Saturday 19 October 2019

Our victories in the 1980s came against the run of play


Republic of Ireland's Charlie O'Leary, left and Ray Houghton celebrate after defeating England in Euro 88 . Photo: Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland's Charlie O'Leary, left and Ray Houghton celebrate after defeating England in Euro 88 . Photo: Sportsfile
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

You mention the 1980s in Ireland to me, and the things that come to mind are poverty, and emigration, and profound unhappiness brought on by the fact that the wrong people kept winning all the elections and the referenda, and the wrong people kept losing.

You mention the 1980s to me, and what I remember is stuff like the Kerry Babies scandal, which seemed to be going on for the whole of the decade, and which still hadn't been resolved as of last week.

You mention the 1980s to me... well if I am being completely honest here, if you mention the 1980s to me, the very first thing I remember is Bruce Springsteen at Slane Castle - which is also the very first time I heard the music of the Pogues, on a tape recorder in the back of a van on the way to Slane, the morning sun already promising at least one glorious day in the middle of all this wretchedness.

Well, strictly speaking, it probably wasn't literally the only good thing that happened between the years 1980 and 1989 in Ireland. There must have been a few other days of respite from the unending torment, because by that stage U2 were no longer sharing the bill with The Blades at the Baggot Inn but had sold something in the region of 800m albums - and now that I think of it The Blades were still doing some very fine things too, without doing quite the same numbers.

Which has me remembering a few other shafts of light which briefly penetrated the darkness of that time, such as the Republic at Euro 88 and the Oscars for My Left Foot, and leafing through my files here I can also see that on the weekend that Ireland beat England in Stuttgart, the Gate Theatre had a production of Juno And The Paycock on Broadway, and Christy Moore was playing Carnegie Hall - albeit a Carnegie Hall filled with young Irish people who had been forced out of this country by the innumerable failures of a degenerate ruling class.

And in a weird development which has probably not been sufficiently explored by the social historians, while many of the Irish dispossessed were queueing up at the airports to leave for good, a little tribe of English rock stars were moving to Dublin where they would enjoy the marvellous facilities at Windmill Lane Studios and later in the Pink Elephant nite spot, all the more so because some of them were in a position to avail of the Artists' Tax Exemption - truly there was a time in the 1980s when you couldn't walk down the street, or at least down certain streets in Dublin, without running into members of UB40 or Frankie Goes To Hollywood or Spandau Ballet or Def Leppard.

This may not have been the precise intention of Charles Haughey when he created that visionary policy - I doubt if he ever imagined it might benefit artists of such global stature - but he was probably too busy to notice anyway.

When he wasn't engaging in various hate-filled election campaigns against Garret FitzGerald and Fine Gael, and against members of his own party too, he was dreaming of the International Financial Services Centre, our old friend the IFSC, which would flourish in Ireland's "sophisticated and responsive regulatory environment" - or if you like, "no regulatory environment at all".

That would bear fruit, for some at least, in the future. But for now the main contributions of Haughey and FitzGerald and of lesser elements in national politics, were in the area of crude entertainment. They really didn't like one another, and so there was a kind of a raw ugliness to it all, which was certainly more compelling to the spectator than some of the anodyne contests which were to come.

So we need to refine our perspective of the 1980s, up to a point. We need to remind ourselves that there was a reason why a film such as Sing Street might bring back memories of that time which were not entirely terrible - the reason being, it wasn't entirely terrible.

Indeed as we have observed, during the 1980s there were probably as many people trying to do something useful with their lives, as there would be at any other time in our island story. And some of them were succeeding spectacularly. Even Professor Joe Lee's Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society, which described in excruciating detail how Ireland had been self-harming almost since the day it was born, was itself a fine work and a best-seller.

But here's the thing about the 1980s, that troubles us to the present day - for all those people trying to do something useful with their lives, even if it was only to write a song that might be considered worthy of submission to the judging panel of the National Song Contest, there were people who seemed equally determined to do something about other people's lives, with "Catholic teaching" as their only guide.

This they sought to apply to every "social issue" - or if you like, every sexual issue imaginable. But again, it would not have been a problem - were it not for the fact that instead of being regarded as eccentrics with virtually nothing else to recommend them, such people had actual power.

Men such as Haughey, who was personally estranged from anything remotely resembling "Catholic teaching" - a heathen to the core - spent these years prostrating themselves on that lamentable altar.

Garret FitzGerald too, as liberal-minded as any Fine Gael leader could ever be, could not find it within himself to tell these people to go away and to take their abysmal referenda with them.

And while the "Catholic teaching" they were trying to enforce had ceased to have much real meaning, it played into one of our great weaknesses - our immaturity.

Joe Lee's book had described a country which just refused to grow up, and on an issue such as abortion, you can see that that trait is still deep within us - we simply pretend that because our abortions take place in England, there is no abortion in Ireland.

That is our official position on the matter - just pretending.

It became the openly accepted policy in the 1980s, when in other areas, as we have seen, serious people were trying to do serious work such as pretending to be Christy Brown. And perhaps those efforts now seem more remarkable because they were accomplished in an atmosphere whereby on any given issue, in any controversial situation, the "Catholic teaching" crowd might win. In fact they were winning.

So perhaps those blue skies over Slane for Springsteen are so well remembered in retrospect, because it seems that any kind of goodness at that time, was achieved against the run of play.

Let the State apologise to Joanne Hayes by all means, but I also think of Sebastian Barry's line that the result of the Same Sex Marriage referendum was a kind of apology to gay people. Likewise the most fitting apology to the grievously abused women of Ireland in the 1980s or at any other time, can be expressed in three words: Repeal the Eighth.

Sunday Independent

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