The Best of the 1990s
The decade that formed modern Ireland kicked off 25 years ago, with the dodgy taste of the 1980s in our mouths. That was wiped out with tax cuts, red wine, boys in green, dance music, culchies letting rip, cheap flights and iconic TV shows. We take a look at the highlights of a decade that made us believe that anything was possible
The end of the Cold War triggered massive changes across the world during the 1990s. The biggest of these was, of course, that Irish people started drinking wine on a Wednesday night.
It started with cheap Romanian reds. Suddenly you could get a bottle in your local supermarket for under five punts. I'll take two, says you, rehearsing your sickie call to the boss the next morning. It was possible to go to a house party and be offered something other than warm German mouthwash. A glass of red made you look sophisticated; two made you sound funny. OK, shortly after that you were incoherent - but then, so was everyone else.
There was only one problem with our newfound love of the wine. Nobody had any wine glasses. At a party in 1990s Ireland, it was not unusual to find people drinking plonk out of flower pots in the hope of looking sophisticated. Of course if you were stuck, you could always drink out of the bottle. Back in 1990s Ireland, it was still considered hilarious to show all the signs of being a borderline alcoholic.
Nobody was foolish enough to enjoy the taste of this wine. In fact, if you served everyone a glass of Toilet Duck at the end of the night, they would probably say you were keeping the best wine until last. The hangovers were so bad that if you waited a week to open another bottle, it would still be considered a cure.
There was an inevitable backlash against Romanian reds. Soon all the talk was about Bulgarian merlot. The news quickly spread across the former Soviet satellite states that Irish people will happily drink the contents of your colostomy bag if you put it in a bottle marked 4.99. So they did. And we did.
Boys in Green
The Italia '90 World Cup was the last great throw of the dice for Irish manhood. Ireland wasn't expected to get out of a group that included England and the Netherlands. They upset the odds and got to the quarter finals.
Bizarrely, Irish men didn't upset their wives when they called home after qualifying and said, "Listen closely, love. I live in Italy now. Go down and tell the Credit Union that you need money for food. Which you probably do, because I just phoned the boss there and told him where to stuff his job. Ciao, ciao." Great times.
The USA '94 campaign started against Italy at the Giants Stadium outside New York. A lot of people were surprised that the Irish fans outnumbered their rivals by three to one. In fairness, The Sopranos was still to come, so we had no idea that New Jersey Italians were too busy for sport, what with looking after their entirely legitimate business interests and drinking morning shots in some titty bar by the freeway.
It's fair to say that Ireland was hard to watch for the remainder of that tournament. And not just because of Andy Townsend's blond highlights. (Ah jaysus, me eyes!) The official story is that Holland finally knocked us out of the tournament in Orlando because they were more used to the climate. Ah yes, the Netherlands, where the tropical breeze off the North Sea can sometimes drive the temperature up towards the high teens.
The Dutch did it to us again with a play-off victory in the run-up to Euro '96. It was to be the last hurrah for Jack Charlton. 'Jack Who?' said you at the time, pulling on your brand new Munster Rugby jersey and flagging down a passing bandwagon. Irish sports fans - we have the loyalty of a cat.
It started on the quays in Dublin. Orange brick buildings where culchies could have sex with each other without running the risk of catching dry rot off the walls. (Or each other.) Apartments, they called them, because it was no longer du jour to say, "Do you fancy doing the wild thing back in me flat?"
These new places weren't perfect. Unless you were four-foot-three and had an aversion to natural light. But at least now there was an alternative to renting a bedsit in Rathmines from a heavy-set man from the midlands who wasn't inclined to brush his teeth. "Take it or leave it," said he, flashing all the proof you needed that he had broken it off with his toothbrush.
The apartment was your only man in the 1990s. It was a sign that you were ahead of the curve, and ahead of anyone living in a house. Soon, there were apartments almost everywhere. (Later, there were apartments absolutely everywhere, but the Celtic Tiger was a still a little bit off in the 1990s. The only kind of Celtic we knew back then was a Scottish football club supported by people who always seemed about three pints away from joining the INLA.)
You couldn't build one of those prototype 1990s apartments these days. Not now that the Government has decided that a two-bedroom apartment must be able to fit something more than two beds. Still, a lot of people wouldn't mind the chance to live in one. Particularly now that the definition of an apartment is "somewhere I can't afford to rent, so let's go back to my parents' place and have it off in the garage".
There was a dance-music scene in Ireland before the 1990s. But it was mainly in gay clubs, so you wouldn't exactly say it was discussed in public.
Straight Ireland got in on the act around the start of the 1990s. Sweat, at Sir Henry's in Cork, was voted one of the best nights in Europe. This actually led to a popular dance at the time called 'Run For It'. It was a simple dance, where you put one foot in front of the other as fast as you could, in order to get away from the mad-eyed Cork raver who wanted to talk about how everything was better on Leeside and how he couldn't understand for the life of him why anyone would want to live above in Dublin, what with it being fierce busy and come here, if you want a hug now boy, all you have to do is ask.
