My mother, who religiously listened to the Gay Byrne Show, operated a kind of censorship. There were certain topics she did not want me to hear. For two hours, five days a week, she would shut the kitchen door, and listen to Gay with the volume turned down. On one occasion I came into the room. She asked: “What do you want?” Nobody needs an excuse to go into one’s kitchen, so I’d rather indignantly replied: “Nothin’.” “Well,” she said, “I’m busy.” And that meant scram.
Many years later when I heard several GB Shows myself, and understood not only the skill of this man, who encouraged women out of the dark places society had locked them into, but whose seductive voice and prompts led women callers to believe there was no one on the end of the line but Gay.
My mother, rather embarrassingly, confessed that the story for which she remembered banishing me from the kitchen concerned a loving wife who missed her husband very much when he was temporarily in America. In a gesture of love she sent him her used underwear, but the parcel got lost in the post. The poor woman was alarmed. She feared that it was being held up in the sorting office in Dublin’s GPO, and was appalled to think that the parcel would be opened. Her enclosed letter could reveal the name and address of the sender. Gay read her letter out on the radio, and my mother totally collapsed with laughter. Even telling me that story many years later she could hardly finish it for peals of mirth.
Gay introduced many serious topics such as domestic violence, single mums, infidelity, contraception, sexuality, hypocrisy, and many others, but my mother loved it best when one foolish incident led to a stampede of crackpots getting in on the act. She felt sorry for the Bishop of Clonfert, Dr Thomas Ryan, who was outraged when a woman in the Late Late Show audience contradicted her husband who thought that on his wedding night, his wife’s nightie was ‘transparent’. She admitted she wore nothing at all. The bishop fumed from the altar in Loughrea the following day, saying that such conversation was unfit for ‘decent Catholics’ to hear. He urged his parishioners to express their horror to RTE.
My mother felt that the bishop probably did not know anything about the niceties of a wedding night, but what caused her paroxysms of laughter for weeks was the reaction from several county councils, TDs and other leading lights, who thought Gay’s ‘morbid interest’ in what a woman wore on her wedding night was ‘an outrage to Irish morals’. Gay, of course carried on as usual, reading letters about the affair on his radio show.
The letter that practically had my mother carried out of the kitchen, was from a listener in West Cork (where my mother was from ): ‘It should be recognised that night attire is not in use throughout the world. Many of my male friends go to bed in the raw. In West Cork they wear corduroys.’
My mother used to say that Christmas should not start until Gay Byrne played O Holy Night sung by Leontyne Price, the toast of American opera during the 1950s and 60s. It is perfection. The Late Late Toy Show, begun by Gay is still a favourite for almost two generations since its launch in the early 1970s. Our family had a bookshop, and we always said that Gay Byrne was the best bookseller in Ireland. Any book he mentioned would be asked for again and again during the following weeks. Gay would also give out his hilarious recipe for a Christmas cake, which necessitated a constant tasting of the whiskey to ‘ensure the quality of the cake’ (recipe in this page. It comes with a health warning. )
When it came to presents there was an unhappy woman from Dun Laoghaire, whose birthday was approaching. She wrote to Gay hoping that her husband would be a little more imaginative this time. For her last birthday he had bought her a wheelbarrow, and at Christmas a two-speed hammer-action Black and Decker drill. Her car had recently broken down. She feared that she would receive ‘a five-litre can of oil’ as her next present.
The Late Late Show began in 1962 as a copy of similar talk shows in America and Canada. It was envisioned as a cosy fireside chat with a panel of regular guest, and the host Gay Byrne was in his early twenties, who representing the new Ireland that was struggling to be born. It went on air until late on Saturday nights, and quickly became a must see programme, that often made headlines in the Sunday papers.
It was a time when there was only one TV in most households, and families generally watched it together. It was an innocent time, which was soon to change. The first controversy I remember was when a student from Trinity College, Brian Trevaskis, suddenly launched an unmerciful attack on Bishop Michael Browne, of Galway. The newly opened cathedral was the pride of the town, but Trevaskis described it as a ‘monstrosity’, and began a triade of criticism at the educational system in Ireland, which, he believed, had totally failed to live up to the idealism of Padraic Pearse. He called Bishop Browne a ‘moron’. And this was at a time when most people were scared of the Catholic Church, and certainly scared of Bishop Browne.
The Catholic Church, and several county councils went ballistic. Galway County Council chairman, Mark Killilea, said that if The Late Late Show could not change, and produce something that could be enjoyed, ‘then the quicker it can be dropped the better’. Limerick Corporation and Carlow County Council offered similar sentiments. Bishop Michael Browne said that he was not surprised that a student from Trinity (a Protestant university at the time ), would call him a ‘moron’. Trinity College hit back saying it was disappointed that the Bishop accepted without surprise the term ‘moron’ from the heirs to Berkeley, Swift, Goldsmith, Burke and Yeats, and so many other noble Irishmen.
My mother, and the entire population of Ireland, were both horrified and delighted by the exchanged insults, with spilled over into the letter columns of all the newspapers for days and days. Trevaskis was invited back to apologise, and we all watched in anticipation. Instead, calm as a cucumber, Trevaskis apologised fo calling Bishop Browne a ‘moron’, before adding that while the Bishop might know the meaning of the word ‘moron’, it was unclear whether he understood the true meaning of the word ‘Christianity’.*
All hell broke lose, and RTE eventually apologised. But Gay carried on regardless, detested by the conservative forces in Irish society, but a hero with all those who saw that change was needed, including my rebel mother.
I was so pleased that when my mother was spending her last days in the Owen Riff Nursing Home in Oughterard, her radio was her constant companion. She was delighted, and calmed, when Gay’s distinctive, resonant voice presented Sunday With Gay Byrne on Lyric FM. She laughed again at all the mischief he caused, and told me she loved him.
Thank you Gay.
NOTES: From The Gaybo Revolution, by Finola Doyle O’Neill, published by Orpen Press, 2015