Howth was Gaybo's refuge – he could 'escape the audience'

As the cortège carrying Gay Byrne on his final journey crested the hill of Howth and descended into the village with the sun at its back, several hundred people lined the street and applauded.

Then the hearse and four mourning cars passed the church and descended towards the harbour.

Although a child of the South Circular Road, Howth was probably the place that he loved most, if only slightly ahead of Dungloe, Co Donegal, where he and Kathleen kept a holiday cottage and spent every summer.

In life people mostly left him alone when he lived in Howth – and they were equally respectful in death.

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“It wasn’t about his audience here,” said one onlooker as people gathered from about 11am.

“This is where he came to escape from them.”

People knew him as a local, nodded or said ‘hello’, but mostly left it at that.

“He went to Mass on the other side of the hill,” said one, as locals, mostly women and retired people, waited in the sunshine. “You’d see him walking in the hills and later in life, when he got a bit slower, along the pier – he loved the pier.”

Standing among the crowds was Nicky McLoughlin, whose shop on the pier, Nicky’s Plaice, Gay Byrne had once mentioned as the place where he bought his fish.

“After it went out on the radio they had to take on three staff,” said another onlooker.

“I’ve come because it’s personal,” said Disabilities Minister Finian McGrath, a member of the Cabinet, as he stood back almost unnoticed from the line of people on the street.

“I always associate Gay with living in Howth and I’d prefer to come out here and pay my respects than be in the middle of the storm in Dublin,” he said.

“I want to pay my respects to Kathleen and the family and have a quite personal moment; Howth is my escape as well,” he added.

In his early days in broadcasting, Byrne had recorded a documentary ‘Last Tram to Howth’ – and while visiting the area, he saw a house for sale.

He later said that he “knew immediately this was where we wanted to live”.

Too busy to go to the auction himself, he sent a friend Jack Maloney who went £300 over the limit, a hefty sum at the time, to acquire his and Kathleen’s first home, overlooking Dublin Bay and near the lighthouse on the Baily rock.

They renamed it Onslow in honour of the flat in Onslow Square, London, where he and ‘Kay’, as she was known in the family, had spent their early married years.

There he enjoyed a lifestyle largely devoid of publicity or admirers, as most of the locals knew him on a first-name basis before he became the most famous face in Ireland and left him alone to walk and cycle at his leisure.

One recalled that many years ago another well-known resident knocked him off his bicycle on the twisting roads around the summit.

The two men were about to exchange angry words when they realised they knew each other.

And so they repaired to Byrne’s house to drink a whiskey and get over the shock of their sudden encounter.

In later life, he and Kathleen moved from Howth to an apartment in Shrewsbury Square in Ballsbridge, Dublin 4, although he often remarked that its great advantage was that it was near the Dart, so that he could easily go back to Howth.

Local friends included the Riverdance couple John McColgan and Moya Doherty, who were friends long before they made their fortune from the iconic dancing show.

The house was taken over and largely remodelled by Gay and Kathleen’s daughter Suzy, who lives there with her husband Ronan O’Byrne and their family.

Locals in Howth were certain that in the weeks leading up to his death, he had planned his funeral with the meticulous detail with which he planned his radio and television programmes.

In the months preceding his death last Monday he had decided to let nature take its course.

It was a tough decision – but was somehow typical of the man.

One friend said that he wept quietly one lunchtime shortly afterwards, knowing that the end would not be long coming.

Fate bestowed a glorious morning for his last journey, with the winter sun glittering on Dublin Bay as he left his former home.

It shone down on the Irish Sea and Ireland’s Eye and Lambay Island in the distance, as the hearse crested the hill shortly after 11.25am on its way to the Pro-Cathedral and the nation’s farewell that awaited.

“On time as usual,” remarked an onlooker and as the cortège disappeared down the hill and the applause died out.

People went back to their daily lives remembering the man who influenced so many – but who to them was just a familiar local figure.

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