People are kind of coy now about the rise of Ecstasy during the 1990s. Or maybe they can't remember. There was a rumour going around that the best way to take Ecstasy was to avoid mixing it with a load of alcohol. This was never proven here in Ireland because there was a shortage of volunteers to try it out.
Still, the arrival of dance music was a great relief to most Irish people. Impressing someone with your moves before that often meant dancing to heavy-metal music. This usually made you look like an extremely angry person being attacked by a flock of birds. If someone did actually choose you because of this display, you'd worry that they might be working through some issues of their own.
1990s dance music came to an end in March 2000, when Mark McCabe recorded Maniac 2000 at Clontarf Cricket Club. It proves the old adage. Give the Irish a cool underground movement and we will hand you back Oggie, Oggie, Oggie, Oi! Oi! Oi!
Step back for a minute and examine what happened here. A British television station aired a show that depicted us as priest-ridden, thick, pissed, sexually dysfunctional and corrupt. It would be nice to think that everyone got the joke; but let's be honest, a lot of Brits thought it was a documentary. Unless you believe our neighbours are a highly educated bunch who love a bit of irony. In which case, you've never been to Barnsley.
What was our reaction? We sent every comedian in the country over to appear in the show. All you had to do was say "why did the chicken cross the road?" and you'd get a gig on Father Ted. Why? Because we were glad of the attention. It was the first time in ages that the Brits had noticed us for something other than blowing up one of their cities.
We had a good old laugh at Father Ted over here. That's because we wanted to believe that Ireland was no longer a corrupt or priest-ridden place by the mid-1990s. This came as news to anyone who had to do the walk of shame up to a pharmacy counter and ask for a packet of condoms. "Oh we don't sell that kind of stuff here," said the nun-in-disguise at the till, "Try your man across the road, I hear he is having an affair with a Protestant."
As for no corruption in 1990s Ireland, well that's funnier than Father Ted.
In the end though, our inner clown wrecked Father Ted. There was no conversation that couldn't be ruined by a nerd chiming in with, "That would be an ecumenical matter". People who genuinely had nothing else in their brains other than "girls, arse, feck" were suddenly viewed as comic geniuses. And to this day, groups of hopeless nerds flock to west Clare every year for TedFest. That really is mad, Ted.
The first episode aired in 1999 and nothing was ever the same again. The Sopranos had so many good things going for it. Middle-aged men talking about their feelings. Check. A guy called Pussy. Check. The feminists choosing to overlook the topless women dancing in the background because other parts of the show were quite arty. Check. Carmela's weird ski pants. Check. Paulie Walnuts. Check. Artie Bucco. Oh, baby.
The best thing of all? We no longer had to describe Friends as the show of the decade. There are a number of probable reactions when you watch a re-run of this 'comedy' today. The main one being: What were we thinking? Followed by: How could anyone like Monica?
The stand-out character in The Sopranos was of course Tony's mother, Livia. Here we had a sharp-tongued, self-pitying woman who never met a grudge she didn't like. And there were we thinking that Irish Mammies were unique.
The Sopranos raised the bar for everything that came after it. Without the best TV show of the 1990s, we would never have had a golden decade that included The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones and many more.
The real legacy is that we now live in a box-set culture. Box set is a polite term for "I stole it from the internet with the help of fanatical Swedish nerds". Some say this socially respectable stealing is killing the TV industry. Others say it is whacking the TV industry because they watched every episode of The Sopranos in one weekend, and now they can't stop talking like a New Jersey mobster. Last week they watched too much Father Ted and couldn't stop saying "you will, you will, you will". What's de madda with deez pea-pull already?
Remember what you were doing on July 4, 1996? Drinking 24 cans of Bud to celebrate Independence Day, says you, always on the lookout for an excuse. Well, there was something else to celebrate. Because that was the day Hotmail was launched.
It changed everything. Suddenly there was an alternative to using your work email. This was a good thing, because 97pc of your work emails should have arrived with "This has nothing to do with you" in the subject line.
The other 3pc was a series of filthy exchanges between you and married-with-two-kids-Derek under the subject line "Pints?" This was dodgy. Weird William in IT had access to all emails. He wasn't above a bit of blackmail to get his icy flippers on your good self.
Hotmail cut Weird William out of the picture. And it changed our world. Before Hotmail, the office was the place you went in the hope of meeting someone who might sleep with you after seven Bacardi-and-Cokes at the Christmas party. After Hotmail, it was the place you went to spend all day keeping in touch with your old friends from college. You noticed that one or two eejits had taken to including photos of their manky kids in these emails. There's a passing fad if I ever saw one, said you, wrong as usual about that sort of thing.
