Byrne is born into a successful family of journalists from Dublin. Cared for by servants, from a young age Byrne feels like she isn’t loved as much as the other children in the family. She is the middle child with two brothers and two sisters. She attends boarding school in Rathfarnham and has a limited relationship with her parents. Her father is a racing journalist and broadcaster who lives in the Gresham Hotel on O’Connell Street where his job at Radio Éireann is located. She becomes addicted to nicotine and alcohol. Two of her siblings die from alcoholism.
In the late 1940s, Byrne works at the Brazilian embassy in Dublin. She is a pioneer in Irish radio and her program, “Agony Aunt,” leads to public confessionals on the radio. She writes an Agony Aunt column for the Evening Press during the same period. She is best known for her 22 years of the radio program ‘Dear Frankie.’ On the show she gives relationship advice to listener requests. Dear Frankie, sponsored by Jacob’s, paves the way for the contemporary radio programs such as The Gerry Ryan Show and RTÉ Radio 1’s Liveline with Joe Duffy.
Dear Frankie is broadcast from 1963 to 1985. It opens with the words, ‘Welcome to Women’s Page, a program for and about you.’ The program begins as a 15-minute question and answer format on household issues but soon becomes a radio program that allows people to share confidences and seek advice. She shares household problems with her listeners ranging from jealous husband to lovelorn teenagers. She claims to know nothing about domestic science but that she does know about love. She advises on domestic relationships while living a life of turmoil. The most unique feature of Dear Frankie is that the program sets people to talking, and helps begin a national conversation on the lonely struggles of generations of Irish women.
Byrne never marries but has a 25+ year relationship with Frank Hall, the satirist and columnist for the Evening Herald. Their relationship has been disputed by some family members who deny they had a child together and that the couple were just good friends. Nevertheless, in the middle of this relationship, she becomes pregnant in the mid-1950s, giving birth to their daughter Valerie on July 12, 1956. She wants to keep the baby but ultimately gives her up to St. Clare’s Orphanage in Stamullen. She frequently visits her baby daughter until she is eventually adopted some 15 weeks later, going to a family who goes on to adopt four more children. Her relationship with Frank Hall comes to an end in the mid-1970s. Although she had struggled with alcoholism for many years, she stops drinking in the mid-1970s, but is subsequently prescribed Valium and is addicted to the drug for the remainder of her life.
Byrne and her daughter are reunited on December 13, 1983, a decade before her death. The last time Valerie sees her mother is exactly ten years later, on December 13, 1993, in the mortuary in St. Vincent’s Hospital.
Byrne dies at the age of 71 from Alzheimer’s disease in St. Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin, on Saturday, December 11, 1993. Tributes are paid by colleagues and friends including the RTÉ assistant Director-General, Bobby Gahan, who describes her voice as “one of the greatest sounds of radio.” Others who pay public tribute to her include fellow broadcasters Larry Gogan and Gay Byrne.
Byrne is remembered as an influential force during the time of her radio show, and it has been said that an entire generation can hum the signature tune to her radio program. Following her death there is an outburst of support. Gay Byrne describes her as having been “a national institution who had been loved by everyone.” Dear Frankie is often credited as the first ‘agony aunt’ radio show program format in Ireland.
Byrne’s talk show and life inspire numerous pieces of literature including a stage production in 2010 and 2012, authored by Niamh Gleeson and produced by the Five Lamps Theater Company, which tells the story of her ‘tragic and secretive life.’ She is also the subject of a book published in 1998, which compiles the advice which she gave on Dear Frankie. In 2006, RTÉ airs a documentary on Byrne, in which they explore her life following the show, and include interviews with her family and friends, including her daughter Valerie.
Byrne is also famous for having been the first woman to found a public relations company in 1963, that works almost exclusively in promoting Jacob’s.