Tuesday 23 January 2018

Review: Down Down Deeper and Down: Ireland in the 70s and 80s by Eamonn Sweeney

Gill & Macmillan, €16.99

John Greene

John Greene

Had Down Down Deeper and Down been published in November 2007, and not November 2010, it may well have been filed under the heading of ancient history.

Author Eamonn Sweeney records in vivid and often stark detail events in Ireland from 1973 to 1985, devoting a chapter to each year.

And yet the irony is that the passage of a few years has brought all those events covered in this book into a sharper focus than they ever could have been even just a short time ago. Back then, as the country continued to party and live the dream, we could scarcely have imagined that we were products of such a place as described in the pages of Down Down Deeper and Down.

Sweeney acknowledges as much in the opening pages: "The boom years also created the idea that we had reached a kind of end of history, enabling all previous events to be read as in some way leading to the inevitable consummation of the Celtic Tiger era. On this reading, even the most venal political behaviour could be seen as contributing to the blessed state we enjoyed in the first decade of the new millennium." The book's timing means the Seventies and Eighties do not seem so distant now.

It was, after all, not only a time of extraordinary and unrelenting bleakness, but also an age of social and cultural upheaval. It barely seems conscionable that it is only 37 years since a Supreme Court judge described a serious risk to a woman's health if she were to become pregnant again as the "natural hazards which must be faced by married couples with such fortitude as they can summon to their assistance".

Or 31 years since, in one 12-month period, 1.47 million working days were lost to strikes.

Or 28 years since an organised gang of youths in Dublin's north city had as its purpose to "get rid of queers from Fairview Park". One man was beaten to death and five young men were convicted of murder, although the judge suspended the sentences. "This," he said, "could never be regarded as murder."

Sweeney says hindsight can be misleading, but that does not prevent him for using it to the advantage of his narrative. Naturally, the central theme is of key milestones in what was still a young country when Sweeney takes up the tale in 1973, just as Ireland becomes a full member of the EEC.

He charts the political and social controversies through to 1985 -- the Arms Trial, the resignation of a president, the never-ending industrial disputes and strikes, atrocities such as the Dublin bombings and disasters such as the Stardust -- and as the book comes to an end, a new era is just beginning in the Irish political landscape with the formation of the Progressive Democrats. "Irish politics would never be the same again," he concludes.

But what distinguishes Down Down Deeper and Down is that Sweeney hones in too on the small seeds that would eventually bloom into Ireland's second literary and dramatic revival of the 20th Century, as well as the country's emergence as a film producer. It is these titbits through the years which in a way give us a sense that amid that bleak backdrop, a disparate crew of talented and determined creative forces were sowing the seeds of a new future for their country.

He recalls the individuality of the work of film-maker Bob Quinn; the forgotten genius of writer Desmond Hogan, who "may be best known now as a kind of JD Salinger figure in Irish literature, as famous for the books that were never written as the ones that were"; the trail blazed by Horslips and Planxty to open doors for Irish contemporary music and the theatrical revolution spearheaded by the founding of the Druid Theatre in 1975.

All through hard times, a sustained cultural and artistic movement -- often in the face of the sternest institutional opposition -- meant that Ireland was not, according to Sweeney, in the same stagnant condition it had been in during the depressed Fifties. "It was," he writes, "in many ways a very exciting time."

Exciting, maybe, but ultimately there can be no hiding place from that unremitting sense of despair so common of those years -- which a few years ago many couldn't even begin to fathom but which sadly is all too real again. "In the Eighties the future seemed as much a cause for despondency as the present... That the Seventies seem slightly less gloomy than the Eighties is mainly because we now know there was even worse to come."

Down Down Deeper and Down was meticulously researched and written, but the trick with a project such as this is to strike the right balance between reliving history accurately and illuminating it with commentary and wit. That he has found this balance leaves you looking forward to the next chapter in this warts-and-all tale of modern Ireland.

Sunday Independent

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