The first broadcast of The Late Late Show was 11.20pm, July 6, 1962. Producer Tom McGrath intended it to be a light entertainment, informal programme to run as a ‘filler’ over the summer. It would be full of chat and easy banter, an Irish version of America’s The Tonight Show.
Gay Byrne had other ideas. Brash, slick and far smarter than he pretended to be, he quickly turned the show into a mirror of a changing society. The show became a forum where controversial topics such as the influence of the Catholic Church, contraception, AIDS, homosexuality, abortion, and divorce could be openly discussed.
The Bishop and the Nightie
The first major controversy emerged in 1966 in what has become known as The Bishop and the Nightie affair. It involved a supposedly light-hearted quiz. A number of husbands and wives were asked the same questions separately about their partners, and there was a £5 prize for the couple that matched most answers.
Gay picked a married couple from the audience, Richard and Eileen Fox from Terenure in Dublin, and asked each of them a series of questions while the other was out of earshot. One of the questions related to the colour of Eileen’s nightie on honeymoon. Richard said it was transparent, while Eileen said she wasn’t wearing any.
The item drew condemnation from Thomas Ryan, Bishop of Clonfert in Galway, who sent a telegram: “Disgusted with disgraceful performance”, and also denounced The Late Late Show from the pulpit, prompting an apology from RTÉ. Gay Byrne later issued a statement saying it had not been the show’s intention to embarrass viewers.
He pointed out that it was a late-night show designed for adult viewing. A decade later veteran feminist campaigner Hilary Boyle criticised the Irish government when she appeared on the Late Late, calling them “all so afraid of a belt of the crozier”. Shortly after the bishop and the nightie rumpus, there was a further incident when a debate was held on the Catholic Church.
Brian Trevaskis, a young student and President of The Phil Society of Trinity College Dublin, criticised Bishop Browne for spending so much on a cathedral instead of helping the poor. He also called him “a moron”. When he was invited back on the show the following week, the student apologised for using the word “moron”, but he went on to wonder whether the bishop knew “the meaning of the word Christianity”.
In 1971 members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement travelled to Belfast by train to buy contraceptives in protest against the law prohibiting the importation and sale of contraceptives in the Republic. It was a landmark moment in the Irish women’s movement.
Several women, amongst them June Levine, Mary Kenny and Nell McCafferty, carried bags of condoms from Belfast. Mary Kenny appeared on the Late Late to discuss the protest, describing the Irish ban on contraceptives as “pretty damn weird”.
In 1979 fellow broadcaster, Eamonn Andrews hi-jacked The Late Late Show, turning the tables on Gay Byrne. Marking 500 episodes, he interviewed Gay about the last 17 years of the show.
Gay was about to announce a guest called ‘Dana Andrews’, when Eamonn Andrews appeared on set to Gay’s surprise. The set-up was arranged by the Late Late Show crew, who asked Eamonn to come along to salute Gay and the show.
Also in 1979, Gay Byrne interviewed a lesbian. However, when a couple of former nuns who were lesbians were booked to appear in 1985, a High Court case ensued and calls came for The Late Late Show to be axed altogether as it would “greatly undermine Christian moral values” and “the respect of the general public for nuns” to feature the pair on live television. Protestors gathered to recite decades of the rosary, sing hymns as the show got underway.
Bono’s First Appearance
In 1983, U2 front man Bono talked to Gay Byrne about making the video for ‘New Year’s Day’, playing the Dandelion Market in Dublin and why he thought drugs were boring. He also introduced his wife, Ali and talked about making the video for the single which was to be on the band’s new album ‘War’. He talked about being a singer in the band and learning the business of rock and roll.
Gay Byrne asked if the band was new wave, punk rock or pop or what category? Bono replied: “We are called U2, Gay. That’s it.”
The Lambo Incident
In 1987, the late broadcaster Gerry Ryan and a group of volunteers spent time in the countryside of Connemara as part of The Gay Byrne Show. Speaking on the Late Late Show, Ryan claimed to have killed and eaten a lamb to survive, earning him the nickname “Lambo”, as the story turned out to be a hoax. The incident has since been adapted for the stage.
In 1991 Gay interviewed three of The Birmingham Six who were wrongly sentenced to life imprisonment in 1975 for a Birmingham pub bombing. It was an extremely emotional moment when Patrick Hill, Gerard Hunter, and Richard McIlkenny spoke about what life was like inside an English prison for an Irish man.
In 1992 the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke appeared on The Late Late Show. After a pleasant interview, Byrne coaxed Brooke into singing Oh My Darling, Clementine on a day when seven Protestant construction workers had been killed by an IRA bomb.
Unionists were outraged at what seemed to be a moment clearly out of touch with grieving families, and instantly requested Brooke’s resignation. Brooke was humiliated, and subsequently lost his position as Secretary of State to Patrick Mayhew after the 1992 British General Election in April.
