Fadó, fadó, in Éireann (Long, long ago, in Ireland) there was a sponsored programme, broadcast on national radio. Before the signature tune began and with the midday dinner dishes cleared away, women across the nation put the kettle on, sat down, at 2 p.m. in the afternoon as the husky, velvety voice, redolent of late nights, nicotine and alcohol, announced, “Welcome to Woman’s Page, brought to you by Jacob’s, the people who make better biscuits better, every day; a programme for and maybe about you. Now, the problems I’ll be discussing today may not be yours, but they could be some day.”
Yes, the late Frankie Byrne was the nation’s favourite and (as far as I recall), only agony aunt. The programme featured letters from people writing to Frankie and in doing so, sharing their problems, from coast to coast. In an uptight Ireland, hearing others’ problems made compelling radio.
For more than two decades, from 1963 to 1984, Frankie Byrne’s Radio Éireann programme, ‘Woman’s Page’, otherwise known as “Dear Frankie”, united people all over Ireland. They listened in kitchens and workplaces; alone, with family, colleagues and friends. Interspersed with maudlin Frank Sinatra records, Frankie’s no-nonsense relationship advice was delivered with a combination of sympathy, scathing humour and sensitivity. When the programme ended, women snapped out of their trance and returned to their chores, leaving the glittering world of Frankie inside the wireless on the shelf.
It was not until late 2010, that the poignant irony of Frankie’s story, as agony aunt to the nation’s lonely and unhappy people, came to light. Frankie’s fans gathered together again, in theatres around Ireland to view a new play, “Dear Frankie”, the story of Frankie’s tragic and secretive life.
Frankie had come from a childhood of casual neglect by her middle-class family of gamblers, drinkers and racegoers, and found herself flouncing around in a privileged Dublin milieu. The perks of her job at the Brazilian Embassy in Dublin included living quarters in the embassy’s O’Connell Street premises, a car and access to Dublin’s social elite. Life couldn’t have been much better for a single young woman in the Ireland of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Then she fell in love with broadcaster Frank Hall, already married and unavailable. Early on in the affair, she became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter whom she reluctantly gave up for adoption six months later. As owner of a PR company, a radio presenter and a much-loved radio agony aunt, Frankie seemed to have it all. But behind the scenes, her personal unhappiness and a growing dependence on alcohol and antidepressants was slowly beginning to take its toll. When she died in her early 70s, she was suffering from dementia and, as one journalist remarked, ‘her funeral was notable for how few of her former colleagues bothered to attend it’. Her daughter said in an interview that the last time she saw her mother was in December 1993, in the St John of God hospital. “She stretched over and grabbed my wrists and stared into my eyes and she said to me ‘someone has stolen all the words out of my head’.
The world was as frenetic, neurotic, and full of fear and pain then as it is now; we were bled dry and fed on a diet of fear, endless legislation scuppered enterprising activity, we judged, criticised and accused ourselves and each other through a filter of eons of inherited misconceptions and faulty perceptions, dumbed down; our sense of authenticity and dignity eroded. Decades on from Frankie Byrne’s ‘Woman’s Page’, the world is still full of lonely people.
The pain of the world is extraordinary right now, because it reaches us ‘across the wires’ and forces us to confront it. It is difficult to avoid being sucked in. Watching, listening to and reading about the atrocities and terror across the globe fuels the pain and in response, we give voice to indignation and anger while at the same time feel hopeless at our inability to fix it.
Today’s agony aunts, gurus, therapists and spiritual teachers are fully occupied in offering advice on dealing with tragedy and heartbreak, but like Frankie, they too are living parallel lives, balancing public and private personae; for there is no denying that every life is touched by some circumstance or event that hurts.
Yet somehow, pain and suffering unite us. Back in the day, ‘The Woman’s Page’ made compelling radio. Listening to Frankie, sponsored by Jacob’s, “The People Who Make Better Biscuits Better Every Day”, the women of Ireland wallowed in the problems that ‘might not be theirs today, but could be some day’, united in misery, sure to be having a few Jacob’s Cream Crackers, Mikado or Coconut Creams with the cup of tea. Fifteen minutes of ‘Dear Frankie’ was a tonic.