Amid the tsunami of tributes for Gay Byrne that flooded social media earlier this week, one stands out as particularly touching.
One Twitter user, @Daithigor, wrote: “Canvassing for same sex marriage, a woman was unsure and asked if I could leave a leaflet. She then saw Byrne’s face on the leaflet, supporting civil marriage equality. I saw her face instantly change, ‘he’s voting yes?’ and that was that.”
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It’s a moment that pretty much describes Byrne in a nutshell. The broadcaster was considered such a pillar of social reason that certain pockets of Middle Ireland, or older Ireland, often looked to him for political and social guidance. If Gay felt it was okay… well, then it was. What he said, essentially went.
In the main, Byrne was a middle-class, conservative man; the perfect Trojan Horse to lead Middle Ireland into a newer way of thinking. In effect, Gay made the nation collide with some hugely contentious topics, kicking hornets’ nests that few other broadcasters would even dare approach: divorce, abortion, contraception, sex, sexuality. And let’s be honest, it was about the only sex you were likely to see in Two-Channel Land at one point.
Author Deirdre Purcell, who ghost wrote Byrne’s biography, The Time of My Life, notes that Byrne’s enthusiasm to shed light on the unspeakables was testament to his journalistic hunger.
“With regards to many women’s issues, well, first of all they were novel at the time,” she recalls. “His instinct and nose for a good story meant that he knew what would interest people. If you think back to the issues he raised, the most important changing issues were to do with women. That’s why he was so effective – he didn’t fear talking about stuff like anti-church sentiment or condoms.
“But it was their time,” Purcell adds. “It was his journalistic instinct that led him that way. He might get an anodyne letter, but he would see what was underneath. At the time, women were emboldened by him as a listening ear, and as someone who might stir up the dust a bit.”
And kick up the dust he did, as far back as 1966, in what became the Bishop and The Nightie scenario. In a Mr & Mrs-style quiz, couples were asked questions about their partners.
Gay picked a married couple from the audience, Richard and Eileen Fox from Terenure in Dublin. One of the questions related to the colour of Eileen’s nightie on honeymoon. Richard said it was transparent, while Eileen said she wasn’t wearing any. It prompted Thomas Ryan, then Bishop of Clonfert, to condemn the show from his pulpit. Undeterred, Byrne pointed out that, true enough to its name, it was a late show designed for adult viewers.
In the ’70s, Byrne invited feminist Hilary Boyle onto the show, who condemned the government by calling them “all so afraid of the belt of the crozier”. And, boom – another national conversation ignited.
Elsewhere, few could forget the moment in 1987 when he opened a lone condom from a packet, noting sarcastically: “That is the dreaded object,” to audible gasps. It seems almost inconceivable or comical now, but Ireland was a different country back then; one in which 50pc of Irish pharmacists refused to stock condoms. Byrne’s seemingly innocent gesture bordered on the radical.
One viewer disagreed vehemently with a condom being shown on TV and seemed to sum up the more conservative faction of the viewing public. “I have an 18-year-old daughter who I wouldn’t want to see those things,” he wrote. “If she had been in the sitting room with me last night I’d have been very embarrassed.”
Dr Finola Doyle O’Neill, Broadcast Historian at UCC, told thejournal.ie earlier this week: “He discussed sexual issues openly. He was the first to talk to David Norris about homosexuality and he always included the non-nuclear family. There was also the story in the ’80s of a woman with AIDS on his radio programme. This was at a time when people were very ignorant about it and how it could be transmitted. It was hugely enlightening.”
Four years later, on International Women’s Day, the Late Late Show invited a panel of women to discuss the women’s movement in Ireland. They reminisced about the contraceptive train of 1971, where members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement travelled by train to Belfast in order to buy contraception. It was to become a watershed moment for the show and for the broadcaster. In 1980, on an item about women in the media, Gay made reference to a comment in a report submitted to the RTÉ Authority that Marian Finucane would never host the Late Late Show. Undeterred, Byrne offered Finucane his seat: in the background, broadcaster Nell McCafferty cheered them on: “We’re free at last!”
In fact, some of Byrne’s most stand-out TV moments involved fantastically strong-minded and wilful women.
McCafferty recalls: “Gay was a political weathervane – if he talked about it, it was the water cooler conversation a day later. The national conversation pretty much died with Gay Byrne. He certainly advanced the [women’s liberation] movement by bringing us on. He had his finger on the pulse in that respect. I was very glad he was there.”
Few, too, can forget his particularly touching relationship with Sinéad O’Connor: he was ‘Uncle Gaybo’ to most of us, but was something approaching a paternalistic figure for the strong-headed singer. On 1993, a visibly shy O’Connor took to the Late Late Show stage, and sang a barnstorming version of ‘Make Me A Channel of Your Peace’. “It was beautifully done,” Byrne whispered to her, as proud and protective as any father figure.
Even behind the camera, Byrne knew the power of a more egalitarian workplace.
“He surrounded himself with women at work, for all kinds of different reasons,” observes Purcell.
“He knew that women worked really hard. He knew he identified with women in a way that I found even during [writing] the book, he spoke a lot about different women’s issues. I think his mother would have had a very strong influence on him, and he also talked a lot about how his only sister Mary was the best and nicest of all of his siblings,” adds Purcell. “He also married a very strong woman – he just really enjoyed strong women.”
Occasionally, however, he met his match in more ways than one, and some of his interviews, arguably in keeping with much public sentiment at the time, don’t look quite so progressive in the rear-view mirror. In holding up a mirror to Catholic Middle Ireland, he treaded a fine line between conservatism and liberalism.
In 1992 it was revealed that Bishop Eamonn Casey had fathered a child with an American woman, Annie Murphy. When Murphy appeared on the Late Late Show to plug her book on the affair, Byrne seemed less than his usual welcoming, not to mention impartial, self.
Looking at it now, the famous interview more closely resembles a trial by media, with Byrne cross-examining her on her relationship with the man everyone thought of as the People’s Prelate. “If your son is half as good a man as is his father, he won’t be doing too bad,” Byrne offered as a parting gambit.
“I’m not so bad either, Mr Byrne,” Murphy countered with a hostile glare, before walking off the set.
Were Byrne’s most iconic and progressive moments born out of a genuine concern to advance certain social issues, or a wily hunch that giving women a national platform and a voice would incite whatever the ’70s or ’80s version of ‘clickbait’ was? The jury is out. Where Mná na hEireann would be without any of these on-screen moments, though, probably doesn’t bear thinking about.
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