Friday 23 March 2018

Sweltering summer of social upheaval

Our reporter on the scorcher 40 years ago that saw a lot of people getting hot under the collar

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream
I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream

Damian Corless

It was the worst of times, it was the best of times. It was the endless summer of 1976, and as July began, we still hadn't seen the half of it. Taken one way, the hottest summer of the 20th Century across these islands piled natural disaster upon social turmoil. Instead of flowing rivers, we had 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. This all came against a backdrop of slaughter in the North and a basket-case economy where surging (25pc) inflation and job fears fuelled pay claims and wildcat strikes.

It sounds like Ireland was visited by the 10 biblical plagues, but instead it was party time. Indeed, the hot topic of serious public debate diverting attention from Eamonn Coghlan's chances at the Montreal Olympics and Alan's departure from the Bay City Rollers was the prospect of a wasteful public being shackled with water charges and water meters.

This week 40 years ago, the chief engineer with Dublin Corporation's Waterworks Division chastised Dubliners for consuming 45-50 gallons per day, double the Dutch or French. With drought biting, he criticised "parents allowing children to play with cheap plastic hoses" and singled out Howth, "where there are a lot of large gardens". Top officials said they planned to have Dublin's water system fit-for-purpose by 1990, but water charges would be required.

In the meantime, there was the serious business of making whoopee while the sun shines. Courting rituals moved outdoors to public parks, lakes and especially the beaches. Young men paraded in wing-collar cheesecloth shirts, blue flared jeans and platforms, with medallion and identity bracelet non-optional. Young women favoured high-wedged sandals, denim midis and page-boy cuts. Rollermania was done for, but no one had told the legions of teens trailing tartan wrist-scarves.

Dublin's coast offered respite from the Liffey, which really did stink like hell, as the heat cooked up the stench from the untreated effluent pumped out by several big upstream factories. The intense dead heat had the same toxic, magnifying effect on the existing daytime smog from 100,000 smokey car exhausts.

But arranging a beach picnic was no picnic. Many access roads nationwide were so narrow that even a few cars trying to pass in opposite directions could cause a traffic jam. Those back-ups grew a hundredfold in 1976, so for families who could, the best strategy was to get there early with your Primus stove for making tea, and settle in for the day. Portable gas-stove sales rocketed during the power cuts of 1973/4.

As the Mediterranean climate settled, 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. For many, the working day was looser back then. This Med work-ethic was long established, with the entire public service and others regarding Friday lunchtime as the start of the weekend. It even seemed the Med was coming here, with droves of Spanish students starting a new migration pattern a year after the death of dictator Franco.

With sun holidays beyond most, people instead bought or rented caravans, and farmers cashed in by switching their seaside fields from cabbages to parking berths. Sun tanning oil was mostly only seen on the BBC's Holiday '76, and surprising numbers improvised with cooking oil. The bathing togs of the day carried almost as much risk, since the materials often reacted badly to water, either getting so saggy they had to be held on for modesty's sake or becoming entirely see-through.

Driving to the beach didn't mean you couldn't enjoy a drink. The 'Smash The Round System' campaign urged drivers not to have that fifth pint. Among the ranks of cars on every strand there'd be a few red Cortinas with a spray-painted go-faster stripe, as the owner imagined he was Hutch from the hit cop show Starsky & Hutch (no one wanted to be Starsky). The hip motor accessory was a Citizen's Band (CB) radio. The mobile phone of the day, only a thousand times bulkier, it allowed complete strangers ('good buddies') to make daft talk about evading 'smokies' (cops).

The sound of the beach and the park was the tinny transistor radio (tranny), and the sizzling signature tune of that glorious summer was Irish - Thin Lizzy's The Boys Are Back In Town. Bob Geldof's Boomtown Rats had decamped to sun-scorched England, where punk erupted 40 years ago this week with The Clash playing their first gig supporting the Sex Pistols, forcing both to miss The Ramones show that changed everything. Watched in awe by many future stars, the New Yorkers smashed all speed records, and live music suddenly got much faster.

The hit ice lollies included the Super Split, the Fizzy Fred ("puts a tingle on your tongue"), and the Toffee Tuffee, but the two blockbusters were the Loop The Loop and the Wibbly Wobbly Wonder.

A single of chips on the way home was the perfect way to end the day. Chippers were the country's only fast-food outlets. McDonald's wouldn't arrive until 1977. Once home, you might turn on the TV to catch up on the sport (85pc of sets were black and while). The Aga Khan trophy at the Dublin Horse Show was huge, where Germany beat holders England led by David Broome and Harvey Smith. Heffo's Dublin beat Kerry in the football All-Ireland. Borg beat Nastase in a Wimbledon classic. And, to the consternation of a nation, Eamonn Coghlan finished fourth at Montreal.

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