Friday, September 13, 1985, saw two milestones in Irish television broadcasting. The first was the scheduling change of the popular RTÉ chat show, the Late Late Show from a Saturday to a Friday night, perhaps a controversial change for some but not one which could match the controversy surrounding Lesbian nuns that appeared on the show that night.
Two former American nuns, Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan had come to Ireland to promote their book, Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence. The book was a series of accounts from former and indeed, some still practising nuns.
It was only the second time in its then 23 year history that Gay Byrne, had interviewed open lesbian women; the first being the groundbreaking appearance of Joni Crone in 1980.
During the interview, Manahan explained that ‘lesbian’ does not necessarily equate to a sexual term. “When we say ‘lesbian’ … we’re not speaking necessarily of sexual activity. We’re speaking of sexual orientation but we’re also speaking about a spiritual and political commitment to loving women, working for women and that is the bond that connects the women in the book.”
Here they are.
Lesbian Nuns on Late Late Showhttps://t.co/tjieomb9KM
— 🏳️🌈 Dublin City Council LGBT+ Staff Network (@DCC_lgbt) November 5, 2019
According to Suzy Byrne’s recollection in her article ‘It All Happened…’ from issue 77 of GCN, September 1995, their appearance on the show prompted outrage. From petitions to protest vigils and even death threats made toward the show’s presenter Gay Byrne, Christian lobbying groups came out in force.
One complainant applied for an injunction to the high court which was overruled as RTÉ had not confirmed that the nuns would be appearing on the show. In another attempt to thwart the women’s publicity tour, customs seized up to 1,500 copies of the book, claiming that it was obscene. The decision was later reversed and the copies were released.
Gay Byrne interviewed two lesbian ex-nuns on ‘The Late Late Show’ in 1985. Nancy Manahan & Rosemary Curb were in Ireland to promote their book ‘Breaking Silence: Lesbian Nuns on Convent Sexuality’.
The RTE programme had RTÉ’s highest TAM audience 'Rating' pic.twitter.com/TXaU96fJaS
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In the aftermath of the interview, the general public appeared to have received the women favourably, as Carol Lannigan recounts in her article ‘“I was a Lesbian Nuns’ Bodyguard”’ GCN, issue 77, September 1995. Throughout their stay in Dublin that weekend, they were approached by many for photographs, autographs and words of support.
The RTÉ archives show some of the extremes between the mixed responses that it received with one supporter congratulating Byrne directly for his “expert handling of a delicately sensitive topic”. In contrast, one of the show’s detractors described the content as “degenerate and perverted… utterly repugnant to the vast majority of people who respect normal moral values in our society.”
The book garnered mixed reviews but is commonly acknowledged to have had a positive impact on the acceptance of the lesbian community internationally. For the Late Late Show, however, it was many years before they attempted to tackle the issue of lesbianism again.
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