FIFTY YEARS AGO this weekend, the nation was scandalised.
Gay Byrne had asked a woman what colour her wedding nightdress was an received what was considered a risqué answer.
The Gaybo Revolution by Finola Doyle O’Neill traces Byrne’s impact on Irish life and how his arrival on the airwaves saw the maturation of parts of society.
In this extract, she outlines the impact the incident had.
Referred to by The Irish Times as the ‘Bishop and the Nightie’ incident, the programme had a segment imitating The Newlywed Game, an American television game show. This involved a husband and a wife being asked the same questions separately to see how closely their answers compared.
During the game, played with audience participation, a man was asked what colour nightie his wife wore on their wedding night. He replied that it was ‘transparent’, eliciting huge guffaws from the audience.
When asked the same question, his wife answered that she could not remember and that maybe she had worn none at all, a response which was to cause huge controversy.
Until the arrival of The Late Late Show, matters of such personal intimacy were virtually unheard of as topics of public discourse. Furthermore, the fact that the comment by Mr Fox on his wife’s ‘transparent’ nightie caused no public outrage manifests the gendered nature of Irish culture of the time.
In 1960s Ireland it was not entirely condemnable for a man to make comments, albeit unintentionally, of a sexual nature. Mrs Fox’s comments, however, were deemed unacceptable utterances from a woman, moreover a woman who on first encounter had appeared wholesome and content.
In an earlier question, Byrne asked her which of three holidays she would choose if money were no object: two weeks in Spain, a trip to New York (enormously costly at that time) or a cruise down the River Shannon.
She chose the cruise down the Shannon, proving herself to be a homely sort of woman. Such a persona was seemingly at odds with her more worldly response regarding her wedding night.
Candid comments on sexual matters, especially by a woman, were simply not the norm on Irish television, irrespective of how light-hearted the context.
Such a remark on UK television would have been perceived as tacky or tasteless. To Byrne, it was merely light-hearted, if slightly risqué, banter. To the Bishop of Clonfert, the Most Reverend Dr Thomas Ryan, it was ‘most objectionable’ and ‘completely unworthy of Irish television’.
He was so outraged he issued an immediate statement to the Sunday Press, which gave it front-page treatment the following morning. The Bishop, in his sermon at eight o’clock Mass at St Brendan’s Cathedral in Loughrea, urged his congregation to register its protest ‘in any manner you think fit, so as to show the producers in Irish television, that you, as decent Catholics, will not tolerate programmes of this nature.’
Such speed of action propelled the whole affair into the national arena. Byrne himself professed amazement at the furore and initially thought it was all a joke.
When forced to make a public apology, he stated, ‘It has never been our intention that viewers would be embarrassed by the programme … Bearing in mind, that it is an ad lib, late night show for adult viewing.’
One of the behind-the-scenes movers in this incident was once again the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr John Charles McQuaid. He had a keen interest in broadcasting and a heightened awareness of the dangers it could pose to his authority.
However, ‘it was clear McQuaid was reluctant to go public on the issue, for which the Bishop Tom Ryan of Clonfert had found himself held up to ridicule,’ for the most part by the media. Once again, he thought it best to write to Kevin McCourt, in a rather peaceable and sympathetic manner.
By writing in a personal capacity to McCourt’s private address, Archbishop McQuaid was perhaps testing the water to elicit McCourt’s response to his not-so- subtle admonishment of Byrne and the questionable content of The Late Late Show.
The questions and answers in the case of a Mr and Mrs Fox were vulgar, even coarse and suggestive … You have not been fairly treated.
The implication here is that McCourt had received unfair criticism arising from Byrne’s ‘nightie’ interview with Mrs Fox and now, in the Archbishop’s mind, it was time for Byrne to go.
However, McCourt was equally adept at informing McQuaid, his former principal at Blackrock College, just who was in charge. His response to the Archbishop indicated that they shared common ground and he, like McQuaid, did not ‘tolerate the tawdry, the deprecation of what I believe to be the inherent good taste of Irish people.’
McCourt’s diplomatic response to the Archbishop manifests his determination not to brook interference from His Eminence.
Moreover, of the 36 calls received by RTÉ regarding the show, only one was critical of the incident, indicating that the public was unwilling to privately support clerical outrage, even if they were publicly galvanised into action by the might of the crozier.
Within 48 hours the affair began to assume proportions of alleged indecency, obscenity and filth as the disapprobation of the Church was filtered through newspaper reports, Church homilies and mass demonstrations of staunchly Catholic organisations, including the Mayo GAA Board and the Meath Vocational Educational Committee.
These were joined by the Catholic Standard newspaper and the Loughrea town commissioners, with the latter referring to The Late Late Show as ‘a dirty programme that should be abolished altogether’.
The Parish Priest of St. Brigid’s Church, Dunleer, Co. Louth, Father Michael McRory, also condemned the show in his sermon that Sunday. He stressed: ‘The duty of Catholic viewers to such a programme is clear – they should turn it off’.
One brave dissenting voice was that of Mr Patrick Cahill in Waterford County Council. He asserted at a council meeting that he saw nothing objectionable in the programme but was shouted down by the majority of his county councillor colleagues, including one Mr M. Galgey, who stated, ‘If … [Bishop Ryan] thought it suitable to criticise The Late Late Show … he was quite right to do so in his capacity as spiritual director of the people, particularly the young.’
Mr Galgey further highlighted the absolute deference to the clergy at that time when he insisted that ‘it was not up to the County Council to criticise the Bishop.’
In the much more tolerant milieu of 21st-century Ireland, this incident may now seem trivial and almost laughable. Indeed an editorial in The Irish Times just days after the incident was, as Byrne himself put it, ‘toffee-nosed and amusing and right.’
The article praised the BBC, which, unlike Teilifís Éireann, provided programmes that enabled the English to laugh at themselves, their public figures, and the state of the world in general. The article ended with the claim that ‘a lapse of taste has been treated as if it were an outrage to morals.’
Nonetheless, not to be outdone, Bishop Ryan insisted that he had been ‘inundated’ with calls to congratulate him on his stand in speaking out against an ‘objectionable show’.
But contrary to his belief that he had the support of the majority of the people of Ireland, just seven letters on the issue were sent to The Irish Times. Stephen Barrett, TD, pointed out that ‘a large number of viewers do not share Mr Byrne’s morbid curiosity in regard to the colour of Mrs Fox’s honeymoon nightie’ and went on to remind Gay Byrne that many of his viewers ‘are grown-up and Mr Byrne should attempt to reach their stature.’
The remaining six letters displayed an inimitable Irish humour, such as that from a reader who wrote:
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.
The Gaybo Revolution is out now on Orpen Press. It can be bought in shops or here.