The Toy Show – an Irish institution

By John Scally

The Anthem for the ‘60s generation was ‘Hope I d-die before I get old’. Theirs was the generation that saw an unprecedented departure from previous ones. It was in the ‘60s that life as we know it today was largely shaped and moulded.

It was the decade of the Beatles, pirate radio, monster peace concerts, flower power and Mary Quant. Hope and idealism were the common currency. Nostalgically, everything about the time seems good, the concern for peace, the socially concerned songs of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and the sense of freedom and optimism.

Higher education standards, greater foreign travel and industrialisation opened the windows of change on Irish society. The introduction of free education in Ireland would have a big impact on Irish society.

A major agent of social transformation was unquestionably the emergence of television, when topics which had hitherto been shrouded in a veil of secrecy were openly discussed for the first time in pubs and parlours, in homes and convents. New Year’s Day 1962 was a watershed in Irish society, when Ireland got its first television service.


The first television sets had begun to trickle into rural Ireland a few months later. They were the latest of the never-ending miracles of science, those ‘picture boxes’ installed by the wealthier farmers.

They held children from their play and adults from their memories beside the fireside. The poorer families, who could not initially afford televisions, would almost beg to spend their evenings in those fortunate houses where the images flickered and came and went.

The tenth commandment, ‘Thou shall not covet thy neighbours’ goods’ had never been broken so often once the televisions came on the scene.

Television was blamed for all manner of new social ills, typified by the late politician Oliver J. Flanagan’s comment, “There was no sex in Ireland before television.”

In this climate, the most influential person in Ireland was the late broadcaster, Gay Byrne, on foot of the incredible popularity of both his radio and television programmes.

It was he who set the agenda to determine what the nation was talking about. Gay, for example, brought into the public domain an issue that many people had intimate awareness of – the lack of adequate facilities for children with serious speech difficulties, which literally condemned them to lives of quiet desperation. What emerged with crystal clarity in his programmes was that from day one, parents had to fight and scream for every resource.

Their experiences were that they did not get the resources as a matter of right. Many spent years fighting every arm of the state to try and give their children the best possible start in life.


The hope is that broadcasters will follow in Gaybo’s wake and push and push towards the truth of things. Those programmes serve a noble purpose, to oust secrecy, to obliterate shame, to stand as a mirror to the soul of humankind and to reflect Irish society back to itself, to delineate our terrible propensity for violence and abuse, and to use narrative as a blessed valve to relieve the awful pressure of the ignored, pent-up, unspoken pain of existence.

Gaybo captured the essence of Irish life with elegance and eloquence, often with a lyrical beauty pulsating with ethical depth.

He wanted to offer Irish society at large a new vision. He wanted to see a just society – one which respects and nurtures all its children equally; insists that people and their human needs are sacrosanct; ensures that its wealth and resources are distributed fairly and equally and guarantees basic human rights for all its people.

However, while Gay covered serious issues, he could also do lighter stuff and raised the bar for Irish entertainment. Gay’s most enduring legacy is an Irish institution, The Late, Late Toy Show.

For generations of Irish children, the beginning of Christmas is synonymous with the Toy Show. Its appeal is that it is a show for all ages and has created a proliferation of particular family rituals in many Irish households.

Why is the show so successful?


One reason perhaps is that we live in a society of consumerist individualism, one that frequently sees material success as a reward for hard work, commitment and dedication, which sometimes, of course, it is.

As we become wealthier, do we want to think that we can give our children the toys we could not afford as children?

The clear consensus is that it was the best Toy Show ever. It was bigger and better, and as a consequence, each programme seems like the eighth wonder of the world.As always, Gay Byrne had the best instincts.

Everyone rightly gave him a standing ovation each year. Gay’s genius was to recognise that it was not really a programme, but about three key things – children, magic and nostalgia.

Research established that a particular child had a lovely singing voice in school. A hush descended when he was prevailed on to sing. The entire gathering stood in wonder as he sang a rendition of ‘When a child is Born’ that even Johnny Mathis himself would have been proud of.

The applause for him afterwards was louder than for the winner of the Eurovision contest. The children bring the magic and we lap it up.


There is the nostalgia which Christmas has a unique power to evoke in all adults. Nostalgia causes us to remember our Christmas childhoods as times of unsurpassed happiness. Often the reality was very different, but our minds create the reality we choose to remember.

This Christmas, as he leans over the bannisters in heaven, Gay Byrne will smile as we watch the Toy Show again in massive numbers. We will smile too, watching the programme, as we recall our past Christmases and marvel at the magic, innocence and wonder of it all.

Gay Byrne, we remember you and we salute you.

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