Monday 16 July 2018

Get to the Point: When Ireland's hippies and punks joined forces

In the summer of 1978, young people across Ireland rose up to ­protest plans for a Wexford nuclear plant. Damian Corless recalls a generation's first faint stirrings of liberation

No-nukes: After the Sellafield leak, people didn't understand why Ireland would want to follow the same path
No-nukes: After the Sellafield leak, people didn't understand why Ireland would want to follow the same path
A poster for the Anti-Nuclear Power Show in 1978

Forty years ago, Ireland took the decisive option to go no-nukes. In January 1978, Minister for Energy Des O'Malley unveiled plans for a nuclear plant at Carnsore Point in Wexford. The young people gathered up and said No.

1978 was also the year Ireland went pop. It was an odd, in-between time. Ireland was thawing from decades of isolationism and bathing in the hippie breeze that had swept the western world a decade earlier, while parts of Dublin, Cork and north of the border were caught up in the frenzied new wave of punk. The hippies and punks found themselves allied in the fight to keep Ireland a nuclear-free zone.

One publication summed up the new spirit of freedom wafting the land, saying: "The current style of folk festival is a welcome innovation.

"Instead of the regimentation and sterility of the Fleadh, the public find a situation where the music and the craic are actually accessible to them! No more sitting in an airy hall wondering when an adjudicator will stop rabbeting on about 'fine long bow strokes' and 'presentation'."

A genuine sense of liberation had arrived, however faint and quaint it may seem to us today.

A travelling 'Anti-Nuclear Power Show' hit the bohareens, fronted by Christy Moore, Donal Lunny, Stagalee and other luminaries. The final destination was Carnsore Point itself, home to the planned nuclear powerhouse. This was serious stuff, with 'Discussion Workshops' covering issues like 'Uranium Mining Accidents' and 'Windscale and the Irish Sea'. The Windscale nuclear plant in Cumbria had changed its name to Sellafield following a toxic leak 20 years earlier, and festival goers didn't understand why Ireland would want to follow down the same path.

Ireland was in an experimental phase, between buttoned-down Catholic conformity and whatever the future might bring. Ireland had also just discovered, to its joy, that it was good at pop. This was transformative. Thin Lizzy were at the top of their game. The Boomtown Rats released their huge seller 'A Tonic for the Troops'.

Oasis of colour

Ireland was still pretty drab though. But every Saturday and Sunday an oasis of colour lit up the drabness. It was the Dandelion Market on what is now the Stephen's Green Centre and it screamed youth. Like a giant oriental bazaar, its stalls and kiosks sold everything your parents wouldn't like. It had slashed punk T-shirts, hippy joss sticks, a million posters, badges, belt-buckles, lava lamps, miles of vinyl and far-out stuff like Bombay mix, patchouli oil and tattoo parlours.

For the youth of 1978, the Dandelion Market was the social network, and an upcoming band called U2 were showing an uncanny knack for networking. That year the managerless unknowns had boldly stalked Boomtown Rat Gerry Cott and rock god Phil Lynott, fearlessly pressing their betters for advice and any leg-ups that might be going.

One of the more bizarre experiments was the so-called Musical Bus.

In an age well before the first Sony Walkman appeared, the capital's bus passengers would now be able to enjoy a selection of middle-of-the-road pop tunes peppered with adverts whether they wanted them or not, as they languished at some midway point on their commute waiting for their driver and conductor to pop back out of the bookies.

The mix of music and ads would be piped on to the top decks of buses on cross-city routes. Reporting that the routes had been carefully chosen, one newspaper noted that these were ones where "it was thought the music might be more acceptable, or where there might be the least objection" (they meant Finglas and Ballymun). Or, put another way: "People from what property experts call the better areas often escape compulsory music on their journeys."

According to the same report, the thinking of the marketeers was that restricting the blare to the upper deck would target the youth, who preferred the upstairs seats. It was additionally believed that since those seated upstairs were already prepared to tolerate cigarette smoke, they might be more open to music and advertising. One writer lambasted the scheme, describing the blare of "unsought electronic tapes" as irritating "gimmickry" when the bus service should be tackling the scandal of rogue buses, with no number or destination on display, cruising past dismayed queues of commuters.

Timetables were a joke, and the state of the filthy fleet was "deplorable, ugly and sometimes dangerous". It was an era when bus drivers and conductors smoked on the job.

For the summers of 1978 and 1979, protesters descended on Carnsore, many brought together by the medium of CB radio. The craze had spread from the United States where it began life as an instrument of civil disobedience during the oil crisis of 1973. In response to the Arab oil embargo on the West, the US government had imposed a 55mph speed limit which was strictly enforced by highway patrols. First truckers, and then millions of ordinary motorists, installed CB sets as a means of alerting other drivers to roadblocks and ambushes laid by the 'Smokies' (police).

Its appetite whetted by the 1976 novelty hit song 'Convoy', followed by a 1978 film of the same name starring Kris Kristofferson, the Irish public went CB crazy when sets began arriving in bulk towards the end of the decade.

For that summer and the next, protesters descended on Carnsore in 'Get To The Point' T-shirts. But the government was not for turning. As a matter of economic necessity, Ireland, officially at least, was firmly in the pro-nuclear camp.

Then, with devastating timing, news broke of a nuclear leak at Three Mile Island in the US, and a sinister botched cover-up (dramatised in the movie The China Syndrome, starring Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas).

A local Fianna Fáil activist attempted to recover the situation by drawing up a "disaster plan" for Wexford should the worst happen at Carnsore. Bad idea. Sadly, instead of advancing the nuclear cause, this contingency plan for meltdown and mayhem had precisely the opposite effect on public confidence, and the nuclear option was shelved.

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