Challenging the authority of the Church was not easy, but 50 years ago this week, Gay Byrne helped spark a cultural revolution with the ‘bishop and the nightie’ affair, writes Ryle Dwyer
FRIDAY marks the 50th anniversary of the bishop and the nightie controversy, which really turned out to be what could be called a game changer in Irish politics.
The controversy was sparked by a piece of light entertainment on Gay Byrne’s Late Late Show, which included a segment imitating a popular American TV game show, The Newly Wed Game.
This was where husbands and wives were each asked the same questions separately to see how closely their answers would compare. A £5 prize was offered for the couple that had the most matching answers.
When Richard Fox of Terenure, Dublin, was asked the colour of his wife’s honeymoon nightie, he replied, “transparent,” much to the amusement of the audience. “I didn’t wear any nightie at all,” his wife Eileen replied, when she was asked the same question.
The idea of a bride going to bed naked with her husband on their wedding night proved too much for Bishop Thomas Ryan of Clonfert. He fired off a protesting telegram to RTÉ and he denounced Gay Byrne’s “disgraceful performance” from the altar the following day at 8am Mass in St Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea.
“I have registered my protest and I ask you to do the same in any manner you think fit so as to show the producer in Irish television that as decent Catholics you will not tolerate programmes of this nature,” the bishop said.
When contacted by journalists, Eileen Ryan thought the game was fun and saw nothing wrong with it. “I find this whole business too ridiculous for words, and I fail to see how anyone could find anything objectionable in the show,” she said.
In the immediate aftermath, the television station received 51 telephone calls, but only three of those referred to the game. After Bishop Ryan’s outburst, the station received a further 37 calls, but 22 of those saw nothing wrong with the game, while 15 were critical, according to the Irish Press. Byrne was obviously under intense pressure, because he apologised on Monday.
“We now realise that a part of last Saturday’s show was embarrassing to a section of the viewers and we would like to say that we are sorry for this,” Byrne declared in a statement.
To put the programme in its proper perspective, it is necessary to go back exactly two weeks earlier, when The Cork Examiner reported on its front page that Legion of Mary had written to Telefís Éireann complaining that the Late Late Show that night was going to interview the managing director of Playboy Enterprises, Victor Lownes, who was in Ireland trying to recruit girls to served as “bunnies” in the Playboy Club in Park Lane, London.
“There are many sweet, pretty girls who would love to join the life in the Park Lane Club as a £35 a week Bunny,” he told the newspaper. As a rule The Late Late Show did not announce guests in advance, but the report was obviously accurate.
In her book, The Gaybo Revolution, Finola Doyle-O’Neill discloses that Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid protested to the director general of Telefís Éireann, Kevin McCourt, who replied that he blocked Lownes from appearing on the Late Late that night. Possibly emboldened by his success with McCourt, the archbishop fired off another complaint to the director general, in the wake of the bishop and the nightie controversy.
McQuaid complained about Late Late Show’s “attempts to publicise ‘Bunny’ girls, hypnotism, pornographic literature, as well as permitting obscenities that are unheard of in normal Irish society.” He was not satisfied with Mr Byrne’s apology.
“In view of the previous occasions on which there was cause for complaint, I think something more now is require than a mere apology,” McQuaid continued. “I am inclined to doubt the good faith of a person who has apologised on several occasions but has now permitted similar unpleasant incidents.”
Between the lines, this was obviously a demand for the removal of Gay Byrne, if not the whole show, but — like the bishop of Clonfert — the archbishop of Dublin had clearly lost the run of himself. McCourt ignored the complaint.
The following month, The Late Late Show was back in the eye of a storm when Brian Trevaskis, 26, a student at Trinity College, provoked furore by calling Bishop Michael Brown of Galway “a moron” because of the money spent on a building the likes of the new cathedral in Galway, while unmarried mothers were being shunned and treated as outcasts in society.
Trevaskis apologised for his “shocking breach of good taste”. He added that he deeply regretted “having stooped to publicly abusing the bishop” as he was not present to defend himself.
When bought back on the show the following week, he apologised for the use of the word, “moron”, which he described as “obscene and indecent.” But then went on to inflame the situation.
“Although I have been asked not to indulge in any sort of personal things,” Trevaskis continued, “I would ask whether the bishop of Galway knows the meaning of the word ‘moron’. I doubt very much that he knows the meaning of the word ‘Christianity’.”
This provoked further outrage. One man in the audience told Byrne “to stop characters coming up here to slag the clergy”.
“Wait a minute,” Byrne replied. “I did not bring people in here to slag the clergy. We have a programme and we are proud of it as a programme on which you are allowed to say what you want.”
“If the programme is to be allowed to develop along the lines on which it is moving in recent times, it would be better if it were taken off the air,” Joe Brennan, the minister for posts and telegraphs, wrote to Eamonn Andrews.
“I must take exception to the view expressed last Saturday night by the compere when he implied, or indeed explicitly stated, that anybody is free to say anything they like on this programme.”
Andrews defended the Late Late Show’s freedom of expression. The programme continued to flourish but Andrews quit as chairman of the RTÉ Authority little over a fortnight later.
“I am afraid the authority as now constituted is too susceptible to outside pressures,” he wrote to then taoiseach Seán Lemass. “I have tried to compromise to the point beyond which honesty will not permit me to go.”
Gay Byrne stirred up many more controversies with members of the hierarchy, who were opposed to the public discussion of issues of personal intimacy. Many would never have been discussed in many homes, had Gay Byrne not aired those topics through the medium of The Late Late Show.
On reflection in his autobiography, Byrne wrote that he was appalled that so many people in responsible positions feared the wrath of the Church.
“I include myself in that criticism,” he added. His important contributions in helping to change Irish life is ably covered in The Gaybo Revolution.
The Gaybo Revolution: How Gay Byrne challenged Irish society, by Finola Doyle-O’Neill, published by Orpen Press.
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