Monday 22 July 2019

Soggy togs, smelly rivers and Rod Stewart hair-dos

Damian Corless remembers the great heatwaves of 1975 and beyond

Hazy days: beaches offered a respite from the Liffey stench
Hazy days: beaches offered a respite from the Liffey stench

So, we've had our sizzling June heatwave. The question now with July and August still to come, is can we push on and have that rarest of things, a long hot Irish summer?

Heatwaves here are more common than we might imagine. The definition changes from country to country, but for Met Éireann a heatwave is five consecutive days where the temperature hits 25°C.

Long stretches of sunny dry weather, on the other hand, are so rare that they tend to etch themselves on to the folk memory.

The sunniest summer recorded in the past century was 1995. A ban on CFC gasses had not yet produced results and people were warned to wear extra suncream and clothing because a depleted ozone layer was magnifying the risk of UVB damage.

It was the summer of Blur vs Oasis and the heat produced a plague of wasps. 2006 produced the next exceptional summer, although caught up in the peak of the property frenzy, many people may not have noticed. The great weather was a blessing for those queueing overnight to bid on starter homes, while multitudes took time out from the Irish summer to inspect their half-built holiday homes in Spain or Bulgaria.

There were no Irish holiday homes in Spain or Bulgaria in 1975 and 1976, two record long hot summers in a row. The 1975 summer smash was 'Whoa, I'm Going to Barbados', but few travel plans stretched beyond Ballybunion.

Sun holidays were for the rich, but who cared while Ballybunion sizzled like Barbados? Ireland had a record-breaking dry spell lasting almost two years from October 1974 to August 1976, producing two scorching summers of drought. Flowing waterways vanished, leaving riverbeds sun-baked into hard, cracked slabs fringed by tinderbox forest. Amid fish-kills and bush-fires, farmers feared massive livestock deaths from thirst. As rural wells dried up, anyone caught hosing their lawn or car faced prosecution. Grass was parched brown, leading to low milk yields which in turn led to ice-cream shortages. The country was dotted with small ice-cream manufacturers. Limerick, for instance, was served by four independents including Leadmore based in Kilkee, Co Clare.

As drought worsened, Dublin Corporation urged the public to go to the laundrette only with a full load, to have showers instead of baths (many households didn't have showers), and not to "flush the toilet unnecessarily". A spokesman singled out Howth's affluent hilltop residents for wasting water on their "large gardens". Plans were in place to have Dublin's water supply fit for purpose by 1990, but water charges would be required. In August 1976, Waterford County Council cut off Tramore's water supply from 8pm to 8am.

But water rationing and ice-cream shortages were a small price to pay for the precious gift of two glorious summers. Courting rituals moved outdoors to public parks, lakes and especially the beaches. Young women favoured high-wedged sandals, denim midis and page-boy cuts. Young men paraded in cheesecloth shirts open to the navel, blue flared Wrangler jeans and platforms, with medallion and identity bracelet de rigueur.

The Rod Stewart 'pineapple' haircut was everywhere, and there was great excitement and huge crowds when Rod and Britt Ekland turned up on Dublin's Moore Street in August 1975 to shoot a video for his smash hit 'Sailing'.

The Liffey really did stink like hell, as the scorching heat intensified the stench from the untreated effluent pumped out by unregulated upstream factories. The intense dead heat had the same toxic, magnifying effect on the existing daytime smog from countless smoky car exhausts in an Ireland that had never heard the word "pedestrianisation". The beaches offered respite, but getting there was a major cause of road rage. Many access roads across the country were so narrow that even a few cars trying to pass in opposite directions could cause a long traffic jam.

As the two high summers settled in, the beach became a weekday ritual for some, and it wasn't uncommon for dads to drop the family to the seaside before heading to work, granting themselves unofficial flexitime. Attitudes to workplace attendance were generally more laid back than today. Workaholics were very thin on the ground in 1970s Ireland.

With sun holidays beyond most, the caravan staycation was a popular affordable option. Farmers around the coastline cashed in by switching their seaside fields from cabbages to caravan parks. Suntan oil was only seen in the poshest big stores and on TV holiday shows. Most people just stripped and burned, while some improvised with cooking oil. The bathing togs of the day carried almost as much risk, since the materials often had an unfortunate reaction to water, either sagging off the wearer so soggily that they had to be held on for modesty's sake or becoming entirely see-through.

Happy days.

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