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A transparent nightie and haybarn snogs: How TV brought sex to Ireland

“People were disgusted about Miley and Fidelma. They wouldn’t watch Glenroe any more.”

Gay Byrne said to me, Irish audiences will look at the TV and say ‘that’s terrible, that’s awful, turn it up there’.

IT IS OFTEN said that there was no sex in Ireland before television. Biological impossibility aside, the gogglebox has certainly increased Ireland’s openness to intimacy.

From the first gay kiss in 1996 to TV3 saying a scene in Tallafornia was “not porn” – all with Miley and Fidelma in the hay in between – we have come a long, long way.

With the launch of Téilifís Eireann on New Year’s Eve 1961, you could be forgiven for thinking that Ireland had been dragged roaring into the Swinging Sixties.

You would be wrong.

Indeed, the opening night started with a speech by Eamon de Valera and then a mass, before closing with a speech by a bishop. Sexy.

As the Irish Times’ Fintan O’Toole puts it: ”Television didn’t bring sex to Ireland – just reruns of ‘Get Smart’”.

TRANSPORT Bill Ireland Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

That was until 1966 when on one crazy Friday night Gay Byrne asked a woman about her nighttime attire.

We were completely beside ourselves.

Picking a married couple out of the Late Late Show audience, Byrne asked Richard Fox from Terenure in Dublin what colour the nightie she was wearing on their wedding night was. Richard said that the nightgown was “transparent” before Eileen returned, saying she didn’t wear any, drawing laughter from the crowd.

While many saw it as harmless fun, the Bishop of Clonfert was less impressed, sending a telegram which read: “Disgusted with disgraceful performance”.

Byrne would also receive rebukes from Meath VEC which said it was “anti-national” and Loughrea Town Council which described it as “a dirty programme that should be abolished altogether”.

Of course, Byrne wasn’t the only one talking about sex, he was just doing it a little more openly.

What are we like?

Broadcast historian Dr Finola Doyle O’Neill, author of the upcoming book The Gaybo Revolution: How Gay Byrne Challenged Irish Life, says that Ireland’s media has always been reactive in terms of showing society its own sexuality.

“The story of television in Ireland started because people on the east coast and the border could get the BBC.

The BBC would beam in these ‘kitchen sink dramas’ that showed what the Irish felt was an inaccurate version of sexuality.

So, The Riordans was born and it very, very subtly tackled sexuality. In one scene, the local priest counsels Maggie Riordan to use contraception after she is advised not to have another child.

The ensuing controversy was even debated in the Dáil by TDs who felt it had crossed the line of decency.

In 1978, the secondary-school set drama The Spike was condemned after a glimpse of naked flesh was seen.

The Spike The controversial scene from The Spike Source: RTE

While the nudity was in the context of posing for a portrait and not a sexual one, it didn’t lessen the furore and the show was pulled from Irish screens just five episodes into a six episode run.

The fact that it was widely considered to be a bit rubbish probably didn’t help.

The kiss that wasn’t a kiss

“Then, in 1989, Fair City started and that’s what really brought sex to Ireland,” says Dr Doyle O’Neill.

It tackled everything from rape, domestic violence and all sorts of intimations of sexual malpractice.

“In a way, the soap opera has been a conduit of what’s happening in Irish culture and our attitudes to sexuality.”

In 1996, Ireland was shocked when the first (almost) gay kiss was broadcast by a national station, just three years after homosexual acts were decriminalised.

The kiss wasn’t actually even a kiss as Liam and Eoghan were interrupted before they actually locked lips.

image-ref-no-2072032-2-752x501

Alan Smyth played Eoghan Healy for five years on the soap and the now-California-based actor says that the scene was a “massive moment” for Irish society, but that people didn’t cause the uproar that one might have thought.

“There was an awful lot of paper coverage of it and build up to it.

People thought that we crazy for doing it and really edgy but I remember I was very keen to just go for it and do it. I’m a straight guy, but I thought ‘If you’re going to do it, just do it.’

“It seemed that you just needed the suggestion that two men were going to kiss, and everyone was talking about it.”

Smyth says that for him the scene wasn’t about blazing trails or putting anything on the agenda, it was more about doing an acting job.

