Fintan O’Toole: Gay Byrne held the key to Ireland’s locked room of secrets
There is no other country in which light entertainment could lead into such dark territory
In September 1993, I went on Gay Byrne’s Late Late Show. I had been writing in The Irish Times about Stay Safe, a schools programme designed to give children an appropriate language in which to discuss bullying and abuse. There was a very strong campaign to oppose it, run mostly by right-wing Catholics. As one priest put it, “the claim that a child owns its own body is at odds with Christian tradition”. I agonised about whether or not to go on the show, knowing how effectively Gay Byrne would turn it into a ding-dong battle of equal and opposite passions. And after the show, I was full of regrets. Byrne had indeed run the segment like the consummate ringmaster that he was, serving up yet another little episode of an apparently endless cultural war between tradition and change in Ireland. It felt pointless.
What I didn’t know was that in a housing estate somewhere in Co Offaly, an 11-year-old boy was watching The Late Late Show that night with his mother and a neighbour, a man of 75, who usually came in to view the week’s one unmissable programme with them. When the item about the Stay Safe programme came on, the neighbour had become uncomfortable. After a few minutes, he made an excuse and left. The mother could feel a sense of expectation. Her son then asked her what sexual abuse was. When she told him, he asked her how she would react if one of her children had been abused. She said she would be supportive.