A changing Ireland - TV documentary recalls letters penned to Gay Byrne

Gay’s radio programme became the voice of a repressed nation. A new documentary airs tomorrow (Wednesday, June 3) about the letters sent to the show
A changing Ireland - TV documentary recalls letters penned to Gay Byrne

VOICE AND EAR OF THE PEOPLE: RTÉ broadcaster Gay Byrne in 1965

ACROSS three decades, people all over the island of Ireland put pen to paper to write to Gay Byrne.

Their letters to the TV and radio icon ranged from whimsical observations about life, to politics or the weather, to deeply personal letters.

Those latter letters exposed the underbelly of Holy Catholic Ireland: from unconsummated marriages and people trapped in dysfunctional or abusive unions in pre-divorce Ireland, to the stigmatisation of ‘unmarried mothers’ and the persecution of gay people, as activists fought for homosexuality to be decriminalised.

Eighteen months after the death of the broadcasting legend, a landmark documentary, called Dear Gay, on RTÉ1 on Wednesday at 9.35pm, focuses on the tens of thousands of letters that were written to him — and how those letters changed lives, and changed Ireland.

Using original letters stored in the RTÉ Documents Archive and letters lovingly kept in homes across Ireland, the documentary tells the story of how Gay became the Confessor in Chief of the Irish people — and how the ripples created by each letter grew into a tidal wave of change in Ireland.

The Archives contain the Gay Byrne Radio Show correspondence from 1973 to 1998, and are a veritable social history of an Ireland where piety ruled, problems were not discussed and “problem” citizens were ostracized, or, as one commentator says “simply disappeared into convents or institutions”.

The letters stored here tell the story of how Gay’s radio programme in particular became the voice of a repressed nation.

As Nell McCafferty says in the programme of his role in the Irish feminist movement of the time: “He was our microphone, our loudhailer.”

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