Friday 15 November 2019

Reeling in the Joshua Tree - here's what Ireland was like when U2's album released in 1987

Emigration, the Troubles, and dodgy pop music...

Reprisal: The Edge and Bono on the original Joshua Tree tour at Croke Park in 1987
Reprisal: The Edge and Bono on the original Joshua Tree tour at Croke Park in 1987

Ed Power

It was a year defined by emigration, the Troubles — and a lot of dodgy pop music. As U2 hit the stage to celebrate 30 years of The Joshua Tree, Ed Power looks back at 1987

In the summer of 1987, a man wearing a beige cowboy hat and leather waistcoat walked  on to a stage at Croke Park in Dublin. “How you doing?” he asked the crowd of 50,000 in a soft Dublin accent that already carried the hint of a transatlantic inflection. In the background a guitar shimmered: the epic opening to U2’s ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’.

Thirty years on from the band’s first great Irish homecoming, Bono and company are doing it all over again. The difference is that now Croke Park is a state of the art stadium rather than a ramshackle barn and the audience at tomorrow night’s gig will include not only Irish people but migrants from all across Europe and the world who have made this country their home. The songs will be the same — everything else changed utterly.

Watching footage of U2’s Joshua Tree show at Croke Park in 1987, what’s immediately striking is the fervency of the attendance. A air of disbelief hangs over the venue — as if nobody, not even the musicians themselves, can believe that four Dubliners are taking on the world. You can sense the desperation, too, of a generation, raised in stifling religiosity and economic stagnation. To them, U2 were more than merely a rock band — they were a vision of another possible Ireland, very different from the basket-case in which they’d grown up.

Bono on stage at Páirc Uí Chaoimh during the Joshua Tree tour in 1987.

Three decades is a long time. But for Irish people especially, the gulf between the original Joshua Tree tour and U2’s current reprising of the album teeters on surreal. Divorce was still illegal in 1987, contraceptives difficult to come by. Few under the age of 30 were genuinely religious — nonetheless all felt compelled to attend Mass.

Emigration, meanwhile, was a fact of life and nobody had any money. Life is never quite grim if you are young and carefree. Nonetheless, this was a grey country to which U2 had introduced a spark of colour.

In the years, since, U2 have changed as well. They went from earnest to ironic and back to earnest. The cowboy hats were ditched, then reclaimed (the leather waistcoats thankfully were never seen again). Adam Clayton stopped wearing bright orange pantaloons; nowadays The Edge never leaves home without a tea-cosy surgically grafted to his head.

As we countdown to tonight’s show, what better time, then, to look back at the sights, sounds and fashions that held sway the year the Joshua Tree was released.


It was the year of Bono — but also the year of Jacko. Michael Jackson returned, much paler than we remembered, and with an angry new sound. “Who’s bad?” he asked in the Martin Scorsese-directed video to the title track of his new album — though, as accounts of eccentricity multiplied, his attempt to pass himself off as a singing hoodlum would feel increasingly ludicrous.
Michael Jackson performs during the Bad Tour in 1987 at Wembley Stadium in London. Photo: Getty Images

Never again would Jackson so thoroughly dominate the culture. Thereafter the songs would get schlockier, the whisperings about his off-stage behaviour more lurid. A similar trajectory would be observable in the career of George Michael, whose Faith album brought him international fame and embellished the heart-throb status with which, as a semi-closeted gay man, he was deeply uncomfortable. Likewise, soon to descend into tragedy was Whitney Houston, who in 1987 notched up the mega smash with ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)’. Several classic records saw daylight that year: Appetite For Destruction by Guns ’n’ Roses, Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush The Show, Actually by The Pet Shop Boys. U2 aside, the stand-out Irish achievement was Johnny Logan winning the Eurovision for a second time with ‘Hold Me Now’. His victory in Brussels was rapturously received — how far we were from sending a singing a plastic turkey to the land of Douze Points.

Belinda Carlisle: from girlband glory to solo success.

The singles charts, on the other hand, were the usual tidal-pool of bubble gum, with hits such as ‘I Heard A Rumour’ by Bananarama, ‘Heaven Is A Place On Earth’ by Belinda Carlisle and the sanity-straining ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ by Starship on heavy circulation. A reminder that the good old days weren’t always so stellar.


The era of the concept movie was upon us. Dirty Dancing saw Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey setting fire to the dance floor in an otherwise depressing film featuring bullying and abortion. Also raising the temperature were Michael Douglas and Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, a romp that introduced the world to the concept of the bunny boiler and which would today no doubt be decried as maniacally misogynist.

IF Dirty Dancing.jpg
Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing

Also winning at the box office were Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop 2 (even in 1987 sequels were becoming glassy-eyed and dull) and Mel Gibson’s Lethal Weapon, the original of the crazy cop-plus-detective-about-to-retire species.

Highlights for cineastes included Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which achieved the impressive feat of being more depressing than the actual Vietnam War, and Paul Verhoeven’s witty and allegorical RoboCop — a dystopian tale of trigger-happy police, greedy corporations and incompetent politicians. Any resemblance to America 2017 is strictly coincidental.

