Gay Byrne ‘brought terror for some and liberation for others’

TV review: ‘Dear Gay’ is a big-hearted homage to Byrne’s humanity and his RTÉ radio show

Broadcaster Gay Byrne on the air in 1984. Photograph: Independent News and Media/Getty Images

Broadcaster Gay Byrne on the air in 1984. Photograph: Independent News and Media/Getty Images

 

Gay Byrne was more than a broadcaster, and for that reason this celebration of his role as national agony uncle makes for bittersweet viewing. Dear Gay (RTÉ One, Wednesday, 9.35pm) is a big-hearted homage to Byrne’s humanity and courage as presenter of his morning radio show, which began in 1972 and ran for 27 years.

But it also asks us to reckon with the dismal hellscape that was late-20th-century Ireland – a place of suppressed sexuality, unchecked homophobia and asphyxiating religiosity. Life in Ireland is often challenging today. Back then it was unbearable. We were all living inside a giant open-air confession box.

The thesis of Dear Gay is that Byrne’s radio broadcasts were every bit as influential as his more lionised role on The Late Late Show as a conduit for social change. That argument is movingly conveyed, and the case is made for Byrne as an important ally to feminism in 1970s and 1980s Ireland.

Housewives would tune in and, later, write to Gay Byrne. Sometimes their letters were pleasant distractions; others had darker stories. They may have had an unfaithful spouse or perhaps were simply struggling with the bills

Housewives would tune in and, later, write to Byrne. Sometimes their letters were pleasant distractions; others had darker stories. They may have had an unfaithful spouse or perhaps were simply struggling with the bills. Or maybe the letter writer was gay and had grown up in a country where their mere existence was perceived to be an abomination. That was the Ireland of the time.

“An unmarried mother – nothing like that was ever broadcast before,” recalls Maura Connolly, special assistant to Byrne for 32 years. “With some trepidation we decided we would broadcast. That was the beginning of what followed.”

Women, young or old, married or single, were expected to be dutiful and silent. Byrne’s show, it is argued, helped give them a voice. Senator David Norris goes so far as praise Byrne as a liberalising force comparable to Mary Robinson.

“There were a lot more women at home,” says Catherine Corless, one of the many who wrote to Byrne; she would later do crucial work chronicling the deaths of children at the Tuam mother-and-baby home. “Gay Byrne brought Ireland into my kitchen every day. You could potter around the kitchen and do everything and still tune in to Gay.”

Dear Gay grows darker as it goes along. We see Byrne offhandedly read a newspaper headline about the discovery of the body of 15-year-old Ann Lovett, who, in 1984, died in childbirth in a grotto in Granard, Co Longford, having concealed the pregnancy from her family.

The story quickly becomes a national scandal. Byrne is forced to acknowledge his glibness. “I was dismissive – I take that accusation,” he says on air. You can only imagine how his comments would have gone down on Twitter.

Byrne did his part, too, in laying bare the depravity of the religious institutions as custodians of children. He interviews the survivor and campaigner Christine Buckley in November 1992, and she breaks down describing the beatings at the hands of nuns.

“We were an insular society … very, very repressed and obedient,’ says Maura Connolly. Byrne’s radio show “certainly opened our minds. It brought terror for some and liberation for others.”

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