Recalling 1960s Ireland's reaction to a Playboy model's arrival in Tralee

Playboy model and film star Jayne Mansfield was due to perform a cabaret act at the Mount Brandon Hotel in Tralee on April 23, 1967, but the all-powerful Catholic Church was having none of it, writes Dan Buckley

Recalling 1960s Ireland's reaction to a Playboy model's arrival in Tralee

Once upon a time in black-and-white TV land the Fine Gael TD for Laois-Offaly declared, risibly, that there was no sex in Ireland before television.

His actual words were, in a critique of The Late Late Show, that “sex never came to Ireland until Telefís Éireann went on the air”.

He had a point, in the sense that there was little or no public discussion of sex until the national TV service was launched on New Year’s Eve in 1961.

No sooner had the service begun than young, whippersnapper broadcasters such as Gay Byrne recognised that carnal capers would keep the viewers glued. He was the only man in Ireland who could keep a million Irishwomen transfixed for hours.

Little wonder, then, that the arrival in April, 1967 of movie star, sex siren and Playboy model Jayne Mansfield would be like manna from hell for the still-fledgling television service.

This was the same year that the Irish film censor had cut Dustin Hoffman film The Graduate so much that it turned the cougarish Mrs Robinson into Mrs Doyle — more interested in a cuppa than coupling with the young student Benjamin.

No sooner had Mansfield arrived at Shannon Airport than Bill O’Herlihy, as a young TV reporter, was dispatched to interview the star he later described as a “working man’s Marilyn Monroe”.

He witnessed her dramatic entrance, her handkerchief sized skirt, her fashion accessories in the form of the pair of Chihuaha dogs she cradled and, above all, her volumnous breasts that arrived a split second before the rest of her at the VIP lounge in Shannon.

In the US, Mansfield was considered a living parody of Monroe, although she had enjoyed success with comedy movies by director Frank Tashlin, in particular The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957).

By the time, she arrived in Ireland, her movie career was waning but her 40-21-35 figure was undiminished and she attracted a huge crowd wherever she went. US newspapers regularly published her vital statistics, prompting evangelist Billy Graham to exclaim: “This country knows more about Jayne Mansfield’s statistics than the Second Commandment.”

Mansfield was due to perform a cabaret act at the Mount Brandon Hotel in Tralee on Sunday, April 23, but the all-powerful Catholic Church was having none of it, considering that, like another movie she starred in, she was Too Hot to Handle.

In a thundering condemnation, Bishop Denis Moynihan of Kerry described her as the ‘Goddess of Lust’ and had a letter read from the pulpit at public masses in all Catholic churches in the diocese, instructing his parishioners not to attend her show.

The local parish priest, Monsignor John Lane, went even further, calling on the faithful of Tralee to dissociate themselves “from this attempt to besmirch the name of our town for the sake of filthy gain”.

The ‘filthy gain’ presumably referred to the fact that tickets for the gig cost ten shillings and the actress was to receive £1,000 for singing six songs in a 35-minute appearance.

She was ‘read’ from the altar in every parish church on the Sunday morning of her scheduled appearance in Tralee. Bishop Moynihan’s condemnation spooked the managers of the Mount Brandon Hotel.

At a hastily arranged press conference, the hotel management announced the cancellation of the concert, citing problems with her supporting band as the reason. Whether or not it was divine intervention, the band’s van had broken down en route from Dublin to Tralee so Ms Mansfield never made her cabaret debut in Kerry. That night, the people of Tralee had to settle for Jack & The Jackpots showband.

A press conference in the Mount Brandon Hotel after the hotel’s management cancelled the scheduled appearance of star Jayne Mansfield. Billy Clifford is seated to the right of Ms Mansfield.
A press conference in the Mount Brandon Hotel after the hotel’s management cancelled the scheduled appearance of star Jayne Mansfield. Billy Clifford is seated to the right of Ms Mansfield.

The town was split over the decision, with some agreeing, others wondering what all the fuss was about, but a sizeable number of male fans protesting.

As the narrator of TG4’s series Scealta Ón Riocht (Tales from the Kingdom) put it: “Lustful thoughts remained buried deep inside tweed caps.”

Prior to her arrival, Bill O’Herlihy had taken to the streets of Tralee to guage public opinion.

“Personally, I think she has been a has-been,” said one middle-aged man, while another declared: “I find it hard to believe that the Kerry people are so foolish as to pay 10 shillings to go in and see a woman.”

Younger men’s opinion varied, with one predicting that she would get a civil reception in Tralee and another saying: “Sex, I suppose, is a healthy thing, you know, but the fact is we are supposed to be a Catholic country and it doesn’t seem right in my mind bringing an exponent of sex to a Catholic town.”

The women tended to be more sanguine, noting that Kerry and the country as a whole had far bigger problems than the arrival of Jayne Mansfield.

Gay Byrne could not resist the whole drama, broadcasting a satirical skit on The Late Late Show that angered people in Tralee more than the cancellation of the concert.

Mansfield left the following day, Monday, April 24, protesting that she never had any intention of being disrespectul in her cabaret act. She went on to perform in Bristol in England and also drew the crowds there.

Neither fans nor detractors knew that, as well as being a sex siren, Mansfield was smart, highly educated and well versed in Shakespeare and an accomplished pianist and violinist.

“Some people thought she was the village idiot,” said her biographer, Raymond Strait.

“As a matter of fact, she made village idots out of those who supposed such.”

A condescending ITV television reporter interviewed her in Bristol, asking her what she thought Bishop Moynihan meant by describing her as “spiritually harmful”.

In a soft-spoken voice, she responded: “I was a bit surprised... If he had seen my act as it was going to be presented in Bristol, he would have been quite pleased. He would not have condemned it; he would have condoned it.”

She also described the people of Tralee as “sweet” and was clearly delighted with the overall reception she received.

“I was afforded the best and the biggest reception ever given to any visiting dignatory at the airport in Shannon, including kings and queens and motion picture stars,” she said.

“That was quite a complement. Upon my arrival in Tralee there were three blocks lined with people, with children throwing flowers and kisses and gifts. Women crying with happiness. And, as I left, I had the same departure treatment.”

She was still bemused and puzzled by the bishop’s objections as — like each of her three husbands — she was a practising Catholic.

She might have fared better under Bishop Moynihan’s successor, the more gregarious Eamon Casey, but within two months Jayne Mansfield, 34 and a mother of five, was no more, killed in a car crash in Louisiana.

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