What will we do when Gay Byrne dies? That day is still many years away, hopefully, but when Gaybo's time comes, how will Ireland mourn the death and celebrate the life of its greatest broadcaster? Now that the Princess Diana treatment – two books of condolences, a plethora of tribute shows, public tears and a live funeral attended by the president – have been given to a popular but much less historically important broadcaster, how do we pay appropriate tribute to the one person in RTÉ's history who might actually deserve such trappings?
To come at the question another way: had Gay Byrne died suddenly at age 53 in 1987, at the height of his brilliant career, would his death have been greeted with the same hysteria that has marked the past week? There would have been shock, obviously, and tributes. But would the wall that separates private grief from public interest have collapsed as spectacularly as it did over the last 10 days? Live funerals have traditionally been awarded to presidents and popes, as acknowledgement of their singular role in the histories of their nations. If they are to be handed out purely on the basis of celebrity, or the shock of premature death, or because the deceased worked in the national broadcaster and knew some people, it demeans the honour and renders it meaningless.
The decision to broadcast Ryan's funeral mass live on national radio reflects huge changes in Irish life over the last two decades. Celebrity and achievement are now regarded as sides of the same coin. There is no hierarchy of success. Everybody in the world of celebrity is treated the same way, which is to say nobody is regarded as being better or worse, or as having done a better or worse job, than anybody else. The result, which we've seen since Gerry Ryan's death, is that it becomes impossible for people to judge what is an appropriate tribute when somebody passes on. Hence the unbridled, over-the-top nature of the last week.
The media, naturally, has had a key role in creating the hype and hysteria. Ryan's death received more coverage in some tabloids on the day after his death as the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US did on 12 September. The madness continued for more than a week. Even when there was nothing left to say, the media found a thousand different ways to say it. Dave Fanning, clearly devastated by the death of a close friend, seemed taken aback by the hysteria of the media coverage. "Let's be honest about this," he said during the week. "Gerry could be a bollocks too. No question about that. He was self-centred in many ways".
It was a rare moment of balance in the ongoing deification of Gerry Ryan, from one of the few RTÉ people to behave as though Ryan's death was not about them, but about his wife, children, partner and siblings. Pat Kenny was another. His tribute to Ryan on The Late Late Show, in which he described the deceased as one of RTE's holy trinity, along with Gay Byrne and Terry Wogan, was as kind and decent as it was wide of the mark. (Byrne definitely, Wogan possibly, Kenny himself maybe, but Gerry Ryan?) Had Fanning and Kenny been in charge of RTÉ for the week, we might have got some sense of proportion on Ryan's death. Instead, all was out-of-control hysteria, which actually did Ryan a huge disservice by completely overplaying his role in broadcasting history.
It wasn't just the media which was to blame, of course. One characteristic of modern living which some Irish people share with the citizens of the UK and the US is a heightened sense of entitlement in which every event is judged on the basis of how it affects the individual. When somebody well-known dies, therefore, Johnny or Julie see the tragedy primarily as something which affects them, though they may never have met the deceased. Grieving becomes a competitive sport: "He was my radio husband"; "I feel like I've lost a friend". The demand to participate in something that has nothing to do with you, to be publicly validated by your display of grief, is overwhelming.
This democratisation of grief isn't a good thing. The funerals of public figures have generally been a reliable guide to the achievements of the deceased, and to the relative contributions they made to the places and communities in which they lived. The media-driven hysteria over Ryan's death and the frankly stupid coverage of his funeral in papers like the Irish Daily Mail and The Star makes it more difficult to proportionately and fittingly celebrate achievement in the future. The ante has been upped. And not in a good way.
As double standards go... this one is Wilde
Let's see if I have this right. A majority of Dubliners who responded to a City Council survey want to change the official name of Merrion Square from Archbishop Ryan Park. This is because it is called after Dermot Ryan, who was criticised in the Murphy report for his totally inadequate response to reports of child sexual abuse by priests of his diocese when he was archbishop. However, in the same survey, there was overwhelming support for calling Merrion Square after Oscar Wilde, a literary genius, who paid teenage boys for sex. As double standards go, this one may never be beaten.