Wednesday 22 May 2019

Reeling in the year: Panti, Garth, Scotland, and a whole lotta Kim

Donal Lynch looks back at a year when we turned a corner, remembered how to protest and waited in vain for Garth Brooks.

Kim Kardashian
Kim Kardashian
Garth Brooks, the gig that never was
Panti Bliss hit international headlines when Rory ONeill’s emphatic speech at the Abbey Theatre hit the internet
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Have you ever wondered what nostalgia is? Where does the feeling come from? Why can we look at a clip from say, Reeling In The Years, and smile ruefully at the political scandals and recessions that at the time seemed grey and flat, the brutal and uninspired present.

Perhaps this feeling comes because the stories from the past have already been resolved and have therefore lost the atmosphere of fear that pervaded them as they unfolded. We know the Troubles and 80s recession eventually gave way to something better, so we feel free to enjoy footage from the time. Our own lives are like this too. Most of us struggle through childhood and then romanticise it for a lifetime. The problem resolved itself - we grew up. There's nothing to be frightened of any more.

The year 2014 is still too fresh in our minds to benefit from the glow of nostalgia but somehow many of the year's stories already look like they were long ago resolved forever. Of course it is the fads that have aged most quickly. Could it really be this year we first began hearing about neknomination? Or Ice Bucket challenges? Or watching the whole world fall into a selfie frenzy?

The weather is a perennial national obsession and when most of us look back on the year we'll remember it more for the storms which lashed the country over last winter (before giving way to a long hot summer) than we will for any news story. The sunshine seemed to improve everyone's mood and consumer confidence improved for the first time in years. Unemployment fell month after month and during the summer much of the negativity of the last few years seemed to melt away.

The first big news story of the year was probably the Panti controversy, and it had some curious echoes from history. Just as nobody cared about the 1916 patriots until the British shot them, nobody really cared about gay rights until RTE coughed up a huge libel settlement to John Waters, Breda O'Brien and others.

Then all of a sudden the country got up in arms for gays. As tensions escalated Panti seemed like she was one more bus-stop side-eye away from the Nobel Prize. We had what might have been Pat Rabbitte's Rumpole of the Bailey swansong with his Queensbury Rules quip. It seemed to energise David Norris like nothing since the presidential race, and Stephen Fry and Madonna got involved. The Saturday Night Show got to do what the Late Late used to do - stir social debate. And Panti became an international figurehead. It also got everyone's social conscience blood flowing. When Panti got up on the stage at the Abbey while a line of soldiers bowed their heads behind her, she inadvertently got us warmed up for water charges protests later in the year.

But before that we had some traditional "stocking filler" stories to get through. "The horrors of the past" could be its own section in any given Irish review of the year for the last several dozen. But this year completely took the biscuit, horror-wise. Yes, 2014 will see your Ferns Report and Goldenbridge Orphanage Scandal and raise you a mass grave with hundreds of babies buried in it. Surely this was moral bedrock, we all thought, surely this is as low as the people who worked for the church ever went: throwing people out like compost. Incredibly, the most surprising thing about the story was not that these atrocities actually happened but that there wasn't more outrage. We got more riled up about Garth Brooks than dead babies in 2014.

Joan Burton felt like the comforting embodiment of how far we've come - having lived part of her childhood in a mother and baby home. In July she became a popular Labour leader after Eamon Gilmore resigned as leader of the Labour Party. That wasn't close to the most seismic political moment of 2014 though. This came when Alan Shatter resigned. The revelations around the garda whistleblowers report may have been good cause but in recent years a politician bowing to political and public disapproval has felt as rare as a passing meteor. By the time the Mairia Cahill allegations convulsed Sinn Fein later in the year, Adams and Co were showing us the correct Irish procedure for dealing with scandal - brazen it out.

Since the mid 1990s we've needed a 'trial of the century' to keep us going every year. This year Oscar Pistorius filled that gap and did it pretty well - turning in a fabulously tearful, garbled performance in the dock in South Africa, and giving magazines all over the world an excuse to print pictures of the gorgeous Reeva Steenkamp - the girlfriend he killed.

