Sunday 17 November 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Byrne was a radical because he was really a conservative'

Ireland's greatest ever broadcaster changed traditional Ireland by not looking down his nose at it, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

'There were plenty of voices of protest on the radical fringes of Irish society in the 1960s and beyond, but they were largely reduced to shouting from the sidelines. It took someone like Gaybo to be an agent of change, because he understood traditional Ireland and knew how to talk its language'. Photo: David Conachy
'There were plenty of voices of protest on the radical fringes of Irish society in the 1960s and beyond, but they were largely reduced to shouting from the sidelines. It took someone like Gaybo to be an agent of change, because he understood traditional Ireland and knew how to talk its language'. Photo: David Conachy

Nobody has had a bad word to say about Gay Byrne since news of the legendary broadcaster's death was announced.

Actually, that's not true. Plenty of begrudgers haven't forgotten their long-standing hostility to Gaybo, and expressed it forcefully online. That's the internet for you. But when it comes to traditional media, the tributes were overwhelmingly positive, with particular emphasis on The Late, Late Show's role in dragging Ireland into the 20th century, not least in terms of its attitude to sex.

The Irish Independent said that Gay was "feminism's Trojan horse" for the way that he opened up the debate about women's rights. To the Guardian across the water, he was the man who "challenged Irish society".

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All of this was true enough, but, while many of those eulogising the late RTE legend did acknowledge in passing that he was a conservative man by instinct, it was treated as a curious, even amusing, anomaly, when actually it was the fact that he was conservative by nature that enabled him to have such a huge social impact.

There were plenty of voices of protest on the radical fringes of Irish society in the 1960s and beyond, but they were largely reduced to shouting from the sidelines. It took someone like Gaybo to be an agent of change, because he understood traditional Ireland and knew how to talk its language.

More importantly, he didn't sneer or look down his nose at the country to which he belonged. He actually... whisper it... liked Irish people, and neither privately despised, nor felt condescendingly superior to, rural Ireland, as many broadcasters from Dublin did, and indeed still do. As such, when he spoke about issues that hadn't been tackled before, such as homosexuality, Aids, divorce, single mothers, or pornography, he was more likely to find an audience.

Because he didn't set out to overthrow traditional Ireland, before starting again with a blank slate, as more radical elements appeared to be agitating for, but was in search instead of an honourable settlement between the best elements of old and new, Gay Byrne was ultimately able to achieve much more.

While it might seem a long way from Ireland, a cultural psychology study conducted by the University of Virginia a couple of years ago is worth considering in this context. It looked at the difference between the ways that liberals and conservatives view the world. The focus was America, but it has wider relevance.

The study found that liberals and conservatives think as if they belong to entirely different cultures. Liberals are analytical, conservatives more holistic. Conservatives see situations intuitively and in the round, whereas liberals are inclined towards "slicing up the world and analysing objects individually, divorced from context".

That sums up Gay Byrne's approach exactly. He didn't set out to deconstruct Ireland as an academic exercise, righting injustices one at a time as he went along. He wasn't intellectual in that clinical way. He viewed Irish life as a complex whole and responded to it intuitively rather than calculatingly.

Interestingly, the US study observed that thinking holistically in this way is common to more than 80pc of people in the world, particularly in East Asia. It's only in the West that a more academic frame of mind has come to dominate, and that change has happened through imposing a particular version of education rather than naturally. In fact, globally, there is almost something unnatural about it.

You can see it in the social justice warriors of today, who can't see the wood for the trees. They hone in on what they don't like rather than seeing life in the round. In turn they've forged a more fractious and atomised world, with no Gaybo to pull the strands together.

Had they been in charge of RTE in 1984, when 15-year-old Ann Lovett died giving birth in a grotto, they'd have spent morning after morning lecturing Ireland on its failings. Gay Byrne simply gave over his show to reading out the responses and experiences of female listeners.

He listened to people. He didn't set out to refashion those he deemed less enlightened in his own image.

What's most concerning is that there would be no room in the current cultural environment for a man like Gay Byrne. One of the obituaries recalled how, during a particular Late, Late debate on the church in 1966, a man in the audience accused Gaybo of "slagging off the clergy".

Gay Byrne denied slagging off anybody, insisting: "We have a programme and we are proud of it as a programme on which you are allowed to say what you want."

These days, as everyone tiptoes through the minefield of political correctness, there are many things which you are not allowed to say, and you'll be in trouble if you dare. Byrne was able to keep saying what many people didn't want to hear, even when, as John Bowman recalled last week, callers and local authorities and educationalists, and even the RTE Authority itself, were all expressing outrage at, for instance, the infamous "Bishop and the Nightie" incident.

RTE would meekly give in to similar pressure nowadays. No question about it. It wouldn't be coming from the church any more, but from so-called progressives, but that only underlines that there's a cold house now for conservatives in Gay Byrne's mould, and no one to bring peace to that culture war.

Without a figure of his stature, who is there to make space for middle Ireland, which always trusted Gaybo but knows very well that the new scions of Irish broadcasting detest them and don't even feel the need to hide it now they've taken the commanding cultural heights.

Sunday Independent

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