrum home until the obscenely decadent hour of 9.00am. Come Monday to Friday, however, the first alarm goes off at ten to four, the second at 4.00am. “That’s feet on the ground at 4 or you’re in trouble. I made the mistake in the early days of getting up at half four and running in the door here.”
The presenter is the only living soul in the radio building at that time, getting ready to go on air at 5.30am. His is the only car in the car park, and the buck stops with him, there is no immediate back-up if things go wrong. He’s often the first to know what’s going on in the world, scanning the day’s newspapers for listeners. On air before the first AA bulletin, he always checks public transport, to keep listeners informed.
I meet him at 10.15am, three hours after he has come off air. “Are you wrecked?” I ask. “Yes”, he nods and grins, although you wouldn’t know he was tired. He never complains about the early start, because once you start complaining, that’s the slippery slope.
He stays in RTÉ for programme meetings some days. Someone might suggest a meeting at 1.00pm, but he will push for 11.00am, more like his lunchtime. He works at home in the afternoons, which helps. “Because I’ve got three kids and I go to bed at different times, I need to have some sort of life. I like to go to gigs and to see what’s going on.”
Shay Byrne grew up in Artane, and his initial work instinct was towards his father Jimmy’s painting contractor buiness, where he worked for many years. He sold mobile phones for a spell and later video cameras and projectors which took him to Montrose. “I started to get a taste for this place and saw that there was something in it”, he says.
He met his wife Linda when they were both in a production of Grease in 1996. 2000 was a big year. “My father died in February, we bought a house in July, and we got married in October.” In 2004, he began to work for events companies, dressing up for promotions, karaoke, DJing, playing Elvis in Christmas cabarets.
Around the same time, RTÉ were looking for continuity announcers. Linda said it would suit him, and on the eve of the closing date, he stayed up until 2.00am recording his voice. He sent off his application and was invited for a training course. He started to work weekends and nights, filling in on music programmes and hosting a weekend sports programme.
“In 2006, I realised I didn’t want to be a painting contractor any more”, he says. He began to work as a researcher for Ryan Tubridy and Derek Mooney and presented his own show, Shay Byrne’s Friday Lounge. He worked hard and was emphatically flexible. “I mightn’t be the most inspired presenter, but I’m certainly very reliable”, he says.
He took over at Risin’ Time in March 2011, some time after its presenter Maxi went on long-term leave. The genial host is sent DIY compilation CDs by his fans, and I ask him for two desert island discs. He pauses. “I love The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. A controversial one now, Ropin’ in the Wind by Garth Brooks, I love a bit of country ’n’ western.”
He has three children: Holly, eight, Jack, six, and Katie, four, and we hear lots about family life on Risin’ Time. He recently mentioned the “two taxis” that would ferry the children over the weekend to speech, drama, tennis, Beavers (scouts) and ballet lessons. Shay’s mother Hilda also listens to the programme every morning.
Mum is his biggest fan but also his biggest critic: “She calls me most days to either criticise or praise”, he says. “’didn’t like that song . . .’, ‘why did you play that?’, ‘you shouldn’t have said that about that news story.’” But mostly she likes him a lot. His other listeners, on the other hand, while not family, are becoming firm friends.