In the 80s, they had recession and AIDS, in 2014 we had austerity, which continued to drag on, and Ebola. It was the new disease to be scared of; those images of scientists in white suits investigating it had chillingly sci-fi overtones and it became the new celebrity cause du jour. By December it had become the inspiration for the new Band Aid single.

The Malaysian Airlines disaster in March gave us one of the most interesting mysteries of our time. A plane on its way between Kuala Lumpur and China just seemed to totally vanish, leaving a lot of conspiracy theories in its wake. Were they in the jungle or under the sea? Was it the pilot or terrorists? When another Malaysian Airlines flight went down in the Ukraine in March, they really were looking very much like an airline to avoid.

At the Oscars, Twelve Years a Slave was the big winner, but the most enduring image from the night was certainly Ellen's famous selfie which, surprise surprise, turned out to have some corporate angle - the company which gave her the phone she took the pic on was in on it.

Still, even that wasn't the movie story of the year. That honour went to the Sony leaks which came after the studio was attacked by North Koreans who were apparently miffed at a film which had as its plot the assassination of their leader. Ironically, the leaked emails, full of juicy gossip about Hollywood royalty, provided far better entertainment than we would have any right to expect of the film, which Sony duly pulled.

Naked women were once again big news in 2014. Kim Kardashian "broke the internet" with the Jean-Paul Goode-directed pic of her balancing a champagne glass on her substantial derriere. Along with George Clooney, she had the celebrity wedding of the year and picked Ireland as her honeymoon destination, although she and Kanye slipped in and out without many people seeing them.

Unfortunately for Jennifer Lawrence, anyone with a working broadband connection could see all of her this year as her phone was hacked and compromising photos of her and other stars were leaked. Lawrence opened up about her outrage to Vanity Fair, which featured her semi-naked on the cover. There's a difference, people.

At home the biggest entertainment story of the year involved Garth Brooks, Ireland's country music messiah, who was forced to pull his planned five concerts at Croke park after Dublin City Council refused to licence the gigs.

The world became aware for the first time just how seriously into country music Ireland really was, and how we might be able to organise a piss-up in a brewery - that's our thing, after all - but not much more than that. This story was also the only one of the year to feature a sentence which began "Ballybough residents call on Obama…"

In sport the World Cup seemed like ready-made nostalgia, no need even to add time (probably because we lacked any real investment, having failed to qualify). The Germans won as usual but this lot seemed much less robotic and remorselessly efficient than their teutonic forbears. Brian O'Driscoll retired - causing the phrase 'living legend' to be used about eight billion times - and became a father again.

But the other major sports-for-people-who-don't-care-about-sports story involved Rory McIlroy who put himself in pole position for cad of the year by ditching Caroline Wozniacki after their wedding invitations had been sent out. He did do pretty well at golf though.

The referendum on Scottish Independence was one of the biggest news stories of the year and the occasion for seemingly endless Braveheart-themed internet memes. Like Garth Brooks it felt a little relentless after a while; "stay or go", we felt like shouting across the water; "we don't really care either way." In the end, the referendum was soundly defeated and the Scots opted to stay in the Union, only to discover that roughly half the things that Westminster had used to buy their loyalty was a bluff.

Perhaps the reason we couldn't care about this story is because the year also brought us our own struggle for independence - from Europe and the seemingly endless yoke of debt.

Overall, it was a year in which it felt like some of the gloom lifted and we spent our way back to economic good health - sales of things like luxury cars and fur coats and champagne were up. But the water charges were signs that things had better keep on improving, because we are close to breaking point.

They did a poll in Germany this year which found that most Germans were "surprised" at how lying down Ireland took austerity. For some of 2014 we lay much less prone and the water charges brought about a flashpoint. Thousands took to the streets and the protests were a timely reminder late in the year that even if the country has turned a psychological corner, 2015 needs to be a good one if we are to keep our collective sanity.

Sunday Independent

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