Mary Kenny: 'Being a guest on Gay's 'Late Late' was gladiatorial - but we used it to drive change'
When Parnell died, he was described as "the uncrowned king of Ireland", not just because he was widely revered, but because he had changed Irish society, setting a template for parliamentary democracy. Something similar could be said about Gay Byrne. His funeral yesterday was akin to a state mourning.
Commentators are already dividing Irish social mores into a "before Gaybo" and "after Gaybo" era: as London's 'Daily Telegraph' reported - "he brought debates on abortion, Aids, contraception, death, divorce and suicide into the nation's homes". That is to say, he changed the national conversation forever.
Gay is also often credited with breaking the dominant power of the Catholic Church, although he was, as everyone knows, an observant Catholic himself. He frequently referred, proudly, to the fact that his mother - herself the dominant power in the home ("Mammy was the boss") - was a daily Mass-goer.
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In my view, Gay was at his best as a father-confessor on his radio programmes: he listened to women's stories and that gave them a sense of confidence to speak, and to tell their stories.
Television was a horse of a different breed. There was, for me, an element of the gladiatorial circus about Gay's 'Late Late Show'. You were there because what you represented was controversial, revelatory or titillating.
The 'Late Late' virtually launched, in the public sphere, the Irish Women's Liberation Movement, of which I was a founder-member, and we willingly went onto the show because it was unparalleled as a national platform.
However, I don't believe Gay stewarded women's liberation because he was a feminist - he was, especially at that time in the 1970s, quite an old-fashioned type of Irishman, and a grateful product of Synge Street Christian Brothers. But Gay had a journalist's instinct: he knew that 'women's lib', as feminism was then called, was a story.
He knew it would cause a splash, if not a sensation. And he was also being pushed by his chief researcher, and virtual co-producer, the late Pan Collins, a tough diamond with a committed liberal agenda.
His instincts - and his timing - proved to be right, and I still meet older women who remember every frame of those 1970s 'Late Late Shows', which RTÉ has electronically wiped, so there are no archives still extant. Nell McCafferty remains a national icon because of her courage, commitment and fluid oratory as displayed on Gay's 'Late Late'.
Gay made a huge contribution to the evolution of Irish life, as the many tributes have shown and, yes, introduced conversation about topics which had never before been aired in the public realm. Moreover, Gay was a nice man, and a kind man, and he made a difference to people's lives, as myriad tributes have also underlined.
And yet, I don't go along with the theory that Gay changed Ireland single-handedly. Ireland would have changed anyway - every other society has done over the past 40 years.
Study after study, in Britain and France, has tracked the social changes which have occurred on those very issues associated with the Gaybo mission: abortion, Aids, contraception, divorce and, indeed, homosexual rights. The French sociologist Olivier Roy dates the start of this social revolution, which has had a global sweep, from 1968-69. In their ground-breaking British study, 'Sex Before the Sexual Revolution', Simon Szreter and Kate Fisher date it to the middle 1960s, when censorship was swept aside, the contraceptive pill was launched, and all traditional views of sexuality and the status of women were challenged, and in nearly all cases, overthrown.
Secularisation of society went hand in hand with these currents of modernisation.
These transformations were bound to occur in Ireland just as they have done everywhere else, whether Gay had ever gone into broadcast journalism or not. Certainly, because Ireland was a more traditional society in which, at that time, over 95pc of the people were conforming Catholics, the changes made more impact, and as a broadcaster, Gay brilliantly highlighted, and enabled, them.
Certainly, he helped to open closets from which skeletons, individual and collective, would emerge, from the cruel treatment of unmarried mothers to the horrors of child abuse. As a result of these revelations, there has indeed been a fundamental loss of trust in, and even a toxic hostility towards, the Catholic Church, which is held to account for all personal, social and even political failings.
But globalisation, internet communications, secularisation, and perhaps especially, modern liberal capitalism - which enriches, but also destroys older social values which were often based on family structures - would have shaped modern Ireland today in any case.
As Tom Coogan wrote in yesterday's Irish Independent, Gay was "more messenger than Messiah". Gay's 'Late Late Show' was an agency of change, not its progenitor.
Personally, I found the experience mortifying, and needed a pint of gin before I could sit on that studio couch. I knew I was there to be provocative, though in all honesty, it's hard to say who was using whom: the 'Late Late' wanted a "show": we wanted the publicity.
For all that I respect Gay's broadcasting genius, I still feel hugely ambivalent about being his TV guest.