News Irish News

Monday 25 June 2018

1984: An annus horribilis for Irish women

Alice Glenn
Alice Glenn

Damian Corless

In the summer of 1984, Justice Noel Ryan delivered his verdict in the case of a young woman who'd been pilloried and punished for having a baby out of wedlock while living 'in sin' with the father. Finding that she had been rightfully sacked for setting a bad example, he declared: "In other places women are being condemned to death for this sort of offence."

This chilling chastisement was addressed to Eileen Flynn, who'd been dismissed from her teaching job in Wexford. The State's Employment Tribunal had backed the nuns who'd sacked her, the Circuit Court judge was now backing the State, and the High Court would soon back Justice Ryan.

This was no country for young women. The year began with the death in childbirth of 15-year-old Ann Lovett by a Longford grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary. By the time of Eileen Flynn's dressing down in court, there was an unmistakable stink coming from the Kerry Babies murder inquiry. The conjunction of the three cases opened faultlines in Irish society that had been chaffing beneath the surface for years, and The Gay Byrne Show became the key conduit for venting deep-seated public unease on the radio.

As the shameful details of Ann Lovett's lonely death became public - despite the strident protests of her community and clergy that there was "nothing to see here" - the nation's Father Confessor, Gaybo, filled one entire show with letters (mostly) expressing shock and dismay at the events in Granard.

But this eruption of outrage about the second-class status of women had a broader background. There was a gathering sense of disquiet that Irish society was becoming truly, madly, deeply dysfunctional. The economy was a basket case, Gaybo's daily mantra was that the country was banjaxed, and the running joke was: "Would the last person leaving Ireland please turn out the lights".

The FG/Labour government released an impotent rescue plan entitled Building on Reality, gifting their enemies the instant taunt of Building Unreality.

It was the year the Brighton bomb attempt on the life of British PM Margaret Thatcher brought Anglo-Irish relations to a new low. A decade earlier, in an effort to contain the murder and mayhem spilling from the North, the reins on the gardaí had been deliberately loosened. The upshot, by the mid-Eighties, was to reap the whirlwind of rogue behaviour and outright lawbreaking by the supposed guardians of the law.

In 1982, a man called Peter Matthews met a violent death in custody in Shercock Garda Station, Co Cavan. In 1984, when the courts ruled that no garda could be found responsible, public faith in the force, already drained by the Kerry Babies travesty, hit a new low.

Future Presidents Mary Robinson and Michael D Higgins backed a Criminal Justice Bill amendment that would prevent gardaí bullying false statements out of witnesses, and any repetition of the Shercock death, but the government voted down the safeguard.

Looking back at the pop charts of 1984, a British commentator recently remarked: "It was the gayest year ever." Not here it wasn't, where the Council for the Status of Women was attempting to challenge the prevailing caveman mindset with its Charter For Change containing "20 Demands From Women For Women".

Some, such as "divorce legislation" and "recognition of rape within marriage", would come with time. The vast majority, on equality, pay, childcare and lots more, got mothballed up with the Boy George dolls and Spandau Ballet headscarves.

Ireland got a new smash-hit soap in 1984, which portrayed a John Hynde postcard land of thatched cottages, happy donkeys, and comely Biddys and Mileys courting at the crossroads. Perhaps part of Glenroe's huge popularity was its window of escapism into a cosy world of old certainties and pieties that was falling in on the populace.

Speaking on the set of Glenroe, the soap's creator, Wesley Burrowes, explained the glacial pace of Miley and Biddy's courtship: "Most men regard women as either whores or nuns, and Dinny and Miley would regard them as nuns."

Sadly, it was probably a fair reflection of Irish society's arrested development in these awkward matters, from someone with a reliable finger on the national pulse. While not attracting Glenroe-scale audiences, one underground sensation was the Sunday brunch après-Mass pub stag, featuring blue movies vis the flood of newfangled VHS machines.

One report fingered a rogue Montrose employee with access to RTÉ's state-of-the-art facilities as a major source of pirate copies.

A couple of 1984 quotes spotlighted some of the obstacles on the road ahead for Irish women. Government TD Alice Glenn said: "What man wants to have anything to do with a girl who has been used and abused by any man who comes along with condoms?" while Patsy Buckley of Society for the Protection of Unborn Children said: "A girl was dissuaded from terminating her pregnancy because I got together some gorgeous maternity clothes."

Indo Review

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News