The ink is finally dry on the millions of column inches that were dedicated to Gay Byrne following his passing. Personal anecdotes and opinions on this institution of Irish broadcasting were plentiful. Also mentioned in passing among all the plaudits were Gaybo’s moments of controversy, included in which was his demonstration of how to open and use a condom on The Late Late Show in 1987.
As more ‘seasoned’ readers will recall, contraception was illegal in Ireland until 1980 (it was in fact decriminalised in 1980, having been criminalised in Ireland in 1935). At the time, picking up a pack of condoms off the shelf in a local Swedish-owned supermarket in Tallaght was the stuff of a madman’s dreams. But the impact of what Gay Byrne did that night should not be underestimated in terms of its significance in raising awareness of sexual health in Ireland, particularly in that era.
Also during that era, the world was in the early midst of the AIDS epidemic. But Catholic Ireland being what it was, the idea of contraception was taboo. As a personal anecdote, I remember visiting my local pharmacy and pilingup sticking plasters, cough medicine and barley sugar sticks before I finally managed to pluck-up the courage to ask for the condoms and avoid Mrs Lynch from down the road at the counter, who was in for her prescription. Perhaps, with a million other young men like me in a similar situation, those were good days for the profit margin of the community pharmacist!
I’m old enough to remember the impish look on Byrne’s face as he unwrapped the condom and jaws hit the floor among the giddy audience, as he announced the condom as “that dreaded object”. Make no mistake, much like the Catholic church at the time, RTÉ was a powerful, hierarchical institution with a barely-concealed smug sense of superiority. Competition for viewing figures and access to other channels were severely limited at that time. Only a broadcaster of Gay Byrne’s stature could have got away with doing what he did, essentially ‘flipping the bird’ to the RTÉ tsars and hand-wringing Bishops up and down the country. In this sense at least, Gaybo was indeed a rebel. Compared to The Late Late Show with him at the helm, the current incarnation is a safe, bland, cookie-cutter version of what it was when he was the host, with unpredictable and fascinating guests such as Billy Connolly, Oliver Reed, Spike Milligan et al. There was a sense of not really knowing what would happen next. As he gradually fades from memory, we should not forget the service he did for raising awareness of sexual health in Ireland, a subject that received scant attention at the time. RIP Gaybo. It’s a cliché, but they don’t make them like him anymore.