It started on the Late, Late: the Gaybo revolution
Gay Byrne didn't just dominate TV and radio for decades... according to a new book he helped invent modern Ireland too
Published 29/11/2015 | 02:30
On the morning of February 24, 1984, Gay Byrne delivered one of the most astonishing programmes in the history of Irish radio. For two hours, he read out correspondence from women all over the country who had given birth when they were in their teens and how they felt utterly ostracised from Irish society.
The letters had arrived in droves to RTÉ ever since the news broke a fortnight before of the 15-year-old Longford schoolgirl who had died after giving birth to a stillborn boy. In a perversely symbolic turn of events, Ann Lovett had been found at a religious grotto in the village of Granard. It was a shocking reminder of the secret heartache many people in Ireland suffered then and it made international headlines.
Those who wanted to, anonymously, tell their story turned to one man: Gay Byrne. And, by reading out their letters of anguish and regret live on air, the broadcaster helped open up a national conversation about teen pregnancy and having children out of wedlock that had simply never happened before. Put simply, it was a game-changer and Byrne's career up to that point had been full of game-changing moments.
Now, an academic specialising in Irish broadcasting history has written a book which captures the pivotal role that Gay Byrne played in helping to shape the Ireland we know today. The Gaybo Revolution by Dr Finola Doyle O'Neill of UCC's School of History offers an engagingly readable appraisal of Byrne's lengthy broadcasting career on both television and radio.
"His influence is huge," she says. "He changed the face of Irish broadcasting - talk radio owes a huge debut to him, for instance - but he had a huge role in Irish life too, by bringing to the fore topics that hadn't really been addressed in the public domain.
"He upset the apple cart and always knew what made good TV and radio."
The catalyst for writing the book was the new generation of students coming to her classes who simply didn't know much, if anything, about the man. "I'd start talking about Gay Byrne and I would see the apathy in their faces," she says. "They simply didn't realise just how significant a figure he had been in Irish life. So when I mention Gay Byrne for the first time to my second years now, I talk about Ann Lovett and how he handled that event and you get their attention." Now, she jokes, every second student wants to write about the influence of Gay Byrne for their dissertation.
Modern TV and radio consumers might struggle to understand just how ground-breaking Byrne's broadcasting style was, but for those in 1960s Ireland there was little doubt that they were witnessing something very different.
And they were certainly witnessing something out of the ordinary in March 1966 when a Trinity College student called Brian Trevaskis appeared on the show for a debate on the Catholic Church and called the Bishop of Galway a "moron" for spending money on a cathedral and not the poor. Church hierarchy, unaccustomed to having their authority undermined, were furious and called for the Late Late to be withdrawn. Their wishes fell on deaf ears and Trevaskis was invited onto the show the following Saturday.
Only a month previously, the programme had fallen foul of the Church when it included a light-hearted item in which a married couple were plucked from the crowd and separately asked a series of questions, including one on what colour nightdress the wife had worn on her wedding night. To loud guffaws from the studio audience, Mrs Fox said she hadn't been wearing any.
In what would become known as the 'Bishop and the Nightie' affair, the Bishop of Clonfert, Galway - a Dr Thomas Ryan - issued a statement to The Sunday Press in which he denounced the show as "most objectionable" and "completely unworthy of Irish television". Others, including local councillors and GAA clubs, voiced their outrage, but the general public seemed to have no problem at all with the item, judging from the shortage of complaints received by RTÉ. Irish society was changing in the Sean Lemass years and The Late Late Show, which had been on air for four years at that point, was playing its part.
"Gay Byrne," Doyle O'Neill says, "was first and foremost an actor. He understood what made compelling television whether he was talking to a celebrity or an ordinary member of the public."
The Late Late's impact in its early years was greatly helped by the fact that for many Irish people, television was a completely new medium, one that large swathes of the population hadn't been exposed to before RTÉ's TV service was launched in 1961. Furthermore, the programme enjoyed a virtual monopoly for most households in possession of a TV in the 1960s - it was literally the only show in town.
