Sunday, 15 December 2019

Gay Byrne - The Man Who Rocked Our World


Sive, a play written by John B. Keane, caused a sensation in Wexford Parish Hall in early 1962. Its subject was illegitimacy.

Up until then this matter was spoken of in whispers, though God knows it was common enough given that contraception was banned by both church and state.

There were three main outcomes for pregnancies among the unwed in Wexford: the couple got married in a hurry, the lady went to England and returned without the baby after a seemly time, or the man absconded leaving the lady, and eventually the baby, in the lurch.

Anti-contraception laws were not fully amended until 1985 and yet in 1962 Ireland began to experience great social change due to the introduction of the Late Late Show on RTE-TV. 

The host was Gabriel Mary Byrne. Always recognized as Ireland’s most influential broadcaster, there are those who believe “Gay” singlehandedly dragged the country into the 20th Century.

From this vantage point it’s almost hard to imagine just how socially backward and repressive Ireland was on July 5, 1962 when the Late Late Show debuted.

Almost immediately Gay Byrne did something revolutionary. He got Irish people to talk about themselves and their experiences, thereby shining a light into all the dark places that existed in a Catholic theocracy.

Emigration, as you might imagine, had much to do with Ireland’s backwardness and social problems. From the time of the Great Hunger in the 1840’s people had been streaming out of the country. 

“The best left” was a common saying – after all, they were the ones with the get-up-and-go attitude.

There was a moment during the War of Independence (1919-1921) when things might have changed, then Michael Collins was killed, and much of the Republican leadership was annihilated during the ensuing Civil War.

The pro-Treaty conservative forces allied with the Catholic Church took control of the country and people either buckled under the new regime or emigrated. 

Forty years later Gay Byrne drew back the curtains on Irish life and within months the country came to a halt for the duration of his Saturday night show. 

It was television at its best and you dared not miss it, for you were never sure what taboo subject might arise. But right from the start guests began to question the right of the Catholic Church to run the country.

A silence would descend on those watching. It was as if President √Čamon de Valera or Archbishop John Charles McQuaid might come hurtling through the television screen and demand that you drop to your knees and recite the rosary for merely entertaining such blasphemous thoughts.

You can’t believe just how refreshing it was to hear people finally speak their minds on a public forum. 

Conservatives had their say too. Oliver Flanagan TD famously informed Gay that, “there was no sex in Ireland until television came along.”

On the contrary it seemed like everyone was at it around the clock, including the Bishop of Kerry, Eamonn Casey, and the singing priest, Fr. Michael Cleary, both of whom had children out of wedlock.

Eventually the show would broach such thorny subjects as divorce, homosexuality, abortion, censorship, and other issues that had been consigned to dark corners.

Gay was more popular with women than men. My father thought he was “smarmy,” and he did have a very smooth delivery. He was definitely unafraid to show the female side of his character, something that was anathema to most Irish men of the time.

Probably for the same reason, my mother and countless other Irish women adored him.

I got a look at Gay Byrne up close when Black 47 appeared on The Late Late in 1996. He was relaxed, welcoming, and totally in control. It was like stepping into someone’s warm parlor and having a chat.

How did he compare to American late night hosts? 

From my own perspective as either a guest or performer on Leno, Letterman, O’Brien, Fallon and Maher, he was as good or better than any of them.

He had the intelligence and acuity of Letterman and Maher, the warmth and comedic chops of Leno, O’Brien and Fallon. 

But unlike his American peers, Gay Byrne actually changed his country for the better, and for that we’ll always be grateful.

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