If you want to see how far Ireland has come in the last half century, look no further than the infamous “Bishop and the Nightdress” controversy which convulsed the country 50 years ago this month.
Historian and Irish Times columnist Diarmaid Ferriter drew attention to the 1966 anniversary last weekend and though I was quite young, I remember it like it was yesterday and the madness it unleashed.
Irish TV station RTE, owned by the government, was about five years old and the guardians of morality were many and frequently thundered from pulpit and bishop’s palace about some vague sexual overtone contained in a program.
The "Late, Late Show," still running as the longest entertainment program in Europe, was a particular target as host Gay Byrne, a brave broadcaster indeed, often stretched the ecclesiastical limits with attempts to show the emerging modern Ireland. My mother loved him, my father hated him and it was the same in many households.
All those misdemeanors, however, were just preludes to the thundering disgrace in the eyes of the bishops of what happened on the show one Saturday night in February 1966.
A couple identified as Mr. and Mrs. Fox, recently married, appeared on a segment called “Mr. and Mrs.,” a light-hearted quiz about how well newly married couples knew each other.
Byrne asked Fox what color his wife’s nightdress had been on their honeymoon. He replied that it was see through. Mrs. Fox denied this, saying she had not worn a nightdress at all, and then said if she had it was white.
That was it, a newlywed couple being a little raunchy about their honeymoon night.
The legions of the leagues of decency did not see it as such, though. The august Bishop of Clonfert kicked off a national firestorm when he telegraphed Byrne to say, “Disgusted with a disgraceful performance.” His secretary followed up with a phone call stating the segment was utterly immoral.
Bishop Ryan followed up with a stem-winder of a sermon the following day in Galway, “In fairness to Christian morality.” He asked the faithful to protest “in any way they saw fit” due to the debasement of morality: “We are entitled to see a program that is more in keeping with moral standards traditional in our Catholic country.”
The newspapers were all over it. Even the liberal Irish Times editorialized that "The Late, Late Show" had gone too far.
The RTE board abjectly apologized as did Byrne, who issued a statement saying it had never been the intention to offend and he was sorry it “was embarrassing to a section of the viewers.” He did say in his defense it was “an ad lib late night show for adult viewing.” The RTE authority pledged to see that in the future Byrne would “uphold the standards of Irish taste.”
Father Michael McRory, parish priest in Dunleer, Co. Louth, jumped in. “The duty of Catholic viewers to such a show is clear – they should turn it off.”
Local politicians went crazy at this assault on Irish morals, but not the aforementioned Mrs. Fox, who said, “The whole thing is too ridiculous for words.”
The Irish Times editorial stated that while Ryan had chosen to “kill a fly with a sledgehammer,” RTE had been guilty of a “lapse in taste.”
The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, the arch conservative and guardian of the nation’s morals who was very close to President de Valera, thundered that the piece was “vulgar, coarse, even suggestive” and “really unworthy.”
Insane you might say now, but very much the tenor of the times and a clear example of the enormous power wielded by the church in Ireland.
But that power did them no favors. A generation or so later when very serious allegations of abuse cover ups were barreling down the tracks at them they were utterly unprepared because their word was always final in earlier times.
Mr. and Mrs. Fox unwittingly began the revolution on a cold February night in 1966. Their dastardly deed of joking about their honeymoon attire will live on forever, it seems.