A mourning for an age of innocence

Gay Byrne and his wife Kathleen Watkins with their grandson, then six day-old Cian, and his mother Suzy, at the marriage of their daughter Crona and Philip Carney at Spiddal Church in 2004.  Photograph by Mike Shaughnessy.

Gay Byrne and his wife Kathleen Watkins with their grandson, then six day-old Cian, and his mother Suzy, at the marriage of their daughter Crona and Philip Carney at Spiddal Church in 2004. Photograph by Mike Shaughnessy.


In semiotics, there is the signifier and the signified.

The signifier — any material thing that signifies, such words on a page, a sound, a facial expression, an image.

The signified — the concept that a signifier refers to.


At Christmastime in our house, we would borrow a television. A bank official would be heading away for two weeks or so and while he was gone, he lent us his telly. For two weeks, as soon as the tea was cleared, we would watch everything. Movies, Maureen Potter entertainment specials, Billy Smart’s Circus, The Riordans Christmas Special, even the ads. Old Spice, Arnotts, Clerys, ads for places we had never seen or might never would.

For the rest of the year, I would be lost in back issues of National Geographic and Readers Digest and classic books of adventure and fun. But when this thing came in, it changed everything. Great excitement when it was handed over to us; and great sadness when it went back.

This stranger on top of the dresser, right in beside the crib which was an old Pye radio set cleaned out of its valves and innards, and converted into a Bethlemanian stable with Dermot Bannon-style open frontage for socialising with those unexpected guests bringing gold, frankincense and the odd bit of myrrh.

It got us hooked — and later we started to hire a telly. This wondrous beacon of one-channel land. On Saturday nights, we’d sit around the big open fire, drink cocoa and watch as one man introduced a different world to us. Of fun, of debate, of shock. We’d sit there until a topic might be deemed too risqué at which point, you’d be send out for sticks or a sky hook or a skirting board ladder. Anything to prevent the filth from permeating the brain.


If you got to hear Tico’s Tune, the theme to the Gay Byrne radio show, you knew you had convinced your Mam that you were too unwell to go to school. The sheet of blotting paper in the shoes would have drawn enough blood from the head and given you a pallid death-like visage, enough to convince her that the poor mite was in no fit state to walk the mile to school in a dufflecoat that smelled permanently of rain.

However, once that theme music to Gay’s morning radio show came on, you knew you were safe, that the time had passed beyond which you would be able to go to class.

That a day of blankets and hot tea and warm toast lay ahead. A day of reading comics rather than Peig. When that music hit into your head, it was as if you had a secret pact with Gay, that you had done your best to get on board his ship of listeners and together you would set sail for the next few hours. And what harm did it do us?


This week, our screens, our newspapers, our phones are full of the signifiers that triggered off those memory bursts in our brain. Each one of these signifiers representing an era in time; a status maybe differing from what you hold now; time spent with people who are possibly no longer around; the acknowledgement that that time, and those circumstances will never ever happen again.

It was a time of innocence, of ignorance, perhaps forced denial of the reality that lay just around the corner. Although, it started in monochrome, there is no doubt that the Ireland that lived in black and white became a colourful one under the lights of the Late Late Show; and the unique ability of its presenter to unwittingly drag us into the 20th century. And so we mourn not just the passing of a man, but of someone who represented that Ireland, who gave us the topics for our weekly conversation.

The generation who are growing up now will perhaps never understand the uniqueness of that era. Of just how malleable we all were, rabbits in the headlight of the glow from the cathode ray tube; mesmerised by a side of Ireland that we never knew.

Now, we are exposed to so much more. What happens on one side of the globe affects us just seconds later. Back in that day, America knew who shot JR a week before we did, and yet the identity of Kirsten remained a secret here until it was shown on that Monday night.

A lot has been written about Gay Byrne this week — and deservedly so for the role he played in our lives and in shaping us. For the light he threw out ahead of us, we thank him, and we express our gratitude to his family for sharing him with us, for allowing us to mourn a time of innocence.


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