Wednesday 21 November 2018

Why old Ireland is going up in smoke

Medium wave radio went this week, turf cutters were ordered to stop - and house sellers advised to hide their Sacred Heart lamps

With the flick of a switch, another sound of old Ireland was rudely silenced this week as RTE shut down its 82-year-old Medium Wave service.

Programmes on the Medium Wave band may have crackled like an overcooked black pudding left on the pan too long in a fit of forgetfulness, but they harked back to a sometimes gentler Ireland. An Ireland whose curious ways are disappearing rapidly before our eyes.

Medium Wave has now gone the way of black Raleigh bicycles, Ford Anglia cars full of nuns, and feisty sub-postmistresses who knew everybody’s business.

Within hours of the Medium Wave closedown on Monday, befuddled listeners were contacting John Creedon’s RTE radio show, wondering how they could tune in to the newfangled VHF – or “VHI’’, as one gentleman insisted on calling it. Some seemed blissfully unaware that VHF – or FM – has actually been in existence for four decades.

FM is all about Mid-Atlantic cappuccino-swilling blabbermouths with names like Steve playing bland pop tunes.

Medium Wave was for the upstanding plain people of Ireland who have their dinner in the middle of the day.

It conjures images of transistor radios on hot car bonnets on sunny Sunday afternoons in the Sixties and Seventies, blaring out the voice of the GAA, Micheal O’Hehir.

When we listened at the seaside the sometimes piercing O’Hehir painted pictures of goings-on across country at Croke Park, or Semple Stadium. That nattering voice was as familiar on a Sunday as a big bottle of Red Lemonade and girls in white knee socks.

The man listening on Medium Wave was probably wearing a somewhat frayed Sunday suit, no matter what the weather, with a cap stuck to the head, for everything but respectful gestures.

On the beach, his family paddled close by, occasionally going for a “mineral’’ with a straw, or a “Golly bar’’ ice cream with a picture of a golliwog.

The hat-wearing man in his Sunday suit, now a rapidly dying breed, had more cause to grumble into his Oxtail soup this week – with news that the ancient practice of cutting turf has been outlawed in many areas.

After flying around Europe in jets and swanning around in limos, blasting out CO2 as they go, Eurocrats have decided that saving the turf on the bogs of Ireland is harmful to the environment. Another way of life goes up in smoke – or not, as the case may be.

One imagines a special Garda bog squad being sent out to round up errant turf cutters at dusk. Families such as the Connaughtons in Mountbellew, Co Galway, who have cut turf for generations, have been told they must stop.

Paul Connaughton, who is a local Fine Gael TD, says, “Families such as mine used turf to heat our homes. It doesn’t seem to make much sense to ask people to rely more on imported oil.’’

And, of course, for the beleaguered turf cutters there is no refuge from this meddling bureaucratic malarkey down in the pub.

The powers-that-be seem determined to ensure that the conviviality of the rural pint is as rare as Sean Nos singing and the wizened old mutterings of a Seanachai.

The man in the Sunday suit is no longer allowed to smoke there, and there was mounting speculation this week that the drink-driving limit will be cut even further. Motorists could be breaking the law after just one pint.

The Government's advisory group on alcohol is reported to be recommending that the limit be reduced from 80mg to 50mg for ordinary motorists, and even less for truckers.

It will not be long before a half-gulp of altar wine turns the man in the Sunday suit into a hardened criminal.

There have been few changes as dramatic in Ireland as the decline of the Irish public house.

Only a generation ago, you could walk into a pub any time of the day and find lines of men, holding their pints lovingly like ageing Lotharios clinging to a supermodel.

The Vintners' Federation of Ireland estimates that 1,000 pubs have shut down over the past three years. Many of those that survive only stay open four or five nights a week.

It is not just a matter of drinking, according to Dick Dunne, a publican in Stradbally, Co Laois. The whole social fabric of the countryside has changed.

“People feel like prisoners in their own homes,’’ says Dunne. “There is a lot of anger in rural Ireland about this. Post offices are also closing. So there are fewer places where people meet.’’

Of course, the great migration from the Irish pub is not just down to draconian drinkdriving restrictions and the smoking ban. The arrival of feminism has ensured that the practice of standing in a bar skulling pints and looking at the wall, in the company of other men, for hours on end, has declined as a viable national pastime.

They may be staying away from pubs in droves, but there is little sign that these bornagain home birds are taking the pledge and joining the Pioneers.

If you walked down any street 20 years ago, you would see a few men proudly sporting Pioneer pins, but the symbol has almost died out.

Dr Mick Loftus, former president of the GAA, recalls that when he won a Minor All-Ireland medal with Mayo in 1947, 20 players in the squad were Pioneers.

Until recently the vast majority of Catholic homes had pictures of religious icons such as the Virgin Mary or the Sacred Heart decorating the walls.

These ornaments are now shunned by younger generations, who see them as unsophisticated and overly superstitious.

Angela Macnamara, a Dublin relationships counsellor, was taken aback recently when a property consultant advised a friend of hers, who was selling a house: “Get rid of all religious pictures and symbols before you put your home on the market.”

Seller beware: much of Celtic Tiger Ireland simply doesn't do God.

Advising a house seller to hide their religious icons may seem insensitive, but the property adviser was probably simply serving the interests of the seller: young buyers, brought up with a secular mindset or determined to adopt one, might be put off, or even freaked out, by pictures of holy figures.

And younger generations are certainly put off by the idea of stepping in to a confession box and declaring sins, such as “impure thoughts’’, to a celibate priest.

Confession has almost died out in many areas. And the idea of sin and hell, as vivid to children three decades ago as the colours of the rainbow, now seems remote.

“Nobody in Ireland, not even those who are religious, wants to feel bad about themselves any more,’’ says one former Vatican official, now based in Ireland. “If they want to unburden themselves of something they can always ring the Joe Duffy show.’’

Religious imagery and the church’s once imperial dominance may have declined, but it would be wrong to suggest that popular piety and devotions are dying out. The popularity of Colm Keane’s recent book about Padre Pio and the huge crowds that still travel on pilgrimages to places such as Knock, Lourdes and Medjugorje show that spirituality, in some form, still has mass appeal.

Before we sing the fanfare for Old Ireland, we should remember that it has a habit ofconfounding the sceptics andjumping from its deathbed.Latin Mass, for long consignedto history in all but a tinynumber of churches, is growingagain. Sales of draft Guinness,once written off as an old man'sdrink, have recently recoveredas young tipplers desperatelycling on to something distinctive.

What next? When they wake in the morning, bleary-eyed, will these whippersnappers go to confession to declare their “impure thoughts''? Don't hold your breath.

The emblems of old Ireland


Medium Wave
1,000 country pubs
Turf-cutting on raised bogs
Black bicycles
Mortal sins
Pre-marital chastity
House coats

On the way out

Sub-post offices and postmistresses
Nuns in habits
Drunk driving
Corpus Christi processions
Red Lemonade
Sacred heart lamps
Pioneer pins
Holy Water

Still with us

Ireland’s Own
The Angelus
Padre Pio
Micheal O Muircheartaigh
Iced caramels

Making a comeback

Drafts pints of Guinness Latin Mass

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