Thursday 14 November 2019

'This is not a proper person we should have entertaining here' - How Jayne Mansfield inflamed the Kerry church

It's 50 years since starlet Jayne Mansfield came to Kerry, causing a howl of protest from clergymen

Siren: The Kerry clergy fiercely resisted the scheduled appearance of Jayne Mansfield in Tralee Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Siren: The Kerry clergy fiercely resisted the scheduled appearance of Jayne Mansfield in Tralee Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

T Ryle Dwyer

During the eight years that I spent at university in the United States, I only heard of my home town of Tralee mentioned on the American news on one single occasion. And that was on this day 50 years ago - when Dr Denis Moynihan, the Bishop of Kerry, asked the people of Kerry to boycott the public appearance that night of movie star Jayne Mansfield at the Mount Brandon Hotel, Tralee.

Seamus McConville, the editor of The Kerryman, had informed the bishop of the appearance of the busty starlet, who boasted of her vital statistics - 40-21-35. He actually played down the controversy in the subsequent issue of The Kerryman.

Jayne Mansfield at a press conference with Bill O'Herlihy
Jayne Mansfield at a press conference with Bill O'Herlihy

Possibly the newspaperman just called the bishop for a comment. The Bishop may have actually been spurred into action by a letter from Archbishop John Charles McQuaid

This story played out against the backdrop of a complaint of the sexual and physical abuse of children in the Industrial school in Tralee. In his book, Holy Terrors, about the sexual and physical abuse that he experienced at St Joseph's Industrial School, Michael Clemenger related that shortly after his release from the school in March 1967, he went to Monsignor John Lane, the Dean of Kerry.

Mr Clemenger actually harboured ambitions of becoming a priest. He had been told at the school he could never be ordained because his parents had not been married.

"Does being a bastard bar me from becoming a priest?" he asked the Dean of Kerry.

During the ensuing conversation, he told Monsignor Lane of the physical and sexual abuse by the Christian Brothers in the school.

"You should forget about those things that happened and just look to the future," the Dean replied. He also essentially told him that he should forget about joining the priesthood.

On a Sunday morning, April 23, 1967, a statement was read at all masses in Killarney: "Our attention has been drawn to an entertainment in Tralee tonight. The bishop requests you do not attend."

Mgr Lane, Dean of Kerry and parish priest of Tralee, duly issued a statement of his own. "A woman is brought here to give a show for which she is being paid £1,000," he stated.

"This woman boasts that her New York critics said of her 'she sold sex better than any performer in the world'."

Mgr Lane went on to quote from the Vatican Council, which suggested that people should reject any form of entertainment that might be considered an occasion of sin, or cause spiritual harm to themselves. "I re-echo for you the teaching of the Vatican Council," the Dean continued.

"I appeal to the men and women, to the boys and girls of Tralee, to dissociate themselves from this attempt to besmirch the name of our town for the sake of filthy gain. I ask the people to ignore the presence of this woman and her associates.

"They are attempting something that is contrary to the moral teaching of our faith, that is against our traditions and against the ordinary decencies of life, something that is against everything we hold dear."

As the Rose of Tralee was a reflection of what many people considered the ideal womanhood, Mgr Lane warned that Mansfield's appearance would be a slur on the local annual festival.

In mid-afternoon, before Mansfield had even arrived, in Tralee, Paddy White, the manager of the Mount Brandon Hotel, issued a statement: "Owing to the controversy caused by the visit of Jayne Mansfield, the management of the Mount Brandon Hotel has decided to cancel her appearance." He later said this had been issued by mistake.

When Mansfied arrived, she was unaware that the appearance had been cancelled. Billy Clifford, one of the hotel's directors, stated before a television camera that the cancellation was because the van of her backing band had broken down outside Dublin, and the band would not be able to make the cabaret.

In fact, the band - The Kerry Blues - were a local band, all of whose members were living in Tralee. They were actually in the hotel ballroom while the press conference was going on in the hotel.

They were informed the show was being cancelled, but they would be paid. The first they heard of any van trouble was when they heard Clifford's statement on the news.

Mansfield flew out to Paris the following day, but the controversy rumbled on for weeks, especially after Gay Byrne highlighted the whole thing with a skit on The Late Late Show.

Tralee Vocational Education Committee formally protested over the Late Late skit.

Jack Healy, a local teacher, denounced the programme. "To my mind, the sketch was suggestive and immoral and should not have been presented on our national television service," Healy said.

"In a matter of this nature we look to the spiritual authorities rather than to the moralists in Montrose." He asked the committee to demand an apology from the RTE Authority.

The superior of the local CBS secondary school did not see the programme, but he said he was sure Mr Healy knew what he was talking about.

Only Rev FJ McMorran, the local Presbyterian minister, dissented from the demand for an apology.

The issue was still provoking comment when Jayne Mansfield was tragically killed in a car accident in the United States on June 29, 1967.

A feature at the following festival dances at the Mount Brandon ballroom was the appearance of 'the singing priest', Fr Michael Cleary. He thereby helped to bury the Mansfield controversy.

Meanwhile Michael Clemenger was outraged that the Dean of Kerry had come out so strongly about Jayne Mansfield and seemed to ignore his complaints about the sexual abuse going on in the school in Tralee.

"Such was my outrage I wrote a long letter to the bishop's house in Killarney, expressing my disgust and outrage at the duplicity of both the parish priest of Tralee and the clergy in general," he noted in his book (which was re-published abroad under the title, Everybody Knew).

"I also provided specific details of everything that had happened to me in St Joseph's Industrial School, the physical and sexual abuse, from 1959 to 1967.

"Needless to say," he added, "I never received a reply."

Sunday Independent

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