Friday 30 September 2016

Not so much a generation gap as a chasm

Joe Barry

Published 30/03/2016 | 02:30

Malahide Community School students during rehearsals for their recent 1916 Proclamation school play. 'The opportunities available to teenagers today are almost unbelievable compared to 100 years ago.' Photo: Mark Condren
Malahide Community School students during rehearsals for their recent 1916 Proclamation school play. 'The opportunities available to teenagers today are almost unbelievable compared to 100 years ago.' Photo: Mark Condren

There is much soul searching taking place in Ireland these days regarding who we are, what we have achieved and how society is to be managed for the coming decade.

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Various versions are bandied about regarding our history and what it might mean for the future. It really depends on who you are talking to and who the authors were of our differing histories.

One thing is certain; Ireland has changed from being an almost destitute third world country in to a place where young people have hope and good prospects. In the years in between, a whole way of life and what was a uniquely Irish culture has disappeared.

I use the word "unique" with reservation as in our case it meant being shut off culturally from outside influences. Strict censorship had a lot to do with this as did the stranglehold the church and state had on the media.

Little changed economically from the 1920s to the 1950s but from then on, slowly but surely, we shed the more suffocating influences of past tradition.

We grew up and began to think for ourselves. In the 1960s, when in my late teens, I had the good fortune to spend some time in Spain and was astonished to find that the form of Catholicism practiced there was utterly foreign to me.

It was like opening a door to sunlight and all this in a country that had given the world the infamous Spanish Inquisition. The openness and lighter-hearted attitude to religious practice I found there was refreshing and attractive compared with the dark and gloomy regime I had left in Ireland.

It was clear that the rules of the Roman Catholic religion were interpreted differently in other countries and in a far more humane manner. Some readers of this column have accused me in the past of being anti-religious. This is not so - I simply abhor the specifically Irish version of Catholicism that was imposed on us during my childhood and for the following few decades.

The huge gap that exists between the generations and their experiences while growing up struck me forcibly while attending a local funeral recently. I knew many of the older people present but their children and grandchildren seemed almost foreign, like new paintings by unknown artists, hanging in a recently opened gallery.

Optimistic

They looked smart, bright and optimistic and with a mindset that could have come from another planet from the one I grew up in.

People like myself who were born in the 1940s and 50s arrived into an Ireland that still endured grinding poverty which was kept out of sight and only barely controlled by encouraging mass emigration, something these youngsters knew little of.

My family was fortunate to belong to what has been called the 'Strong Farmer' class and the late Joe Ward wrote a book of the same title which well describes the way of life they enjoyed. Raymond Keogh's Cattleman also gives good insights in to how they lived, yet it is easy to forget how the economic war of the 1930s wiped out many of them.

The children of the 60s arrived in a different Ireland, one brimming with fresh ideas and hope and with membership of the EU just around the corner.

During the 70s land prices rocketed and like the recent Celtic Tiger era, this led to over borrowing and finally to bankruptcies once reality hit home, but all the while, Irish society was opening up to new and exciting opportunities.

Discos had replaced the ceilidhs and "ballrooms of romance" and once Ryanair arrived to challenge the Aer Lingus monopoly, world travel became affordable for almost everyone.

They were exciting times but then virtually all aspects of life are exciting when you are young.

The opportunities available to teenagers today are almost unbelievable when compared to 100 years ago. Few had access to third level education then and even gaining an apprenticeship for skills like carpentry and plumbing required your family paying a tradesman to take you on.

An excellent social history of the 1920s and the following decades is contained in No Laughing Matter, Anthony Cronin's biography of the writer Flann O'Brien (Brian Ó Nualláin).

In the early chapters it describes the strict upbringing that he and the children of most middle class Irish families endured in those days. Trying to relate this to young people today is virtually impossible.

It seems the generation gap has never been greater.

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