Gay Byrne was a national institution. For decades, his clear, crisp enunciation filled the radio airwaves every day, entertaining, challenging and provoking. But as this book makes clear, his listeners set the agenda, raising topics that were completely taboo in the Ireland of the time.
The programme started in 1973 as light entertainment, discussing weekly shopping lists, coping with smelly husbands who snored and finding particular things for people. But then, as the country changed, the topics became more gritty. Without sex education, unwanted pregnancies befell a lot of women, with many the victims of ignorance, rape and incest. The choice for most was slavery in a mother and baby home along with forced adoption of their baby, or taking the ferry to England for an abortion.
Byrne helped to dispel clouds of hypocrisy, reading out harrowing letters about child abuse, adoption, alcoholism, abortion, industrial schools, marital breakdown, homosexuality, unemployment, poverty, loveless relationships and Northern Ireland. Each letter provoked a flood of similar stories. The boxes of letters occupy a substantial part of the RTÉ archives today.
The tragic death of schoolgirl Ann Lovett while giving birth in a grotto in Granard, Co Longford, was a watershed and produced reams of letters from women who had had unplanned pregnancies. Also haunting is Christine Buckley’s tale of ceaseless work, hunger, beatings and cruelty inflicted by nuns on children in the industrial school at Goldenbridge, a pretty name for a house of horrors.
Ireland then was closed, oppressive and hypocritical, existing under the suffocating control of the Catholic Church. A devout Catholic himself, Byrne held up a myth-destroying mirror to show us who we really were. The consummate professional communicator, he gave his listeners a safe platform on which to speak to each other about anything, while lightening the atmosphere at times by being “excira’ and delira’”, as he himself would put it. Yet the book makes clear that, behind the polished delivery, meticulous preparation went into every minute he was on air.
This is selection of those letters, some funny and lighthearted, many heartbreaking. They offer a social history of a country going through radical, much-needed change, mediated by a person who more than anyone else encouraged his audience to drive and sustain that change. We owe him a lot.