Sally, your country needs you yet again
Joseph O'Connor remembers a long-lost love and the way that she might look at you
PEOPLE of my own age -- 807 -- are able to remember not merely the recession of the Eighties but the grey wasteland of scapulars and swirling mist that was the Ireland that existed before that. It was a place where nothing much happened unless you were a Carmelite or a terrorist.
It would be a mistake to say that Fianna Fail dictated over the country. It was more that Mr Haughey dictated over the country personally, from his underground labyrinth in Paris or the Bahamas, or his largest yacht, The Jolly Roger. He would occasionally appear on television, forbiddingly stroking a cat or threateningly striking his fetlock with a riding crop as he adjusted his monocle. He was the only prime minister in the world who actually owned his own vultures, and he had trained them to swoop on party dissidents and kill them.
In between, we had Labour and Fine Gael, Ireland's version of social democracy. They'd occasionally slap tax on children's shoes just in case you thought they were getting a bit too politically correct, and they were busily constructing the Ireland of the future: an arctic region roamed by gangs of cannibals. The Labour Party leader had the spoonerised nickname Crank Fluskey. Yes, satire was alive and well.
You are probably wondering what we did for fun. Well, fun wasn't actually legal until 1983, and even then it was only available by doctor's prescription, but you're probably wondering what we did to brighten our miseries. Step forward that emblem of our fast-returning glory-days. Sally O'Brien and the way she might look at you.
Everyone in the country who is older than 40 has just tripped down Memory Lane. It was the first television advert I ever saw that accepted Irish emigration as a fact of the landscape -- not only accepted it, but included it. This was an era when the height of creativity in television advertising was putting chimps into bowler hats to advertise tea bags.
Our hero, an Irish fellah, was in some far-flung and exceptionally hot place that might have been somewhere very strong on civil rights like Saudi Arabia. You knew it was hot because the camera kept blurring and soft-focusing and our hero kept telling you that you could fry an egg on the pavement -- "if you had an egg". Where was this strange and chickenless realm? Larry Goodman probably owned factories there, you felt.
He was a handsome, tanned fellow, curly and toned. In the parlance of the era, he was 'a fine thing'. He was employed in the building industry -- you could tell this because he wore a hard hat and accepted payment in cash -- indeed the fact that he was gainfully employed at all made him unusual in the Ireland of the Seventies and Eighties, a country where dinosaurs still roamed the primordial forests and unemployment was at 20 per cent.
Anyhow, he gets to dreaming about the old country and its multiple charms -- the soft Irish landscape, and the soft Irish weather, and the soft Irish Sally O'Brien and the way she might look at you and you down in the pub of a Saturday night and you with the best ironed slacks on you and the coolest sweatshirt in the drapery and your hair after being permed like Kevin Keegan's and a dab of the Old Spice spritzed on the armpits and the aftershave rejoicing in the name and slogan of 'Denim: For the Man Who Doesn't Have to Try'. This was in the era when many Irishmen's idea of making a huge sartorial effort was to wear the jacket and trousers from the same actual suit, which hadn't been washed in a washing machine.
And this ad was fantastic stuff. Sally O'Brien. She'd be giving your man the hairy eyeball across some lounge bar in the midlands, the thousand yard stare, and the light in her eyes -- and for a whole generation of Irish heterosexual manhood, to be looked at by a woman in a pub, while you were drinking a pint of Harp, became the Everest of sensual satisfaction.
For a goodly chunk of my youth, I roamed the hostelries of Ireland, then London, then New York, hoping to be looked at by Sally O'Brien, or by the next best thing -- anyone. It really cheered up my nine years of emigration. And then it became a kind of erotic mania with me. One of Oscar Wilde's characters in The Importance of Being Earnest says from her earliest girlhood that she was fated to love a man called Earnest. That's how I felt about Sally O'Brien.
And then things got a little complicated because my bank manager in London actually was called Sally O'Brien. And she would very definitely look at you. But not in the way you wanted. More in the way that said, "We're foreclosing."
Well, Sally -- if you're out there -- your country needs you again. You could fry an egg on the pavement but we don't have pavements anymore because the builders are after all going bankrupt. Look at us from across the bar. Smile on us again, in your winsome, over-lipsticked but wholesomely unBotoxed manner. We're reversing into the future, in the government time machine. And the Dublin Airport Luas Extension is being replaced -- by a trip on the Wanderley Wagon.
Joseph O'Connor's Wednesday radio diary is commissioned by RTE One's 'Drivetime with Mary Wilson'. 'The Irish Male: His Greatest Hits,' a collection of his radio diaries and other journalism, will be published next week by New Island Books