'Dear God, that's me," said the women in Athlone. "And me," echoed the girl in Derry City. "Me too," said the grandmother in Cahirsiveen. None of these women knew each other. All of them were of different ages and living completely different lives, but they had one thing in common. Gay Byrne gave them a voice, a platform and a means to change their world for the better.
osaleen Linehan said Byrne was the Irish woman's "first great affair", but he was more than that. Much, much more. Byrne wanted to know, he really wanted to know, what women thought, how women felt, what women wanted. The relationship he had with Irish women was no mere 'affair'.
Heroes come in many guises. And certainly the canny, sometimes condescending Gay Byrne did not initially seem a likely candidate to facilitate the transformation of Ireland from near theocracy to liberal secular state. But that's exactly what he did. He was no radical feminist or equal rights campaigner, he had no liberal agenda or great plan to modernise the country and yet he did more to shape 21st Century Ireland than any other person in the land.
In my mind, he had three great qualities; he genuinely liked and understood women, he was an extraordinary listener and he had an innate sense of justice and the courage that is needed to accompany it if real change is to be achieved.
The fact that Byrne was surrounded by strong, intelligent and dignified women all his life was probably central to his success as a broadcaster. He knew women's voices could be powerful and could change society for the better if only they could be heard. He understood what made compelling radio and television. We can argue that the country would eventually have been dragged into something resembling a Western democracy without the intervention of the Great Gaybo, but in doing so we forget just how oppressive, misogynistic and church- dominated this country was in 1962 when The Late Late Show first aired. We forget how many people had stories that they were not allowed to tell, secrets they were forced to keep, horrors they could not share with even those closest to them.
Today middle-aged feminists like myself have to constantly remind our young daughters what a bloody awful country Ireland was to be a woman in, pretty much up until the turn of the century. My Aunt Mary (we all have an Aunt Mary) explained to me recently the reason why she, and so many other Irish women, emigrated from this country in their droves. "It wasn't the economy, or unemployment," she said of life in 1960s Ireland, "it was the repression, the censorship, the control the Catholic church had over women and society and the suffocating overt misogyny we were forced to live with."
When Gay Byrne first took to the airwaves, women in Ireland were second-class citizens. We had fewer rights than our menfolk purely on the basis of our anatomy. For instance we could not sit on a jury, drink a pint in a pub, collect our own children's allowance, get a barring order against an abusive partner or refuse to have sex with our husbands. Women earned just over half of what men earned - and that was just the few who were allowed to hang on to their jobs post-marriage. Motherhood was what the female of the species was made for, and minding the men. A child every year or two was expected and if your production level was suspiciously low, the parish priest could come calling to find out the reasons why.
Poverty-stricken widows, deserted and battered wives, abused children, so-called unmarried mothers, gay and lesbian people; they had nowhere to air grievances, no vehicle through which they could express their hurt, and therefore, no voice. They could not hear the stories of others in similar predicaments and say "Me Too! Me Too!" They were invisible, unheard and unwanted - until Gay Byrne arrived and gave them a platform.
His radio shows combined with the new phone-in facility became their conduit. He listened and listened and then he listened some more - and they knew he heard them. Because we all heard them. In many cases we were them. Suddenly all over Ireland there were women - and some men - roaring "Me Too, Gaybo, Me Too" on our radios on early Monday mornings or on TV on weekend nights. They called him by the thousands. By the tens of thousands. They told him things they wouldn't tell their own mothers. He was the father figure that people trusted implicitly with their stories - despite the fact that secrets never before revealed were being broadcast to thousands of people up and down the country. If Gaybo said it was all right, then it was all right.
Every year he hosted the Calor Housewife of the Year competition, a ratings topper that had his adored Irish mammies demonstrating their cooking prowess and telling him how they snared their husbands. For years he hosted the Rose of Tralee competition. Simultaneously on The Late Late Show he showcased the Irish Women's Liberation Movement as it launched its seminal feminist manifesto, Change or Chains, in 1971.
He admitted that there were "ferocious objections" to him having noted feminists such as June Levine, Mary Kenny and Nell McCafferty on his shows, not just from men but from other women - particularly in rural parts of the country. But they watched and they listened. How could they not? Gay Byrne was genuinely a man for all women, whether rural or urban, progressive or conservative. Without fear or favour, he allowed people from all walks of life to express their views and by doing so he promoted understanding and acceptance of others. He gave women, and others who were treated appallingly by the State, the opportunity to wash the nation's dirty linen publicly.
He let us say it out loud, "Me Too, Gaybo, Me Too." And he changed our world.