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How Gay Byrne changed Irish society

“He mediated the conversation between two sides of Ireland.”

Image: Leon Farrell/RollingNews.ie

IF YOU’RE OF a certain age, Gay Byrne is the man who presented the Toy Show or was head of the Road Safety Authority.

But, for many, Byrne is a crucial part of Irish history. His place in broadcasting history is cemented, but a new book argues that Byrne’s impact on Irish society goes beyond that.

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.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie UCC media history lecturer Doyle O’Neill says that Byrne’s skills lay only not in his ability to challenge the status quo, but his timing.

She singles out Byrne’s handling of the Ann Lovett case.

Lovett was a 15-year-old schoolgirl who left school in Granard, county Longford on 31 January 1984.

Unlike her peers, Ann Lovett did not go home. She went to a grotto at the top of the town. There, alone in the cold, she gave birth to an infant son. Her son died there, in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. Ann died later that day in hospital.

When I talk [to students] about Ann Lovett, I tell them how Gay Byrne handled it was so unique. He could have railed against the lack of sexual education or health education in Ireland. Instead, he got women to read letters. Letters of their own experiences of abortions or giving birth alone.

“He later spoke to a woman from inner-city Dublin about Aids and, in a way, punctured the belief that it was a homosexual disease.

What I say to the students is that he always knew when to talk about topics that were hidden. He was hugely pioneering and ahead of his time, but very sensitive to the public perception and knew when the time was right to talk.

Upbringing

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Doyle O’Neill says that Byrne’s upbringing to a fervently Catholic mother did not make his worldview narrow.

“He straddled the conservatism that abounded Irish life.

“He had a healthy disregard for the pomp and ceremony of Irish life. He wasn’t a Gaelgeoir, which made him unusual in RTÉ, which was like the civil service at the time. His father was in Europe fighting in World War I in 1916, not at the GPO.”

Overall, Doyle O’Neill argues, Byrne’s effect was to bring two sections of Ireland together.

“There is a sense that he was trying to lift us out of the quagmire of some of our views.

He is a very modest man and doesn’t see himself as an heroic ambassador, but what he did unintentionally was important because he was a catalyst for change.

“He mediated the conversation between two sides of Ireland.”

The Gaybo Revolution is out now on Orpen Press. It can be bought in shops or here from 28 January.

Read: Gay Byrne “recovering well” following heart attack

Read: Gay Byrne thanks fans for well wishes following heart attack

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