In his 10 years on the show, Pat Kenny never seemed to enjoy the success that Gay Byrne had with the programme, but then Gay did not have any act to follow as he was the original host of the programme and stamped it with his own personality.
In the process he probably had more influence on changing life in this country than any of the political leaders.
WT Cosgrave, Eamon de Valera and John A Costello were all very conservative on social matters. They were quite prepared to allow the Catholic Church to dictate on such matters, as became only too apparent during the early decades of the state.
When Dr Robert Corbett, master of the Coombe maternity hospital in Dublin, was appointed professor of gynaecology at UCG in October 1942, Bishop Michael Browne of Galway objected because Corbett – who was actually a Catholic – had been educated at TCD. In the face of the controversy, Corbett emigrated instead.
When John Charles McQuaid objected to the mother and child scheme in 1951, Taoiseach John A Costello backed off, but Health Minister Noel Browne was not as pliable, so Browne had to resign. He then gave his correspondence with the archbishop to the Irish Times and all hell broke loose.
“I, as a Catholic, obey my church authorities and will continue to do so,” the Taoiseach John A Costello told the Dáil.
During the 1950s the censorship of books plumbed the depths of absurdity, with a priest in charge of the censorship board. One commentator aptly remarked that the blacklist of banned books in this country might almost be considered “a concise index to modern literature.”
It was not only renowned foreign authors who were banned, but also most of this country’s foremost writers – people like George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, Seán O’Casey, Frank O’Connor, Liam O’Flaherty, and Seán O Faoláin.
In 1956, this censorship mentality was taken a step further in Clonlara, Co Clare, when a local curate, Fr Patrick Ryan, and a group of parishioners, assaulted a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses for having the temerity to distribute some of their literature. The priest and his gang were convicted, but given the benefit of the Probation Act.
The two Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the other hand, were bound to the peace. District Justice Gordon Hurley ordered them to put up personal sureties of £100 each and two independent sureties of £100 each, or face three months in jail. They were not even charged with any offence. It was a gross perversion of justice, but Bishop Joseph Rodgers of Killaloe was in court, and the judge apparently panicked in his presence.
“I find it hard to credit that the attorney general, had he been fully aware of the pernicious and blasphemous literature distributed and sold in my diocese by these self-styled Jehovah’s Witnesses, would have proceeded against one of my priests for upholding and defending the fundamental truths of our treasured Catholic faith,” Bishop Rodgers wrote to Taoiseach John A Costello. “Your attorney general prosecutes one of my priests for doing what I, and all good Catholics here, regard as his bounden duty and right. The matter cannot rest.”
The Taoiseach replied that he fully appreciated “the just indignation aroused among the clergy and the people by the activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses”.
There were similar examples of craven capitulation in the face of episcopal arrogance during the Fethard-on-Sea boycott and the Rose Tattoo affair.
“The Irish bishop stands on ceremony and sits on everybody,” Seán O Faoláin wrote. Our politicians were kissing the bishops on all four cheeks.
Then Gay Byrne came along. One Late Late Show in 1966 included a game for married couples. A number of husbands and wives were asked the same questions separately, and there was a £5 prize for the couple that matched most answers.
When asked the colour of his wife’s honeymoon nightie, one man replied, “transparent,” much to the amusement of the audience. “I didn’t wear any nightie at all,” the wife giggled when asked.
This proved too much excitement for Bishop Thomas Ryan of Clonfert.
When he protested, RTÉ issued a craven apology on much the same lines as the recent apology over the news report about the Cowen paintings. Imagine, a woman going to bed naked with her husband!
Bishop Michael Browne of Galway had a “men only” sign put up in the Blackrock area of Salthill in Galway, so he could go skinny-dipping and sunbathing in the nip. Should there have been a different law for a woman, even with her husband in the privacy of their bedroom?
Shortly after the bishop and the nightie rumpus, there was a further incident on the Late Late Show when a student from TCD called Bishop Browne “a moron”. The student apologised the following week for using the word “moron,” but he went on to wonder whether the bishop knew “the meaning of the word Christianity”. In the light of the recent revelations about the way paedophile priests were facilitated, how many people now question whether some of the hierarchy really did understand Christianity back then? In the mid-1970s Hillary Boyle, an elderly veteran campaigner for women’s rights, caused some commotion by denouncing the government’s failure to stand up to the hierarchy. “You are all so afraid of a belt of the crozier,” she declared on the Late Late Show.
Through the medium of the show, Gay Byrne went into living rooms around the country and raised topics that would never otherwise have been discussed at that time. He became a catalyst for change and did more for tolerance in this part of country than anybody. He got people to start thinking for themselves about issues like women’s rights, crime, birth control, divorce, drugs and the usurpation of civil power by the Catholic hierarchy.
IN 1992, he had Barry Galvin, the state solicitor for Cork, on the show warning that the country was becoming a haven for major drug traffickers. Galvin was eventually appointed head of the new Criminal Assets Bureau, which has been a real success.
When Lansdowne Market Research conducted a poll in 1998 to determine the most popular and most hated public figures in Ireland, Gay Byrne tied with Charlie Haughey as the most hated but was on his own as the most popular. This was a measure of his success as a catalyst for social change.
In one of his final Late Late shows, Gay afforded Pádraig Flynn a vanity platform. In the figurative sense, Flynn managed to get both feet into his mouth and talk at the same time.
In the past decade we have missed the kind of insights that Gay Byrne provided. It is not because of a lack of issues needing to be highlighted.
Last weekend the gardaí had an armed response unit in Tralee, anticipating trouble between two families who have been feuding for years. The flashpoint was not a funeral or a shotgun wedding, but a first communion. Is society going bonkers? There is real scope for Ryan Tubridy to make an impact.