Diarmaid Ferriter: A game of Mr and Mrs would liven up the election
RTE should do something interesting to mark the 50th anniversary of the Bishop and the nightie controversy
Fifty years ago this weekend, the Catholic bishop of Clonfert, Dr Thomas Ryan, became remarkably agitated about an item on RTÉ’s Late Late Show that featured Mr and Mrs Fox, a victualler and his wife. Host Gay Byrne had asked Mr Fox what colour his wife’s honeymoon nightdress had been. He replied that it was transparent, but Mrs Fox said she hadn’t worn one at all (and then said it had been white).
This was beyond the beyonds as far as Bishop Ryan was concerned, and so began one of the most notorious episodes in Irish television history.
Bishop Ryan sent a telegram to Gay Byrne while the programme was still on air: “Disgusted with disgraceful performance.” Ryan’s secretary telephoned RTÉ to register a protest on behalf of the priests of the diocese against the “immoral” show.
Bishop Ryan also made his objection clear in a sermon the following day at St Brendan’s Cathedral in Loughrea, “in fairness to Christian morality”, asking the congregation to voice protests “in any way they saw fit” due to the debasement of morality: “We are entitled to see a programme that is more in keeping with moral standards traditional in our Catholic country.”
The newspapers had a field day with his protest, but the reaction it generated seems to have affected Dr Ryan deeply; in the aftermath he reportedly went as far as to send a priest to Mrs Fox to express his regrets.
The RTÉ board issued an apology for the incident and Byrne released a statement saying it had never been the intention to offend and he was sorry it “was embarrassing to a section of the viewers” but asked for it to be borne in mind that it was “an ad lib late night show for adult viewing”. The RTÉ authority was not prepared to publicly chastise Byrne, but did hope that in the future Byrne would “uphold the standards of Irish taste.”
Fr Michael McRory, parish priest in Dunleer, Co Louth, also weighed in: “The duty of Catholic viewers to such a show is clear – they should turn it off.”
Meanwhile, Mrs Fox was reported as saying “the whole thing is too ridiculous for words”. She wasn’t alone in that view.
The Irish Times editorialised that while Ryan had chosen to “kill a fly with a sledgehammer”, RTÉ had been guilty of a “lapse in taste”.
The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, threw in his tuppence, but he was far too smart to make waves in public. As was his usual course, he sent a private note to the director general of RTÉ, Kevin McCourt, telling him the item was “vulgar, coarse, even suggestive” and “really unworthy”, but also that he did not think it was at all typical of RTÉ’s output.
RTÉ should do something interesting to mark the 50th anniversary of the bishop and the nightie controversy. Instead of the upcoming leaders debates as part of the general election campaign, could Enda Kenny and Joan Burton, as a couple campaigning for a return to government, play a version of the Mr & Mrs game, based on the litany of promises and proposed policies we have been subjected to in recent days, so we can see how compatible they really are and how well they know each other?
The game could be presided over by Rory Costello, lecturer in politics at the University of Limerick, whose department is running a website, whichcandidate.ie, to assess the differences between the various parties and the areas in which they might be compatible.
In 1966, same-sex unions were not remotely on the public radar but given where we are now, with our newfound tolerance of diverse unions, this game could be extended to all potential political couples. It could prove to be a very interesting game, given that it appears from the whichcandidate survey, based on their answers to 22 questions on policy areas, that Fine Gael is closest to Fianna Fáil, while Labour is closest to Sinn Féin.
We could therefore have even more fun as Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin bat their fiscal-space eyelids at each other and Joan Burton and Gerry Adams discover the true depth of their compatibility. Throw in the independent candidates and this show could run for the rest of the campaign as a more entertaining version of the tortuous game we are currently enduring.