Right now, like thousands (millions?) of people around Ireland, I’m listening to 2FM‘s special programming dedicated to the life of Gerry Ryan, who sadly passed away yesterday morning. People are ringing in, devastated at the news – not just his friends and colleagues, but everyday people like you and I who listened in to his show.
Just yesterday morning, I had a short twitter conversation with a friend of mine about Gerry – before news of his death broke. She told me about his coverage of the Hunky Dorys ad campaign and my flippant reply was: “Gerry Ryan’s a prize eejit at the best of times anyway”. And yes, to me he was an eejit on-air sometimes – and I’m sure Gerry knew that he was a very controversial and polarising person who had as many people who disliked him as loved him. And yet, anyone who said they didn’t like him – like myself – curiously had listened to many hours of his shows in years past…
The more I think about Gerry Ryan, the more I realise what a huge voice he was in my life growing up. I have really clear memories of listening to his shows on subjects that hitherto had been uncovered on Irish radio. Many radio presenters were afraid to talk about sex, rape, divorce, or even ghosts (or sex with ghosts!). Gerry wasn’t. He talked about whatever his listeners wanted to talk to him about – he spoke to Lavinia Kerwick about her rape trial, giving rape victims a voice on Irish radio for possibly the first time. He spoke about his marriage, his wife Morah, and their courtship, parenthood and subsequent break up – he invited listeners into his life, whether they wanted to be there or not.
I remember when I was about 10 or 11, doing some work for my dad in his office and listening to Gerry talk to young women who had had children out of wedlock. In the early 90s in Ireland, this was still a pretty taboo subject, and for many of these women, it was their first time being given a platform to speak about the hurt, shame and shock they felt about their situation. It opened my young eyes to the fact that for women, pregnancy doesn’t always come at the perfect time; and that women are frequently ostracised or shamed because of being unmarried and pregnant.
One young mother said that she had covered up her pregnancy because of how ashamed she was – she’d walk down the road eating Mars Bars so that her neighbours would think she was getting fat, not carrying a child. This image has never left me, and probably did much to strengthen my feminist beliefs.
Radio is such an important media, but it was even more so when there were two Irish TV channels and a small handful of radio stations. As society changed, radio and television changed to reflect that – and in many cases, spurred on this change. If it wasn’t for Gay Byrne covering the topics he did on The Late Late Show, and Gerry Ryan talking to the people he did on 2FM, Irish people would have been lacking a voice and an insight to that change. We sometimes don’t appreciate that, as these days Irish society is a lot more open and we have more outlets to communicate with each other.
On a more simplistic level, radio is a friend – when you’re on your own at home, in your car, or minding your children. And so Gerry, like all radio presenters who engages with their listeners, became a friend to his loyal listeners.
As I got older, I drifted away from listening to his show, and often his bolshy approach to subjects relating to sexism in particular. I wouldn’t have said I was a big fan of his in latter years. And yet, he left an impact on me that contributed towards me wanting my own career in radio.
We all want to be remembered when we are gone, and there will certainly be no forgetting Gerry Ryan. My thoughts go out to his family, friends and colleagues.