As a response to a change in broadcasting legislation, it became possible for RTÉ to interview Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in 1994. Gay chose a panel of public figures – Jim Kemmy, Dermot Ahern, Michael McDowell, Hugh Leonard and Austin Currie.
Byrne himself refused to shake hands with Adams but the SF leader proved more skillful at debate than was expected. During the show, a number of people phoned in saying that Byrne and the other panellists were acting “hostile and aggressive” towards Adams.
In 1992 it was revealed that Bishop Eamonn Casey had fathered a child with an American woman, Annie Murphy. The child named Peter was born in 1973 when Casey was Bishop of Kerry. Bishop Casey resigned as a result of the revelations.
The following year in 1993, Annie Murphy published a book ‘Forbidden Fruit: The True Story of My Secret Love for the Bishop of Galway’, and made an appearance on the Late Late. During the interview Gay Byrne remarked that: “If your son is half as good a man as his father, he won’t be doing too badly.” Annie Murphy responded by saying: “I’m not so bad either.”
She then promptly thanked Gay Byrne for the interview and left the studio.
One of The Late Late Show’s most memorable moments came in 1997, when Gay phoned a competition winner, Rita Hanley, to tell her she had won a car, only to find out the woman’s daughter had died the night before, having been knocked down by a car.
When Rita did not seem excited to have received the phone call, Gay asks her if she was watching the show and she says: “I wasn’t. My daughter died last night.”
Gay was visibly shocked by the news and began asking Rita about what happened. He tells her he doesn’t think “they can continue things in the circumstances”, but Rita said she did want to talk about it. The audience applauded her bravery as she began to speak about her daughter, Linda.
He spoke to her sympathetically and offered comfort and support. One guest, a nun, offered Rita words of comfort and told her it had surely been no accident that her daughter’s postcard was picked.
Another was poet Brendan Kennelly who recited his poem Begin from memory — its final stanza reading:
“Though we live in a world that dreams of ending that always seems about to give in something that will not acknowledge conclusion insists that we forever begin.” By the time he’d finished, Rita was softly weeping. Byrne told her she had the support and prayers of the country, and she in turn, told him she felt she was doing something important for her daughter by staying on the line and accepting the prize “for her”.
The same year, comedian Tommy Tiernan used material on The Late Late Show, which many viewers felt poked fun at the Crucifixion. Gay Byrne apologised and RTÉ pulled the scheduled repeat of the show the following Tuesday morning. Joe Mulholland, managing director of television at RTÉ, said they did so to avoid compounding the original mistake of letting the material – a skit on a priest’s sermon about the Crucifixion, part of a seven-minute slot – through.
“The persons who contacted us weren’t a minority of cranks,” Mulholland said. “They were very reasonable and considered.”
The Armchair Scandal
1997 was a busy year for Late Late controversy. On May 23, Siubhan Maloney from Donegal appeared on the show with a restored armchair as part of a furniture restoration competition. She won first prize in the competition for the chair which she says she restored herself. However, antique shop owner Joshua Duffy claimed that he carried out the restoration. When there was no credit given for his work during the show, Duffy, said he was “gutted”.
In 1999, Pádraig Flynn, Ireland’s EU Commissioner, appeared on the show, during which he commented on developer Tom Gilmartin and a donation of £50,000 to the Fianna Fáil party. Flynn also talked about “the difficulties” in his own life; and of having a salary of IR£100,000 and trying to run three houses, cars and housekeepers along with regular travel. The performance was seen as very out of touch, at a time when house prices in Ireland were rising dramatically, His performance sparked Tom Gilmartin’s co-operation with what was to become the longest-running tribunal in the history of the state.
Terry Keane and ‘Sweetie’
On his second last show, Gay Byrne interviewed the gossip columnist Terry Keane, who went on to reveal a long affair with the former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, describing him as her ‘sweetie’. Haughey, a lifelong acquaintance of Byrne, had intended to be available for the last show, but decided against it, as a result of the revelation. He had appealed to Keane, who was publicising a book she had written, not to reveal her story.
The Toy Show
The Late Late Toy Show began in the early 1970s as a half-hour slot at the end of The Late Late Show, designed to give parents an idea of what toys were in the shops for Christmas while their children were supposed to be asleep in bed. It soon became a one-night show in its own right, complete with children toy-testers and performers.
Gaybo’s final show
On May 21, 1999, Byrne presented his last edition of The Late Late Show. The show, beginning at 21.30, lasted four hours (twice as long as a normal edition of the show at the time). Tributes flooded in from all quarters for the host. High-profile guests on this final show included author Salman Rushdie and comedian Billy Connolly. U2 members Bono and Larry Mullen presented Byrne with a Harley-Davidson motorcycle as a retirement present. Byrne was spotted on the bike regularly, until January 2003 when Byrne and U2 jointly auctioned the bike for The Children’s Medical & Research Foundation at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin, Dublin.