Friday 21 October 2016

Mary Kenny: generation 1946

Now approaching 70, the baby-boomers have had a lucky span of life

Published 06/12/2015 | 02:30

Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny

Next year will, of course, see the celebrations around 1916: but 2016 also marks the 70th anniversary of "the making of the modern world", in the words of Victor Sebestyen, who has chronicled 1946 in great detail.

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Anyone who hits 70 this coming year (that's you, Ruairí Quinn, nicely partnered by Joanna Lumley) represents one of the most significant aspects of 1946 - the beginning of the "baby boom" years.

It doesn't take Dr Freud to work out just why there was a "baby boom" all over Europe and America, starting in 1946: after a great conflict or a major war, the soldiers and the war-workers come home and make babies. Everyone is in the mood for domesticity and nest-building. It's what nature wants people to do. And so most countries - with the significant exception of Germany - had a marked increase in births in 1946. (Germany's birth rate didn't start to rise until 1955, when there were enough adult men, once again, to start fathering children.)

Ireland, by which we mean Éire (the 26 counties), desperately needed babies 70 years ago: the population stood at 2,955,107 - the lowest since records began. Éire's population had continually decreased since 1936, so every baby born in 1946 should have been welcomed.

Babies born out of wedlock were not, alas, always given a warm welcome. There were 90,000 illegitimate babies born in Japan that year, virtually all issues of the American occupation, and usually stigmatised as such. In Soviet-occupied Germany, Victor Sebestyen reports that in the spring of 1946, between 150,000 and 200,000 babies were born as a result of German women being raped by Soviet troops: almost all were consigned to orphanages. Countless abortions also took place: the price of an abortion was half a kilo of coffee or two cartons of Lucky Strike cigarettes.

It's pitiful to read of the rapes of German women - the historian Anthony Beevor estimates that anything up to two million brutal rapes occurred in the war's aftermath, and we are not talking about nuances of "consent": but rapes at gunpoint, multiple rapes, and pathetic cases of mothers trying to hide their daughters from the marauding troops. Venereal disease also stalked the occupied territories. Sebestyen in his book 1946 finds it "strange that although American troops were provided with condoms, their VD rates were alarmingly high".

And yet, for all these sad episodes, 1946 was a year of optimism, and new beginnings. The airline industry had lift off: the first commercial flight between London and Paris was inaugurated (seat price: seven pounds and 10 shillings), and Shannon, then called Rineanna, played host to the first Pan American flight on January 3: it had flown from Gander, Newfoundland in the record time of seven hours and 53 minutes. In February, TWA joined Pan Am in Co Clare.

In June, plucky little Aer Lingus inaugurated its first flight between Dublin and Paris: 70-year-olds wanting to commemorate this should reserve a flight for June 17.

Foynes, in Co Limerick, where the great seaplanes had arrived during 1939-45 now shut up shop and the last seaplane departed on March 24 - but the very engaging museum which recalls this episode of aeronautical engineering is still there.

If 1946 was the "making of the modern world", two of the most important developments in modern Irish history occurred: the Rural Electrification scheme was launched, and the programme expanded to bring electricity to every part of the country. In health, a special authority was installed to combat the scourge of tuberculosis, which had been known to wipe out entire families.

As the baby-boom generation grew up throughout the 1950s and 1960s, expectations for most people kept getting better, in health, in education, in opportunities, and even in relative peace. Poverty there certainly had been, throughout the 1940s, and rationing too; the Irish baby-boomers will probably remember urchins in the Dublin streets barefoot in winter, and then the waves of emigration in the 1950s. But the direction of travel was towards continuous improvement, and it was small wonder that when the baby-boomers came of age, in the 1960s, they felt a sense of entitlement. And a sense of throwing out everything that belonged to the old world of their parents.

It's all in Bob Dylan's ballad 'The Times They Are A-Changing': the baby-boom generation was now affirming its values, which became the values of today.

The heritage of 1946 is still with us in many respects: the United Nations opened for business (Ireland applied to join, but was vetoed by the Soviets as a punishment for being neutral in the war); the first link between smoking and lung cancer was medically suggested; the biro made cheap and disposable pens available to all (a fountain pen, at 37 shillings and six pence, could cost the best part of a week's salary); and airline travel has become a way of life.

Baby-boomers came into the world - mostly - on a roll. The auguries were good. Patrick Kavanagh wrote On Raglan Road; Jack Yeats painted Men of Destiny, and James Stewart starred in one of the most uplifting films of all time, It's a Wonderful Life. For the boomer generation, a wonderful life was just the ticket.


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