HE SAYS he didn’t do it. He has always said he didn’t do it. He’s pretty much on his own in this claim. Now a book is out, based on a thesis with which he co-operated, and it opens the old question up again. That question being “Did Gay Byrne cause the liberalisation of Ireland?” Or “Was Gay Byrne the catalyst that led to an Ireland where — last week — gay people could begin to marry each other?”
Once most famous people reach Gay Byrne’s age or even a decade less than his age, it’s cash-in time. It’s emeritus time. It’s trophy time. One awards ceremony after another. And, also, time to modestly acquiesce if people attribute more national historic significance to you than you secretly believe you deserve.
Gay Byrne doesn’t do that. Not because he is modest, but because he is the most realistic human around. He also has a better grasp of the process of how social beliefs develop than any other broadcaster of the last 50 years. He knows, and no doubt has told the PhD students who seek interviews with him, that social change is one of those phenomena that is obvious in retrospect, but was never planned at the time. It is a process when successful, that has many people claiming parentage, but is in fact a foundling.
Our social assumptions are built on a belief in cause-and-effect. We invest great faith in the concept of a single intervention by a single charismatic influencer, regardless of the fact that any reading of history indicates that this has rarely been the reality. So the received wisdom about the American Depression is that Franklin Roosevelt essentially solved it by a few interventions that put people back to work, while raising their spirits through radio broadcasting. The reality is that most of FDR’s interventions were neutral to negative, measured against the scale of the economic problem, and that the reach of radio at the time is as overestimated as was the emotional impact of his broadcasts, at least in terms of their practical outcomes. In economic or environmental disasters, people who cannot cope die, and those who can, survive.
Gay Byrne was at the centre of a series of massive coincidences. TV had arrived and Telefís Éireann changed the medium from the exclusive foggy preserve of people on the east coast who could get the BBC signal into a clear possibility for people throughout the country. People watched television in a particular way that had never happened up to that point and will never happen in the future. They turned it on, sat down en famille and watched it like you’d watch a snake: if you failed to concentrate, you’d never know what it would do. When the ad breaks came, people rushed to the loo or the kitchen and expeditiously returned to get the next bit. They didn’t do sample-and-reject, as they do now: This bit of this programme is boring, so I’ll try Graham Norton or Netflix. When the Late, Late Show came on, that was it. They didn’t have the added stream of Twitter, whereon they could comment as a show unfurled, and engage in debate on its standards or issues.
Multi-tasking had never been heard of, and, accordingly, nobody applied it to TV. Attention was paid at a level now forgotten. The added incentive was the knowledge that the controversial topic covered would bleed into the newspapers and into the watercooler conversations for the following week, although watercoolers were thin on the ground at the time.
In addition, the world was changing. London had the Swinging Sixties. America had the hippies and Vietnam. Irish people began to travel. So a confluence of factors came together to move us from a closed society dominated by religion — to move us from a nation of squinting windows into a more tolerant, less intrusive one. (At least for a time.) But, like a bit of grit in an oyster, Gay Byrne, whether he admits it or not, had a disproportionate effect. For a number of reasons.
First of those was his selection of staff. Byrne — himself widely regarded as essentially conservative in his personal views — nonetheless picked the most argumentative leftwingers, some of them fresh from student activism, to serve as researchers on the Late, Late Show. They came up with an endless stream of ideas on challenging topics, and he went with one of them after another. Easy? No. He was constantly hauled up by The Suits, whether in the form of the DG, the Authority or RTÉ’s legal advisors, and forced to justify production decisions he had made. Every week in Leinster House, someone took a pop at him for disrespecting tradition or religion, one TD memorably opining that there was no sex in Ireland before the Late, Late Show came on the air.
Long before it became popular to describe oneself as a contrarian, he was one. He picked Joe Duffy for his radio programme, knowing that Joe’s accent would drive other people in the station nuts, and willingly acted as his straight man in a dialogue which was groundbreaking in broadcasting terms, bringing the programme outside the studio and generating a marvellous level of comedy-reporting.
Few broadcasters in Byrne’s position would so comfortably have facilitated the honing of such maverick talent. But for Byrne, if it made for great broadcasting, he was up for it, and he realised, early on, that The Establishment, even if he was instinctively part of it, made for dull, grey broadcasting. Televisual life and excitement required risky selection.
His risk-taking included giving programme space to anti-establishment figures like Brian Trevaskis. And dealing honestly with them. Today, many broadcasters develop an arch “Oh, come ON,” tone when dealing with figures whose views they believe to be unacceptable. Byrne never did that. He was and is possessed of a promiscuous curiosity. To this day, if you meet him one to one, you find yourself being interviewed by him in an orderly but determined inquisition: he will go away from you having learned something interesting, even if you didn’t know you had brought something interesting with you.
Nothing became a campaign, and that, too, helped the process. Adrian Cronin, his TV producer, and John Caden, his radio producer, shared with him an informed instinct that when a topic, controversy or heartrending human interest story was at its peak, when the viewership/listenership was most intense, was precisely the time to kill it. Never mind the continuing letters and phone calls, it was dead, time to move on.
Two other production factors — decided by Byrne — also contributed. One was his refusal to allow anybody to publicise the subject matter or guests on the show in advance. The other was his insistence on production non sequiturs. The gravely serious might precede a riotously funny comedian or follow a big ticket music item. The purists complained about the juxtaposition. They were wrong. Viewers without any interest in a serious topic ended up watching it because it came double-wrapped in entertainment trivia.
Gay Byrne never had the intention to change Ireland. Just entertain Ireland. But change it he did.