So long, George Byrne

George Byrne RIP (image borrowed from the Irish Times)

There comes a time in every journalist’s life – there must – when it occurs to them that the field is actually open to them.

It is not the sole preserve of the privileged, of the chosen few; through hard work and talent, persistence and force of personality, a career could be hewn in the face of adversity.

For me, that moment first came when I read George Byrne in Hot Press.

He was different – creatively, comically cynical, dismissive of just about everything, and yet hugely engaging, entertaining and convincing.

His writing often left you wishing you agreed with him, even when he had just sublimely butchered your favourite singer or artist or footballer in a few hundred words.

Years later, when I was part of the rag-tag troupe that would entertain the late drinkers in the White Horse, George would often show up.

(I must point out that he would do so before or after the music was over – he wasn’t much of a man for covers, and certainly not the way we played them.)

His mind fizzing like a firecracker, he was infuriating and demonically entertaining in equal measure as he sat at the end of the bar with Ritchie, Len, Robbie and the rest of the regulars.

There was no subject he couldn’t talk about, but unlike most of the denizens of Dublin pubs, then and now, he did so with an authority based on a general knowledge that was broad, deep and ever-expanding.

He never changed.

He never adjusted his accent when went on the radio or the telly to review films or books or music.

He never watered down his criticism or his opinions.

He never accepted that something could be good simply because it was popular.

He wasn’t there to be liked.

He wasn’t even there to be respected.

He was there because he believed that he was right and everyone else was wrong, and it was his moral duty to tell them that.

And he was usually right.

It was in the White Horse too – a great Dublin pub for football conversation before it closed down (shortly before it fell into the street) – that I learned of his love for Shamrock Rovers.

He was no plastic fan, content to pay lip service to the domestic league in the hope of getting an easy ride and a spot in the press box off the FAI.

He genuinely loved the club, its players and its fans, if not always its boards and its owners, and if you had an hour to waste you could always ask the fateful questions.

– Did you see Rovers last week George? What did you think?

It was like winding up a particularly virulent, eloquent, occasionally foul-mouthed toy and letting it off.

In the vanilla world of click and like and share, of “retweet to agree” and “favourite to go f*ck yourself”, a world where strong opinions and brilliant minds are scorned, he will be missed.

In truth, I haven’t seen George in maybe 20 years, but ever since I picked up a pen and started bashing a keyboard in the hope of making a crust out of it, his image, and those of a decreasing number of his ilk in Irish journalism, has been with me.

He’d laugh mockingly at the pretentiousness of the notion, but he inspired me to believe that journalism could be about ordinary people and their extraordinary passions.

The credits rolled today. A masterpiece of a cantankerous career is complete.

So long George Byrne, you extraordinary man.