As the organ of St Mary’s Pro Cathedral played every strata of Irish life into their seats for the funeral of Gay Byrne, a single butterfly flew amongst them.
Many cultures associate the butterfly with the souls of loved ones. Some see them as a symbol of resurrection. Many people around the world view the butterfly as representing endurance, change, and hope.
Billionaire businessman Denis O’Brien, former presidents Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, singerAndrea Corr, and The Dubliners’ John Sheahan were among mourners. As was Pat Kenny, Claire Byrne, and Ryan Tubridy, all sitting near one another, with President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in close proximity. Along with the butterfly, which never once left the cathedral, instead spending its time by the altar or near the light of the cathedral’s stain-glass windows.
Described by Fr Leonard Moloney as a man of “spontaneous tenderness” while also being able to “engender controversy” only to deftly diffuse it with his humour, there were many sides to Gay Byrne celebrated at his simple funeral Mass in Dublin’s Pro Cathedral.
There was the “veritable choirmaster of the national conversation”, there was the “man of faith — the kind that asked questions” and then there was the husband, father, and grandfather known only as “Rara” to those who knew him best — a name that came from his grandson Cian’s “monumental effort” to pronounce granddad as a young child.
There was the man who endured three years of cancer treatment, the man who shaved his head when he learned all of his hair would fall out, and the man whose same grandson Cian would kiss his grandfather’s hairless head in a private moment of shared intimacy.
But everyone felt they knew Rara, be that as Uncle Gaybo or just Gay.
“He was a part of their (the public’s) lives,” his daughter Suzy O’Byrne told the congregation in her welcome address.
As the politicians and broadcasters of the day sat side-by-side on the wooden pews, thousands of people lined the streets outside,listening as the Mass was broadcast to them over speakers.
Among them was one woman, Doreen O’Keeffe, who had once met Gay with her then-90-year-old mother. Doreen, now 80, went to pay her respects to a man who had shown great kindness to her mother when the cameras were no longer rolling.
“When my mother was 90, she got into the Late Late Show. He was so kind to her. I even feel emotional now talking about it. I went up and I said: ‘Oh my mum is 90’, and he said: ‘Come up after the show’.
“So he brought us up after the show. The cameras were gone, but he got someone and said: ‘Will you take a photograph of this lady with me’. Until the day she died, she always had that photograph of Gay Byrne. We were all moved to the back shelf after that,” said Doreen.
Also among the public mourners was Bernadette Russell whose sole gratitude to Gay Byrne was for how he advanced the rights of women in Irish society.
“He made massive changes for women,” she said.
“He even had his say about the Catholic Church, but he stuck with his religion to the end, even though he would have had problems. He aired them, but he still kept his own faith,” added Doreen.
Back inside, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin led the final commendation of the soul of Gay Byrne, showering his coffin with burning incense and telling the congregation “it was an honour for this cathedral” to celebrate such a man.
On the back of the MGay Byrne’s ass booklet was the poem, ‘Another Verse’, by Noel Coward. It starts with the line:
“I’m here for a short visit only, and I’d rather be loved than hated”. It ends with the line: “I’d like to think I was missed a bit”.
As the coffin of the late Gay Byrne was lifted on to the shoulders of six men, including those of his grandson Cian O’Byrne, the congregation rose to their feet one last time, giving the broadcaster his final, and longest, round of applause — a sign of just how much he will be missed.