Staging the drama of life: Gaybo through the lens of Colm Tóibín
In 1984, novelist Colm Tóibín wrote vividly in 'Magill' magazine about Gay Byrne at the height of his powers. He described a meticulous man off-screen, quietly spoken but ruthless in pursuit of a good story. Here, once again, is that memorable article
Since 9.15 he has held the nation in thrall: reading bits from the papers, playing the Mystery Sound, putting on records, talking to housewives on the telephone, using funny voices. Now he has moved across from the Radio Centre in RTÉ to the offices of The Late Late Show. For the rest of the morning he will function as an editor in a newspaper office functions. He will talk to staff, find out what they have been doing, how's that idea going, why doesn't someone go and see so and so. His team will have ideas, he will think about them, reject them, accept them, often he will change his mind.
He will be slightly on edge all the time about how things will go; he doesn't want to lose his audience or bore the people of Ireland. This part of him is different from what you see on the screen. He is like the priest who manages the affairs of the parish. Behind the mystery of the Mass lies cold, hard work. He is generally quiet spoken, but he is also ruthless: he wants things done.
Beliefs? He is a practising Catholic, he thinks divorce should be allowed in certain circumstances, he believes in cleanliness, hard work. He writes a column for the Sunday World. He subscribes to a success ethic from which springs his complete and total lack of understanding of crime (although he recently admitted to stealing an apple at an early age). He often patronises women. He has a thing about cranks and he has some difficulty distinguishing a crank from someone who merely harbours certain strong convictions. He has likes and dislikes rather than beliefs. But he has not established his influence because of his beliefs, or his caprices. He has never actually sought to influence anyone at all.
Gay doesn't have much patience. He dislikes people who have ideas fixed in their minds about things. The show in his view is not there to influence people or explain things to people, or select what is important and present it to the public. We are talking about showbusiness, ladies and gentlemen, we're talking about filling the hall. The show is there to entertain, to pack them in, to keep them watching.
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The Late Late Show rose around 1963 when life was never better and the still water of Irish life was crying out for a good stir. The Late Late Show was basically a chat show, where well-known people are wheeled on and interviewed for a while and then wheeled off. It has worked in America; it has worked in England.
But something different could be done in Ireland. The place was changing fast. There was Vatican II, the Beatles' first LP, Edna O'Brien, the Programme for Economic Expansion, RTÉ, John F Kennedy, The Bungalow. There was also a large and established set of beliefs which belonged to a large and established set of people. For the next 20 years The Late Late Show would stage the drama of Irish life, the play between the established and the new whose intensity was only matched in the emerging countries of the Third World.
So you could have a woman who had taken the Pill and she could say she felt great after it and it had done her the world of good. A man in the audience would then attack her and then there would be a break for music and then there's someone you really must meet. After a while they found the formula: the row came at the end of the show after you'd met all the guests and listened to all the music. And the rows were often great and big.
If any other programme had mentioned sex, it would have been turned off. Turn that rubbish off. But nobody ever turned The Late Late Show off. The show was too unpredictable: you just never knew what you might miss. The show was too central: topics too close to viewers' lives were being discussed or people were being introduced whom everyone had always wanted to have a good look at. And if you didn't want him to talk about sex, then your prayers might be answered and he might go on for three weeks without any mention of sex. One week he might have a few guests on and they'd be pretty dull, one week he might have a student on who thought priests should live among the people and another week he'd have the policeman from The Fugitive, hated by man and beast, who spent his time on the popular TV series hunting an innocent man.
The show went on. Gay Byrne has talked since of how you can have an enormous impact if you get an issue on the crest of its wave. The show got contraception just when it was breaking and it got the North just at the right time.
The show played the North for all it was worth: special programmes on the North with Gay appealing at the end for more time. Two people were fanatically at odds and it was the sort of thing The Late Late Show lapped up.
In no other country in Western Europe were the arguments about national life so heated, were the contrasts so stark. In no other country was curiosity so great about which way things were going to swing. In no other country could so many be outraged by so few. Gay Byrne understood that. He put it in his show, mixed it with a bit of music, visiting movie stars from Hollywood, pop stars from England, people you have heard about and now you can see, odds and sods from around Dublin.