Hotmail opened up your eyes to what was going on in the world. People who only watched the news were completely ignorant of the massive political turmoil in Nigeria and Kenya. However, it was clear from your inbox that an awful lot of princes and prime ministers were being ejected from office without a chance to transfer their money into a European bank account.
Also, before Hotmail, you had no idea how attractive you were to hot Eastern European women in stonewashed denim mini skirts. You didn't tell your friends about this because there was a chance the women got your email address following your visit to a website called BustyStunnahs.com. You didn't mind that it took one of the busty stunnahs 25 minutes to take her top off over dial-up. Sure, that just added to the suspense.
The 1990s marked the death of the culchie. If you doubt this, spend a bit of time looking for images of Clare hurling supporters from that time. Here you had a group of people who weren't just comfortable with their culchieness - they wanted to ram it down your throat. This came in two forms. The first was the Clare Shout, which shook the country as the Banner County's team won the All Ireland hurling title in 1995. It took the form of a demented "yeee-hoooo". Any Dublin 4 liberal who hears the Clare Shout is forced to consider emigration.
The other sign of aggressive culchieness? The bodhran. Clare fans took to carrying one with them everywhere. It's fair to say that nobody ever tried to advance the cause of urban intellectuals with a bodhran in their hands.
Twenty years on and the culchies are all gone. Ireland is a diminished place without them. Social media has flattened out the place; the craziest thing a culchie is likely to do these days is the ice-bucket challenge. That's all a bit lame. In 1990s Ireland it was not unusual for a rural man to go out for a pint and wake up in Brazil.
The modern culchie seems like a hipster in comparison. It seems like they are all making craft gin or hand-made crisps or appearing on the telly in their beards, telling us that their family farmed this land for ages, so please buy our steak. It's hard to guess what your 1995 culchie would make of them. Other than to chase them across the field shouting, "yeee-hoooo, yeee-hoooo" while banging like mad on a bodhran.
A typical 1990s phone conversation: "You're where?" "Doncaster." "What's going on in Doncaster?" "Almost nothing."
Michael O'Leary set about converting Ryanair to a budget airline in the early 1990s. His main tricks were cheap flights and avoid Heathrow. Some felt that was crazy. Others noted that flights from Ireland to Heathrow landed somewhere in Wales, and you had to walk the rest of the way through a metal tube. They also pointed out that every hour of that walk felt like a punishment for being from the bold island next door. They might have been on to something there.
It didn't matter where Michael flew to. What mattered is that you could get a seat for 99p. Soon there were throngs of Irish people in places like Nottingham saying, "The money I save by drinking 47 pints will pay for the weekend."
Ryanair didn't just open up new routes. They opened up a new avenue for the most popular pursuit in middle Ireland - ramming your wealth down other people's throats. "I never fly with anyone except Aer Lingus," said the snobs, setting fire to a large wad of 50-pound notes in case you missed the point. The point being that they didn't want to find themselves sitting next to you, with your peculiar take on cabin luggage - two pairs of knickers and your toothbrush in a Roches Stores bag.
You won't find Paddy walking the streets of provincial Britain on a Tuesday morning these days. Cheap flights aren't really cheap any more. And even if they were, it wouldn't make up for the Truest Fact Of All Time - an hour can feel like two weeks when you are looking for something to do in Ipswich.
Do you remember the first time? That first pay slip somewhere towards the end of the 1990s where your take-home went up because your tax went down. There must be some kind of mistake, said you, - to yourself, in case someone from the Revenue was hanging around. You had heard politicians announce tax cuts in the past, but every single one of them resulted in lower take-home pay. Voting for those eejits appeared to be some kind of giant scam you played on yourself.
And yet, here you were, better off because of a politician. The name of that politician depends on who you ask. Bertie Ahern will tell you it was him. Ray MacSharry will tell you it was him. Mary Harney will tell you it was her. All you know is Charlie McCreevy made a speech in the Dail and then you got richer. The following year, it seemed to happen again. Charlie was on the road to greatness, culminating in his SSIA scheme in 2001, which pretty much stuffed money into the pockets of drunks sleeping on the streets.
It would be wrong to say every single Irish person blew Charlie's handouts on a BMW or a new pair of tits. For instance, there was a rumour that a man in Limerick bought an Audi. And we know for a fact that someone's aunt decided she had better get the nose done before getting work done on 'the lads'.
Charlie's largesse sparked off a massive spending frenzy. In New York, says you, remembering how you had to wrestle a nurse from Listowel to the ground in Macy's because the bitch had her eyes on the last pair of Ray-Bans.
Of course, the official view now is that Charlie McCreevy is To Blame For Everything. (You should always put that in capital letters to show how angry you are.) He was even given a warning by current TDs about his behaviour when he appeared at the Banking Inquiry, as if he was some kind of dog that had a sneaky shit on the carpet. But some of us will never forget what it felt like to get money off a politician.
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