Liberals celebrated Byrne because he challenged the supremacy of the Catholic Church: but bishops’ misjudgements played into his hands, writes Mary Kenny
Everyone agrees that Gay Byrne was a broadcasting genius. He could draw any story out of anyone: knew instinctively how to handle it either sensitively, robustly or jokingly: and always had complete authority over the studio.
When she worked for him, the late June Levine compared him to a Christian Brother relentlessly tough on anyone falling short of expected standards, and there was an element of truth in this. He was, after all, a Synge Street boy.
In person, Gay was always cordial, and latterly, during his last illness, his kinder, mellower side became more evident. As a young man, there could be something of the smart-aleck in his demeanour (it applied to many of us!), but that had disappeared in maturity.
Gay ‘modernised’ Ireland is a national affirmation. He opened the airwaves to subjects that had never been discussed in the public square before, from child abuse to gay rights. He challenged a narrower Irish nationalism – his father had served in the British Army and Gay honoured the Irishmen who had fought in World War I, previously side-lined.
Liberals celebrated Gay because he challenged the supremacy of the Catholic Church: although sometimes Catholic ecclesiastics themselves played into his hands with their misjudgements, as in the daft ‘Bishop and the Nightie’ episode (when the Bishop of Clonfert, Dr Thomas Ryan, objected to a TV conversation involving a woman who gigglingly admitted she’d worn no nightwear on her honeymoon.)
But when Gay supported the late Bishop Eamon Casey in an interview with Annie Murphy, saying he hoped Eamon’s son would be half the man his father was, he was denounced for his loyalty to a clerical friend. After Gay’s death was announced, there were Twitter posts calling his behaviour towards Ms Murphy “disgraceful”.
I can’t concur that Gay ‘modernised’ Ireland wholesale: Ireland would have modernised anyway, with globalisation, the Internet, the rise of marketisation and the forces of secularisation everywhere. But he was an agency of opening up conversations, which often needed to be opened up. His sensitive radio coverage of the tragic Ann Lovett case in 1984 was an outstanding example of that discourse. (Print journalists found it difficult to report, because the people of Granard did not want to speak about it.)
He knew he was fortunate indeed to have such a superb wife, who cared for him so deeply”
I was, I suppose, a central figure when the Late Late Show clocked the significance of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement in 1970-71. It was Gay’s principal – and very influential – researcher Pan Collins who drove forward this agenda. Pan was one tough woman (and a big critic of Catholicism) who saw the spicey, controversial advantage in having a bunch of ‘women’s libbers’ on the show.
Certainly, the result was sensational, and the LLS virtually launched that wave of Irish feminism. People still stop me in the street saying “my father was appalled at your appearance on the Late Late Show in the 70s” – and, by contrast, “my father loved your appearance on the Late Late Show, especially when you were wearing a mini-skirt!” I also meet older women who make grateful comments about how the publicity emboldened them to become more confident and affirmative themselves.
Personally, I always retained feelings of ambivalence about the LLS experience. In the studio, you could see Gay was in assured command – “roll it, Colette!” But you also knew that you, the guest, were there for entertainment, prurience, revelation or titillation. It was a national platform – my late sister-in-law, Louise, remarked that she got fed up with priests starting a Sunday homily with “on the Late Late Show last night…”.
Yet I also felt a strong sense of ‘imposter syndrome’ after those LLS encounters. Is this the real me? I’d ask myself. Am I just a false person ‘putting on a show’? A sense that I had cheapened something in my inner self always followed.
Later, in radio interviews with Gay, it was quite different – less a “show”, more a conversation – and there, again, I came to appreciate his broadcasting genius.
In his personal life, Gay retained the Catholicism which his mother – a daily Massgoer – brought to him. He lived a life of impeccable domestic virtue – indeed, for all that he became renowned for exposing questions relating to sexuality, he described himself as ‘a right little prig’. I once saw Edna O’Brien try to flirt with Gay after a LLS event, and he visibly recoiled.
He was a model husband to Kathleen – and he knew he was fortunate indeed to have such a superb wife, who cared for him so deeply, while still fulfilling her own gifts.
Gay adored the daughters they adopted. Although he probed many issues pertaining to family rights, I don’t believe he ever really delved into that neglected aspect of adoption – the adoptive parents’ side of this tug-of-love story.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dilis.