Thursday 14 November 2019

John Downing: 'Gay Byrne emerged as a political power across four decades of Irish life'

Gay Byrne and Charles J Haughey. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection
Gay Byrne and Charles J Haughey. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection
John Downing

John Downing

'Sex never came to Ireland until Telefís Éireann went on the air," the larger than life politician, Oliver J Flanagan, said in 1966. Like many good quotations it is often wrongly cited - and almost as often misunderstood. Oliver J did not say: "There was no sex in Ireland before television."

But in a ham-fisted way the politician was articulating a very common view among many of his contemporaries, male and female, that there had never been such frank and frequent discussion of sex until the forerunner of RTÉ television began.

Implicit in his view, fully shared by people like this writer's parents, was that this new discussion went unacceptably beyond the realms of Catholic Church orthodoxy about control and restraint, long publicly endorsed by most mainstream politicians.

But Mr Flanagan's famous remark was most certainly directed at 'The Late Late Show', which was then in its fourth year on the fledgling television service, fronted and personified by "your host, Gay Byrne". And over a long time, Oliver J has been proven correct - Gay Byrne did a heck of a lot to further frank discussion about sex and many other taboo topics as he emerged as a de facto political power in the land across four decades.

In his 2009 book, 'Occasions of Sin - Sex and Society in Modern Ireland', historian Diarmaid Ferriter noted that a whole Irish generation would have gone through life without a discussion on sex without Gay Byrne's chat show. The remarkable thing was the show's huge reach, partly due to "single channel innocence", and the absence of other options, but also down to the broadcasting skills, sheer intelligence and force of character, often shown by the presenter.

John Bowman, in his 2012 history of RTÉ, 'Window and Mirror', noted that astonishing viewership. "Probably no society anywhere had such a high proportion of its population watching such a programme," he wrote.

Gay Byrne and Sinéad O'Connor. Photo: David Conachy
Gay Byrne and Sinéad O'Connor. Photo: David Conachy

Politicians soon learned about the power of Gay Byrne via his huge audience figures - and avoided any direct confrontations with the man. The broadcaster reciprocated and avoided being seen to have any party allegiances. He had an uncanny ability to let tricky discussions run their course, but the bravery to ensure no topic was too controversial to be off limits, and no newsworthy person was unfit to be interviewed. In 1973 he began presenting a two-hour morning radio programme - 'The Gay Byrne Show' - and supermarket staff soon noted that women shoppers were largely absent until it finished.

Both the radio and the television show dovetailed and became an effective forum for discussion of the need for social and political change. But the huge contradiction here is that Gabriel Mary Byrne, proud of his education in the 1940s and 1950s by the Christian Brothers in Synge Street, in Dublin, was far from being a social radical of any kind. He was a gutsy broadcast journalist with a keen nose for polemic and controversy. He was also prepared to take advantage of emerging new social and media freedoms to strike and lead a very different tone in public discourse.

There are good grounds for arguing that so much of 'The Late Late Show', and by extension the radio show, was political - albeit with a small "p". But Gay Byrne often did deviate into issues which were directly related to elective politics in Ireland.

A programme on Saturday, January 16, 1982, is a case in point, and is notable in retrospect for the government's collapse just 11 days later in a vote on budget plans for VAT on children's shoes. Twenty politicians participated from across all the main parties, including household names like Charlie McCreevy, Michael Noonan, Ruairi Quinn, Nora Owen, Jim Gibbons, Jim Kemmy and Eileen Lemass. There were also two future Taoisigh, in Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny.

Gay Byrne and Brian Lennihan. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection
Gay Byrne and Brian Lennihan. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection

This particular 'Late Late Show', like so many others, was a mixum-gatherum of culture, whimsy and seriousness. There was an item with writer Anthony Burgess whose book, 'Clockwork Orange', had become a sexually explicit controversial film, followed by a musical skit by a duo called Musical Interlude.

Then Gay Byrne virtually handed over to journalist Vincent Browne. There followed a 70-minute fast and furious political debate about the country's acute economic woes, leaving the RTÉ switchboard jammed with angry callers. Looking back, it is notable for the total silence of Bertie Ahern throughout, and the vehement exchanges between Enda Kenny and Vincent Browne.

There were other occasions which had further political ramifications. In March 1990 Gay Byrne hosted a soft-focus 'Late Late Show' tribute to Fianna Fáil veteran Brian Lenihan who was battling ill-health. During the programme one of the guests told of the night gardaí raided a Dublin pub and Lenihan's cabinet colleague and drinking partner, Donogh O'Malley, asked the garda in charge if he would "have a pint or a transfer".

It turned out to be a joke too far as it coincided with the controversial case of a Fianna Fáil senator using parliamentary privilege to avoid conviction for drink driving. Some in the Labour Party were so incensed they confirmed a plan to run Mary Robinson for president that autumn. Charlie Haughey suffered enormous political damage in the ensuing presidential campaign during which he had to sack Lenihan as Tánaiste.

Gay Byrne and Padraig Flynn. Photo: David Conachy
Gay Byrne and Padraig Flynn. Photo: David Conachy

Right into his final year presenting 'The Late Late Show', Gay Byrne was still close to political controversy. On a dreary January evening in 1999 then-EU Commissioner Pádraig Flynn sauntered on to the set for what began as a soft interview but ended as one of the most ill-judged television performances ever by an Irish politician.

Mr Flynn raised hackles by talking of his net IR£100,000 yearly salary, set against the expense of running three houses, and paying three housekeepers. Other ill-judged remarks goaded the UK-based Irish businessman Tom Gilmartin into reversing his original decision to boycott the Planning Tribunal in Dublin investigating payments to politicians. Mr Gilmartin's subsequent evidence caused political fallout which was still being felt a decade later.

Five months later, in May 1999, Charlie Haughey's lover of 27 years, Terry Keane, appeared on 'The Late Late Show' to trail her new book about their not-so-private affair. Serialisation of the book in a British newspaper began that weekend.

That same year also, it fell to another politician, Dublin Lord Mayor, Senator Joe Doyle, to deliver a laudatory speech as he presented Gay Byrne with the freedom of his native city.

Senator Doyle said his work had brought into the open things which were hidden. "You had a liberating effect that was astonishing and refreshing - and sometimes shocking. And, as Oliver J Flanagan had once complained, there was no sex in Ireland before 'The Late Late Show'."

In the end, even Oliver J's former parliamentary party colleague got the quotation wrong. But this time the sense of it was absolutely correct.

Irish Independent

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