I can't remember who asked me if I’m related to Gay Byrne. I know I was around 20 and working as a young journalist in the Channel Islands. 

I know I paused before answering, considering that this person would probably never know if I claimed that Gay was my uncle. But in the end, I confessed that we were not related.

Years later, when I told Gay the story, he said we were all Wicklow Byrnes anyway and most likely related some way back.

That’s become my new answer and if I ever get round to doing my family tree, maybe there will be a link somewhere - and how proud I would be if that were the case. 

Like most people of my generation in Ireland, I grew up watching Gay Byrne presenting The Late Late Show. I was raised on the distinctive signature tune of his groundbreaking radio show. Hearing it often meant it was a day off school and the dulcet tones of Gay were as comforting as the smell of my mother’s morning baking.

When I was 12, I got my hands on a copy of The Time of My Life, the book written about Gay, with his cooperation, by Deirdre Purcell. I devoured it. 

The story of the working class boy who learned his craft, climbed the ranks, took ownership of his destiny and became unassailable as the great interviewer of his time. For a 12-year-old who had ambitions beyond her reach, it was grist to the mill.

"For me, Gay Byrne was the best interviewer of his generation and of mine"

I began to study his body language on the show, he didn’t reach his right arm across to the guest because that might exclude the audience. He made the studio audience feel that they were there with him, part of a team and the guest was visiting all of them, not just the presenter.

As I write this, I am telling myself that these are lessons I need to be cognisant of every time I step onto the studio floor. 

In later years, Gay would remind me to speak slowly and clearly, never to forget that radio listeners are joining you by choice and they need to be looked after.

Nine years ago, I was making a big career decision to leave a job I loved and join RTÉ. The work I was going to do in RTÉ initially wasn’t quite where I wanted to be and I was struggling to make up my mind. 

I called Gay. He spent a long time asking me was I happy, what were my ambitions, what would I find fulfilling and then finally advised me to go to RTÉ and see where it led me. Ever since, Gay kept an eye on me, checking in from time to time, making sure I was alright and happy.

When a show ends and the lights come down in a TV studio, you instinctively know whether it’s been a good programme or one to file under 'could do better'. 

But the best nights were the ones when you got the text from Gay. The message might just say 'well done you' or 'powerful' but it meant so much. 

My 12-year-old self is sitting in my childhood bedroom not quite believing that the man who was a giant of my formative years would deign to send me messages of support - I feel a great privilege. 

We all have days when you doubt yourself and your ability, those are the days when having those little notes of support are like an antidote to the self-doubt. 

For me, Gay Byrne was the best interviewer of his generation and of mine. A couple of months ago, he texted me to congratulate me on a difficult and emotional programme that I had presented. 

My reply to him was, Gay, if only you knew that I strove to do it just as you would. 

And in truth, I’m still learning from him. 

Thank you Gay - for the public masterclass and the personal support. 


We'll be paying tribute to Gay Byrne on Claire Byrne Live tonight. If you'd like to take part in the programme, please email clairebyrnelive@rte.ie, or call 01-2083494.