Sunday 26 May 2019

We're far from a perfect society, but don't compare it to the 1980s

Baby John’s grave on Valentia. Picture: Don Macmonagle
Baby John’s grave on Valentia. Picture: Don Macmonagle
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

It's often said that the past is another country, and when it comes to this place in the 1980s, that country may as well have been Albania.

To many Irish people in their forties, just the mention of the phrase 'Kerry Babies scandal' is enough to bring us back to growing up in a black-and-white society while the rest of the world seemed to have gone full Technicolour.

While the decade may have ended with the optimism brought by the collapse of communism, the opening of the Iron Curtain and a general, if brief, sense that the world was finally becoming a better place, the Ireland of 1984 owed more to the 1950s than the 1990s which followed.

It's tempting to say that the more things change, the more they stay the same, and there are certain similarities between the Ireland of then and the Ireland of now.

Obviously, the fact that we are still having a debate about abortion, just as we were back then, is a grim reminder that we are experts at selecting governments who are, themselves, expert in kicking things down the road for the next administration to worry about.

But while there has been plenty of lazy talk about how Ireland today is just as bad as Ireland yesterday, one can only assume that the people drawing such fatuous comparisons simply weren't around back then.

For starters, and to put things into particularly grim perspective, when Baby John was found on that Kerry strand, and when the country began to understand that there was something seriously rotten in this State, it was still a crime to be gay, but you were legally allowed to rape a woman - as long as it was 'only' your wife.

If that seems baffling now, it was horrifying then.

Incredibly, it would be 1990 before marital rape was finally recognised as a criminal offence. A mere 18 months before Joanne Hayes became a household name, five young men had walked free from a Dublin court after being handed suspended sentences for beating a young gay man, Declan Flynn, to death in Fairview Park.

As an indicator of the mood of the time, the judge instructed the jury during that trial that "this could never be regarded as murder", before addressing the accused and reassuring them that: "One thing that has come to mind is that there is no element of correction that is required. All of you come from good homes and experienced care and affection."

That one of the accused had received a stiffer sentence for stealing a car than he did for beating a man to death is, unfortunately, a more eloquent testimony of how minorities and non-conformists were treated by Official Ireland than any number of angry op-eds.

That we would go from being a monochrome, provincial and terrifyingly puritanical backwater in the 1980s to being the first Western country to legislate for gay marriage within a single generation is a rate of social evolution which has simply not been matched by any of our Western neighbours, no matter what the current naysayers might claim.

If you asked most people today for the name of their parish priest, they'd look at you blankly. In fact, there's a good likelihood that they won't know the name of the parish, let alone the priest.

Yet back then, it wasn't unusual for the local priest to simply call into people if they hadn't been seen at Mass the previous Sunday. I still remember the bafflement I felt as a 12-year-old in 1984 when, in the midst of the Joanne Hayes scandal, we moved to a new house and were greeted by the parish priest, who informed the family that we were all expected at early Mass the following Sunday.

He was told to sling his hook, and didn't even get to finish the tea and cake he had been offered on the good china.

But he was also quick to inform neighbours that my old man was a communist and, therefore, we should all be shunned. That was urban Dublin in 1984, a place which, dark though it may seem now, was still a far more liberal environment than the Ireland inhabited by Joanne Hayes.

Fittingly, the big movie of the time was, well, 1984, and Michael Radford's still haunting vision of a totalitarian dystopia had greater resonance here than it did anywhere else.

We had two major forces, the apparatus of the State and the Church, combining to create a fear- and priest-ridden society where the ordinary people would do most of the work.

After all, whenever talk returns to the horrible, lonely death of Declan Flynn, it is often forgotten that the neighbours of the accused men burst into cheers when the verdicts were announced - what was the life one gay man when compared to the liberty of these young heroes who "came from good homes"?

It's almost impossible to explain to someone who wasn't a teenager in the 1980s just how weird those times really were.

It was a more insular society, but that can be partially excused by the fact that the external world was a pretty terrifying place.

The Cold War was at its height. The big TV movie of the year was the genuinely horrifying nuclear-war drama Threads. American generals were talking about a "winnable" nuclear war in Europe while we calculated how far we lived from Dublin airport and whether we would survive a blast.

The State owes Joanne Hayes a debt that can never be repaid, and maybe some peace can be found for Baby John, but for all the problems we have today, comparing now to then is simply a display of astonishing, lazy historical ignorance.

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