Thursday 14 November 2019

Colette Browne: 'How Gay Byrne saved my mother's sanity'

The late Gay Byrne. Photo: David Conachy
The late Gay Byrne. Photo: David Conachy
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Gay Byrne did not create a new Ireland, but he was instrumental in mediating the change from insular and conservative to open and liberal.

Discussing the death of Mr Byrne with my mother on Monday evening, she told me: "Gay saved my sanity."

In the early 1980s, my parents moved house to an area just outside Cork city which, at the time, was not on a bus route and relatively remote. My mother, who had grown up in the city, hated it. Caring for small children all day, and unable to drive, she felt isolated and lonely.

"In the mornings, I used to turn on the radio and listen to Gay. He would be speaking with women and reading out letters which documented all of the problems they were having.

"Couples who were no longer talking, women who suffered abuse. I began to feel like maybe my situation wasn't so bad and I felt like there were other women out there who were going through the same things I was," she said.

My mother was just one of the many thousands of women who tuned into his programme for the same reason - to hear their authentic lived experiences reflected back for the first time on prime time radio.

At the time, the influence of the Catholic Church could be felt in every aspect of social life and Byrne didn't recoil from exposing some harsh truths about the reality of what that meant.

From the grotesque - the letters he broadcast which recounted rape and sexual abuse after the death of 15-year-old Ann Lovett and her stillborn baby in a grotto in Longford shocked a nation in 1984; to the mundane - marital problems and the stifling boredom that raising children can sometimes entail - Byrne helped the scales to fall from the nation's eyes.

It seems incredible now, but openly discussing social issues - relationships, domestic violence, religion, spirituality, sexuality, sexual abuse - was a revolutionary act.

Byrne was the perfect facilitator of this cathartic national conversation because he didn't patronise his guests or his listeners.

He respected the people he interviewed, and the stories they shared, and he had faith in the ability of his listeners to give them a fair hearing.

While others in the political and media establishment were content to maintain the delusion of an Ireland unaffected by social problems, Byrne wanted to peel back the austere veneer they had created and examine what lay underneath, as uncomfortable as that may be.

He was able to take the country with him on this journey because he was unthreatening, polite and empathetic.

A more brash or radical public persona would not have enjoyed the success he did.

A conservative who voted Fianna Fáil, Byrne was the embodiment of middle Ireland - and came to represent its ability to evolve and change. People felt if 'Uncle Gaybo' was willing to discuss an issue, then there must at least be some merit in having the discussion.

His bosses in RTÉ may have worried about controversial segments upsetting clergy members or politicians, but Byrne felt his audience deserved candid debates that reflected the reality of the world around them.

Today, in our highly connected world of satellite TV, 24-hour news stations, high-speed internet and social media, it would be impossible for any broadcaster to have the kind of influence that Byrne wielded.

When he presented 'The Late Late Show', the topics he chose to cover became instant front page news. They were guaranteed to be picked up and further dissected by other media and dominate conversations in homes and offices all over the country.

While public opinion had formally been dictated by a conservative political class, in thrall to the Catholic Church, Byrne encouraged his audience to think for themselves.

He presented both sides of an argument and trusted those watching to be able to assess the merits of each and come to their own well-informed conclusions.

Oftentimes, the hysteria and crass cruelty of those on the show who defended so-called traditional values exposed the absurd nature of their reasoning.

In 1989, when Paddy Monaghan, of Christians Concerned for Ireland, told a gay panel member, Kieran Rose, it was "not normal for a man to be preoccupied with another man's back passage", Byrne shot back a question: "What about men who are besotted with women's front passages?"

The ensuing laughter from the studio audience hinted at the fact that Mr Monaghan had lost the room and the argument.

In 1987, in a discussion about Aids and contraception, Byrne infamously produced a condom and opened it at his desk before playing a matter-of-fact instructional video on how to use the contraceptive.

An appalled member of the audience accused Byrne of being part of a media cohort encouraging young people to "carry condoms and fornicate freely" - a charge that a respectful Byrne listened to carefully but politely rejected as simply "not true".

Given that obtaining contraceptives without a prescription had only been legalised two years before in 1985 - a development one bishop warned would send the country "down the slippery slope of moral degradation" - it was a radical piece of television.

Byrne was not afraid to enter the political fray in more direct ways. In the mid-1980s, he described the country as "banjaxed" and said he understood why young people were emigrating.

This charge incensed politicians, many of whom denounced his comments in Leinster House.

In the year in which he ultimately stood down from presenting the show, 1999, he obtained a prominent political scalp, Pádraig Flynn, who gave an excruciatingly arrogant account of the difficulty of subsisting on IR£140,000 a year while maintaining three homes.

It is difficult now, in a country which has undergone such seismic social change in just four decades, to truly understand the pivotal role Byrne played in ushering in this change and the bravery of the stance that he took giving marginalised voices a platform.

Society would eventually have evolved without Byrne, but it would not have done so with the speed and cohesion that it ultimately did.

As an icon of Irish broadcasting, he truly did the State some service.

Irish Independent

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