His influence arose not from any set of beliefs which he wished to present to the people of Ireland, but from the fact that the issues were presented in such a popular package. His talent was in knowing how fast the pulse of the country was beating and in knowing whose pulse he should be taking. In Ireland like nowhere else the airing of the problem was enough to cause a whole lot of trouble. Had he not come along with the instincts of a successful impresario and created a mass audience and then raised the issues he did, it is conceivable that dissent on the essential ingredients of Irish life would never have reached the ears of the majority of people in this country.
If The Late Late Show has waned in its power and impact over the last 10 years, then the radio show has come into its own over the same period. This is where you get Gay Byrne at his most intense. Most of the time he is just superb. Gay reads a letter - it could be from a woman whose husband never talks to her, or a vicious attack on litter bugs, it could be about sex and teenagers. Sometimes he comments, sometimes he doesn't. Generally he invites listeners to comment. Sometimes there's no reaction; other times the reaction is incredible.
Then the discussion goes on for a week or so. Phone calls, letters, women giving their views, their experience. Middle Ireland rearing its complex head.
In the latter half of 1983 and the first half of 1984, three issues dominated the public imagination. There was the abortion amendment, the sacking of Eileen Flynn, a teacher in New Ross, and the death of Ann Lovett and her child in Granard. These are the stuff which Late Late shows have been made of. It is useful to look at what Gay Byrne did on those three issues.
Gay Byrne had been thinking of doing a programme on abortion for a long time. Then one night he announced that he was going to do a show on abortion. This was a mistake; he generally never let the public know in advance what he was going to do. In his house in Howth sat Fred O'Donovan, the Chairman of the RTÉ Authority. O'Donovan was opposed to abortion and in favour of the referendum. ("We are talking about murder," he said). O'Donovan decided that The Late Late Show should not discuss the referendum. If Gay hadn't mentioned it, O'Donovan would not have known it was on the cards. O'Donovan announced, to the consternation of senior executives of RTÉ, that the show could not go ahead. Gay kept his head down.
Eileen Flynn, a teacher in New Ross, was living in the town with a married man and had given birth to a child. When she was sacked by the local nuns she took the case to the Unfair Dismissals Tribunal. Gay Byrne ran two reports on the trial. Both were by Kevin O'Connor. O'Connor stood in the middle. Here, he told us, was a nun who had been in the convent all her life, responsible to the parents for the children's welfare, responsible to her order for the proper running of the school. What could she do? And on the other side was a young woman who had fallen in love and become a surrogate mother to the man's children. What could she do?
It was as though a scene from a Thomas Hardy novel was being described: each character motivated towards doom by outside forces, by history itself, by happenstance.
Then there was Ann Lovett. The day after the story broke, Kevin O'Connor was dispatched to Granard. His report was not as inspired as his report on the Eileen Flynn case had been. But it was factual and fair; he tried to give a sense of the town, of the context.
It was more than a week after the news broke that Gay Byrne did an hour-long programme on Ann Lovett, a programme which represents, in my view, the apotheosis of his 20 years in Irish broadcasting. He used the old letters thing again. He did nothing, he just sat waiting for the letters. He sets great store by letters and he reads every single letter that comes into the radio show or The Late Late Show. At the same time as priests and people were complaining about the media coverage of the death of Ann Lovett, the letters poured in to Gay Byrne:
Just as the Eileen Flynn reports broke new ground in Irish journalism, so did the Ann Lovett coverage on The Gay Byrne Hour. The idea was thought out carefully. John Caden, the producer, gave it his full backing. Kevin O'Connor edited the letters. They found two actresses, one with a middle-class Dublin accent and the other with a more country accent. What resulted was the most relentless assault which has ever been presented to a mass audience on the accepted version of reality in this country.
Gay read a letter. Then one of the actresses. Then the other actress. There were several breaks for commercials. Most of the letters were direct accounts of personal experiences. Most of the letters came from women who had given birth in rural Ireland outside marriage. Some of them were heartbreaking. One in particular, an account of how a servant in a house gave birth in a locked room and then murdered the child, was absolutely shocking.
Gay had a special tone that morning. He didn't comment on letters, but he spoke a few times to say here was another letter or we're stopping for a commercial break. There was an intense calm about the way he spoke, a controlled anger almost. Here it was in a nutshell in one hour what he had contributed to public life in Ireland.
Gay Byrne summed it up. He left us in no doubt. It has been his finest hour. Over the next 20 years he is likely to have plenty of opportunity to present more such hours.
This article has been lightly edited and is reprinted courtesy of Magill.ie