The Gaybo Revolution shows that there wasn't one big issue that Byrne didn't tackle on The Late Late Show: divorce, homosexuality, clerical matters and so much more were all dissected under the bright lights at Montrose. And, memorably, for a debate about contraception during the Aids scare of the early 1980s, Byrne rolled a condom onto his finger, understanding the televisual shock value in a country that wouldn't permit their widespread sale for another decade.
The Late Late was arguably in its heyday in the early 1970s, a period that coincided with the feminist movement. While several of those quoted by Doyle O'Neill point to the fact that at heart, Byrne could be quite a conservative man, his finger was on the pulse of the country like few others and debates featuring such figures as Nell McCafferty were riveting.
As many have suggested, the potency of the Late Late was not just down to Byrne's presentation style, but also owed much to the fact that he was executive producer for most of its life span. He had the power to devote more time to compelling items and, in some cases, extend the run-time of the show itself if he felt it was warranted. "No broadcaster in Ireland will ever have that power again," Finola Doyle O'Neill says.
Byrne's influence moved up a notch in 1973 when he was given his own daily radio show, The Gay Byrne Hour. This mix of music and light chat attracted huge numbers from the off, but it was only when it was extended to two hours, given a remit to shine a spotlight on Irish society and renamed The Gay Byrne Show that it truly became a cultural phenomenon.
At its peak, Byrne was commanding audience figures of 800,000 between 9am and 11am Monday to Friday - an enormous figure that reflected both the host's popularity and the absence of alternative stations. (Today, the country's number one programme, Morning Ireland, pulls in 439,000 people.)
An estimated 70pc of his radio audience were women and 'Uncle Gaybo', as he liked to call himself, had a canny ability to connect with them. It was audience-participation programming before the term had even been coined. Such was his talent for making interviewees feel completely at ease that one woman phoned him to enquire if her husband might be gay because he had returned from a trip to London with a T-shirt bearing the name of - her friend had confided - a well-known gay nightclub. It hadn't dawned on her that she might be identifiable to her friends listening in.
By the mid-1980s, The Gay Byrne Show made for consummate listening - not least because of the anything goes nature of the schedule. One day, he carried a lengthy, revealing interview with Tiede Herrema, the Dutch businessman who had been kidnapped by the IRA 10 years before; another would tell the heart-rending story of the McStay family, who were trying to raise money for a life-saving operation for their 18-month-old son Colin. They were hoping for £50,000 - but thanks to the radio show and an appearance on the Late Late - £1m was raised. More than 20,000 handwritten letters were sent to the family.
By the 1990s, Byrne's impact on Irish society had lessened, but there were no shortage of water-cooler moments. Among them was an appearance from Annie Murphy, who spoke about being the mother of Bishop Eamon Casey's son - the host was criticised for his aggressive line of questioning - and, towards the end of his tenure, a masterfully executed interview with then EU commissioner Padraig Flynn, which essentially led to Flynn being dragged into the Mahon Tribunal.
While Doyle O'Neill says she has huge admiration for Byrne - whom she interviewed for the book - The Gaybo Revolution is not a hagiography. She acknowledges that his tics and mannerisms annoyed many and doesn't shy away from the fact that some found him condescending. Furthermore, his admiration for such controversial figures as Charles Haughey ensured that for at least a portion of the population, Byrne was seen as out of touch with the prevailing mood. Indeed, a poll conducted in 1998, a year before the end of his 37-year tenure on The Late Late Show revealed him to be the most reviled - and most loved - figure in Irish public life.
"No matter what you might think of Byrne the broadcaster," Finola Doyle O'Neill says, "you have to acknowledge the huge role he playing in challenging Irish society."
'The Gaybo Revolution' by Finola Doyle O'Neill is published by Orpen Press (€17.95)