Greed is good: Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas in 'Wall Street', was eventually jailed for illicit trading, despite having his own plane, money to burn and notoriety.

Oliver Stone brought us one of the great big screen anti-heroes in Wall Street’s Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas again). Gecko’s “greed is good” speech would serve as a blueprint for a generation of bug-eyed money grabbers, and would no doubt have won a nod of approval from a loud-mouth New York real-estate developer who, four years previously had taken possession of his new HQ at 721 Fifth Avenue, aka Trump Tower

But the movie that, among more discerning fans, arguably has had the most enduring influence was Withnail And I, Bruce Robinson’s howlingly bleak portrayal of two unemployed actors who end up going on holiday “by accident”.

A scene from the cult classic, Withnail and I, starring Paul McGann and Richard E Grant.

It made a star of Richard E Grant and furnished students with a life-time supply of catchphrases (“We want the finest wines available to humanity. And we want them here, and we want them now!”).


Coronation Street commanded the attention of the nation as Deirdre Barlow, of the super-sized spectacles, was thrown in the clinker after becoming involved with a conman posing as a pilot, spawning endless “Free the Weatherfield One” references. On RTE, a Late Late Show tribute to The Dubliners — featuring their rowdy, Pogues-assisted version of ‘The Irish Rover’ — rejuvenated the august folkies’ careers.

At the 25th Year celebration of The Dubliners on The Late Late Show, Gay Byrne and Charles J Haughey, Dublin, 06/03/1987 (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection).

In America, meanwhile, a future TV institution was born as The Tracey Ullman Show broadcast the first of a series of short animated features about a yellow-skinned family named The Simpsons.

Irish Politics

Even by the grim standards of the decade, 1987 was unusually gloomy in Ireland. In January, Labour pulled out of coalition with Fine Gael after clashing over budget proposals. Thus Irish politics’ then never-ending game of revolving doors continued as Garrett FitzGerald was replaced as Taoiseach by Charles Haughey at the head of a minority government, with newcomers the Progressive Democrats perceived as the big winners at the polls.

Looming in the background was the conflict in the North: this was the year 10 civilians and a police officer died in the IRA’s Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen, with elderly Gordon Wilson wrenchingly recalling his final words to his dying daughter, Marie, as they lay buried in the rubble. Six months previously, at the Loughgall Ambush, the SAS killed six Provisional IRA terrorists who had attacked an RUC station with a digger primed with explosives. When would the horror end?

Emigration, for its part, continued to surge and unemployment remained stubbornly in double digits.

International Politics

“Mr Gorbachev — tear down this wall.” They were arguably the six most enduring words Ronald Reagan (left) would ever speak and a highlight of a speech the President gave in West Berlin on June 12.

US president Ronald Reagan, right, shakes hands with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev after the leaders signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987 (AP)

With a reformer in the Kremlin, a thaw had unquestionably set in between East and West. Nonetheless, it would still be years before the Cold War was put on ice. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher was returned to Downing Street with a thumping majority, though her advocacy of turbo charged capitalism threatened to backfire as on October 19 — a date immediately dubbed ‘Black Monday’ — global stock markets crashed (they would quickly recover, however).

Further disaster struck the UK when the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry capsized shortly after leaving port at Zeebrugge in Belgium bound for Dover in the UK, claiming 193 lives.


Never one to miss a photo op, Charles Haughey made sure he was at the Champs-Élysées on July 26 as Stephen Roche crossed the finish line to become the first Irish person to win the Tour de France. A fluke victory by Scotland over Bulgaria in November elsewhere saw the Ireland soccer team qualify for the following summer’s European Championships — the first occasion an Irish side had advanced to the group stages of a major competition.

Ireland’s Paul Kimmage, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and Martin Earley (l-r front row) celebrate after Roche claims gold in the 1987 World Championships

Back home, it was the year the minnows roared with long time underdogs Meath beating Cork in the All Ireland Football Final and Galway overcoming Kilkenny in hurling. Things were less smooth for Shamrock Rovers supporters who woke to discover their beloved ground at Milltown up for sale: they would be homeless for more than 20 years.


It was the golden age of eight-bit devices such as the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64. As games machines, they were primitive, capable of displaying only a limited amount of colours and with the processing speed of a dim-witted calculator. Yet the games were cheap as chips and, for a generation raised on Knight Lore, Football Manager and Jet Set Willy, technology would never be as exciting again.
The Commodore 64's start-up screen became familiar to millions. the machine came with a version of the BASIC programming language built in


Roddy Doyle published The Commitments and Maeve Binchy had another bestseller with Firefly Summer. Internationally, Ian Rankin introduced readers to taciturn Inspector Rebus and Stephen King terrified fans with crazed-fan story Misery. That year’s Booker Prize was won by Penelope Lively with Moon Tiger, a look back at a forbidden romance in Second World War Egypt.

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