As for any anticipated backlash against him, it never really came.

“People would very occasionally say something like call me a queer on the street, but other than that, people were really into it. I think the anticipation of it was more dramatic than what happened.

When it was done, it was on to the next thing.

Smyth says that the idea wasn’t pitched just like any other storyline but efforts were made to ensure that the characters stayed as far away from stereotype as possible.

That didn’t stop the national broadcaster being a bit reticent to take the story on.

Ironically, the people who were most concerned about it were RTÉ. There were times when the writers were gung-ho and we were all excited to do it, but I felt that the powers that be maybe felt that it was a little too much at that time.

“We wanted to do it, but they thought it was too early in the evening. And then, Eastenders did it six or eight months later where they showed the two guys kissing.”

That Eastenders’ kiss attracted huge complaints for the BBC but allowed them to have gay characters as a norm, paving the way for Smyth’s character to be seen kissing his boyfriends within months, albeit very casually.

“I think it wasn’t the shitstorm that some people were worried about because we presented it as normal. It was just two guys who were into each other.”

“You’re a homewrecker”

Source: Paddy O'Paddy/YouTube

In 1997, Ireland was rocked by another sex scene that featured absolutely no sex.

“Although Glenroe was always a bit more brash about its sexuality, with Dick Moran being very open about his conquests, there was always the sense that these people were outsiders,” says Dr Doyle O’Neill.

Over the Christmas of that year, Glenroe’s ultimate insider would fall – and fall hard.

When the programme showed Miley kissing his wife Biddy’s cousin Fidelma in the hay barn, the nation was gripped, the show topping the ratings.

fidelma-3 Biddy, Miley and Fidelma Source: RTE

Eunice MacMenamin played the “homewrecker” and says that those involved in the making didn’t hold the same worry of those involved in Fair City’s kiss the year before.

“We were worried if the audience would believe it,” she told TheJournal.ie.

“We weren’t worried about the content because it was just a kiss, but I am surprised it took on a life of its own.”

The fallout from the kiss meant that MacMenamin had, and still has, problems in parts of Ireland.

I got the odd thing in the street in Dublin, but it was much more common in the country. People would say to me that their parents were disgusted and wouldn’t watch the programme any more because I was a homewrecker.

“It only worked because the characters were loved.

“But I was very proud of what we did, it pushed a boundary in its own way. It showed that people have sex in the country too.

But this showed that [affairs] did happen and do happen.

Tallafornia, porn and Nidge riding Janet

screen-shot-2014-10-05-at-21-55-58-1-e1412547374545-630x342 Source: RTE

Fast forward to the Celtic Tiger and the advent of cable TV across the country and Ireland became a pretty hard place to shock.

However in 2011, reality TV show Tallafornia took flak for showing a scene where two characters went to bed. While viewers were left with a vision of rustling bed sheets, the scene was slammed as “porn” at the time, prompting TV3 to defend itself.

But just three short years and Love/Hate had Nidge engaged in the most perfunctory version of coitus imaginable with Janet.

screen-shot-2014-10-05-at-21-56-00-e1412547499432-630x340 Source: RTE

Just 27 years after sex had arrived in Ireland with Fair City, it was being used for little more than punctuation.

How far we’ve come? Not quite.

“Irish people were shocked by things like [Tallafornia] because of people’s attitudes, more than their actions,” says one TV professional.

“Gay Byrne said to me, Irish audiences will look at the tv and say ‘that’s terrible, that’s awful, turn it up there’.”

Shocking people is simply more difficult in the modern age, Macmenamin says.

“They say that sex sells, but that’s getting more difficult.”

Dr Doyle O’Neill adds that TV3′s attempt to capture the zeitgeist missed because Irish people appreciate subtlety.

“TV3 was attempting to capture the youth audience who had gone beyond shy blushes about their sexuality.

Things like the Late Late Show and Glenroe and The Riordans were all very subtle and very understanding of the milieu they were dealing with.

“People didn’t talk about sexuality until television in Ireland, but it was very, very cautious. Our media is really reactive.”

Television only started to show people what they were already doing – not showing them anything new.

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Read: Ireland’s Sex Shops – ‘Everyone has a kink, they just might not know it yet’>

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