As we usher in 2023, our minds turn to new beginnings. Everything has a beginning, but the stories of how some of our most beloved and familiar institutions began can be quite surprising, writes Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh


Is there any Irish institution more cherished and familiar than The Late Late Show? For sixty years RTE’s flagship TV programme has more or less served as the fireside of the Irish nation. But The Late Late Show began as something quite different from the talk show we’re all familiar with today, as its original host Gay Byrne recounted in his memoir To Whom It Concerns.

The Late Late Show was conceived by the RTÉ producer, Tom McGrath. As Gay Byrne recalls: ““His idea was that the show should, as far as possible in the admittedly artificial environment of a television studio, reflect the atmosphere of an evening round an Irish country fire. The young master was having guests and it was therefore his job to entertain them… To help the conversation along, he always had with him three old and recognisable companions.”

The three “old and recognisable” companions were to represent three common types. The grandfather who is “a little out of date and doesn’t get on well with any of those new-fangled ideas”, was personified by Liam Ó Briain, a veteran of the 1916 Rising and an Irish language scholar.

The model Verona Mullen represented the “sister who is a good-looking blonde”. The comedian Danny Cummins filled the role of the “young brother or regular visitor to the house who is an irregular scamp” and who was “likely to break the whole thing up with a badly-timed and irrelevant joke”. This panel was a fixture for the first season.

Originally, the show had a deliberately impromptu atmosphere: “The whole point of the show of course was that it was live, with an audience, happening as it happened in the studio, and that Gay knew nothing whatever about the guests before he met them right there on the show. I came in at the last minute and was given details– and scant details at that– about each guest on a card.” The show was originally broadcast at 11:20.

As with so many successes, the critics were at first quite withering about The Late Late Show. The Irish Times critic G.A. Olden wrote: “I question the wisdom of putting on a live interview-cum-entertainment caper at this extraordinary hour.”

The Irish Press critic complained that “it is definitely not light entertainment, for it was far too heavy and there was not enough music.” One letter-writer to the Evening Herald dubbed it “the Awful Awful Tripe Show.” However, it was not very long before the show struck a chord with the public, eventually evolving into the Late Late we know today.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own