Sunday 17 December 2017

Miniskirts, John Lennon and a pray-in: Ireland's Summer of Love

It's been 50 years since the Summer of Love, when sex, drugs and rock'n'roll abounded and ­Lennon bought an island in Mayo. But Damian ­Corless recalls that in much of Catholic Ireland, prayers remained the big thing

Janis Joplin made her breakthrough at the Monterey music festival in 1967
Janis Joplin made her breakthrough at the Monterey music festival in 1967
Visitors from the States were surprised at the Irish tolerance for the miniskirt
In 1967, John Lennon was busy buying a Mayo island

It was 50 years ago today, Sergeant Pepper was just a play, and something new was on the way. The world-changing event that happened this weekend half-a-century ago was called Monterey Pop, but it was actually a rock festival, the first to reveal a changed culture to a watching world. (Strictly speaking, it was the second rock fest, but no-one remembers the first.)

A dazzling assembly of musicians and movie stars gazed in awe as a new world order charged into view on the west coast of America, including the sensational guitar-burning Jimi Hendrix and the queen of screaming Janis Joplin.

Staunchly Catholic Ireland was more plugged-in to the global youthquake than we might suspect. Two far-fetched TV shows had taken this lonely country by storm, Batman featuring the late Adam West, and Star Trek, loosely based on Gulliver's Travels penned by Dubliner Jonathan Swift. In that same summer of 1967, a party stepping off a flight from the States were quick to register their dismay at Ireland's tolerance of, and enthusiasm for, the miniskirt.

According to one newspaper: "Disgust at the sight of so many miniskirts was expressed by the American contenders for the Rose of Tralee title when they flew into Shannon Airport... 'I don't even own a mini', said Miss New York."

Visitors from the States were surprised at the Irish tolerance for the miniskirt
Visitors from the States were surprised at the Irish tolerance for the miniskirt

By the summer of '67, word was out that John Lennon had purchased the windblown rock of Dorinish Island, off the coast of Mayo.

Responding to an advert offering an Irish island for sale during the recording of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Lennon dispatched his sidekick Alistair Taylor to the auction in Westport. Taylor's mission was to bid anonymously but he fooled no-one and Dornish was quickly dubbed Beatles Island.

At the time, John Lennon was perhaps the most famous person in the world, after Muhammad Ali. His visit to Mayo didn't go unnoticed. He and his mates had to make an emergency stop to swap their winkle-pickers for wellies in Westport.

Ireland being Ireland in the Summer of Love, the whole wider world was viewed through the prism of Catholic teaching. The Church was putting itself through a revolution called the Second Vatican Council. The aim of this summit was to do away with the Latin Mass and make the whole business of going to church more user-friendly.

As the balmy airs of the Summer of Love began to waft across Ireland, the faithful noticed the sea change. As the war in Vietnam took centre stage, so too did a shift in Catholicism called 'Liberation Theology'. For generations, the function of the parish priest had been to play caretaker to the existing social order and obsess about sex. It was no accident that working-class priests and nuns tended to get shunted abroad to the missions while their middle-class brethren were slotted into the domestic scheme of things.

But as the Summer of Love stretched out, strange new concerns wafted down from the pulpits, many of them about class and poverty. The Vatican became very uncomfortable with this shift towards a permissive society.

In 1967, John Lennon was busy buying a Mayo island
In 1967, John Lennon was busy buying a Mayo island

Permissive society

The Irish Catholic hippie movement came into its own when Pope Paul VI slammed the brakes on the modern moves of Vatican II. In particular, the Pope wanted it understood that artificial contraception was a ticket to hell. The chief creation of the San Francisco hippies 50 years ago was the Human Being-In, better known as the Be-In.

In Catholic Ireland this became the Pray-In.

The Pray-In was the brainchild of a group of ecumenists who were quickly tagged Catholic Marxists. Their antics didn't so much bring to mind Karl as Groucho. Their first Pray-In was scheduled for Saint Andrew's Church, Westland Row in the centre of Dublin.

A group of perhaps 50 worshippers from the Catholic Marxist camp assembled in an alcove of the church. As the intruders prepared to pray, a hostile crowd of parishioners gathered around them. After some opening prayers, one member of the group began to read from the Bible. This did not go down well. Reading from the Bible was not the done thing in the Ireland of 1967.

One parishioner launched himself at the Bible-reader, knocking the Good Book to the ground. Another man picked it up and resumed the reading. A woman, the man's wife, then collared the attacker. "You're making a show of yourself," she told him. "Let them go on with it. It'll all fizzle out."

It didn't fizzle out. A group of parishioners waded into the Pray-In people, as reported by this newspaper "pushing them about, throwing punches and pulling women's headscarves off". One member of the Pray-In responded by sounding up a hymn, but was swiftly silenced with a punch in the teeth. As the Pray-In group fled the church, they were taunted with shouts of: "Are you a Catholic? Are you Irish? Are you a Communist?"

The Pray-In people announced that they would complete their prayers at the nearby University Church on St Stephen's Green. It became a running battle through the streets of Dublin. They were followed all the way by hostile parishioners. One heckler, raised on the Latin liturgy, yelled: "If you're Catholics, why are you reading in English?!" Another, identifying himself as a native of Ringsend, shouted: "Look at their faces. They're not Irishmen at all. They're a pack of foreigners!"

The past, indeed, is a different country.

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